Not so long ago I published an article where I discussed the connection between English fluency, mental associations and context.
I’ve touched upon this subject before, but recently I gave it even more thought after reading a book called “Kluge – The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind”. I bought it on Amazon for 4 pennies, and it’s given me the best return on investment I’ve ever achieved in terms of my personal intellectual improvement!
The book is very interesting because it looks at different aspects of human behavior and reveals a constant struggle between our rational, decision making mind and our ancestral, reflexive part of brain.
To cut the long story short, the book was very interesting for me as an English fluency mentor because it highlighted the fact that we, humans, learn and retain ALL knowledge contextually.
Our brain’s information storage facility isn’t structured in an efficient way which would allow us to access and use information as we see fit. Way too often it’s actually quite the opposite – sometimes we can’t recall what we really need to remember (think of those situations when you just can’t think of the right English word to say!), and on other occasions we have random English words popping up in our minds preventing us from expressing our thoughts clearly and properly…
In other words, the language processing part of our brain relies heavily on context, associations and emotional ties between the English phrases and words in your memory and your past experience, events and other English vocabulary and phraseology ❗
Actually this revelation isn’t anything new – if you give it more thought, you’ll realize that it’s all common sense.
For instance, weren’t you aware that you can’t memorize and bring up memories in your mind at your will, just like you’d look up database records? Of course we all know that, and that’s exactly what I’m talking about!
If human brain worked like a data storage unit, we’d all speak English like native speakers. After reading or hearing something in English just once, we’d be able to precisely repeat it – what a wonderful world would it be then!
1. Our ability to speak in English isn’t determined solely by our ability to memorize and recall; it’s more about how strongly that knowledge is linked together!
Think about this – if you could simply take a list of English words, memorize them, and then use them effortlessly in your conversations, wouldn’t you become a fluent English speaker in no time at all?
Well, despite being the basic blueprint of traditional school-based English teaching curricula, it just doesn’t work like that in real life.
Regardless of how good your mechanical memorization skills are, your ability to use English vocabulary and different phrases and expressions depends mostly on how well you can use CERTAIN words and word combinations in CERTAIN situations; obviously, I’m talking about ASSOCIATIONS and CONTEXT here.
It matters not if you know the word ‘subliminal’, for instance; and even if you know what ‘aversion’ means – it’s still not going to avail you a big deal. If you’ve learnt a collocation “subliminal aversion”, however, you’re so much more likely to use those words just because you’ve learnt them together AND within certain context.
Maybe it was an article about childhood psychology development, or perhaps you heard that word combination mentioned on the radio where the interviewee just couldn’t explain his lack of enthusiasm for mainstream fitness techniques – hence the expression “subliminal aversion”.
Wherever you might have heard it, that situation is going to stick with you AND so are the two words – “subliminal aversion”.
I’m quite sure you can think of many such examples, and it just goes to show that our English fluency is largely determined by how well we have linked the different words together in our brain!
2. Naturally occurring English collocations are historically hard-wired into our brain resulting in the strongest form of mental association
Just like the aforementioned example with the English collocation “subliminal aversion”, there are hundreds and thousands of similar word combinations and we use them every time when we speak in English – and you might not be even aware of them!
You see, human brain has evolved in a constant struggle for survival, and our ancestors had to rely on environmental clues ALL THE TIME. Past experience provided the safest information to rely upon, so it’s only logical that making instant connections with the current situation and past events is hard-wired into every living creature’s brain-cells.
Fast forward a couple million years to when humans started using sounds to communicate with each other.
What do you think drove them to start using sounds? Yes, that’s right – SURVIVAL!
The ones, who were more successful at warning others of immediate danger and organizing a group of people around them, were more likely to survive, so evolution took its course and human brain developed capacity for language.
What’s important for us, English speakers, is to understand that language constantly developed accordingly to environmental and social surroundings and words and word combinations were always accompanied by practical activities and their frequency. Abstract, conceptual thinking is a relatively new capacity of our minds, and it’s an acquired skill rather than something we’ve inherited from our ancestors.
Therefore, it’s second nature for us, humans, to speak by using word chunks closely associated with our actions (or imagined activity) at the time of speaking instead of using some virtual dictionary where you’d have access to all existing words in the language ❗
When you need assistance with something at work and you see your work colleague passing by, you don’t look up separate words in your inner vocabulary and then stick them together in your mind to create a sentence “Can you give me a hand for a second?” It comes out of your mouth in two bursts – “Can you give me a hand” and “for a second” because they’re the two collocations very closely associated with such and similar situations from the past when you needed help.
3. We find it MUCH easier to talk about topics we find interesting for personal reasons
Once again – it’s all about our past experiences and how our language relates to it.
If you know nothing about birds, bird species and related vocabulary, you’d quite naturally find it difficult to speak about that topic in both – your native language AND English. Well, you might find it easier to speak about it in your mother’s tongue because you would have heard associated vocabulary and expressions when you were a child.
Someone like me, for instance, wouldn’t have a clue if some professional bird watcher started talking about the different species of birds he’s seen recently in the area. That topic isn’t something I normally take interest into, and even if my passive vocabulary would theoretically allow for a fluent conversation, I just wouldn’t have the needed associations created in my mind between those English words, terms and expressions AND the actual bird images and related concepts.
On the other hand, we find it much easier to talk about topics we find interesting!
It’s common sense, but it’s yet another proof that mental associations play the main role in our spoken English performance.
We can speak more or less fluently about things we’re familiar with at a personal level; we’ve had related experiences, and our inner English phraseology has developed according to that.
It actually goes back to the same evolutionary process – our brain is wired to develop language capacity according to our habits and how frequently we engage in related activities!
What does it mean for us, foreign English speakers?
Engage in as many hobbies through the English language as possible, and you’ll develop very diverse active English vocabulary!
4. We can’t stop thinking in our native language if we associate new English words with the respective translation in our mother’s tongue
It’s a typical bad mental association created during a language acquisition process, and it’s quite hard to get rid of.
As we determined earlier in this article, our language is closely associated with our activities and it helps us to produce automatic speech.
But what if we learn the English language by using our native language as a medium and all English words have been linked to the respective translations in our mother’s tongue?
The answer is quite straightforward – we’ll find it very difficult to use the English language in a natural way by speaking our minds without much thinking. We’ll still think in our native language and the two languages will be constantly mixing together because of the strong associations created at the time of vocabulary acquisition!
The problem I just described is something that way too many foreign English speakers are familiar with, and it takes an awful lot of time and effort to create natural links between English vocabulary words resulting in a fluent, effortless English speech.
Sounds like an epic task?
Well, not really!
My English Harmony System 2.0 has been designed to do just that – break down unnatural associations between English vocabulary and your native language and imprint naturally occurring English collocations into your brain!