Yesterday in my adult French class I was reminded of the importance of not being overly reliant upon lists. We were doing some more in-depth practice with numbers (since they are notoriously difficult- particularly when you need to know them so well that someone can rattle off a phone number and you can understand it without them having to repeat themselves five times.)
A lot of times we first learn numbers (or certain topics) with lists. Yes, they do help us to keep the information in order, and many of us can count from one to ten in at least one other language. I find that it’s even useful to learn songs to help remember certain things. The problem is that we often get stuck only remembering the list in order, and we get totally off track when the information is embedded in normal every day conversation (which is pretty much never in list form by the way…) or in other textual forms such as stories or bus schedules. Just think about it, if someone tells you that they were at a meeting with nine other people yesterday and you have to stop to count from one to nine by the time you’ve done that the conversation will have moved on and now you will not only not be able to respond, but you also won’t know where the conversation currently is.
A similar thing occurs when we’ve been taught to memorize verb conjugations with one verb at a time. A verb conjugation is when you go through the different versions of a particular verb based on who or what is doing the action (and also the verb tense or mode…). For example, most people learning French are taught that the verb “être” means “to be”. To conjugate être you memorize: je suis = I am, tu es= you are, il/elle/on est = he/she/one(we) is, nous sommes = we are, vous êtes = y’all (or the formal you) are, and ils/elles sont = they are. You are often taught all of this at once and you memorize it in list form. The issue that I have with this is that when it comes to real live communication it’s just not effective. If you are in a conversation and you’re trying to remember “we are” and you have to go through the list by thinking: “je suis, tu es, il/elle/on est, nous sommes” you’re going to have the same issue as we had in the previous paragraph.
The other issue is that this isn’t how we normally think in a language. Truly, have you ever had to stop and go through a verb conjugation in your head in your own language? Chances are rather slim that you have, or at least not often. Most people don’t even know what conjugation is until they’ve taken a grammar based foreign language class anyway.
OK, so we see that there’s a problem. What is the solution? The solution (to my mind) is to focus on high frequency language (the language that is used the most) and use the language as naturally as possible. This means that it is organized by narrative and communicative needs, not by lists. Yes, our brains like to group things, and some of us are much more analytical and will naturally create lists, but lists in and of themselves can be stumbling blocks to real world communication.
For example, yesterday we were working a bit with numbers, and at first we went through them in order, which wasn’t too bad. But, then I wrote the numbers on the board in random order and in random places, and that became much more tricky. For the numbers that were obviously tricky we stopped for a moment and came up with a simple mnemonic (memory trick) or hook to be able to remember the number and I made a little drawing to help remember it. For example, “soixante” is sixty in French. I few years ago I had a student who said that he remembered it as “the sweaty croissant”, which I think is pure genius. It’s strange (and thus memorable), and the English words combine fairly closely to create the French word. I then drew a croissant with beads of sweat rolling off of it. After we had gone through the numbers that we really wanted to focus on I would say “Where is…(the number)?” (in French, of course) and the student would point to the corrrect number and say “That is…(the number)”. We would take turns, and get in a fair amount of repetition. Of course, in the future certain numbers will come up in conversation and in stories, which I believe are even more effective long term because there is greater meaning to them rather than just working on a drill.
The main take away that I’d like for you to have is that lists can be a stumbling block to real world communication. Focus on keeping it random, in conversations, and use narrative to make your language learning really stick. Also, be patient with yourself. It takes a lot of repetition and practice before it becomes second nature. But, it is worth it!