Tuesday, May 24, 2011
The “New Car” Phenomenon
When I was about ten years old, my father announced one day that we were getting a new car. Now, there is very little in the world more guaranteed to arouse the interest of a 10-year-old boy and his younger brothers than a new car, and naturally, we wanted to know what my father was planning to buy. He told us that we were getting an “Opel Mantra.” This was a bit of an anticlimax, because neither my brothers nor I had ever heard of it. Later that day, however, my dad pointed one out to us when we were out shopping. Suddenly Opel Mantras were everywhere! It was as if everyone in the country had gone out and bought one at once. Of course, the actual number of these cars had not changed at all; what had changed was our awareness of them.
This “new car” phenomenon can be observed in many areas of life, and it can be a very powerful tool for language learners. In my own language studies, I have noticed a cycle that has three stages: priming, triggering, and consolidation. “Priming” is what happens when your attention is drawn to something, or when your awareness of it is raised; “triggering” is the point at which your raised awareness causes you to notice the thing in a different context; and “consolidation” is what happens when you deepen your knowledge of it through repeated exposure.
When I began learning Japanese, I started out spending two or three hours a night writing Chinese characters a hundred times each. Unfortunately, I found that even after I had written a character that many times, within a few seconds of putting my pencil down, I had completely forgotten it. I began to think that I was just wasting my time, but then something interesting started to happen. On days when I had been studying, I noticed that the characters I had written would literally jump out at me from all over the place as I went about my daily life in Japan. It was almost as if someone had deliberately planted them to help me. Of course, those characters were no more common than any others, but my brain had been “primed” to notice those particular ones. Interestingly, I found that in many cases, even though I recognized a character, I could not remember what it meant or how to read it. At that point, I would go back to my book, find the meaning, and then practice writing it again. That was the “consolidation” part of my cycle.
This kind of focused, de-contextualized study fell very much out of favor with the advent of Communicative Language Teaching. The problem, I think, was that people realized that it does not lead directly to acquisition. And of course, they were right. If focused study is all you ever do, it will have little benefit because it represents only one phase of the learning cycle. Unfortunately, however, too many writers and academics jumped to the conclusion that “focused study is not effective,” which is a very different thing from “focused study by itself is not effective.”
In his excellent book “Vocabulary Myths,” Keith Folse lists as Myth #2 “Using word lists to learn second language vocabulary is unproductive.” It is amazing (and depressing) how many teachers still believe this myth to be true. If you read books and articles by vocabulary experts like Paul Nation, all of them will tell you the same thing—that focused study of words and phrases out of context is one of the fastest and most efficient ways of improving your vocabulary. Of course, this needs to be backed up with other study and use of the language, but that does not detract from the importance of the focused study.
Some might say that vocabulary is a special case, but I have found that exactly the same phenomenon can be observed in the learning of grammar. Shortly after I arrived in Japan, I discovered a wonderful book containing English explanations of Japanese grammar in a dictionary format. I loved it so much that I read the whole thing from cover to cover over the course of about two weeks. Now, if a language learner came to you and suggested reading a grammar dictionary non-stop from cover to cover, what would you say? I suspect that a great many teachers would try to discourage that student, but reading the Japanese grammar dictionary turned out to be hugely beneficial for me. It may seem unlikely that the whole population of Japan would agree among themselves that on any given day, they should all try to use as frequently as possible the grammar I had just been studying, but that was certainly how it appeared to me! When I heard someone use one of the grammar points I had studied (or when I wanted to say something in Japanese that required it), I would scurry back to my book and read the point again, but this time with a much better understanding and appreciation of how it is actually used. In that way, the “prime, trigger, consolidate” cycle was completed, and I was able to achieve a reasonable mastery of an enormous number of grammatical structures in a relatively short period of time.
Of course, the “prime, trigger, consolidate” cycle is not a simple linear progression. In reality, it might be something like “prime, prime, prime, trigger, trigger, consolidate,” or even “prime, forget, prime, forget, trigger, forget, prime, trigger, consolidate!” The important point is that you need all three stages to complete the cycle, and the usefulness of the “priming” part should not be underestimated simply because it may not lead to learning on its own. If any of you have similar experiences to mine, I would love to hear about them.