The brain learns in two different ways. One, called declarative learning, involves the medial temporal lobe and deals with learning active facts that can be recalled and used with great flexibility. The second, involving the striatum, is called habit learning. There is convincing scientific evidence that highly automatized language skills are processed at this level.
Overlearning leads to automatization. Repetitio est mater studiorum etc.
Breaking news! Multitasking hinders learning!
The gist of it is that when someone is distracted, habit learning takes over from declarative learning. One learns better particular habitual tasks while declarative learning suffers.
The Zeigarnik effect
Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik discovered the phenomenon after noticing that waiters remembered seemingly endless orders only so long as the order was in the process of being served. They immediately forgot what they had served. The Zeigarnik effect states that people remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks considerably better than completed ones. Adults may remember things even 90% better. Ms Zeigarnik thought that an incomplete task or unfinished business creates a sort of a “psychic tension” which acts as a motivator and drives us toward completing the task.
According to some information obtained "online" since the original study, researchers trying to reproduce the said effect have had varied results. New experiments have not determined the characteristics of tasks (tasks to be performed vs tasks to be recalled verbally, length of task) which best reproduce this effect.
Keith thinks that using a dictionary is not beneficial because of the Zeigarnik effect.
My (easily swayed) opinion is that using the dictionary IS actually the operation that interrupts a very important task (READING, remembering the sentence). While you might not remember the pesky word, you’ll remember the sentence.
Indian scientists Dutta & Kanungo reinterpreted the Zeigarnik effect:
The intensity of emotion (positive or negative) caused by the completed or the interrupted task is the critical factor in memorization. An activity that provokes a strong emotion is remembered better than a (boring) ordinary everyday activity. They called this phenomenon the emotionality effect.
Some characteristics of short-term memory:
• Short-term memory can hold 5-9 chunks of information.
• Better recall of items at the beginning of the list.
• Most recent items are remembered better than others.
Short-term auditory memory
Preference for spoken terms
Most recent items are remembered better than others.
Long-term auditory memory
Language “probably” stored in terms of its meaning rather than sound.
familiar person: good
Now, how would a scientifically-minded person go about language learning? They'd learn English - the hard way and spend the rest of their lives stating the obvious? :)
I suppose the answer is that the brain is too complex and both declarative and habit-learning portions are involved in the process.
Language learners could be compared to ants trying to move a mountain of sugar from one place to another. We cannot grasp it or contemplate it in full but simply toil away. As long as we're lugging sugar...