How to approach memorization in language learning

As JCMU English Language Instructor Chris Garth showed in his last blog, memorization can be an effective language-learning method when used correctly. However, memorization alone isn’t enough! Below, Chris discusses different methods and techniques for making language learning more doable and even fun!

Speech Tips

In my last post, I covered why memorization may not be the worst thing in the world. It’s true that it’s the rare person who finds joy in sitting down to memorize a speech or a piece of text. Even as a teacher, I find myself as more of an improviser who makes use of momentary inspiration, so planning out exactly what I am going to say to the level of actually writing down part of a lecture word-by-word sounds excruciating. If you’re the same as me, being challenged with a memorized speech as a language student sounds equally difficult.

There are, however, ways to maximize your chances for success and make things considerably less painful:


Step 1: Defeat in detail

To confront a large and powerful enemy head on brings with it the possibility of failure, even to a force of equal size. This is a perfect analogy for you and your ability to memorize your speaking presentation. You studied all semester and have the linguistic competence to say and understand all of the things that you’ve written in your speech. You are equal to the task language-wise.

That said, you’ve now taken a step outside of the realm of the language you are learning. It’s at this time that you’re going to have to rely on learning strategies in general, not the language that you’re studying in particular. An easy technique is to break things down into smaller pieces. How small? Well, that is what will help set us up for employing other memorization strategies.

Breaking up your text into larger pieces of about 4-8 sentences, by paragraph or topic, will help you in a couple of ways. It’s probably a good idea to devote a single day to the learning of one large piece. That large piece can be practiced regularly throughout the day without having to dedicate a significant amount of time or focus. A walk up the stairs, a trip to the bathroom, or waiting in line at the grocery store are all possible opportunities for you to practice that large chunk at least once. Getting in quick, simple practice sessions will cause you a lot less stress than sitting down in a quiet room and thinking only about memorizing. They also help you in the long run by making this whole speech thing a routine part of your life; when you get up to recite it in front of your classmates and teacher, it won’t be such a scary ordeal.

Separating a piece of text into sentences, on the other hand, helps you to concentrate on grammar or specific pronunciation issues. When you are reading over an individual sentence, any problems that you are having with can be dealt with using the drill-type strategies below.


Step 2: Take a step forward and then backward

An obvious thing to do when you are memorizing a single sentence is to read it, then try to read it again. For example, if you were learning English and wanted to say “I occasionally go to the library with my studious friends to educate myself,” you could break it into pieces from the beginning and try:

I occasionally go

I occasionally go to the library

I occasionally go to the library with my studious friends

I occasionally go to the library with my studious friends to educate myself.

Repeat in this manner as many times as necessary until you can say the whole sentence comfortably and with a decent amount of fluency. You can, of course, do this with Japanese or whatever other language that you are studying. The Audio-lingual Method (a language teaching method) uses backwards build-up drills to focus on good pronunciation and accuracy; this is especially helpful because in many languages the ends of words are what hold much of the grammatical meaning. Doing a backwards build-up drill would look like this:



cate myself

educate myself

to educate myself

If there is a sentence that just gets you every time while you are practicing, it might be a good chance to use this approach.

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Step 3: Mix your media

As a language instructor, engaging students in the four main language skills (reading, writing, listening, and speaking) during class is great for keeping things interesting for various types of learners. The same should be true in your personal study time. Even if your teacher didn’t intend for one of the skills to be a component of a certain homework assignment, there’s no reason not to use it if it will help you.

One of my teaching idols (a former colleague and all-around intelligent and creative person) came up with the idea to have students summarize what they had read for homework by drawing pictures and graphs, and then retelling their summaries to their classmates by only using those images. Applying this to our current problem, I encourage you to illustrate those large pieces of your speech that you divided up in Step 1, then use those as prompts for when you practice. This will prevent you from taking a sneak peek at other parts of your speech if you have to check for what comes next. Using images to remind you of the overall roadmap of your speech is a good technique for remembering what comes next and might save you on presentation day.

In addition to visual representation, musical and rhythmic additions can help you remember sentence-sized pieces of your speech. In my opinion, “less is more” might be more effective. If there seems to be one difficult-to-retain sentence, put it to a melody. An infectious rhythm and tune might be just what is necessary to make it stick. When I teach young children, I have seen them pick up a long and complicated song much, much faster than if I had tried to get them to learn purely by rote.

The final way I’ll discuss here combines listening and writing. Take a few minutes and record yourself, on a phone or computer, reading your speech from the paper. Next, put your speech away and take out a pencil and new piece of paper. Play your speech back one sentence and at a time, and write down what you had previously recorded. You’ll be surprised at what this switching back and forth, using different language skills, will do for you.


Step 4: Work in teams

Language, at its heart, is a tool for communication between people. It’s that interaction and connection between yourself and others that really makes the deep impressions on you that you’ll remember for a long time. Viewing memorization from this angle will also make the process more enjoyable and fruitful.

Taking the final idea from Step 3, an easy way to work on your speech as a team is to get a classmate, a native-speaking friend, a senpai, or a teacher to record your speech for you. This lets you get the benefit of having a recording with better pronunciation and natural speech than your own to work off of. You could also work with that person in real time, having them read parts of the speech and stopping at points to let you continue on with the next sentence or section. It would also be helpful to have a personal cheerleader there with you as you try to do this inherently boring activity.

Speech Tips (2).jpg


There are certainly other ways to approach speech memorization, but I think that these are definitely a good start if your close to the end of the semester OR getting closer to that all-important business presentation if you’ve already graduated. Good luck!

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