The Effects of Brute Memorization: Navigating Around a Mental Block

How to Train Your Dragon : Making sleepy NSLI-Y students confident in how to say “But I don’t want to kill dragons!”

18, 23, 28, 53 –  these are the amounts of Russian vocabulary words I’ve been told to memorize each night over the last few days.  Granted, some words were repeats, some days our dictation quizzes were cancelled, but that doesn’t change the fact that in the last three weeks, I’ve added 308 flashcards to my “New Russian Words” Anki deck and every term was added with the intention of being memorized within 24 hours. I’ve often criticized language courses for their slow pace when it comes to introducing new vocabulary, but having now experienced a class with an opposite  approach, I miss the lazy days of writing out pages worth of sentences and Quizlet Live. 

I’ve never had too many problems with memorization, however, in the last few days, I’ve been struggling to cram even one more word into my brain. I spent an hour on the bus glaring at my phone as my mind completely erased everything I had learned the night before. I could repeat a word six times, turn my gaze to the window, then completely forget what I was saying. Carrot, Cucumber, Beetroot… all of these words are must-know, basic Russian words, but for some reason, they refuse to stick. Being the lazy, easily-frustrated, slacker I am, I gave up that day on the bus and grudgingly accepted that the day’s vocab quiz was going to be more red X’s than smily faces. When we were assigned a poem to memorize that afternoon, I began to panic.

I assumed that if my brain couldn’t even remember the word for tomato, there was no way that she would agree to letting a nine stanza poem into her memory.

That night, however, as I sat down at my desk, tea and cookies in hand, I found myself reciting lines by heart after only a few minutes. Confused but pleased, I considered myself cured– maybe my brain just works better between midnight and 2:00 AM. Naturally, I took another look at my vocab list from the day before, but once again, not a single word could get past the double-locked doors to wherever Russian food vocabulary gets stored. That magical memorization of the poem I’d done moments earlier seemed to be nothing but a fluke.

This time though, instead of giving up, I thought about why it was that I could learn poetry but not name the ingredients in borsht. I reminded myself that:

A. Nobody is meant to learn 30 foreign vocab words a night,

B. I’d been using the same method of memorization for the last three weeks, and

C. Flipping through a virtual flashcard deck is one of the most un-interesting and mindless things that a person can do.

And so, with these three things in mind, I grabbed my computer and headed off to Youtube Land where I searched “Learn Russian!” (Yes, exclamation mark included). I started watching videos that tested my listening skills and listened to various explanations of the prepositional case. When I logged onto Fluent-U, I considered myself advanced enough for the “Elementary” category, and watched a Russian Nespresso commercial staring George Clooney, where I finally figured out the meaning of “правда” and for the first time that week, felt myself improve.

There’s nothing wrong with learning new words, it’s necessary to speak in another language,  but the way you learn new words is important. My teacher here in Russia says “quantity grows into quality’, but I think I may need a new motto for my personal learning style.

I need a stimulus more active than a virtual flashcard to improve my Russian.

I need to generate my own language and focus on identifying familiar words in a dialogue or video before I sit down and flip through Anki. For me, I’ve found that recapping my day in Russian– what I wore, what I did, how I’m feeling– and watching videos online with Fluent-U to be the most useful learning methods.

Every few days or so, I switch it up. If I’m feeling like a blob, I’ll watch a movie I’m familiar with in Russian with English subtitles, or listen to a language learning podcast (Actual Fluency is my favorite) to gather inspiration. 

Sure, my grades on Dictation have taken a bit of a blow, but I’m able to stumble my way through a paragraph or two describing my daily routine in front of my teacher, so I think she knows that I’m doing okay.

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