Part of our missionary assignment in Brockton has us teaching English classes 2-3 times a week. We have about 10 students, some coming every time and others just coming as they are able. Some are very serious about learning and others just come for the social aspect of the gathering. We have tried a lot of different ways to teach a foreign language (English) to this wonderful immigrant population. We have used a program supported by the church called Daily Dose. We have done a lot of reading and vocabulary building. All of it works to a certain extent but we are just not seeing real, lasting progress.
Last week we decided to do something different. We brought a box of everyday things: silverware, plates, cups, staplers, a ruler, etc. As the class began I said that we would only be speaking English tonight. I would not say anything or answer anything in Portuguese, only English. They were all puzzled by it but we began. We only worked on four sentences. I would hold up something and ask “What is this?” They would be required to answer “That is a spoon.” We were trying to teach them the difference between “this” and “that” so I had to move around the room, showing them distances and the difference between something close and something farther away, and which words to use in each case. We were also trying to teach them how to construct a sentence. When I ask "What is this" the tendency is to simply answer "Spoon". We continually required that they respond in a full sentence and this took a lot of effort on their part.
We did this over and over. We made them pronounce correctly, repeating constantly. We made them say “this” and “that”. We must have used the question “What is this” a hundred times that night and they consequently had to answer “That is…..” an equal number of times. We made steady corrections. By the end of the night they were asking and answering each other correctly. It felt tedious. But by the time class ended, they all had it. They all understood and could ask and answer that basic question. And they all said it was the best class ever. They loved it and want to do it again. As a follow up, last night was our class and we started with a review. I held up a knife and asked "What is this" and they all answered with a full sentence: "That is a knife."
Whenever I read about any kind of learning that says “…and no tedious memorization” I wonder what it is they are going to do in place of repetition and memorization. There are just certain things we have to commit to memory and the best way to do that is through constant repetition. I have been working since January trying to recapture the use and fluency of the Portuguese language since it is required for the work I do here. Obviously the best thing to do is to speak it and I do speak it a lot. But I spend a good chunk of time each day memorizing verb conjugations, vocabulary lists, reading aloud, and peppering the Brazilian missionaries with language questions. And the only way I can keep a new concept in my head is by repetition. I have to say and use it over and over again. I have to write it down, refer to it, say it, use it, and make it a part of what I do and say each day. It is the dull tedium of repetition that makes learning come alive.
If you’re ever tempted to say “I just don’t want to memorize this or have to repeat this again”, what you might be saying is “I just don’t want to learn this.”