M is for Memorization

8 04 2011

What lessons can psychology teach us about second language instruction?

In a recent book on the psychology of second language acquisition, Zoltán Dörnyei (2009) draws six practical implications from current research findings, one being that instruction “should be meaning focused and personally engaging” (p.302). Nothing surprising about that, perhaps, but what about his claim that instructed SLA should incorporate an element of rote learning?

Reviewing this book in the latest ELT Journal, Steven McDonough asks “Surely he is not suggesting that learners should learn grammar rules by heart?” (McDonough, 2011, p. 195). Since I don’t yet have the book, I have no way of checking. But in an earlier work on the same subject, Dörnyei (2005) traces the history of rote learning and its relation to aptitude, starting with Carroll’s (1981) claim that language aptitude comprises four constituent abilities, one of which is “rote learning ability”. This is “the ability to learn associations between sounds and meaning rapidly and efficiently, and to retain these associations” (Carroll, 1981, p.105). Accordingly, the Modern Languages Aptitude Test (MLAT), which Carroll had a hand in, includes a rote learning component: “Students have a total of four minutes to memorize 24 Kurdish/English word pairs. Retention is tested by means of a multiple choice test…” (cited in Dörnyei, 2005, p. 37). (Easy if you’re Kurdish, of course!)

Subsequently, Skehan (1998), in his own model of language aptitude, retains an important role for memory, and notes that “memory, although traditionally associated with the acquisition of new information, is also concerned with retrieval, and with the way elements are stored… Fast-access memory systems… are what allow output to be orchestrated into fluent performance” (p.204). It’s not enough to know a lot of words, obviously. You have to be able to retrieve them, and at speed.

Skehan also reviews some case studies of exceptional language learners, and concludes: “To be exceptionally good at second or foreign language learning seems to require possession of unusual memory abilities, particularly the retention of verbal material. Exceptional L2 ability does not seem to rest upon unusual talent with a rule-based aspects of the language, but rather on a capacity to absorb very large quantities of verbal material, in such a way that they become available for actual language use” (p.221).

If memorizing large quantities of ‘verbal material’ is a characteristic of exceptional learners, can less exceptional learners be trained to get similar results?

In a fascinating study of three Chinese learners of English, all of whom were rated as having achieved a high degree of communicative proficiency, Ding (2007) tracks the role that the rote-learning of huge quantities of text played in their linguistic accomplishments. As the abstract reports, “The interviewees regarded text memorization and imitation as the most effective methods of learning English. They had been initially forced to use these methods but gradually came to appreciate them.” What they memorized, as part of their conventional schooling, were entire coursebooks (New Concept English by Louis Alexander, in one case) as well as the screenplays of whole films: “Some of them said that when they speak English, lines from movies often naturally pop out, making others think of their English as natural and fluent “. As one of the subjects reported, “through reciting those lessons, he gained mastery of many collocations, phrases, sentence patterns and other language points”.

Now I have to declare an interest here: my conviction that the role of memory – including memorization – in language learning has been sorely neglected led me to commission a title for the Cambridge Handbooks for Language Teachers (of which I’m the series editor), and I’m pleased to say that the book has just been published. It’s by Nick Bilbrough, and called Memory Activities for Language Learning. I have to say that the book has exceeded my expectations, and triumphantly fulfils its back-cover promise: “Memory Activities for Language Learning explores the cognitive processes of memory and provides a bank of activities to facilitate their development”.

I’m hoping that Nick’s book will (re-)awaken interest in the crucial role that memory plays in second language learning.


Carroll, J.B. 1981. Twenty-five years of research in foreign language aptitude. In K.C. Diller (ed.) Individual differences and universals in language learning aptitude. Rowley, MA.; Newbury House.

Ding, Y. 2007. Text memorisation and imitation: The practices of successful Chinese learners of English. System 35: 271-80.

Dörnyei, Z. 2005. The Psychology of the Language Learner: Individual Differences in Second Language Acquisition. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Dörnyei, Z. 2009. The Psychology of Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

McDonough, S. 2011. Review of Dörnyei (2009) in ELT Journal, 65/2, pp. 194-6.

Skehan, P. 1998. A Cognitive Approach to Language Teaching.Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Illustrations from Hamilton, J. 1946. Método de Inglés (Tercer Libro) Mexico, D.F.: Editorial Progreso.