Saturday, September 16, 2006

Misunderstanding Tulving

Endel Tulving is featured in an article by Barbara Turnbull in today's Toronto Star. He's a memory reasercher whose studies have had quite an impact on how language teachers teach vocabulary. One of his early findings was that people are more successful at recalling a previously-learned list of words if they could organise them in some way. This has led many language teachers (and materials writers) to conclude that vocabulary should be taught in organised groups of words. That is, rather than learn the words: sector • available • financial • process • specific • principle • estimate at one time, they believe that it is more fruitful to learn, say: research • study • examine • theory • proof • results • conclusion.

The problem with this idea is that it confuses learning a list of known words with learning new words. When you are learning a list, the organisation helps you eliminate many unrelated possibilites and the words can cue each other. Vocabulary learning in a foreign language, however, isn't about learning lists. The purpose is not to recall the set of words that were studied on Tuesday (as opposed to Wednesday's set), but to be able recall an individual word when the situation requires it.

The thing that makes this misunderstanding particularly problematic is that when you bring together ideas that have some kind of categorical connection and try to learn new words for them, the semantic connections can cause the individual concepts to lose distinctness, leading the learner to confuse which word stood for which concept.

Of course, none of this can be blamed on Tulving, who has done much to advance our understanding of memory. Turnbull does overplay things a little. She writes, "little was known about how memory functions when Tulving's first breakthrough came in 1956, with the publication of his paper explaining why repetition helps memory." In fact, Hermann Ebbinghaus published a classic paper on this topic back in 1885. (Actually, I can't find a 1956 paper by Tulving. Can anybody point me to it?)

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