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“I’m bad with names”: How words are like people

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Woman shrugging her shouldersRon Martinez has been a TESOL practitioner for over 20 years, with extensive and diverse experience as a teacher, trainer of teachers, materials developer, and academic researcher. In this post, he draws parallels between remembering people’s names and remembering foreign language vocabulary.

I recently had back surgery, which forced me to miss the first three months of this semester at the university where I teach on an MA TESOL program. Right before I was to finally return to duty, I was invited to a special dinner that would be attended by faculty and students from the school. When I got to the restaurant, a number of former students approached me – most of whom I had not seen for over four months – and I found myself doing a lot of “Hi!  It’s… you!” and “Hi… guy!” I, of course, recognized their faces, but I couldn’t remember many of their names. (And I’m sure they could tell!)

And then there was today. I returned to campus for my first day back, and I ran into a person who works in our English Department office – we’ll call her “Linda.” Linda smiled and waved, but I didn’t recognize her. “Out of context, right?” she said, kindly trying to assuage my embarrassment. And then I realized who it was. And Linda was right: I had never seen her anywhere outside that office, and that coupled with the extended time off also threw me off. (But at least I remembered her name.)

I realized that there are some parallels to be drawn between those rather awkward experiences and memory for vocabulary:

  • we tend to forget names, not faces; with vocabulary, we tend to forget the form of a word, not the concept;
  • even after repeated contact over months with people, it’s possible to forget their names after a while if you don’t interact with them somehow;  with vocabulary, the same will happen if you don’t refresh newish lexis on occasion;
  • when you only see people in a certain context, you might not immediately recognize them in other contexts; with vocabulary, you’re less likely to readily retrieve a lexical item from memory that’s only been encountered in one context/genre (e.g. in a coursebook) when meeting that same item in a different context/genre.

All of the above are echoed in one way or another in language acquisition theory. Vocabulary expert Paul Nation, for example, believes keys to vocabulary staying remembered include noticing the word in context, retrieving the meaning of that word from memory, and, ideally, using the word (what he calls “generative use”). So perhaps I was able to remember Linda’s name more easily than my former students’ simply because I’d used her name before. But there’s probably more to it that that. On reflection, I’d not only said her name when speaking to her, but I’d also seen her name in my inbox just about every other day during the semester in her email announcements to faculty. Another authority on vocabulary, Robert Waring, has shown in different studies that a newly-learned word that is met only once in a text will stay remembered for just so long. It needs to be encountered a number of times in order to reach long-term memory.

But just how many times is “a number of times”? It’s not really a hard-and-fast science, but what the research shows is that encountering or even repeating a word over and over again in a short period of time (for example, in just one class) really is an investment with diminishing returns. (Think of trying to do too many “reps” of one exercise at the gym.)  What studies show is that it’s encountering and/or using vocabulary again and again (and having to remember what that vocabulary means) over a long period of time, in various contexts, that helps ensure that a lexical item does not just fade away.

Indeed, as I learned the hard way today with Linda, the “various contexts” part seems to be really important. Michael Hoey has hypothesized that when we come across a word or phrase, we not only notice and retrieve its meaning as Nation would assert, but on each encounter we also retain some information about where that word was found (e.g. its genre), the context in which it was met, the co-text (words before and after the word), and even where in the discourse it was (e.g. the introduction, the body, or the conclusion). This is the theory of “lexical priming,” which suggests that the real key to gaining vocabulary “depth” of knowledge (e.g. collocation) is meeting a word in various contexts over time.

So, maybe if I had kept in touch with some of those students  – even just an email or two – while I was convalescing, remembering their names wouldn’t have been so elusive. And that might explain why I didn’t forget the names of fellow faculty at that same dinner, with whom I of course have had longer and more regular contact in varied contexts. But it wouldn’t explain it fully.

You see, I did not forget all my former students’ names at that dinner. There was one, for example – let’s call him “James” – whose name I remembered right away. What was different about James?

Unlike most of the students in James’s class, I had had contact with him outside of class as well. For example, last semester after a special seminar, snacks and drinks were served and we spoke for several minutes and we realized that we actually had some mutual friends. It is also worth noting that James was exceptional among his classmates, and regularly sent me emails asking questions and asking for suggestions on papers and so on. He even sent me a “get well” email while I was out with the back injury. Moreover, on most if not all those diverse occasions, I actually said (or wrote) his name.

Put another way, it was the combination of the relative frequency, variety and depth (i.e. non-superficiality) of my interaction with James, in addition to also using his name in diverse contexts, that made remembering “James” a lot easier. This concept is also echoed in the literature on vocabulary retention, encapsulated in Norbert Schmitt’s notion of “engagement,” the idea that the deeper the personal and cognitive involvement a learner has with lexis, the better.

So what might all this mean for you, the teacher? Get students to treat vocabulary as they would their friends!  People don’t forget their friends’ names because they see them often, or at least think of them often. Moreover, usually your friends are involved in a network of friends of some kind, and it’s harder to forget a friend’s name when her/his name is being mentioned (or gossiped about) over coffee every so often. And people like to do stuff with their friends, and not the same stuff all the time. You build memories, deep and meaningful memories with those friends, and maybe their names will therefore become engraved in your memory for the rest of your life.

Well, OK, I know that students will not want to start adding lexical items as Facebook pals or anything, but what matters is that students experience (at least) the noticing and retrieval that Nation suggests, repeatedly over a period of time as Waring has recommended, and with the engagement that Schmitt advocates. But what about the variety of contexts?

There’s only so much we can do in class. The variety of contexts and co-texts that Hoey says are necessary for lexical priming to have a positive effect on depth of vocabulary knowledge really are not likely to be had in class alone, which means investing in learning out of class, too. Naturally, a lot depends on students’ motivation, and how we get students motivated…  Well, that’s something for another blog entry, I’m afraid. There are some great authorities on the subject you can read, though. Now, if I could just remember their names…

Author: Oxford University Press ELT

The official global blog for Oxford University Press English Language Teaching. Bringing teachers and other ELT professionals top quality resources, tools, hints and tips, news, ideas, insights and discussions to help further their ELT career. Follow Oxford ELT on Twitter. Find Oxford ELT on Google+.

6 thoughts on ““I’m bad with names”: How words are like people

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  3. This is really interesting! It sounds like an idea I heard from a lexical acquisition specialist in Brazil some four or five years. He also refers to that as “reencounters” and makes use of the same analogy. According to him (books and lectures), vocabulary – chunks of language – are just like people you meet. If you meet a person just once and are just introduced for that moment, you may forget about them after that first moment.

    However, if you keep in touch with that person, you have a better chance to become friends with them. That means that the more you reencounter that person in natural contexts, the more you interact with them in real contexts, the more you get to know what they collocate with, etc., the easier and faster will be for that person to become a friend of yours.

    Putting that analogy into the world of chunks, we can see the same thing happening. The chunk (vocabulary) has a better chance to find a place in long-term memory once you get involved with as many times as possible and, of course, in natural contexts.

    Good to know that our Brazilian guy is not so far from that idea.

  4. Pingback: “I’m bad with names”: How wo...

  5. That’s very interesting, Augusto, as I actually spent a number of years in Brazil myself! Great place, and some really great researchers/teachers over there.

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