Why memorize? How to get the most out of an activity reviled by students

JCMU English Language instructor, Chris Garth, refers to his own language learning experience while talking about the use of memorization.

I came across a student in the halls of JCMU yesterday with a stack of papers and a slightly concerned look on her face. We chatted a bit and it turns out that the reason she was worried was due to preparation for her end-of-semester language presentation. The difficult part in getting ready for this presentation was in dealing with something that draws the ire of American students and teachers alike: memorization.

Looking back on my own childhood educational experiences growing up in Michigan, I can only recall a few times that I was actually asked to memorize and then present that information in its entirety. Of course, there were spelling tests, but memorization of speeches or anything else was something that was looked down upon. Creativity was king! I did do a memorized speech dressed as General George Custer in third grade (which for many reasons would not fly nowadays, not the least of which was that I brought a very realistic toy gun to use as a prop), but outside of that, no other similar assignments come to mind.

In St. Petersburg, Russia, 1994

In my life as a teacher I often hear others bemoan any use of “rote memorization” in classes. To be honest, for many teachers the phrase “rote memorization” is short hand for lazy or old-fashioned teaching. However, I think that it’s important to differentiate between a type of learning activity and an entire teaching method. Day after day, class after class of memorizing lists of vocabulary words is, generally, not a great way to approach language learning or language teaching. That said, variety is the spice of life (and learning), and to my mind a nice balance of different language learning strategies is necessary to truly make progress.

From that point of view, a healthy dose of memorization, especially of pieces of language longer than one sentence or utterance, might be a great way to change up your routine. To belabor the spice analogy just a bit more, memorization is like the salt of language-learning flavors; it’s not flashy and fun like cardamom or saffron, but it’s a necessity. Memorization helps us remember nice chunks of language that can serve as helpful grammar reminders at a later date. In my case, as a Russian learner in college I had to memorize Pushkin’s classic poem, Я вас любил (I loved you). I can still remember most of it to this day and it has served as a kind of grammar touchstone when I have needed it.

The man himself, Alexander Pushkin

To give you a bit of background, the Russian language has a complex system of declension of non-verbs based on three genders, singular/plural, and six different grammatical cases (nominative, accusative, prepositional, genitive, dative, and instrumental). It also occasionally differentiates declension on whether something is animate or inanimate. In addition, there is also a fairly complicated conjugation scheme for verbs, taking into account six different subject pronouns and also pairings of verb by imperfective and perfective aspect. So how does one even begin to tackle such a confusing and initially overwhelming system?

Memorizing Pushkin’s poetry gave me insights into Russian grammar without putting me through the agonizingly boring, and likely fruitless, process of trying to force grammar tables in my head. Lines like “ В душе моей угасла не совсем” (“In my soul, it [love] isn’t completely extinguished”) helped me remember a preposition for prepositional case:”В” which means, “in”, the correct feminine declension for adjectives and nouns for prepositional case because of the е-ending on “душе” (soul) and the, ей-ending on “моей“. I could also easily remember the instrumental ending for the word, “completely” (всем). In this way, from this one and the other seven lines of poetry, I was able to pull out and attach real meaning to what otherwise would have been entries on a chart bereft of any substantive importance to me. Instead, I had a beautiful poem that, though coerced into memorizing it by a professor, served as a useful grammar reference for years to come.

Keeping an open mind about the purpose of memorization, and also being smart about how you use it, can make all the difference in the world. Next time, we’ll talk more about how to memorize.

2 thoughts

  1. I never thought of memorization as a way to learn grammar. I love it! I can’t wait to read the next one on how to do it.

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