Thoughts on a Controversial Learning Technique: The Art of Copying

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Last weekend, I went to my first ever grade school reunion at Carlthorp School in Santa Monica, California. It was a blast.</p>
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<img alt="My Fifth-Grade Elementary School Class, 1976, with Me on Upper Left" src="/assets/images/uploads/Carlthorp_Elementary_Fifth_Grade_Class.png" style="width: 720px; height: 538px; " /></p>
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My Fifth-Grade Elementary School Class, 1976, with Me on Upper Left</p>
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Being there got me thinking again about the role that repetition and drilling and copying played in my early life. As I have mentioned, my grade school was very ritual-filled: copying of multiplication tables, copying of spelling lists, and so on. This wasn't agreeable to every kid in my class, but it was highly agreeable to me.</p>
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I believe spelling lists were, at least up until a certain grade, daily events. Three columns per page, three repetitions per word. I treated those spelling sheets as an art form, measuring my columns, considering carefully how hard or light I should write with that yellow #2 Ticonderoga pencil, whether my letters should be skinny or fat, delicate or assertive, struggling never to make a mistake that would require messy erasures.</p>
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A word was never just a word, and copying was never just&nbsp;copying.&nbsp;For me, copying was a dynamic process through which words and I became one.&nbsp;</p>
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Today, with language-learning, copying remains a central part of my process. Mindless repetition: totally useless. That isn't what I do, though. My brain is switched on so that the sight of the word is meaningful, the movement of my hand copying it over is meaningful, and I am sometimes saying whatever I am copying out loud, too, to bring together sight and sound.</p>
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When I see a list of new vocabulary in a foreign-language book, I immediately get happy and start copying, skipping the words and phrases I already know and also skipping ones I know I have no chance of remembering at the moment. The ones in the middle range, though, the ones&nbsp;that look easy to learn or&nbsp;that I already&nbsp;<em>sort of</em>&nbsp;know or&nbsp;that resemble something I already know in another language--those are prime copying candidates.</p>
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When full sentences are given in both English and the target language, I often try to translate the English on my own first, without looking at the foreign-language equivalent. If I am wrong, I then copy the correct translation.</p>
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I do all this constantly. Every language book I have is marked top to bottom with my copyings and my notes.</p>
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Before sending me review copies recently, a publisher e-mailed me and asked me not to sell the books back into the marketplace. "Selling used books has a direct result in the high prices of print books and textbooks," he wrote.&nbsp;I had never been cautioned against this type of thing before, and I was confused.</p>
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Aside from the fact that I regard selling free review copies as completely unethical, could anyone&nbsp;<em>use</em> a language book without marking the hell out of it? I cannot grasp the concept of e-books for language-learning. If I can't attack each page with a pencil (always a pencil, and these days very specifically always a Pentel Twist-Erase 0.7!), my brain revolts and turns off.</p>
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Here is my poor <em>Collins Advanced French Grammar</em>, for example. Outside it is still pristine. Inside, every page of explanatory text is being ravaged.</p>
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<img alt="The Outside of My French Grammar: Still Pristine" src="/assets/images/uploads/Collins_Advanced_French_Grammar.JPG" style="width: 720px; height: 538px; " /></p>
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The Outside of My French Grammar: Still Pristine</p>
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<img alt="But the Inside Is Getting Messier and Messier" src="/assets/images/uploads/Collins_Advanced_French_Grammar_with_Copying.jpg" style="width: 720px; height: 538px; " /></p>
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But the Inside Is Getting Messier and Messier</p>
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By the way, I am writing these words as I dry out from the rain.&nbsp;Tonight I took Pimsleur Portuguese lessons on a run and got stuck in a violent thunderstorm. As I was leaving the mud of Central Park to run home, I could barely hear myself against the thunderclaps and traffic and the rain so heavy it felt like hail on my skin.</p>
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At Amsterdam, a traffic light inconveniently changed against me, and I had to wait for it to change back before continuing. In a moment of clarity I saw myself as I was: pressed up against the side of a bank to minimize contact with the lashing rain, dripping rivulets, squishing in my running shoes, practically screaming in response to a Pimsleur cue, up into the thundering heavens, "Não me diga!" ("You don't say!")</p>

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