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A logically impossible process of learning
14. July 2018 at 20:37
It is a commonly accepted fact that people use memory on a regular basis for memorizing and learning necessary information. In case of learning languages, Nick Bilbrough stated that “we need to go through three processes in order to remember language: encoding, storage and retrieval. During these processes, we make sense of the received data, linking it to already existing knowledge, storage of the information into long-term memory, which plays a significant role and use it in case of necessity”(Bilbrough 2011).
This procedure seems to be quite logical and plausible in case of adult memorizing and learning when the brain is completely developed and runs at full capacity. However, how is it possible for children to learn a language or acquire any piece of information if researchers generally agree that the age at which our long-term memory starts to develop is 3-5 years? Consequently, it is not the long-term memory through which children learn and acquire language but something else, unique and completely different from adult comprehension.

The process of memorizing as well as the memory itself can be described in the most varied ways, depending on the attitude and perspective of a person. One may say that memory is the mother of all wisdom (Aeschylus), a marvelous instrument (Primo Levi) or the scribe of the soul (Aristotle). Whereas from the more scientific perspective, it is considered that memory is an array of interacting systems, each capable of encoding or registering information, storing it, and making it available for retrieval. (Baddeley 2014) The same way as the definitions of the term differ, human memory and its ways of exploration, organization, and perfection may differ as well.
According to Hideyuki Okano a Japanese physiology professor and the current dean of Keio University School of Medicine, “Memory is one of the most fundamental mental processes and without it, we are capable of nothing but simple reflexes and stereotyped behavior”(Okano 2000). In his work, together with Tomoo Hirano and Evan Balaban, he points out the crucial importance of memory in the learning process. (PNAS 2000)

It is a commonly accepted fact that people use memory on a regular basis for memorizing and learning necessary information. In case of learning languages, Nick Bilbrough stated that “we need to go through three processes in order to remember language: encoding, storage and retrieval. During these processes, we make sense of the received data, linking it to already existing knowledge, storage of the information into long-term memory, which plays a significant role and use it in case of necessity”(Bilbrough 2011). This procedure seems to be quite logical and plausible in case of adult memorizing and learning when the brain is completely developed and runs at full capacity. However, how is it possible for children to learn a language or acquire any piece of information if researchers generally agree that the age at which our long-term memory starts to develop is 3-5 years? Consequently, it is not the long-term memory through which children learn and acquire language but something else, unique and completely different from adult comprehension.

The need to understand all the uniqueness of early childhood memory has led to the discovery of the neuroscience of memory. According to the previously mentioned Allan Baddeley’s book “Essentials of Human Memory”, it is assumed that there are three kinds of memory—sensory memory, short-term memory, and long-term memory which were represented by the model proposed by Atkinson and Shiffrin in 1968. All the types cooperate in order to form a memory filled with valuable memories. However, the process of the formation is, indeed, more complex than it may seem.

The very beginning of the process starts with our senses. Human beings have 5 basic senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. The usage of these senses is an integral part of our life since we are applying them continuously in every field. (Joeel 2017) Usually, people tend to have one or two senses more developed than others. Therefore, we differ in types of perception of information: visual (sight), auditory (hearing), kinesthetic (touch and feel), and cognitive (mental processing).

In one of the works the Associate Professor at the Faculty of Biology and Medicine Micah Murray states “We perceive our environment in the broadest sense of the term, through the signals sent to us by our five senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch) and the better you are at combining visual and auditory information, the better you can remember what you’ve learned” (Murra). This supports the idea that the usage of senses plays a crucial role both in memorizing process, and in learning. Hence, there is such a notion as sensory memory, which is based exactly on our main senses.

Sensory memory is the shortest-term element of memory, the very beginning of the process that is called memorizing, and simply the initial point of our perception. It is the basis of forming a permanent memory. Any piece of information that comes to our mind either causes a certain emotional splash or, on the other hand, we can be not interested in the given information that will lead to ignorance. Due to sensory memory, we can evaluate information and decide whether it should be memorized or not. Once we have emotionally reacted to the information, once one or several of our senses have been activated, the process of memorizing is started. The following step will be the proceeding of the information to the long-term memory and in case of a strong emotional background, which is equal to a high level of importance, information will be encoded to the long-term memory. (Mastin 2010)

The next step in memorizing process is short-term memory or working memory. “Short-term memory is a system in our brain that basically can keep a small amount of information for a really short period of time” (Shaw 2016). Remembering sounds heard some seconds before or a slogan on one of the ad banners or face of a stranger that was passing by is what constitutes short-term memory. In general, these kinds of memories remain approximately 30 seconds. However, it is hardly possible to remember such events experienced ten years before. According to a seminal paper by George Miler from Princeton University, which is one of the most cited psychology papers of all time, we can hold in working/short-term memory seven plus or minus two items at once. While Nelson Cohen from the University of Missouri states in his paper in 2001 that the number of items can be just four. Let me restate the fact that these items remain just for about 30 seconds. Quite cleverly and logically, “unnecessary” memories are pushed out of the brain in order to create a space for new short-time memories.

In case of children, there is a need to mention the term “childhood amnesia”. This phenomenon was first coined by psychologist Caroline Miles in her research in 1893. Childhood amnesia or infantile amnesia is even more than “pushing out” of short-term memories. Because of being underdeveloped before the age of three, the child’s brain is not able to store, memorize or forget information. It is simply unknown what is important to be memorized, as everything is new, exciting and undiscovered. (Miles 1893) The number of short-term memories for children is infinite. They are coming and going. Since there is no long-term memory on this level, it is quite uncertain how children actually manage to acquire any existing language as well as memorize any other piece of information with the help of only short-term memory and yet, they do.

The final point in the process is long-term memory, which is absent in case of children. It is a system that can hold memories definitely much longer than 30 seconds. Sometimes, it can hold memories for many years or even until the very death. (Shaw 2016) Due to long-term memory, it is possible to remember such events as the first attempts to ride a bike, the first kiss or the fears from childhood (later than 3-5 years old), even if it was long time before, which are the constituents of long-term memory.

Moreover, just with the help of long-term memory, we (adults) are able to have an idea of ourselves as well as of the world around us. However, the biggest point of significance of long-term memory is that it enables us to learn. The learning process is based on memorizing a lot of rules, structures, vocabulary, etc. which is simply impossible without long-term memory.
However, shifting towards children, the common truth about learning and memorizing process seems to be questionable. Being unable to learn and memorize as adults do, with the help of acquiring information from sensory memory and transforming it into long-term memory, children use something completely different. Previously, I have mentioned the term “interaction” that has a crucial meaning in the development of a child. Exactly this phenomenon does a trick of children learning languages faster and easier than adults do. (Birner 2012)

If one looks at children and their reaction to unusual situation with unfamiliar objects, or even to familiar ones but in an unusual situation, the most probable response is staring. Because of such reaction, it used to be thought that children knew a lot more than they actually do. In the 1980s, researchers conducted experiments in which children were shown events that defied the laws of physics. The children stared paying all their attention to the process as if there was something they knew about. However, it turns out that this was not because they understood physics. The fact of being encoded meant only one thing – children learn something new continuously and the way they do this proves that children are indeed professionals in learning.

There are dozens of ways which children use for active learning that sometimes may not even considered educational. Among them are watching and observing things that are happening around, listening to conversations between family members, trying out new activities, often by copying from people around and practicing them. All of these are the constituents of interaction – the crucial process not only for the development of children but also for their education and acquisition of information. However, the most significant point for consideration here is the basis of all the ways mentioned above, which is the sensory system.

The psychologists James and Eleanor Gibson stated that "the stimulus input contains within it everything that the percept has. . . . Perhaps all knowledge comes through the senses" (Gibson 1955). This explains, in a nutshell, the great process of children’s learning. As defined earlier, children are not able to learn and memorize with the help of long-term memory. Nevertheless, they have much more developed receptivity since they do, learn and memorize everything just on the level of feelings and sensations. The ironic truth is that this way of learning and memorizing is far more effective.

As soon as babies are born, they are ready and willing to start learning and all of their five senses are active. Babies may be unable to communicate verbally with other people until they are older but they can still learn effectively about the world around them through their five senses and this bears a huge importance. One of the most significant ways in which they learn is through touching. It is common to see children with their palms open as if they were listening or watching with their hands, exploring the world around. Moreover, they have a habit of touching every possible thing and this, indeed, plays a vital role in their learning ability and helps them to get to know objects, people, their homes and the environment in which they live. Touching helps to make sense of their world, look at things and see how they differ. Later, children try to explain what they feel with the help of their own language which is just a combination of sounds at this stage. This process is the most important one in their development, sensibility and knowledge about the world they live in.

This way of interaction with surrounding world results in children's ability to express themselves that develops into speaking and acquisition of language. However, in order to understand the influence of interaction on children's ability to learn and acquire language there is, I believe, a need to look briefly at the stages of language acquisition and some developmental milestones of children.

According to "First Language Acquisition" by Eve V. Clark, as children learn to talk, they go through series of stages. Correspondingly to learning how to walk, the process of language acquisition is divided into small steps. Language development begins from the very first day after birth. However, research indicates that babies listen to their mother's voice during the last few months of pregnancy (Moon 2013). Therefore, we can state that the process of language acquisition starts even before birth.

After coming to the world, a child goes through the first stage – prelinguistic period (birth – 10 months). This is the period when a child makes sense of their own feelings and tries to explain them to others. Therefore, it is characteristic for a child to cry at the age of one month, which is the way to convey a message of being hungry, angry or feeling pain. Later, a child starts cooing, which is a universal manner of response to pleasure. Then the babbling stage comes which results in child's development of intonation patterns.

The second period in child's language acquisition is the holophrastic period or single word phrase stage (12-18 months). It is the period when a child tends to express their wishes/thoughts/ideas combining everything into one word. Moreover, during this stage, a child can already name objects, places and persons with their vocabulary, which consists of approximately 30 words. However, already at this stage, some words such as "no" become meaningful and the pronunciation of a child starts to improve as they continuously interact with people around.

The last period of language acquisition that happens without long-term memory is the telegraphic period or 2-word phrase stage (2 – 3 years) – the moment when a child uses minimum words to convey the meaning of a whole sentence. Furthermore, from this stage child starts to acquire semantic relations, using them in two words phrases. For instance, papa sit (Agent + Action), go home (Action + Location), etc. The stage of combining words and gestures is crucial in learning and one adults often try to use while learning. It is not accidentally said that language is like people – likes to socialize and likes pairs. The point is that it is much more effective and easier at once to memorize combinations and related words together. If one thinks about memorizing process in case of children, it is obvious that they do not memorize rules of usage of words, they simply do not know them and indeed, at this stage, they do not need them. Children simply learn them from "context" of speech of other people and it commits to memory more naturally and effectively. The following stage is the production of more complex and adultlike utterances, as children become active participants in conversation.

The last but not least source of influence on children's language acquisition and learning process during interaction is quite obviously their surroundings, which are usually family members. Even subconsciously, parents and relatives or simply people who are in constant contact with the child educate them. Although it may seem as if the influence is not that great, the truth is that during their first years of life, a child is like a sponge, which is absorbing absolutely everything that they hears, sees or feels. Susan H. Landry said, "The child-parent relationship has a major influence on most aspects of child development. When optimal, parenting skills and behaviours have a positive impact on children's self-esteem, achievements, cognitive development and behaviour". Since the people around are the only sources of information, they play, if not the most important role, then a very crucial one. It is them who build their children's abilities and characters, as well as limits and bad features. Therefore, it is vital to be aware of the impact one has on a child.

Based on the facts mentioned above, it is quite noticeable that none of them has any reference to long-term memory, which supports the statement of the research that it is not the long term memory which is the basis for learning and memorizing in case of children. The whole process of learning, to some extent memorizing and language acquisition, in case of children, happening with the help of interaction with their surroundings, based on senses. Indeed, the term “memorizing” can be substituted for the term “experience” in case of children since they do not memorize but explore, interact, feel, experience, "taste" the world around and make sense out of it this way. Language acquisition for them is a natural, effortless game rather than a learning process and this is probably the secret of their effectiveness.
Cite This Article As: Valeriia Tsytsyk. "A logically impossible process of learning." International Youth Journal, 14. July 2018.

Link To Article: https://youth-journal.org/a-logically-impossible-process-of-learning





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