No doubt if you’ve been learning Spanish you have had the experience of spending hours trying to memorize things that just won’t “go in” and probably you’ve come across certain words or phrases time and time again but can never remember what they mean. On the other hand, when you do get a word fully assimilated into your vocabulary, you can often remember the exact circumstances in which you first came across it, or a specific situation that helped you to remember it.
If any of that seems familiar to you, it is an illustration of a fundamental aspect of language learning, which is that you have to engage in some way with language for it to be recorded in your mind. It’s as though the feelings of surprise, interest, embarrassment, happiness or even anger that you experience at the time of using, or hearing, the language is like the glue that helps to make it stick.
This is one reason why small children learn language so easily: they engage with the meaning of the word or phrase that they hear, whether it be an instruction, command or warning from their parents or something that makes them laugh or cry or perhaps a story with repeated phrases that stimulates their imagination.
There is a similar effect for us when we start learning Spanish. We can immediately put the first phrases we learn to good use – greetings, ways of ordering food, paying money and so on. As we put this language into practice we create experiences that make the words memorable. Perhaps we have a sense of satisfaction that we said something that was understood, or on the contrary we kick ourselves because we said it wrong and some poor Spanish person looked at us in bewilderment. Sometimes we manage to have a laugh with someone or we get a negative reaction that leaves us with a bad feeling. All of these small incidents help to engrave the language we use onto our memories.
The problem comes when we progress with our Spanish studies and start learning different tenses and a wider vocabulary which we don´t always have the opportunity to use. In the worst case, we end up with an overdose of information which we can no longer process or commit to memory. As a teacher, the best way I have found to overcome this problem is to create interaction within the classroom so that we can at least experience language to some extent as we use it with each other. It’s not an easy balance to find and the more you can get yourself out there finding ways to actually use what you are taught in real situations, the better for you as a language learner.