Memorization: something to keep in mind

On a discussion board for a prominent language-related association, the following came out of a discussion on homework and memorization in foreign language teaching practice.

 …some form memorization is vital to learning anything really; it is one of the  building block of knowledge construction.

Anything…except languages. Well, yes, memorization is vital to *learning* languages. Fortunately, it is not vital to *acquiring* languages. It is involved in some aspects of language, like spelling. There are literally thousands of languages without a written form, and their speakers communicate perfectly well about all kinds of things. Writing is literacy, and it’s a relatively late add-on in the language game. So please disregard thoughts of pure literacy (“They can’t just acquire where the accent marks go in Spanish!”) when thinking of the following. (Ahem…neither can most native speakers of Spanish…yet they are fluent…but I digress.)

As part of my own language learning, I used to memorize song lyrics. One of the songs I memorize had a line…and almost instinctively, I [recited that line] from the lyrics of the song I had memorized. Memorization has its place.

This is the ACTFL Novice Level Fallacy. “Communicate through memorized phrases!” But logically, unless a memorized phrase is general enough (“Hello!” “Thank you!” “I’m so sorry for your loss”) that it will be applicable in more than one, very particular situation, or is used in a situation that is likely to come up more than once for novices in “authentic communication”, it really won’t be useful at all. I can still recite for you (in a very good accent, as many people tell me to this day) Russian dialogues from my college years, but unless Nina is going to the Post Office, it won’t serve me very well. I can say “Hello” in Russian so convincingly you’d think I was from Moscow, but when you respond, I’m finished. The dark side of memorized phrases for “communication” is that yes, one can potentially communicate an idea by parroting a phrase. But what do you do when the person actually answers you in the target language? Write a song?

(We also see here the Language Teacher Corollary: people who become language teachers were motivated to learn foreign languages, and typically do things to that end that “normal” kids would not.)

Likewise, I could not imagine being in a chemistry class, performing an experiment without having memorized the chemical properties and their potential reactions. This would be dire.

Sorry, but this is not even a good analogy. It doesn’t require knowledge of the chemical properties to perform an experiment (which really just involves following steps). You could argue that you need to know (knowledge) how to measure correctly, how to pour safely, and things like that, to do the experiment. But trust me — I’ve done many a chemistry experiment without really understanding why or how I was doing it. I don’t need to know the electron valence of a certain compound to pour it into a beaker and watch it turn green. I still don’t know the specifics of chemistry — only the general principles. Kind of like I “acquired” the principles of chemistry but didn’t “learn” the details, before or since. I know not to put bleach and ammonia into the toilet bowl at the same time, but I can’t explain, in theoretical chemical terms, why that’s a bad idea (“there’ll be a choking cloud of poison gas” does not quality as “theoretical chemistry” here). I’m that Spanish native speaker who can use the language, but can’t figure out where the accent marks go.

When I look at Bloom’s taxonomy, the lower tiers of the pyramid suggest activities that require memorization such as recall, spell, show, and tell to name a few. Students need these skills in order to elaborate, discuss, create, invent, etc.

Yes, it does. And Bloom’s taxonomy is not designed to describe the use of language. It’s aimed at knowledge — facts. You have to know that event A happened before event B before you can speculate that A might have caused B. But you do not have to know that ‘tener’ is a stem-changing -er verb with irregular preterite forms to acquire those forms in Spanish.

I think the problem arises when educators live solely at the base of the pyramid and student aren’t engaged in building “scaling” skills to get them to the next level.

This is the heart of the problem. Language IS the scaling skill. It’s a tool, not an end to itself. Language is the rope that lets you climb the rock face of conversation. Language is all those ladders that the Sherpas set over the Khumbu Icefall and the fixed lines they put up each year so the sorry Westerners can drag themselves across and “climb the mountain”.

When language becomes an end to itself, that’s something we call Linguistics. Linguistics is fascinating. I spent many hours in college (as a double major in Linguistics) doing phonological analyses of vocabulary lists from languages I’d never heard of. I could tell you how the morphology of nouns in other exotic languages worked, based on my analysis of a sample of those languages. It was cool.

But could I speak any of those languages? No. Because I was just measuring to see how many strands in those particular climbing ropes, how many carabiners were on them, and where the ladders were. It gave me a great deal of information about what kind of climbing gear was used in those particular languages, but helped me not a bit to become proficient in them.

Acquisition is the guide in the brain. Acquisition is the unconscious mastery of how a language works, plus the unconscious ability to correctly retrieve vocabulary items and put them in the right or change them in the right way to express meaning. You can’t do that with learning, because learning is conscious.

This is the issue with project-based language instruction. PBL is great. But language is the tool — the primary tool. A basic, foundational-level tool. If you expect a person to forge a hammer, but don’t provide him with a hammer to bang on the steel he’s forging the hammer out of, he won’t get far.

If you will spend a couple of years providing comprehensible input in the target language, and THEN do project-based or task-based learning, the students will be able to use the language to expand their language. The language they have after a couple of years of CI is similar to that of a native speaker — a very socially isolated native speaker (because they won’t have a broad vocabulary yet) but one who has surprising grammatical accuracy, because the grammar has bene acquired, not memorized.

So, use no method before its time. Students can gain language through PBL and task-based learning. They just can’t do that with no foundation to build on, as is the case when these methods are pushed before their time.


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