Walking in the Alps to escape the summer heat, a dragonfly crosses my path. A dragonfly. I know that word in French. A dragonfly! Our wine glasses are decorated with them. And yet… I search all the corners of my mind, but the word in French is nowhere to be found.
Forgetting with grace is something you have to get used to as an adult learner of a foreign language.
It’s not the nature of foreignness that’s the problem. Computer gadgets that were invented since I moved to France all have French names for me and that’s fine – in fact I often don’t even know their English names
No, it’s the nature of memory. Early stuff just does stick better: I can recall the registration number of the car my dad had in the seventies instantaneously. The number of my present car is harder – and that even though I’ve had it for ten years.
And it’s specifically recall that’s the problem. The knowledge is in there: if you tried to lie to me about my car registration number, it wouldn’t work, I’d know you’d made up your fake number. But that’s not good enough. At the precise moment when an insect flies across my path, it’s dragonfly not libellule that springs straight to my mind.
There is, I suspect, no solution to this one. Day-to-day words stick (most of the time) because their repeated use keeps them in the forefront of our minds. No, it’s the occasional-use vocabulary that’s intractably difficult.
With insoluble problems, the first line of defence is surely not to get too stressed out about it. The inability to recall this or that word is itself no big deal – the situation only becomes traumatic if you get het up about it.
The second line is to keep on vacuuming up the new stuff, regardless of the recall issues – using flashcard tools such as Anki or Brainscape to lodge it in the back of your mind. After all, just because I can’t recall a word doesn’t mean I won’t recognise it when I see or hear it – and that comprehension capacity alone opens up many doors.
And the third riposte, when working on your expression, is to focus on improvement points that don’t rely on extravagant feats of memory. Improvements to your pronunciation, for example, will stick better than vocabulary. This is because every sound you work on will occur very frequently, so the repetition which is essential to memorisation is automatic. And secondly, pronunciation involves muscle memory – and that tends to stick better than intellectual memory.
Similarly, working on grammar rules that apply frequently is a more reliable investment in time than fighting to recall words that you encounter only occasionally.
Make progress in these areas – and when la libellule does pop up at the right moment, it’ll feel like an unexpected bonus.