By Mayra Yaranga
The role of memory in foreign language learning has always been acknowledged. Hardly anyone would argue that there are elements of language which need some rote learning, However, does memorization guarantee effective learning?
Those of us who grew up in our traditional education are probably familiar with the idea that certain items have to be learnt by heart. This is the case, for example, of lexical set phrases (“Nice to meet you”, “What do you think about…?”) which enable communication and yet require no explanation at the level when they are taught. Another area in which memorization is crucial is grammar; it is hard to ignore how students strive to learn irregular past tenses, the order of adjectives, the correct prepositions, among others, by means of old-fashioned rote. And there is little to support another way of internalizing this type of content: explanations matter little, if at all, and so these bits may, we hope, remain in the learners’ repertoire in the long term. Do they?
At this point, I would argue that not enough is being done to ensure real learning beyond mechanical, detached repetition. Testing the students on verb tenses or words helps little in this respect. In order to ensure that the memorized bits of language are effectively retrieved later and truly help communication, it is absolutely essential to provide learners with the opportunity to turn this input into something meaningful. Here, we may have to push the boundaries set by our educational system and consider carefully how to go further.
Let me provide an example: if students are to learn the irregular past tenses, they also need to know the kind of nouns they collocate with and need to see them in a relevant context. If all of this information is provided, students should be more likely to produce – can we argue that fostering production is a less effective way of guaranteeing learning than memorizing? Another very similar situation occurs when students are being trained to take international tests. They may have thousands of learnt expressions to ‘interact naturally’ during a speaking test. However, factors such as social meaning, register, communicative function or paralinguistic devices are meant to play an important role as well. There is nothing more unnatural than to use expressions for agreement without any accompanying non-verbal language, for instance. Are we working on those elements too?
To some extent, it is true that sometimes teachers and students may forget they are not teaching/learning the language as a system, but as a means to enable communication in said language. Blaming robotic memorization for unreal communication would certainly not solve the mistakes memorizing may bring but working on further real interaction and a realistic use of language could, I am sure, prevent learners from deriving a false sense of achievement from parrot-fashioned learning.
It’s your turn
What do YOU think?
Does memorization guarantee effective learning?
Mayra Yaranga (1985) has completed Doctorate studies in Education at UNIFÉ; Master’s Degree in Media, Culture and Identity from Roehampton University (London) revalidated by PUCP, a Bachelor’s Degree in Education - UPCH and the Professional Title of Licenciada - IPNM. Currently she is Cambridge Oral Examiner and Member of the Research Area for Universidad del Pacífico Language Centre. She is also ESP coordinator and Pre-University Centre Director at UNIFÉ.