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Miguel Witte - Book review, written June 2011:
Nick Bilbrough: Memory activities for Language Learning - Cambridge University Press

Amazon Nick Bilbrough, Memory Activities for Language Learning

Language learning by memory is old fashioned, boring und uncreative. It is not an intelligent way of learning. After reading Nick Bilbrough´s book "memory activities for language learning" to my mind, it is time to dispose of theses outdated predjudices.

Of course, the days of the old fashioned school drill requiring students to learn large lists of vocabulary have definitely passed. Teachers and students have made their way through modern approaches, laying stress heavily on interaction and being comunicative. The classroom has definitely improved because of these new methods, teaching has become more entertaining, multimedia-based and geared towards the students.

Though the question still remains about what exactly a teacher, a method and an approach can provide in order to turn a learner into a fluent foreign language speaker and reader. Language lessons should not be mainly about being entertaining and funny but their ultimate goal should be to anchor the foreign language in the minds of the students and there should be no doubt about that, as Nick Bilbrough points out "language learning - perhaps more than most other form of learning - places huge demands on the memory."

Nick Bilbrough´s theoretical starting point refers to the Lexical Approach (Michael Lewis, Dave Willis) and the finding that language production is often less creative and more based on the retrieval and recycling of previously stored chunks and formulaic language. As Bilbrough points out: "According to this view, fluency in a language is the result of having a stored bank (or "phrasicon") of memorized chunks. This allows the speaker to assemble utterances in real time, without the need to generate each utterance from scratch, using an internalized grammar. Perhaps, as Lewis(1997) observes, "we are much less original in using language than we like to believe."

Following this method of focusing on both making language as memorable as possible and using explicit memorization activities would seem to make sense in the context of the classroom and these are the main topics the book deals with. It presents a wide array of classroom activities which seek to implement and to optimize the memory factor while learning. The classroom activities proposed in the book are presented in seven chapters:

    • 1. Mental stretching- which is about classroom activities that challenge the short-term or working memory
      2. Making language memorable - focusing on activities aimed at the long-term memory
      3. Retrieving- deals with the improtance of going back to what has been taught in previous lessons
      4. Repeating and reactivating - revises the general importance of revisting material
      5. Memory techniques and mnemonics - demonstrates useful ideas for remembering things exactly
      6 Learning by heart - underlines the usefulness of comitting entire texts to memory
      7. Memory games - explores games in order to activate memory processes
  • Every chapter begins with a short theoretical outline followd by between ten to eighteen different classroom activities all of them structured by the following criteria:

    One of the main strengths of Nick Bilbrough´s work is in presenting the reader with a huge amount of genuinely colourful, challenging and often funny activities which are interesting in themselves and where memory learning happens "by the way" and without being the main purpose in itself. Therefore, they fit perfectly into a modern classroom with a communicative syllabus.

    The book also presents some highly interesting student experiences which illustrate the usefullness of memory based learning.

    There is for example Michael from Greece who lived for three months in an Italian mountain village with no knowledge of Italian whatsoever. At the end of his stay he had reached B2 level. He remarked that repetition played an important role in his success: "Whenever he met new people, he was often called upon to provide a spoken intorductory text about himself. In the initial stages at least, this self-narrative was carefully planned and mentally rehearsed before performing. The same basic text was repeated with each new encounter, evolving as different listeners had the chance to interact with it, and becoming increasingly spontaneous and complex as his competence in the language developed."

    Angelica is the protagonist of the next story. She was learning Japanese in London and found that she needed to use some memory techniques to remember new words. "She found that visualizing a scene or a journey in which she herself interacted with whatever she was learning was useful. So if she wanted to learn the word for a stapler, for instance, she would picture herself using a stapler, whilst saying the word in Japanese to herself. "

    Finally there was Francisco Matete from Aangola who gained an M.A. in English Linguistics and Translation at the University of Minsk, Russia where he acquired a very "English" way of speaking despite never having been to the United Kingdom. "His course focused principally on language development, but contained very few of the features of what would be reffered to as communicative syllabus. There were no role plays, no information-gap activities, no debates and discussions, in fact very little focus on using language for communication at all! Yet Francisco´s English ability soared" How was that possible? "Francisco attributes his success as a learner of English to one principal factor: The memorization of texts. In each class the students attending the course would be shown poems, extracts of prose or dialogues, which they would be asked to memorize. They would then be left in the language laboratory to listen to the texts again and again, and to practise them until they felt comfortable that they had learnt both the words and the correct pronounciation pattern. In the next class each student would have to recite the text aloud without looking at the original. What is interesting is that he is still able to recite many of the texts that he memorized all those years ago. Learning by heart has played a huge part in his own language development and now informs to a large extent his own approach to language teaching."

    Nick Bilbrough also advocates that teachers should be careful with introducing learning by heart activities. It depends very much on the learners own predisposition and assumptions about the effectiveness of learning by heart.

    All things considered the book demonstrates that focusing on memory and on the memorability in language learning is an approach that widens the scope of the classroom and provides students with helpful clues for their learning goals. Nick Bilbrough underlines the view that memory should be seen as the fifth skill and gives teachers and students food for thought about a change in perspective and a lot of fresh ideas for the classroom.

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