September 12, 2013 | Review Period

Thoughts on a Controversial Learning Technique: The Art of Copying

When I am studying a language, I constantly copy over words, phrases, sentences.

Last weekend, I went to my first ever grade school reunion at Carlthorp School in Santa Monica, California. It was a blast.

My Fifth-Grade Elementary School Class, 1976, with Me on Upper Left

My Fifth-Grade Elementary School Class, 1976, with Me on Upper Left

Being there got me thinking again about the role that repetition and drilling and copying played in my early life. As I have mentioned, my grade school was very ritual-filled: copying of multiplication tables, copying of spelling lists, and so on. This wasn’t agreeable to every kid in my class, but it was highly agreeable to me.

I believe spelling lists were, at least up until a certain grade, daily events. Three columns per page, three repetitions per word. I treated those spelling sheets as an art form, measuring my columns, considering carefully how hard or light I should write with that yellow #2 Ticonderoga pencil, whether my letters should be skinny or fat, delicate or assertive, struggling never to make a mistake that would require messy erasures.

A word was never just a word, and copying was never just copying. For me, copying was a dynamic process through which words and I became one. 

Today, with language-learning, copying remains a central part of my process. Mindless repetition: totally useless. That isn’t what I do, though. My brain is switched on so that the sight of the word is meaningful, the movement of my hand copying it over is meaningful, and I am sometimes saying whatever I am copying out loud, too, to bring together sight and sound.

When I see a list of new vocabulary in a foreign-language book, I immediately get happy and start copying, skipping the words and phrases I already know and also skipping ones I know I have no chance of remembering at the moment. The ones in the middle range, though, the ones that look easy to learn or that I already sort of know or that resemble something I already know in another language—those are prime copying candidates.

When full sentences are given in both English and the target language, I often try to translate the English on my own first, without looking at the foreign-language equivalent. If I am wrong, I then copy the correct translation.

I do all this constantly. Every language book I have is marked top to bottom with my copyings and my notes.

Before sending me review copies recently, a publisher e-mailed me and asked me not to sell the books back into the marketplace. “Selling used books has a direct result in the high prices of print books and textbooks,” he wrote. I had never been cautioned against this type of thing before, and I was confused.

Aside from the fact that I regard selling free review copies as completely unethical, could anyone use a language book without marking the hell out of it? I cannot grasp the concept of e-books for language-learning. If I can’t attack each page with a pencil (always a pencil, and these days very specifically always a Pentel Twist-Erase 0.7!), my brain revolts and turns off.

Here is my poor Collins Advanced French Grammar, for example. Outside it is still pristine. Inside, every page of explanatory text is being ravaged.

The Outside of My French Grammar: Still Pristine

The Outside of My French Grammar: Still Pristine

But the Inside Is Getting Messier and Messier

But the Inside Is Getting Messier and Messier

By the way, I am writing these words as I dry out from the rain. Tonight I took Pimsleur Portuguese lessons on a run and got stuck in a violent thunderstorm. As I was leaving the mud of Central Park to run home, I could barely hear myself against the thunderclaps and traffic and the rain so heavy it felt like hail on my skin.

At Amsterdam, a traffic light inconveniently changed against me, and I had to wait for it to change back before continuing. In a moment of clarity I saw myself as I was: pressed up against the side of a bank to minimize contact with the lashing rain, dripping rivulets, squishing in my running shoes, practically screaming in response to a Pimsleur cue, up into the thundering heavens, “Não me diga!” (“You don’t say!”)

Comments (5)

jose luiz serafini • Posted on Sun, September 15, 2013 - 7:27 pm EST

And I, as a fifth-grader, had lots of dictation…

jose luiz serafini • Posted on Mon, September 16, 2013 - 8:07 am EST

It’s common parlance that Greek you learn “by the hand”.

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Mon, September 16, 2013 - 11:59 am EST

I absolutely loved dictation. One of my very, very favorite things! I think there should be more dictation in language-learning materials. I would adore that and also really benefit from it.

Thank you for the “by the hand” comment. Wonderful!

jose luiz serafini • Posted on Wed, September 18, 2013 - 6:53 am EST

A sudden recollection strikes me…  In the eighth year of my childhood,  I,  enamored of a girl in the neighborhood,  filled a whole notebook with her name, line after line..  Unforgettable.  I still dream of her, half a century after those scribblings.

And please don’t reply with an ironic “não me diga!”...

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Wed, September 18, 2013 - 10:28 am EST

That is such a lovely and romantic story! What a tribute!

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