Modern memory aids in language such as the Pimsleur language learning system and are good for what they are designed for: helping the brain memorize information. I do not have a problem with their performance in this area.

130px-Global_thinking.svgThe problem I have is with those who would counsel relying on such methods as a method of learning. Put more accurately, it is far easier to remember something after you have learned it.

Learning something the first time requires detailed, relevant information that is memorable to the human mind. Learning requires understanding; it requires feeling the essence of what you are expected to retain.

Attempting to memorize a language for the purpose of passing a test is rarely effective in the long term. Even if it is successful, the benefits are temporary and will surely fade. A more effective approach is to absorb knowledge in the first place, and then, learn how to recall that same knowledge at a later time.

Knowledge temporarily forgotten can be easily recovered. Knowledge never properly absorbed, can never take full root. This leads directly to misunderstandings, mistakes, and poor results.

It is like the difference between a “has-been” (has been successful in the past) and a “never-was” (was never successful to begin with). A has-been can regain old success, but a never-was has never tasted the success and does not know what it is.

Language is like a spider web. We begin with ideas drawn from our own personal experiences: mother, father, sun, sky, earth, wind, water, food, house.

We take these concepts and spread out to concepts that exist only in the mind, but which are derived from things we already know: Friendship, love, warmth, comfort, hunger, thirst, home.

We leap from these concepts to expressions, and begin learning proverbs and picking up the collective societal wisdom drawn from them, such as: “There is no place like home.

Having reached this point, individual elements can be remembered:

  • Home as a place of warmth and comfort, associated with family
  • Place as a relative physical location
  • Like, as in, alike, the same, similar, identical
  • No, a negative
  • There, a stand-in for a subject (in English anyway)
  • Is, an existence verb, defining what is real from our human perspective.

There is no place like home” therefore becomes associated with all of these elements at the same time. These elements are associated with each other. They are not six unrelated dots on a graph; they are threads of a spider web, interconnected and forming a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Such elements can be forgotten. By understanding the context that they exist in, they can be better remembered. By understanding how different elements are inter-related, this proverb, and the things laying beneath it, can be remembered effortlessly, without thought, and taken for granted, just as native speakers of English do every day.

The process is similar for every language: we begin with the physical world, proceed to the intangible world, move onto expressions, and from there, arrive at cultural knowledge that holds a group’s collective subconscious existence.

These are things that must be learned in context. They cannot be understood by reading definitions from a dictionary, or memorizing flash cards; at least, not alone. They must be taught, and having been taught, they must be learned.

Ideally, everyone would have a good teacher who can explain something simply and easily. Ideally, every student would be prepared for such knowledge and, bit by bit, would absorb the language in a good way. This is how late teens and adults can be taught foreign languages without surrendering to circumstances: even having not learned foreign languages as a child, a person need not give up. The knowledge is there for the taking.

It is simply a matter of learning it properly the first time, so that memorizing can be effective. Then, remembering the information means remembering the context and the underlying language’s flow.

Thus, the learner comes to possess knowledge of an enduring, permanent nature.

Those who achieve this deserve to take pride in the knowledge that they have done so.