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A notebook of A-LM's French: Level One, my mother's copy, but containing the booklets that were used in my first year's class. After three years of A-LM and a year of indifferent study in high school, I arrived in Mrs. V's class poorly prepared to face the rigors she imposed on her students, prompting her to go so far as to suggest that I had been "severely crippled" in my study of French as a result of the A-LM method.

In looking over the materials, I can see her point. The focus, as I recall, of each unit was the dialog on the first page, which was to be committed to memory, thus providing invaluable knowledge should one ever find oneself on a street in Paris in search of a library (Dis donc, ou est la bibliothèque?), or in a position to tell someone "it" - whatever it was, as long as it was of the feminine grammatical gender - is "straight ahead" (Elle est tout droit.).

There then followed a number of drills, adaptations, and directed activities. Explanations were sparse and terse.

Of course, memorization is an indispensable part of language learning once one has passed the age of about eight. Living in-country, memorization is sugared by the fact that you have to speak the language to survive, as it were, so it's not as if memorization is the purpose of the exercise.

When not living in-country, memorization tends to be a major drag, especially if what you're memorizing tends to not really relate to real life - and try as they might, the A-LM scenarios always smelled slightly of unreality.

As I've mentioned before, one of the most - for me - effective methods of teaching has been that made popular by Michel Thomas. In his method, you are led in small steps to say fairly complex sentences over a short period of time.

Curiously enough, I've run across something called "Synergy Spanish" that takes very much the same approach, claiming that you can speak enough of the language to get by if you master just 138 words.

So far, I've gotten through 10 lessons in my (copious) spare time, and enough seems to be "sticking" - which is the critical part - that I've been actually able to exchange a sentence or two with some of the (many) Spanish-speakers in the area.

More good news. The passbook that I thought I had put away was exactly where I saw it last... it was just that I was looking in another place when I went looking for it!

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A comment made at
I found "The Memory Book" by Harry Lorayne and Jerry Lucas to be an excellent starting point to become familiar with a variety of memorization techniques for remembering lists, people's names, numbers of various kinds, and so on. It was a real eye-opener for me, back when I was in college.

Although I have never sought to be the kind of person who'd want to memorize the names and faces of everyone attending, say, a conference reception, or the first thousand digits of pi, I have been able to successfully adapt some of these techniques into my day-to-day life.

The two techniques I used most involve substituting sounds for numbers and creating words with those sounds.

In my variant of the system (the basic principle of which is described in nearly every book on memory techniques, so I'll be brief), the sibilant "S" sound stands for zero, "L" stands for one, "N" for two, "M" for three, and other letters represent other numbers.

Paying attention only to sounds in the system, you can use words to represent numbers. "Moon" can represent "32"; "Lemon" can represent "132." A "male mummy nail" represents the sequence "313321." You remember the numbers by retaining images of the corresponding words.

Obviously, this system can be used to memorize any sequence of numbers (especially phone numbers, one such number, represented by the key images of a "rat" on a "mop picker" machine has stayed with me for decades).

The second technique is an extension of the first. By creating a "standard" list of words to correspond with the cardinal numbers (starting with, say, "house," "hill," "hen," and "ham" to represent the numbers zero through three), you can create a mental filing cabinet with however many places you need. This lets you remember lists ofthings.

There will be those who will say that this all sounds like too much trouble, and that the game's not worth the candle. Maybe so, but the same can be said for learning a foreign language or how to play a musical instrument: there's a certain investment in learning one has to make in order to play the game.
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There's an interesting interview with Bruce Sterling at Reason magazine. One point that echoes some thoughts I've had:
reason: I think there are some positive social changes happening as a result of this spontaneous database building and Web page building. There are more and more of us who reflexively look things up.

Sterling: There is a Google blindness. It’s a kind of common wisdom generator, but it’s not necessarily going to get you to the real story of what’s actually going on.

reason: As today’s children get older they’re internalizing Boolean search logic, and they actually do show some discrimination and drill down to the useful information.

Sterling: It is a form of literacy that’s really peculiar. Socrates used to talk about this: "The problem with writing is that no one memorizes the Iliad any more. You’ve got to just know all of it. And how can you call yourself an educated man if you cannot recite Book Three, not missing a single epithet?" He’s got a point there. ... It has a profound effect on literary composition. I’ve got Google up all the time. It gives you this veneer of command of the facts which you do not, in point of fact, have. It’s extremely useful for novelists but somewhat dangerous if you’re pretending to be a brain surgeon.
I might add that it's positively fatal if you intend to creatively synthesize new concepts from old ones. If, for example, you lack the awareness of Fact No. 1 when confronted with Fact No. 2, you will not be able to make any connection between the two and derive Fact No. 3.

This is the primary problem with the approach that says "All I really need to know to be an engineer is F = ma, because I can derive everything else from that equation." (I must confess this was my approach as an undergraduate.) Not to mention the devastation that might occur if, in the case Sterling cites, one's access to Google disappears owing either to natural disaster or the effective closure of the Internet due to a massive stake-out of IP claims.

There are parallels to Socrates' observation of how writing caused people to cease memorization.

For example, I came of working age at a time when slide rules were in common use in college; for me, the electronic calculator was a convenience. There wasn't anything I couldn't do on TI-99 that I couldn't do on a slipstick, that I couldn't do by hand if required. Today, some - if not most - public schools train kids in the use of calculators from the get-go, which leads me to believe that most such kids will find themselves at sea, arithmetically, if the calculator batteries give out.

Another example: I somehow ended up with some considerable skill at spelling, acquired at a time when the answer to "How is it spelled?" was "Look it up in the dictionary!" Today, when I use a spell checker with my word processor, it's a means of catching typographical errors and not a method for converting a stream of semirandom letters wholesale into actual English words.

If writing killed memorization, then the use of writing to access massive reference sources may well cause people to allow their powers of recall to atrophy to altogether residual levels, while preserving the illusion of literacy.



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