I didn’t memorize SHIT.

I’m being  vulgar to catch your attention.

Oh, I have had to memorize things in my life.  In high school chemistry I memorized the periodic table, and in the fraternity I memorized the Greek alphabet, the UW Greek system map, the fraternity’s creed, and some historical facts about the fraternity.

But in language class I didn’t memorize SHIT.

Sure, we learned words, and there were vocabulary lists at the end of each chapter for review.  But they were at the end of the chapter because during the chapter we interacted with those words in context.  We didn’t just read them; we spoke them aloud in class, we wrote them in questionaires pertaining to ourselves, we read them and then gave our own opinions about the text.   And when we turned to the last page of the chapter, we saw the list and said, oh there they all are.  Do I know them?  Yes.

This was Spanish, French, and Italian.  There was grammar to learn, and we learned it communicatively; we learned the grammar by practicing it immediately in real communication.

And it bears repeating, I didn’t memorize SHIT.  There were no flashcards, no studying or quizzing myself with lists.  The homework was grammar practice, and when I didn’t know a word I looked it up, and it was annoying enough have to look up a word more than once, so more often than not, you either sit there and let the word come back to you, or SKIP IT and see if you can finish without knowing the word.

When we didn’t understand something, we grammared and/or cognated our way through it, until we got it down.  Lexemes, individual words, were LAST.

In fact, the other day I was looking at the word “la refaccionería,” which is a word I had never seen before in my life.  Never.  Ever.  But I knew it meant “refinery” because the Latin gives you “a place where something is redone/reprocessed” and the word that follwed it was “diesel.”  So duh, it means “refinery.”

And that’s pretty much how I aquired most of my vocabulary in Spanish, French, and Itailan:  context and cognates.

That’s how I did my first summer intensive of Chinese as well; the prof as trained in communicative method, and although the sounds and structures were exotic and challenging, the words came easily enough with practice.

And then I went to China and it all fell apart.

The typical first lesson in Chinese in China is when they give you a list of 40 fruits, and tell you to memorize it.  (Don’t laugh, the Tagalog profs did this to us too).  Sorry, teachers of China, giving someone a list of 40 items and telling them to memorize it, and there’s a quiz at the end of the week, that is NOT a teaching method.  I don’t EAT 40 fruits.  The only thing a list of 40 fruits is going to prepare me for is your stupid 40 fruit test at the end of the week.

So I know people are crying FOUL at me for a lot of reasons right now, but seriously, a task based communicative teacher wouldn’t give a quiz at the end of the week.  Instead, there would be group presentations on fruit salads.  Because it’s fun?  NO.  Because a) group work b) target culture interaction buying the fruit c) 5 frakking senses d) oral presentation = an actual use of language, and e) YES, fruit salads are inherently more fun than quizzes.  Drawbacks?  The teacher would have to be trained in rubrics, and alas, the students would not learn all 40 fruits, ONLY THE ONES THAT MATTER TO THEM.

How do they learn the rest of the 40?  Make it matter to them, duh.

By the way, will the student who learns only 20 fruits instead of 40 be handicapped in life?  Seriously, what is the critical cut-off for fruit knowledge?

Anyway, I call bullshit on memorizing vocabulary lists.  Don’t even get me started on flashcards.  IT. IS. NOT. METHOD. “Go memorize this” is NON-method.

Which brings me to my point:  I am baffled and amazed by people who learn Chinese well.  They’ll say it’s because they memorized it; I’ll say that they learned it through communication, despite the memorization, and the general public will believe them, not me.  Whatever.

Anyway, this is why I’m mostly silent on discussions about memorization, repetition; this is why I don’t get all tingly when someone metions spaced repetition.  I never bought into the whole lexical approach, which seems to work in Chinese but in Spanish and other Romance languages is ONLY seems to be good for listening and reading comprehension.

(The lexical approach, from what I an deduce, is basically you learn a bunch of words, and eventually you’ll get it.  It seems sound at first glance, but notice it’s exactly the OPPOSITE of the approach I described above, where I said grammar/context/cognates first, words LAST.  And, to be fair, Mandarin and English are not cognate languages, and the grammar in Mandarin means word order and structures.  So the lexical approach seems to be suitable to learning Chinese.  However, it’s called a lexical *approach;* it’s not actually a method).

Spiders were born with an instinct for spinning webs; humans were born with an instinct for acquiring language from meaningful communication.  Seriously, where is the meaningful communication in “go memorize this?” Where is the meaningful communication in “quiz on friday?”  We have a huge capacity for acquiring a system natively, which is our birthright AS A SPECIES, but we spend time and money on flashcards, Pimsleur, and Rosetta Stone?   Where is the METHOD?

A few months ago, my friend who speaks Mandarin at a superior level, and learned to do so as an adult in Taiwan, decided to learn Spanish to prepare for his trip to Central America.  He was listening to my podcasts, working through a book, and yes, his primary means of review were flashcards he made himself.  I was like, oh man, you’re killing me, but he looked at me with hostility and said, “everybody learns differently, JP.”

Oh really?  Because I have an advanced degree in Foreign Language Pedagogy and 12 years teaching experience….

No, I didn’t say that out loud.  He used flashcards when learning Chinese, and I’m sure they gave him great comfort in studying Spanish, and really, no one believes me when I tell them that there are more effective ways of learning vocabulary than flashcards anyway.  No one wants to hear it.  I just want to study flashcards… alone.  As if language is spoken alone.

I said, look, when you’re in Central America and taking classes, you will acquire those words faster than you can manage flashcards.  He misheard me and thought I meant that he would be given more words to memorize than he can manage, and I clarified, no, you will know and own those words faster than you can physically write out flashcards.  1) it’s a cognate language, 2) it’s multisyllabic, i.e., relatively easy to distinguish 3) it’s written in a phonemic alphabet that you already know, 4) the phonology is relatively simple and for the most part familiar.  Actually there are more than just 4 reasons, but by now you get the point.

So how’s my friend doing with his Spanish?  I don’t know yet, he’s still in Central America.  But I’ll bet money he quit using flashcards.

That’s a sucker’s bet actually; my fellow SpanishPod teammates were all polyglots and flashcard advocates.  You could tell they were advocates because there were flashcards sitting on our desk, untouched, and they all felt guilty about not drilling themselves with them every day.  I, on the other hand, don’t give a rat’s ass for flashcards, as you all know.

But back to my original point:  I aquired a degree of fluency in three other languages as an adult and I didn’t memorize SHIT.  I studied it in context, yes, I looked it up when I couldn’t deduce if from context or cognate, but there was zero drilling, zero self quizzing, zero memorizing.  And zero flashcards, in any form.

18 thoughts on “I didn’t memorize SHIT.

  1. Errrrr … and what exactly was the point of this posting? I’m afraid I missed it. Maybe I have to read between the lines here: You complain that you have to write a list of 40 fruits because the “method” of “INNOVATIVE Language Learning” consists of memorizing words? Wild guesses…


  2. Haha, no, Martinillo, this was a general rant about the state of Mandarin instruction in China, and it’s an aside to a discussion my former colleagues keep having about memorization, spaced repetition, and flashcards.

    I’m not really saying anything in this post about my new or old companies. 🙂


    • That’s good to hear! 🙂 I just read the e-mail about the recommendation of Innovative Language to use eduFire. That appears to be a good idea, although the internet connection I’m using these days is far too slow for audio or video chats; thus, I cannot really try it.
      Following your advice about the importance of conversation for language learning I started to look for chats in Spanish. I’m not sure that “real-life” channels such as “#irc-hispano” are very efficient for language learning (apart from learning things like “q” = “que”, “x” = “por”, etc.). I liked the Spanish chat of http://www.babbel.com but again my current internect connection is too slow for the whole babbel web site. Anyway, maybe it would be a good idea to have some kind of public chat feature on the SpanishPod101 web site. If employees of Innovative Language also show up from time to time, that would be really cool.


  3. As a high school language teacher, I agree with you for the most part: making students memorize a list of vocabulary (or in my case Hanzi) completely out of context is not teaching language. It’s probably not even teaching. We should be spending as much time as humanly possible getting kids to talk (and listen) in real time if we expect any degree of fluency after four years of hard work.

    However, surely there’s no harm in Pimsleur-type methods (such as SpanishPod’s “Audio Review”) and intelligently designed interactive technology (reading text with popup
    annotations/audio tabs) when used outside of the classroom?

    I really enjoy reading your blog.


  4. Hi Nathan, thanks for your comment.

    I used Pimsleur when I started Mandarin to as a way to get tones; I did find that quite effective. I did not find it effective for vocabulary or structure. Pronunciation, especially Chinese pronunciation, seems to employ a different set of skills and strategies than vocab/grammar/structure learning.

    As far as SpanishPod’s Audio Review, I had a hard time endorsing that even as the product manager (if you search the boards, you’ll see that I’m largely silent on the matter). There were people who liked it (I’m sure they found it comforting). Actually on of the selling points they used on me for that was “It’s all automatically generated!” I’m not sure how that was supposed to effect the subscriber, but it seemed like that was worth a few high fives in the office.

    So no, Pimsleur and the Audio Review don’t hurt… but there are better ways of reviewing vocabulary.


    • I agree that people get overly excited about the idea that SRS/”fix” techniques are automatically generated (as if a computer is somehow doing all the work for you), and there is definitely a considerable part of the online-learning community that must be putting more time and effort into organizing and scheduling their use of such methods (and smugly printing out graphs and charts of their retention rates etc.) than actually speaking the target language, but when used correctly, I think Pimsleur forces spontaneous production, and that has to help when a student is actually speaking in the wild, right? You made a wonderful observation a few weeks ago (I think – maybe it was on the SPod boards) about how learning a foreign language involves a lot of training your mouth to do things it hasn’t done before. I think Pimsleur etc. can help students do this on their own outside of the classroom.

      What kind of homework/quizzes did you give when you were teaching high school?


  5. Thanks for the post!
    I can’t memorize much, and I haven’t had much immersion, so my studies in Cantonese and Mandarin (in Canada) went nowhere.
    But the first time I spent much time in China (even a few weeks) I had to learn basic survival phrases – I need a receipt; That’s too expensive; Can you make that without meat?; left turn here; etc.
    I took so many introductory language courses over the years, including Romance ones, but never had occasion to use them. I can puzzle through a menu in Spanish or Italian or French.
    I wish I had more time for immersion! It has to be the best way to learn, not memorizing 100 characters a week from flashcards.
    old brain Lisa


  6. hola jp,
    kamusta? I enjoy reading your blog.

    I actually enjoy flashcards but I think memorizing 40 fruits is lame. I don’t really have much opportunities to interact/ speak as much as I want to. I also enjoy the free online quizes on verbs and conjugations 🙂
    To expand my vocab, I subscribe to “word of the day” so I can learn new words everyday . They are cool because they include commonly used phrases, idioms and sample sentences.
    I do memorize phrases as chunks especially phrases from songs- sing along then figure out the grammar later 🙂

    Espero que todo este bien por tus rumbos !( I memorized this today!)


  7. “I am baffled and amazed by people who learn Chinese well. They’ll say it’s because they memorized it; I’ll say that they learned it through communication, despite the memorization, and the general public will believe them, not me. Whatever.” Well, maybe it’s because they did learn Chinese, and you didn’t. Sorry to be blunt.

    Anyway, nobody learns anything (anything!) doing only a single thing over and over. Or at least they don’t learn it well. You didn’t memorize things like Tim Ferriss only works 4 hours — by narrowly defining memorizing into something that you don’t do, and totally discounting all of memorization that happens when reading and interacting with the content. Of course anyone who learns Chinese to fluency did it through a variety of means — I certainly did. I’m a huge advocate of SRS, but it’s just a tool, and one of many in my toolbox.

    I’d still use SRS if I were studying Spanish (or French or Italian), but they’d almost certainly be less important, especially later on — like you say, cognates and alphabets solve a lot of the problems that Chinese brings to the table.


  8. Bocatas! 🙂

    The people that *did* learn Chinese had communicative contexts (i.e., girlfriends, wives, close friends… taiwanese people, etc.) The aspects of life where I did have communicative motivation, I learned like a champ.

    Yes, memorization fans, I’m calling bullshit on a CAUSATIVE relationship between memorization and language acquisition; the third factor is meaningful communication, and if you can eliminate that from the mix then I will stand on a box and say “I was wrong, everybody use flashcards.”

    Do I believe everyone learns differently? Yes. In fact I have the qualifications to teach a graduate course in the topic. I also believe that human beings have an instinct to acquire language, and that memorization does not feed that instinct.

    Memorization is a STUDY TECHNIQUE. You gotta pass a quiz or learn a writing system, yah, flashcard all you want. But studying language is different from acquiring language. That’s exactly why millions of people can study a language for decades and still not speak a lick.

    Everybody acquired their native language, no studying. Why memorize when you can acquire? What a waste of time, when you are born with an instinct that is sooooo much faster and more effective.

    And please, before any of you cart out the goddamn critical period hypothesis for language acqisition, please look it up on wikipedia first. Please.


  9. Hear hear! I’ve never made any significant use of flashcards, and while some of the techniques I used in studying Chinese (particularly hand-writing characters repetitively to get those suckers into muscle memory) were rote techniques, I learned damn near all of my vocabulary and grammar from seeing it in context. (I pretty much had to, given the sorry state of Chinese pedagogy.) It helps, I suppose, that I’ve got a rat-trap memory that seizes on things when I’m not paying attention, but the same memory didn’t do me any good when I was attempting Classical Greek, the main reason being that I was trying to cram, flashcard-style, and that shit just doesn’t work when you’re dealing with a synthetic language that you’ll never ever get to speak with anyone ever.

    I know some people, many of them extremely talented at learning languages, who absolutely swear by flashcards. Me, I just swear at them.


  10. Brendan, the people I know that swear by flashcards and have been successful at language learning also have in common that they had a rich target language environment; plenty of opportunities to speak and negotiate. Since meaningful communication is proven to be a causal factor in language acquisition, I’m absolutely baffled as to why people are so defensive about the flashcard correlation.

    btw, I love love love hand writing characters. I love that exercise. I know it doesn’t contribute to language acquisition, but I sure do love it.


  11. Pingback: Language Learning: Human Communication is Non-Negotiable | you don't have to read v2.0

  12. Pingback: Context, Synonym Strategies, Condoms, and Jam | you don't have to read v2.0

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