If you are like many language learners, you try to memorize lists of vocabulary words and grammar rules.
Perhaps you test yourself by using flash cards or answering questions from a website for language learners.
Even with all of that memorization, do you think that something might be missing from your studies?
Do you like to study in a coffee shop, or at a table in a busy room? Perhaps you have found a good place for language learning without knowing it.
In our Education report today, we will explore the limitations of memorization. We will also discover how the best learning does not always take place in the classroom -- or even in a quiet library.
Memorization outside of the classroom
Barbara Oakley is a professor of engineering at Oakland University in Michigan. She teaches the most popular Massive Open Online Course in the world. It is called Learning How to Learn.
Oakley says that when language learners study outside of class, they often work on memorizing many words and terms.
A common method when learning a foreign language is to make flash cards. Flash cards can be a useful tool for testing yourself and improving your memory of new words.
We have discussed testing yourself in other education stories.
Yet Oakley has mixed feelings about the usefulness of flash cards and vocabulary lists.
She says the cards can help learners remember words. However, they may not help language learners put words together in new ways.
Medical students, Oakley says, have to remember large amounts of information. But even the best memorizers at American medical schools can have trouble explaining how the heart works – even if they have memorized every part of the heart.
"Some of these same superstar memorizers can actually find themselves struggling when they are, for example, sitting down and trying to learn about how the heart functions. That's a very different kind of learning than sitting and memorizing a list of anatomical terms. You can memorize every part of a heart, but have no idea of how the chambers are interacting with one another, how the blood is flowing through and how that relates to the rest of the body. And that takes kind of a different way of looking at the materials."
What can you do?
If memorization is not enough to completely learn something, what can you do?
One idea comes from the Cognitive and Academic Language Learning Approach, also known as CALLA. One of its successful study methods is called seek opportunities to practice.
In this method, students look for new and different ways to use what they have been studying.
Language learners could look for chances to practice with a local language group, on an internet chat forum, at a café, and so on.
By seeking out different places to practice, the learner must express his or her thoughts in a second language. The learner will also have to put words together in new ways.
Learning outside of the classroom
Another common problem, Oakley says, is that students mistakenly believe that sitting in a classroom is the only way people can learn a new language.
She herself studied Russian in college, but said she really only started to learn the language while working on a Russian ship as a translator. "It isn't just book learning or conventional learning through a classroom that we acquire knowledge," Oakley said.
She adds that some students have study habits that do not help them learn. "Learning is not the same as studying," says a line in Mindshift, Oakley's new book.
The Learning Center at the University of North Carolina notes that many students believe that reading in a quiet room is the best way to study.
"Active studying does not mean highlighting or underlining text, re-reading, or rote memorization," says a statement on the center's website. It adds, "Silence isn't golden....The silence of a library may not be the best place for you."
Oakley suggests language learners study in places that have noise.
"Sometimes it can help to study in an environment where there is a little bit of occasional noise. By that, I mean the perfect example is a coffee shop... When you get that little clank – there's a bit of a cup goes against a dish... what that does is to momentarily shift you into a different neural network. And that different neural network is a bit longer range. And momentarily it helps you step back and look with a different perspective on what you are working on."
The point of this story is not to make you worried about your study methods. The point is to propose a few ideas to you.
First, learning is more than just memorization. Memorization is one step – of many – in the learning process.
Second, classrooms are not the only place you can learn. Look for other places to practice and learn.
Finally, consider how you study carefully. You may not need to sit alone in a silent room to study. In fact, other places might be better for you.
Many people can study well in places like a living room, surrounded by the noise of their family members. Others can read on a noisy train or bus.
The learning process is not easy. However, thinking carefully about new, creative ways to learn and study can make the process much more fun for you!
I'm John Russell.
And I'm Ashley Thompson.
John Russell wrote this story for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section.
Words in This Story
vocabulary – n. the words that make up a language
flash card – n. a card that has words, numbers, or pictures on it and that is used to help students learn about a subject
library – n. a place where books, other publications and recordings are kept for public use, but are not sold
function – v. to work or operate
chamber – n. a natural or artificial enclosed space or cavity
practice – v. to perform work repeatedly so as become skilled at something
translator – n. a person who changes words (written or spoken) in one language into a different language
highlight – v. to bring attention to something
rote – adj. the process of learning something by repeating it many times without thinking about it or fully understanding it
neural – adj. of, relating to, or involving a nerve or the nervous system