Burning Patterns into the Brain (Class Eleven)
“Alright–I want all of you to listen to the recording of today’s dialogue for homework and have it memorized and ready for recitation by Thursday. Yes, I know it was three pages long, but that’s beside the point. Your intonation must be exactly as you hear on the recording, and that means repeated practice. Each passage should be played and recited 30-50 times until you’ve mastered every line. If I find you have not done this, your parents will be notified.”
As a student, how would you respond to this assignment? The three Chinese EFL learners discussed in Monday’s article by Yanren Ding worked long and hard throughout their secondary school years to follow their teachers’ hard-lined approach and memorize most of their English textbooks. Not surprisingly, they resisted at first, but all three grew to appreciate the intense focus on recitation and the strict pedagogy. In fact, they credited their later success as winners of national speech and debate tournaments to the hours spent memorizing and reciting textbook dialogues and later memorizing scenes from English movies, line by line. Today’s blog post is devoted to these three learners, and to the topic of language memorization. I will also dedicate this post to my husband, and to my classmate Shuku, who both willingly memorized English dictionaries, one definition at a time.
Here’s the gist of the article: Ding chose three mainland Chinese college students who had demonstrated high levels of achievement in English in order to learn what strategies they had used to achieve success. The learners were interviewed in detail, each describing years of memorization on a daily basis–a road on which they all, at first, traveled unwillingly. They spoke of the pressure they felt and the difficulty of memorizing lengthy passages of text. They did what they were told to do, however, in spite of the fact that many of their classmates, unable to imitate the L2 accent properly, resisted the practices of memorization and recitation. Ding reports that teachers simply gave up on those students, devoting themselves to others who were willing to put in the time (Ding, 2007, pp. 273-4). And, along the way, each of the learners found themselves becoming motivated not just by the teacher’s exhortations (they were praised and encouraged, as well as scolded), but by the English language itself.
Here is where it gets really interesting for me because I, too, am motivated by the love of words as well as the ideas they represent. In a previous post, I referred to psychologists Amabile and Hennessey’s definition of intrinsic motivation, as characterized by “The drive to do something for the sheer enjoyment, interest, and personal challenge of the task itself (rather than for some external goal).” (Hennessey & Amabile, 2010, p. 581) Although Ding does not explore this issue at length, I believe that his learners H, W, and Z were unusual in their degree of intrinsic motivation, which gradually took root and flourished while they busily memorized passages of language. As they spent long hours at home listening and attempting to precisely imitate native speakers’ inflections, class time recitations and discussions grew easier; the students came to discover their own aptitude for English and to find pleasure in the sound of the words themselves.
Mind you, all three were modest about their English ability. Neither Z not W believed they had any aptitude, and although H originally mentioned her “natural gift” for language, she later changed the wording of the interview notes to reflect a more neutral stance. (Ding, p. 273). However Z reported noticing that there were “…things that I could do but others couldn’t do,” (Ding, p. 277) and I am certain that all three learners were secretly proud of their ability to manipulate a second language. In short, they knew they were good at something, and though their ability must have made them stand out in class (a big faux pas for Asian students), they forged ahead, driven by the desire to perfect their language skills. They became intrinsically motivated.
After graduating from high school, the students’ drive to memorize English continued through their college years, in the form of fanatic movie watching in English. Textbook memorization enforced by the teacher was replaced by out-of-class learning, as the three memorized dialogues from English language films, line by line, making a long train trip home once a week since television was off-limits in their dormitories. A combination of work and play? Absolutely! As Ding says, “…their purpose was not just to enjoy the stories; rather, their goal was to enjoy the language, imitate it, and memorize it.” (Ding, 2007, p. 227)
So what exactly did years of memorization enable these devoted students to achieve? They learned patterns and formulaic chunks of language. They practiced diligently and learned them so well that they could easily retrieve and use them both in the classroom, in interviews, and on stage in debates. They learned to recognize and acquire prosodic features of language, practicing their own rhythm and intonation on a daily basis, constantly comparing it to that of native speakers. Most impressive to me is that the students mastered details of the English language that would not be interesting to more meaning-focused communicative L2 students. They listened for and learned to use collocations, function words, and inflections without worrying about grammar and apart from their desire to understand the meaning. H, especially, spoke enthusiastically of the enjoyment of listening for new and unusual usages and intonations that she might add to her own repertoire. The three also learned to hear their own voices and to take control of their own learning process. My guess is that the years of imitation and critical feedback from teachers enabled the students to be good judges of their own pronunciation and keen strategic learners. They knew what the standard was, and they knew how to achieve it. Lastly, they became producers of language, able to spontaneously and appropriately produce chunks of language to communicate, to persuade, to argue, and to expound.
“Oh, yes,” you might say. “But was their language natural? ” Well, the answer is not a simple one, and before answering it, we need to ask ourselves a few questions.
To begin with, how do we really feel about this kind of learning? Are we unknowingly condescending toward those raised in a culture where rote memorization of large bodies of knowledge is acceptable and preferred? Do we (speaking for myself and fellow westerners) feel a bit superior in our perceived ability to think critically and use language creatively? I’ll raise my hand and admit that I thought my husband was nothing short of pitiful when he first spoke of his dictionary memorizing days. Fast forward twenty years to the day when he scored higher than me on the Qualitative portion of the GRE exams, and ask me if I still think that. Go ahead–and you can also ask me if I regret being too high and mighty in high school to memorize algebraic formulas and chemical compounds…or better yet, don’t ask since I’m already properly humbled just by the writing of this post.
Now back to the question of “natural” and “creative” English. I only know learners H, W, and Z through Ding’s analysis of their statements, but my guess is that no, their use of English was not always natural or “native-like”. After all, it is hard to find the perfect chance to use a line from a movie or a textbook dialogue in spontaneous conversation. Yet they were always concerned with context and alert for opportunities to make use of what they had struggled to remember. We can presume their English was not notably creative since much of it was lifted word for word from dialogues and scripts. They probably did not string elements of language together, but instead relied on formulaic chunks they had memorized. I have no doubt, however, that their language was appropriate (they were, again, very concerned with context), grammatically accurate, and spoken with native-like intonation and pronunciation. And because their heads were literally full of patterns and chunks of language that had been “burned into their brains” they were rarely at a loss for words. In short, their secondary school learning environment had demanded complete accuracy of language use. And–here is the amazing thing–they were able to achieve this because of their dedication to memorization, most of which occurred outside of any communicative context. Ding writes, and I agree, that freedom from the pressure of real-time conversation enabled the three learners to perfect their language skills. Taking all this into consideration, I see no reason to treat their achievement with condescension, or to bemoan a lack of creativity and naturalness, both of which would undoubtedly emerge with time spent abroad in an immersion situation.
It is conceivable, of course, that such intense focus on form could have the adverse effect of inhibiting students from engaging in face-to-face conversation, but Ding writes that his subjects embraced the chance to converse and discuss in class as well. And their story reveals a different twist to what we know about how language is acquired. Scholars have repeatedly proven that learners’ noticing of the gap between an L1 speaker’s language and their own imperfect interlanguage is the key to real acquisition. Yet in many cases the gap remains unnoticed, and L2 errors become habitual. Perhaps those learners are the ones who can’t be bothered to memorize and recite? No matter how distasteful the idea might seem, Ding believes that this is so: memorization and repetition are an important part of the noticing process. He writes, “Passion for the language leads to noticing and rehearsal, which in turn lead to acquisition. Good language learners are superior to other learners in the two aspects of noticing and rehearsal.” and, even more directly, “…text memorization and imitation have a legitimate place in second language education.” (Ding, p. 279)
Lastly, I’d like to return to the subject of intrinsic motivation, which is what enabled learners H, W, and Z to memorize such a massive amount of input, thoughtfully process it, and finally make it their own for productive use. My guess is that many highly motivated Asian students are bored with communicative classrooms and with task-based learning in particular. Shuku, Alan, and I discussed this in our small group and Shuku admitted as much. “I was never task-oriented,” she said. “There was never enough speaking involved, and I wanted more direct feedback from my teachers instead. In class, I pretended to be an average student like everyone else, but at home, I did what those Chinese students did: I spoke in English out loud, and I tried to imitate my English teachers exactly.” And there you have it: those who love language for its own sake will not necessarily be happy task-based learners since they are intrinsically motivated by the language itself rather than in the task, which is assumed to be the motivating factor. And just as music lovers accept that memorization of several movements of a sonata is necessary to perform on stage, language lovers realize and accept that memorization is not only part of the process, but can be highly motivating in and of itself.
In the end, I’m proud to be married to a language-loving man and proud to be the friend of Shuku, who imitated her teachers and slept with a dictionary by her pillow. I hope that learners H, W, and Z are living productive lives, using their English regularly and with enthusiasm, and able to travel abroad to polish their already formidable language skills, which I suspect are already becoming more natural and native-like.
Ding, Y. (2007). Text memorization and imitation: The practices of successful Chinese learners of English. System, 35(2), pp.271-280. doi:10.1016/j.system.2006.12.005
Hennessey, B.& Amabile, T. (2010). Creativity. Annual Review of Psychology, 61(1),pp. 569-598. doi:10.1146/1nnurev.psych.093008.100416