Why you shouldn’t memorise words when learning a language

Cian reflects on the painful language learning memorisation that was encouraged in school and proposes the direction we really should be headed in to learn languages.
December 16, 2020
Why you shouldn’t memorise words when learning a language - Weeve

When people think about learning a language they often remember the painful memorisation that was encouraged in school. Flashcards, cover/check and vocabulary tests are seen as necessary activities if one wants to learn a language. I often hear people say “I’m going to learn Japanese by learning one word each day” using some form of calendar and by “learn” they usually mean writing the word out a thousand times or using flashcard memorisation. 

Flashcard apps such as Anki that use spaced repetition can be incredibly powerful insofar as you can memorise thousands of words in a few months with a lot of effort and mental strain. Popular apps like Duolingo also emphasise recalling words to cement them into your memory. Anyone who is aware of the research on memory and “active recall” will know that this type of memorisation is seen as the gold standard in trying to learn nearly every type of information. The problem is language is much more than information to be regurgitated. Language is complex and fluid. We don’t think about the language we use when we speak, we do not try to recall and remember words (most of the time) and we don’t calculate which grammatical structure we’re going to use next. In fact, we don’t think about language at all. We only think about the ideas we want to express and language simply comes out.

This is quite different to ideas we normally express. As even when were are well versed on a topic we still need to think about what we’re saying unless we’re saying a sentence verbatim. So how do we encode language into our brains in a way that we don’t have to think about what we’re saying or translate what the other person has said? How do we learn a language so the language functions subconsciously? To understand this, first think about how humans have been naturally learning languages for the past 300,000 years, before we knew what a past participle was or had language learning textbooks. The only way to acquire new language was to listen to people speaking. This is the same for children, children go through a long “silent period” of listening before a rapid period of growth in their vocabulary. This “silent period ” is thought to be when children acquire the language and once they have acquired enough, speaking is a natural consequence.

So, we have to listen? No, the biggest contribution of modern second language acquisition research is that we acquire language when we understand messages. This means language is encoded in your brain subconsciously when you read or listen to something you understand. The “understand” part of the sentence is the most important. If you don’t understand what you’re reading then you will not acquire anything. Listening to podcasts and watching television as a beginner is not useful. Reading Lord of the rings and looking up each word is not useful. In fact, the input you want should be so easy that you can understand that as well as you can understand your first language. Obviously, this is an ideal that isn’t really possible as a beginner. When you’re an intermediate level learner you can read beginner short stories and read them this easily.

But for complete beginners your options are: 

  • Extremely Basic Stories that include images with accompanying three-word sentences. The best example I found for this was in the Cambridge Latin course.
  • Extremely Basic Videos for beginners that follow the same format. These are hard to come across, I find Peppa Pig has many instances where you can understand what’s being said due to them pointing at objects and repeating the same words and phrases.
  • Diglot Books that are written in English and weave foreign words into the sentences so they are always comprehensible.

The problem with the first option is it’s boring and doesn’t take into account another vital part of language learning which is extensive reading. When you read a difficult passage slowly looking up every word that’s intensive reading. When you read an easy book and don’t search up any of the words that you don’t know that’s called extensive reading. Intensive reading is what you do in school and gives you short-term results but extensive reading is what is actually useful and is one of the fastest ways to acquire language that can be used subconsciously.

“When you memorise the definition of a word you’re learning about the language. When you understand the word in context you acquire the language

In conclusion, if you just want to impress your friends by knowing the definition of a word when it said in isolation you can use flashcards, Duolingo or other systems that encourage you to output/recall information. If you want to speak and understand your target language without having to think, read and listen to as much material as you possibly can that you can understand with ease.

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