Why you were wrong about rote learning

rote learningIf I could wave a magic wand and solve one language learning problem for people, do you know what it would be?


Learning and memorising vocabulary in a foreign language makes some people tear their hair out.

It drives others to tears.

And, naturally, there’s no one solution that works for everyone.

So today I’m pleased to feature a guest post from Philip Seifi, in which he discusses a memory technique that has a bit of a bad rep… rote learning.

Philip is part of the team at Fluent Panda, a language learning game with an impressive mission! Read to the end of the post for more on the exciting stuff that they’re up to at the moment.

Over you you, Philip!

If you’re struggling to make progress learning a language, it could be because you’re overlooking my favourite language-learning hack: rote learning.

But I don’t mean the kind of rote learning you do at school… rereading the same grammar points over and over again, burning midnight oil over seemingly endless columns of verb conjugations.

If anything, the approach I‘ll teach you is more reminiscent of reciting poems—something your parents probably still remember, but you’ve most likely never experienced given the backlash against both impractical knowledge and rote learning in our educational system.

Here are five steps that I use to memorise a passage of text in a foreign language.

It really doesn’t matter what kind of text it is, as long as it’s something which you think has some element of linguistic utility, be it the grammar used, vocabulary, or just that you really like it.

1. Choose the right content

First, find a good text that fits the following criteria:

  • no longer than a few paragraphs
  • comes with an audio recording
  • on a subject you find fascinating
  • challenging, but not too hard

Finding texts of this length really isn’t too difficult. I tend to go to news websites for radio stations, which tend to have a transcript of any audio that they put out. Or, if you have a favourite passage from a book, or blog, or otherwise that doesn’t have audio, then why not submit it to Rhinospike, and let native speakers do the hard work?

2. Listen, listen, listen

Listen to the recording of your chosen text at least half a dozen times. Don’t try to remember any of it just yet or worry about new grammar and vocabulary too much.

Simply listen to it again, and again, and again—noticing changes in intonation and other small details that initially flew over your head. At this stage it really isn’t about learning, but rather assimilating your ear to the tonality and pace of the recording.

You’ll be surprised by how much you’ll understand by the end of this exercise, even if you didn’t get any of the meaning on first play-through, let alone the 20th. I can’t stress this enough – you should not try to understand any of what you hear at this stage!

Use your brain energy to absorb and enjoy, and you’ll be surprised about how re-focusing your energies away from trying to understand what you hear means that different parts of your brain get to work to build a picture of what you’re listening to that you never thought possible!

3. Read and clarify

Once you’ve listened for a few times, now it’s time to refer to the original text. Go through it, and underline what you know already. Try saying this out loud a few times. Inevitably, there will be passages that you don’t quite understand. At this stage, it’s a good idea to take the traditional approach and reach for the nearest dictionary, and try and get at least a basic understanding of the text.

Even if there are expressions that you still don’t understand, or there are grammatical nuances that are beyond you, it’s still absolutely fine to move onto the next stage.

Once you’ve gone through the text, try listening through the text again and really focus on mating what you’re listening to with what you see before you.

4. Commit it to memory

Now comes the time to learn the passage by heart. After listening to it so many times, you’ll probably already remember large chunks of the text, so it shouldn’t take you too long. Even if you don’t have the individual words down, the pacing, cadences, and pronunciation should come much quicker than if you came to this recording cold.

You can try remembering individual sentences, then move onto full paragraphs, until you memorize the whole passage. When memorising, I like to go for the ‘overshooting’ approach. That is to say that if you want to remember the expression ‘the quick brown fox’, try instead memorising ‘the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog’. By expending more energy on the longer sentence, you’ll likely by default commit the smaller section to memory without thinking about it so much.

5. Go for perfection

You’ll notice that up to now I’ve not asked you to pay much attention to the little details. This approach can only work when your mind is not focused on achieving just one goal. That said, when you get to the stage that the majority of the text is committed to memory, it’s important to make sure that you don’t fall into bad habits.

Break the text down (sometimes going from the end, backwards can help to do this), and concentrate on every single nuance of the language, making sure that what you’ve memorised is the real thing, and not some fuzzy approximation.

Make sure to speak loud and clear, mimicking the pronunciation and intonation of the native narrator as closely as you can at this final stage.

Why rote learning works wonders

The key to learn foreign languages fast is two-fold. First, you must combine different activities to save time & remain motivated. Second, you must maintain the right balance between different aspects of the language.

Concentrate too much on output, and you’ll soon find yourself using the same expressions and vocabulary in every conversation. Listen to too much music, and you’ll risk falling behind in spelling and grammar.

Even if your goal is to learn only conversational language, it is a good idea to maintain a reasonable balance across the board.

The method described above forces you to work on your listening, reading and speaking, teaches you vocabulary, grammar, style and pronunciation, all as part of one single project.

Another huge benefit of this approach is that each of these projects make for natural mini-goals on your way to fluency, and understanding the texts in the end serves as a natural reward.

Of course, if you feel like it, you’re welcome to reward yourself with an additional cookie at the end of each stretch!

Give it ago, even if just once. See how it works for you, and let us know in the comments!

Thanks Philip!

If you liked this post, please check out Philip’s new app, Fluent Panda.

What is it exactly? I asked him…

“I’ve built the app based on all of my thinking about a methodology that focuses on numerous aspects of a language in one holistic approach, rather than separately.”

That’s the kind of app we need more of! They’re currently in the midst of a Kickstarter campaign, with only a few days left, so if you’d like to back them, please click here to learn more!

Steal my weird trick for memorising words Faster

Image: sandymanase

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This article was written by Olly Richards.

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  • Zaytun

    Great Post! I have been doing this with my arabic book for three months now. One “mistake” I made, was to do this with every single conversation that was in the book. I went through the whole book in this fashion and that got me stuck with it for a very long time. I’m sort of fed up with it now and happy to move an. Right now I have the feeling my arabic is too focused on conversations. Especially because it’s a beginners book, so most sentences are like “I want meet a friend and go to…”, “I went to a friend and we talked about”, “I will see a friend tommorow and…”. Im quite restricted in what I can say, although the things I can say sound very fluent. So people babble back at me in high pace believing I am at least “intermediate” although I still feel like a beginner.

    Right now I’m thinking of going for a book that is not focused on conversations and try to work with different and more complex texts to acquire a more eloquent speach. Also I still need a lot of vocabulary, my beginners book really did not cover too much vocabulary.

    Another idea is to buy at least two new books, one would have an emphasis on writing and reading comprehension, like mentioned above and the other would focus on conversation and listening comprehension.

    What would you guys recommend? I’m still some sort of beginner, call it “advanced beginner” or “false beginner”. I definitely need to acquire more vocabulary and get my ear used to understanding people better, so that I can break through to the stage where I feel more confident and “fluent”.

    • Thanks for your comments, Zaytun!

      You’re absolutely right that this approach alone can lead to flawless, but overall artificial and limited conversations.

      I think the key is to:
      1. Complement this approach with vocabulary learning through SRS (ideally using sentences… see my article at http://blog.lingualift.com/intensive-japanese-learn-japanese-fast/ ), or whatever other method you prefer (I’ve been playing around with goldlist lately)

      2. Use a diverse set of books, not just one textbook (btw, you can also use movies on any number of topics!)

      Of course, the more advanced you get, the more choice you’ll have in the type of content you can use for this exercise (and it’ll get more and more interesting and useful too).

      • Zaytun

        Interesting link, thanks! Also I’m happy to see I’m not the only madman walking through the park with headphones and speaking to himself. Up until now I have been working with memrise, I quite like it although I don’t use premade decks because I had the feeling I needed more time and practice with the sentences from my book. Unfortunately it takes up a lot of time to transfer the content of the book into memrise. I also copy the dialogues along with the translations into a word document so that I have a print with “traget language & translation” side by side. In general I have the feeling that if I combine reading, translating, writing, srs and shadowing with the same material, I manage to cement the content much better. But right now it’s taking too much time, so I’m trying to tweak my concept, I’m just afraid of leaving things out and then not making progress.

        I’m learning Standard Arabic, but as far as I am aware of there are no premade decks on memrise with sentences. It’s difficult to find quality material for Arabic on the internet without errors, because its very complex in grammar. So I guess I will continue more or less the same way as I have before, although the “goldlist method” has caught my attention as well. It would at least get me away from my computer, which is sort of my goal as well 😉 Also the handwritten method might be more effective as well. How do you feel this method is working out for you compared to srs/flashcard ?