In 1988, as a fifteen year old in the midst of my freshman year in high school, I bought my first car. I paid exactly $200 for it – cash. It was a 1973 Ford Pinto, a stick shift with bucket seats and it was orange. It was not the kind of car you’d want to take on a long road trip but was sufficient for my daily commute to school and back. The commute was less than a kilometer, so that’s not saying much.
The Pinto was fun.
The car had problems but they made life more interesting. Shortly after I started driving it, the PInto decided it no longer needed a key to start – just turn the ignition – with or without the key inserted – and it would start right up. This was handy except that the doors didn’t lock leaving the Pinto easy prey for my friend Vaughn to steal occasionally for joy rides out to a gravel parking lot so he could test the emergency break with high speed power slides. Vaughn rarely used the driveway to exit the parking lot, preferring to barrel over the curb in a bounding jolt. The Pinto didn’t seem to mind though.
Another problem was the time the Pinto caught on fire. I was ‘cruising the strip’ one evening with my friend Joel when we suddenly noticed smoke pouring out from under the hood. We whipped into the nearest parking lot and discovered a nice little fire raging inside the engine compartment. Thankfully in Kansas they don’t regularly see the need to pave parking lots and so we were able to douse the fire with handfuls of dirt and gravel. This of course made quite a mess but since 1973 Pintos only had about five moving parts, repairs were cheap and easy and I was back on the road within a few days.
You may be wondering what my Ford Pinto has to do with language learning, or learning in general and mostly it doesn’t. I just wanted to share some fun stories from my youth. There is a lesson though but I need to share one more story in order to get to it.
Kansas is criss-crossed by a nearly perfect grid of one mile by one mile roads. Most of these roads are paved with asphalt or are covered with gravel but many – those marked with signs warning “Minimum Maintenance” are merely dirt. At the end of August, after a month or two of 105 degree days (40 Celsius) and no rain these minimum maintenance roads become a soft, three inch thick bed of fine dust.
In the spring however, after a week or so of rain these roads become rivers of mud and the testing ground for every daredevil teenage boy with a truck. Testosterone filled young men queue up for their chance to wade into the river of mud and show off both their driving and their truck. The aftermath of this passing again and again over the same mud road is of course a lot of dirty trucks and dirt roads scarred with parallel ruts nearly a foot deep.
Once dried to hardened twin canyons, no fool would dare to drive these roads before the road grater came by to smooth things out, unless that fool drove a 1973 orange Ford Pinto. The goal is to straddle the ruts but when the goal fails, the end result is a teetering car high centered in the middle of nowhere and a trip to find one of those friends with a big truck.
We generally think of ruts as a bad thing, as in, “I’m stuck in a rut” and where the Ford Pinto and rutted roads are concerned, they were a bad thing.
But today I want to look at how ruts in roads are formed and make a connection to learning. Ruts are formed when a vehicle passes repeatedly, over long periods of time over the same section of road. If you have ever been to a large park carpeted in grass you can see the same pattern at play where new pathways are worn to brown dirt cutting across from one sidewalk to another.
Neither the path nor the rut form with the first passing. And so it is with learning. We remember things that we have ‘passed over’ repeatedly. Repetition over time leads to learning.
And yet all repetition is not the same. My tiny Pinto would not make ruts nearly as fast or as deep as my friend’s two ton Ford F-250. The truck’s tires are wider, the tread deeper and more prone to digging. These coupled with an extra 1,500 pounds make the truck a much better ‘rut maker’ than my lowly Pinto.
Repetition in language learning is much the same. Adding context and emotion do much to increase both the rate and the depth of our learning. My son learned quickly the Korean expression for “Stop It!” from some Korean playmates at school because they yelled it at him during recess. He didn’t need to be told what it meant and didn’t have trouble remembering it.
Put the same expression on a flashcard, and it may take me thirty or forty repetitions to get the same depth of understanding and retention my son had in just a few confrontations with his friend.
If we know we need repetition in order to master a language, we must then focus on thinking about how we can make our repetition better.
There are many ways to create this repetition of course and we must constantly challenge ourselves to not just chose the easy way, but to discover the types of repetition that are most effective.
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