July 24, 2009 | Russian

Memory Loss

The role of memory in language-learning.

In general, my memory is nothing special these days. When I was a child, it was like glue.

I can still remember a huge amount of what happened before I went to college, especially from the ages of five to 11. After I turned 21, my memory declined. I am good at remembering faces, but I seem to be particularly bad with authors’ names, book titles, movie titles, basically the kinds of things that come in handy if you want to sound culturally literate. It bugs me that I can read an entire book without being able to recall the author’s name two days later. I wonder how this whole thing feeds into my language abilities. It does not seem like a plus.

Another thing: I have what my husband refers to, affectionately, as “mix-up disease,” where I say the opposite of what I mean, often by incorrectly including a “not” in a sentence where it doesn’t belong, or by omitting a necessary one. Or I’ll confuse the names of objects—for example, by referring to a dishwasher as a hair dryer, or a car as a plane. Brandt does a lot of on-the-spot translation when I am talking. Sometimes he says he speaks Ellen.

Anyway, memory is a huge issue in language cram sessions. You’ve got to have the vocabulary, and how fast can one learn new words? Not fast enough for me. After doing my first round of Pimsleur lesson 24, I got incredibly frustrated. There were several verbs I simply could not remember: the command for “wait,” the verb “reach” as in how to reach St. Petersburg or Moscow (something like pri OO hel net), and “take” as in “take the road,” plus I couldn’t understand the syntax of several sentences/questions, including “What’s the best route?”

My Wheels: The New York City Subway

What’s frustrating is that I don’t care about direction-giving. I am a carless Manhattanite, and I have no plans to go to Moscow or St. Petersburg right now (though I’d love to in the future). If I need directions here—for example, if I rent a car—I won’t be inquiring about the best route to Poughkeepsie in Russian. And in Russia, no English-speaking tourist with a primitive vocabulary could possibly understand what a native speaker was saying in giving directions. You would simply seek out an English speaker.

To summarize: lessons on directions are boring to me. I want to be able to discuss art, literature, culture, the good stuff!

I was feeling grumpy late this afternoon, because I redid lesson 23 (Level I), and it was hard. I decided to walk around Central Park and do VocabuLearn instead. My system now is that I have the tracks of VocabuLearn, I think about 16 of them, intermixed with disco and other dance music. So I’ll do a track amounting to roughly a quarter of the adjective/adverb content, then listen to a song, such as Robin Thicke’s “Magic,” the one that goes, “I got it you got it we got the magic girl” or something like that. Then that clears my head and I do another VocabuLearn track of about 12 minutes or so. Some of them are English to Russian, some are the other direction. I like both.

I ended up doing the full six-mile Circle Drive loop of Central Park, wearing my ridiculously large headset the entire route. The cord is about 15 feet long, so I had it looped into my purse. My setup is pretty silly-looking. The sound’s good, though, and that’s all that matters right now.

There were lots of people running, even though it was late (7-9 p.m. on a Friday night), and I just marched along, repeating Russian words and/or guessing at translations. It was fun. All around me were fireflies—my absolute favorite summer sight. Plus when I first got into the park, I saw a beautiful black-crowned night heron, up close, right near the spot where Brandt and I got married. I repeated Russian words and expressions as I watched it.

I was wondering how many of these VocabuLearn words I can memorize before the Russian segment ends in August. Presumably a lot more than I remember now. I do not remember most of them, but many of them are at least sounding more familiar, and I learn more of them each day, often because of overlapping word encounters in the grammar book and Pimsleur. Seeing the same concepts and vocabulary across my different study materials is especially valuable, because it provides reinforcement. Also, the vocabulary tapes are very clear in pronunciation, whereas with Pimsleur, the guy in particular on the tape does not enunciate all that well. (The woman on Pimsleur is much clearer, and sometimes the pronunciation of a term sounds significantly different coming from her mouth than it does from his.)

The VocabuLearn is nice in that it is lower mental energy, so that if you have other things to do—errands, for example—you can get at least something learned even if you’re not giving it your full attention. Pimsleur, on the other hand, demands one’s full attention. I sit there in the dark, curled up in a ball, with my eyes closed. If Brandt’s in the office, I’ll even dump something on my head to block the light he’s using. Russian Pimsleur requires complete, and I mean complete, concentration. And when you miss something, you have to let it go immediately, because if you keep wondering about it, you will immediately miss something else.

Borders at Time Warner Center

On my way home from Central Park I took a detour to the Borders bookstore in the Time Warner Center. I visited their language studies section; I’ve been in Barnes & Noble already, so I wanted to see the difference. I liked it. They have flashcards, which I may buy for future languages. I’ve decided that I have to spend a little money on these languages, because otherwise I will have no reference tools after I’m done to help me remember things!

While in the bookstore, I saw a guy, probably around my age, looking over some of the Italian books. He seemed happy. Maybe he was planning a great vacation, or maybe he was really into his new Italian girlfriend. Whatever his individual case, I do find that people look optimistic and hopeful in the language sections of bookstores.

I was thinking today: I’m already almost a month into this project, and it’s fun so far. But then again, what happens when I am on my fifth alphabet and I feel as though I’ve forgotten all the stuff I’ve learned? This is like the easy part when you first start training for a marathon and you’re running two miles a day and you’ve lost a few pounds and you’re feeling euphoric. Then you develop an injury, and you try to train through it. Or you don’t try. Maybe there will be a brain injury for me at some point!

This was a good language day. I am in love with this project.

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