Monday, March 21, 2011

No More Answer Keys

Because I studied engineering in college, I developed a certain kind of study habits which served me well in technical courses. For the most part, my "studying" was built on acquiring a skill--the skill to solve the problems on which I would be tested. It meant becoming familiar with a procedure--how to find an answer to a problem with a particular set of given information. However, the tools necessary to answer the problem would usually be available--that is, the equations and constants--and I just needed to know how to use them.

So most of my study time was spent practicing rather than actually memorizing anything. If I would use something often enough, I might memorize it naturally but I didn't spend much effort towards memorizing.

And it was common to find, in my engineering (and math and science) textbooks, that the answers would be available in the back of the book. Because the point of the problem was never to find an answer, but rather to learn how to solve it. So having the answer available was really important--even if it was just a number. Because it could indicate whether or not I was solving the problem correctly. It never mattered what the answer actually was, but whether or not I could solve the problem. Instructors often let us bring in our own formula sheets--a page or more of formulas, diagrams, constants, whatever we thought we might need--for an exam, knowing that no amount of data we could fit on a sheet of paper would serve us any good if we hadn't learned how to use it.

So I have developed this approach to studying that I've found is not actually serving me very well right now. Learning a new language, quite obviously, requires a lot of memorization. And it seems that theory (never stated, just my observation) is that with memorization, the skills will come.

Suppose you want to write a sentence in a language you're studying. You'll need to know the meanings of the words to use--the equivalent vocabulary in both languages. You'll need to understand something about grammar, how to actually construct the sentences and use the words. And you might need to know something about conjugation and morphology in order to use the words correctly in the proper places.

So the way I have been accustomed to studying would familiarize me with grammar, and how to construct the sentence, and the conjugation and morphology would get me the right word forms. When I was working on writing, answer keys would have been really helpful, to make sure that I was getting the sentences right. Being able to check the solution while still solving a problem is incredibly useful--you can note the mistake right away, rather than continuing to make the mistakes for days or weeks before seeing the answer or taking an exam to find out that you were wrong. Never underestimate the power of immediate feedback.

Now this much aside, where I struggle is with knowing the words to use in the first place! And in this, an answer key won't help so much as a dictionary. How long does it take to grow a dictionary in your brain? I have a habit of just looking things up that I don't know, rather than memorizing them to use later. I'm used to being able to look them up. But that's not going to gain me fluency in a new language.

So right now I'm trying to train myself to squeeze all these words into my brain with flashcards and repetition, and I'm finding it very hard to retain it all. Now, I'm told that there is a solution to this problem--to speak (or even write) in the language as frequently as possible. I believe it's true, because I know that every time a word is recalled in the mind, it is reinforced, more likely to "stick," if you will, and recalling the word in different ways (through listening, reading, writing, and speaking) will reinforce stronger than using it in just one of these ways.

On the other hand, I don't actually know enough vocabulary in the first place to be able to use it regularly. I can't actually express my thoughts in the language--though I know a few words, there are so many more which I don't know, but need in order to express my thoughts. When reading or listening, I hear far more words that I don't know than ones which I do. (This goes for regular speech, not for Qur'an, where the situation is reversed.) Which means I'm constantly having to look things up, and missing the meaning altogether--extremely frustrating.

And I'm hoping that the more I learn, I'll get out of this really uncomfortable phase of being almost able to use the language to using it in earnest. Any tips to move on, and get over this hump?

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