Everyone has a very personal way to learn a language. Some of us just learn by repeating what they hear, others need to learn the structure, the grammar in order to consolidate the new language.
Every new word that we hear does make a long way to land eventually in our long term memory. When we read or hear it for the first time, the word lands in our very-short-term-memory (i.e. sensory register or sensory memory) and usually disappears from there, unless we focus our attention on it and concentrate and transfer it to the short term memory. Here, the new words spend approximately 20 minutes (some say even shorter). During this time we should repeat the new words, otherwise they’ll get “erased”. The way from the short term memory to the long term memory takes approximately 6 hours.
How does this work? It is like our brain would push the save button and the data, like on our computer, is saved on the harddisk. But even if the new words are memorized and fixed in the long term memory, they can’t rest. They have to be repeated in regular intervals, otherwise they’ll go into the passive storage room of our long-term memory, i.e. in our passive vocabulary and we could recall them later on, if we want or need them. This can happen languages we didn’t use regularly but reactivate at some point. We don’t have to re-learn them, we “just” have to reactivate them by stimulating our knowledge by reading, listening and using (talking) it again.
It seems complicated, but with this kind of constantly stimulating our new inputs we really can memorize up to 200 new words per day in our long-term memory. The single steps a new word takes make it clear why we need a certain time to master a new language and become proficient in it.
The way the storage of words and their networking with other words we already know works, depends on the type of learner we are.
The visual learner memorizes new words when he sees them written, i.e. when he reads them. The haptic, tactile or kinesthetic learner needs to write the words in order to memorize them, the auditory learner needs to hear them.
Others prefer approaching a new language by understanding its grammatical rules. These are cognitive learners, who really need a systematic textbook. And then there are imitative learners who memorize the best by listening and repeating.
Independently from what kind of learner we are, we need to exercice and talk the new language whenever we can.
Adding the creative aspect to the learning process, the learning languages is never complete. It adapts to the always changing environment. Dr. Diane Larsen-Freeman did a very interesting speech about “Empowering the Language Learner” (very long!) where she used a combination of lecture “and experimental exercices (…) and traced the evolution of language teaching methods over the past 60 years, discussing how each evolutionary phase has contributed to a more “whole-person” view of language learners. Larsen-Freeman suggests that when educators treat language as a closed, static system, they create a critical barrier to student empowerment. When language is instead seen as the complex, dynamic system, teachers are able to help their students transform their linguistic world, not merely conform to it. Larsen-Freeman illustrates how this shift in understanding has implications for what and how teachers teach.”
Thanks to Galina’s and Vera’s comments (here below) I realized that I needed to add another paragraph. It’s probably difficult to decide what kind of learner we are. I think this changes depending on the phase we are in during our learning process. For example, I am definitely an imitative learner in the first phases of learning a new language. I do imitate sounds, sound chaines, intonations and, of even whole sentences. But during these first phases I also need to read and hear the words I’m learning in order to understand their spelling and some basic orthographic rules of the new language. Later on, I expand this to the grammar: the morphology and the syntax. During this whole process I continuously compare the new language to those I already know, more ore less consciously. – The dynamicity Dr. Diane Larsen-Freeman mentions about the system of a language and what it implies for teachers who teach a language, is also recognizable in the learner himself. He’s going through different stages of comprehension which involve all the senses.
Therefore instead of asking you what kind of learner you are, I would like to know what kind of learner you are now, in your current phase of the (language) learning process.
(cfr. ©”Wie landet das Wort im Kopf”, P.M. 7/04)