A call to lay down arms!

For me, last year’s ESL Bible was “Teaching collocation - Further Developments in the Lexical Approach.” Interesting enough book alright but I’ll admit it encouraged me to pile on a little too much vocab.

This years ESL bible is called “Memory Meaning and Method.” It was published in 1996 by a man nemed Earl W. Stevick. He graduated with some applied linguistics degree or other in 1950. And the way he describes it he has achieved at least temporary conversatioanl fluency in Armenian, French, German, Portugese, Shona, Spanish, Swahili and Turkish. He can also do “something or other” in four other languages and has reading ability in another four. He has been actively “teaching” English for close to fifty years and studies things like the neurology of second language learning as “hobbies.”

If someone like him talks about language teaching or learning, I, for one, listen. I would like to provide you with a few quotes that I think might help if you are finding yourself becoming a bit stuck in your approach to this delicate enterprise of ours.

From the preface - “If one believes (as I do not) that the human race is becoming better or wiser as the years pass, then assumptions I made years ago can no longer be of interest. If, on the other hand one believes (as I also do not) that the human race is progessively going down hill then any point of view held now is of less value than those that went before it. What I do believe is that goodness and wisdom, where they exist, come into our lives only as creations both delicate and ephemral.”

In later chapters he goes on to describe how he actually both learned and taught other languages using the systems that many practitioners today mainly just scoff at: grammar translation, the audio lingual approach etc. He comes to some suprising conclusions. For example he says that he can’t imagine anyone for whom a strict grammar translation approach would be advisable; however he admits it did work well for him and he enjoyed it tremendously. What he suggests is that we take elements of each approach and use them as required. He uses the word “flexible” a lot.

He asks the following question “In the field of language teaching, Method A is the logical contradiction of Method B: if the assumptions from which A claims to be derived are correct , then B cannot work, and vice versa. Yet one colleague is getting excellent results with A and another is getting excellent results with B. How is this possible?”

His answer to this question is a bit long winded but I think it could be accurately summarized as “therein lies the mystery”

Further along he says "…just as our choice of methods depends on what has worked in the past and on the personal investments that flow from those experiences, so these choices and these investments are related to - are an expression of - our deeper values. And if these relationships - if these values - are not clearly recognized, then they can give rise to reactions that are expressed not in logical propositions, but in epithets.

If that doesn’t quite do it for you he goes on a little latter to say “I fear the Annie Oakley whose early success by any method - Grammar Translation or Natural approach or anything in between leads her (or him) to squat sequestered in the fastness” of that particular brand of pedantary…"

“I fear teachers who focus more on teaching languages than on teaching people”

He sums up with “I know that the kind of teaching I have called for makes heavy demands on the teacher - demands on time and skill of course, but also on “flexibility” and commitment. I hope that in the future we will find a growing public appreciation not only for the value of our product, but also for the special intricacy and delicacy of the process we are guiding.”

It’s enough to warm your heart, isn’t it?

All this means is that he is serially bilingual. Lots of people are - it means you learn a language well enough to carry on a conversation in it, usually because you move to that country, and then you move away or quit studying it and forget everything; and then you start the process all over again.
As an example, I used to be able to speak Korean fluently; now, the only Korean I can reliably remember is how to say “I love you” and “dog soup.”

and i love dog soup.

Where’d you get it? I just went to Amazon.com and saw it, but I’m wondering if it’s available in any bookstore here.

It was on sale at caves for NT250 but that was a while ago. It’s a heavy go but definitely worth it.

I read some bits and pieces about him on the 'net after reading your post. I’ll check out Caves next time I’m in Taipei. Thanks for the info.

I’m interested in reading people who are familiar with the theories and have tons of experience teaching. This guy sounds like one of those.


He has experience both teaching “and” learning with most of the major theories. In terms of experience it is hard to imagine how anybody could hold a candle to him.

Yeah, and I’m also interested in what he has to say about the relationship between memory and second-language learning.

The reference to meaning in the title refers to the meanings that people associate with the language they are studying. The basic idea I think is that memory is very much a survival function. It is about the future. We can remember best those things that we can imagine ourselves using. He suggests in fact that one of the best ways to commit a new item to memory (for a while) is to simply “imagine” yourself using it. According to him, this is even more effective than using it or hearing it, although, of course, he recommends creating an environment where you can hear and use everything you learn as much as possible.

He believes that there is a time factor involved in really getting things down. If you want to remember something you should focus on it for (I think he said) thirty seconds. It is all very involved and has something to do with converting a thought or word or whatever from electrical to chemical energy.

The older you get the more obvious it is that language learning is a memory building excercise. The more you are able to cooperate with your natural ability to remember the easier the time you will have.

I think you will get the feeling that this book was written as a kind of final farewell not only to the ESL community but to life itself. It has that feel and as such is infused with warmth and humor and best wishes for generations to come. Lovely stuff really.

Sounds good. If it’s at Cave’s, I’m gonna get it there. If not, I guess I’ll order it from Amazon.com.