Monday, February 27, 2012

To memorize or not to memorize--that is the question....

A few years ago, I talked about memorization, but the topic came up again in a Wall Street Journal article at the end of last year and prompted me to rethink the subject.  Back in the day, memorization used to be a standard part of all my Spanish language classes from junior high school through high school.  In my view, it was a very effective tool for learning a foreign language.  What we now call "automaticity"was a large component of developing fluency in the language. Amazingly, I can still remember parts of poems that I memorized, just as I do in English.

If you're American of my vintage, you might have had to learn Robert Frost's "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening" ("Whose woods these are I think I know....  But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep....).  After one of my ESL classes seven or eight years ago, I impressed a couple from Mexico when I told them that I remembered a poem by Ruben Darío: "Juventud, divino tesoro...  ya te vas para no volver... Cuando quiero llorar, no lloro.  Y a veces, lloro sin querer...."  I have no idea where the words came from, but trying to think of something in Spanish brought parts of the poem pouring out of my mouth.  This phenomenon felt the same as my memory of the "times" table in arithmetic 9x2=18, 9x3=27...9x9=81...9x12=108.  It is a great advantage to be able to do these computations in your head.  Who needs a calculator?  In fact, a calculator slows down my brain as well as my answer.

You can practice reciting English at a site like English Central, where they've got great video and vocabulary exercises plus recording capability.  This one, for example, compares British and American English vocabulary for common or everyday items.  You can listen and record yourself. It even rates your pronunciation.

Here's another interesting link that gives you ideas for how to quote a long text verbatim.  I tried Lincoln's Gettysburg address just using the first letter of each word and was amazed that that mnemonic worked even decades after memorizing the speech.  It is amazing that some previously memorized material can stay embedded in the brain for years without using it and can be quickly reactivated.  Even though I don't demand it of my students, now I wonder how many of them memorize vocabulary.  Tomorrow I must ask.

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