Monday, November 12, 2012

Phases Of Learning Words, And The Three Steps In The Illness Model

The last post talked about the skills involved in learning words and ways to develop those skills.  Now I want to address the phases of learning words.  All these terms are my own and I have no idea whether there are any similar concepts in the field of linguistics.

The first step is what I call simple recognition.  This is where you could pick out the word on a multiple-choice test among a few other choices.

The next step is isolated recognition.  This is where you can pick out the word on its own and associate it with the meaning.

Then you have reciprocal recognition, whereby you can pick out the word on its own and associate it with the meaning in both directions.

Up to this point, you probably still can't use the word on its own because you have only committed it to memory and not really worked up the retrieval paths in your memory.  Retrieval is one of the most difficult tasks.  You may find that words you think you absolutely knew just can't be called up when you need them.

I use an illness model of learning.  This point is what I call the "stroke victim" level.  You are trying to talk to people, and you know you have used the words, but you struggle to produce them.  Maybe nothing at all comes out.  Communication is frustrating.  The words are in there, somewhere, locked away in your brain, and you don't know how to get to them.  You may resort to pantomime rather than try to use words.  You might be able to muddle through at a basic level using every tool you can think of--writing it down, coming up for a word you know for it in another language, slowing down your speech or getting the person you are communicating with to speak more slowly, etc.  The one people try a lot (but is probably completely useless) is speaking louder and closer in their own language.  This is where you get the slightly annoyed blank stare in response, which is probably universal in meaning, but not where you wanted to go.

To break out of this level, you are going to have to get beyond the recognition phases and get to the recall phases.  And try not to drool.

Simple recall is where you can come up with the word when you need to most of the time.  This is a good thing.  You are getting to the basics of verbal communication.  It will become more fruitful to try to make yourself understood.

So your goal at this point is to graduate from "stroke victim" to "developmentally disabled".  This is where you can communicate, but you sound slow and stupid.  Your speech is halting and tentative, but a little more complete, and you can communicate basic needs and simple commands.  Me need bathroom.  Something smell bad.  Congratulations, you're now an idiot.

The next phase I call complex recall.  You can start placing the word in different contexts.  If it is a verb, you know many of the tenses and their forms.  If it is a noun or adjective, you know how to decline it.  You know how to use prepositions, but you are not perfect.  You are starting to grasp grammatical rules.

The next level in my illness model is what I call "backwards Alzheimer's".  This stage is long and drawn out.  This is where you have good days and bad days.  On the good days, you can understand and speak fairly well.  On the bad days, it's just not happening, and it gets frustrating.  And it's backwards, because your cognitive abilities in the language don't deteriorate more and more, but get better and better with more practice, until you have good days more and more often. Rather than experiencing "the long goodbye", you are in the midst of "the excruciatingly long hello".  Unless you really have a degenerative brain disorder, in which case you probably should get a medical opinion.  Sometimes I wonder.

When you are having mostly good days, you will probably find that for individual words, you have what I call "approaching word fluency".  Before, you were basically learning to count cards at the blackjack table.  Sure, you know how it's done, and you get all the concepts, but it takes practice, practice, and more practice to get it down so you can do it smoothly without any tells so you don't get your legs broken by the pit boss.  You need to just keep working it, and use your mind like a wrench on that recalcitrant bolt that constitutes the word you are grappling with.  Keep doing this until the rusty equipment is dismantled and put back together over and over again.  This is where the elbow grease effect kicks in.

Then you have what I call "word fluency."  This is where you can really work it easily for this particular word.  When you have this with about four thousand words, and you can interconnect them without pauses, you start approaching language fluency, which I want to address later.

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