Remembrance and Recollection

When asked if you remember something, the condition on which you answer yes is if you can consciously recall it. But remembering how to ride a bike is not the same as remembering the Pythagorean theorem. In older times, there was drawn a distinction between remembrance – that which comes spontaneously – and recollection – that which you can recall on command. In Memory: How to Develop, Train, and Use It, William Walker Atkinston notes:

The New Psychology goes much further than this. While pointing out the most improved and scientific methods for “re-collecting” the impressions and ideas of the memory, it also instructs the student in the use of the proper methods whereby the memory may be stored with clear and distinct impressions which will, thereafter, flow naturally and involuntarily into the field of consciousness when the mind is thinking upon the associated subject or line of thought; and which may also be “re-collected” by a voluntary effort with far less expenditure of energy than under the old methods and systems.

One of the challenges of language learning is that we use so many methods like flashcards that work for conscious memory. But when we speak a language well, the words come automatically, spontaneously, and we do not seek them actively but let them flow from the impressions or ideas we would impart. Indeed, the virtue of the flashcard is that with enough conscious recollections, the word finally begins to be used unconsciously, but only if we actually use it. Otherwise, our ability to recall it while flipping through flashcards won’t translate to using it in real life.

The last few posts I’ve put up suggest that our use of language is less a matter of rule and application than pattern matching within our memories. Atkinson indicates this in a different way: Are you memorizing things to recollect? Or absorbing things that you’ll remember? This is not to say that you should throw away your flashcards. But be aware that when you learn something for recollection, it’s only the first step. Make sure you’re using the language enough for real that the memorized data from your flashcards can become a part of personal experience that you’ll remember.

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About G Barto

I've been learning languages more than 20 years and teaching them for at least 15. Here I share the joys and frustrations of teaching yourself new languages.
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