Sunday, March 8, 2009

Can you learn English by memorizing and reciting speeches?

'Back in the day' when I was studying Spanish as a second language, memorization and recitation were two techniques often used to get students to produce accurate and well-pronounced language. However, when I was taking classes for my TESOL Certificate, this approach to language study was pooh-poohed. At least ten years ago, it seems that teachers of English as a second language had decided that the 'communicative' approach was best.

I'm a linguaphile and had much more drill-like instruction, especially in Spanish, and I can say that it definitely helped my pronunciation and grammar. As in any endeavor, the purpose or goals of the course are hopefully in line with those of the students. At that time, I wanted to become fluent in Spanish, to sound as native as possible and to be literate and articulate. (I wanted to be a Spanish teacher.) Even some decades later, I am pleased and surprised at times to find that I can still read a great deal and understand many different tenses. The vocabulary is what has faded.

Because of my own success with Spanish, I often wonder if I should incorporate more of the memorization and recitation method that was effective with me in Spanish. Interestingly, the Wall Street Journal points out that in Japan, several schools are emulating the approach of an English teacher named Mr. Makoto Ishiwata and making students memorize the speeches of Mr. (now President) Barack Obama. What is the reasoning behind this approach?

Actually, it's quite simple. Read, listen to, and memorize the words, the vocabulary, the pronunciation and intonation - and even the gestures of Mr. Obama, and then deliver the same speech in English, just as you heard and saw it. The result will be an ability to reproduce accurate and clear English speech. The next step is to use some of the language in other contexts and to take English's collocations and rhythms and intonation that are imprinted on your brain out into the 'real' world.

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