Teaching is a significant part of my job and naturally, I want my students to do well when they enroll in my courses. That requires learning a lot on their own. After all, the four hours they spend with me every week is not going to cut it. I once heard a thought-provoking and even provocative statement during one of my mandatory “how to become a better teacher” courses. The professor giving the course flatly stated: You cannot teach anyone anything. As a teacher, you are merely a provider of information. Everyone must learn that information on their own! The more I think about this statement the more I agree with it. After all, it’s not like going to school or taking an evening class works just like pulling up to a gas station. You cannot just pour knowledge into someone’s head. You may give them the information, using inspired examples if you’re a good teacher, but in the end it’s up to the learner to internalize the information. Only then is the goal of learning achieved.
Now that this is established, let me talk about how to learn. We all learn in different ways because we all have individual learning styles, and heavy books have been written on just this subject. One thing that is often discussed when it comes to learning (not just language learning in particular) is whether memorization is good or bad. It appears the popular opinion by modern pedagogical or didactical experts that memorization is purely evil. “It harms creativity” they say. But does it really? I had an astonishing memory when I was younger. This memory was nurtured by the conservative Lutheran school I attended as a child. We had to memorize lots of things from hymns and prayers to multiplication and periodic tables. Did this inhibit my creativity? Far from it. Knowing my multiplication tables made all math homework (at least until 6th or 7th grade) feel like a breeze. It allowed me to concentrate on learning the new material without having to “invent the wheel” every time someone asked me to multiply 6 by 7. Memorizing old hymns expanded my vocabulary, and allowed me to better understand old texts as well. Just think about it, do you think Mozart would play his symphonies relying only on his note sheets, or do you think he had them all memorized? The key to true creativity lies in having the foundations internalized – that is memorized.
If I hadn’t memorized a lot when learning Korean I wouldn’t be able to speak as freely as I do today. In fact, signing up for a speech contest where I had to learn a 5 minute long speech by heart was the best thing I ever did for my Korean fluency. By mastering this, I suddenly started to express almost any sentence in Korean with much more confidence, eventually also daring to experiment more with the language using newly discovered language patterns. My LP quickly noticed this and encouraged me to memorize more. I then started memorizing and using expressions I encountered in dramas or in the books I’ve been reading. However, our views on how and what to memorize differ a bit, probably due to our very different backgrounds.
Our language exchange is mutual, and just as he is my Korean teacher I am his English teacher and these days I’m prepping him for an upcoming test in English conversation. He insists on having small monologues memorized and spends a lot of time writing them down and rehearsing them. I, on the other hand, keep encouraging him to dare to go more off script. While he still lacks real fluency he has a solid knowledge of English and therefore needs to practice speaking freely rather than reciting memorized monologues. I’m challenging him, encouraging him, and coaching him, and he’s gradually freeing himself from his inhibitions. However, I still have a long way to go in terms of convincing him to memorize short sentences, which may then be mixed freely rather than long and complicated monologues. Luckily, I love a challenge!