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#19. About rote learning

Updated: Aug 28, 2023

For most people language learning equals rote learning because that's how they’ve spent most of their time at school/home studying a foreign language and, unsurprisingly, that's one of the reasons why many don't like learning a language and think it's dull.

While it's helpful to memorise a series of verbs and tenses, using the patterns in conjugations to learn them more quickly, rote learning is not the best the solution to learn vocabulary.

What's the difference between the two, you might wonder? Why not use rote learning all the time, if it works for verbs? The answer is simple: because when you're learning conjugations, you're focusing your attention on the different forms of a verb, i.e. on the mechanics of the language, regardless of the context those verbs are used in.

Take the French verb 'manger' (to eat). This verb belongs to the first group of verbs, which all end in -er and are regular (and unsurprisingly, the most popular verbs amongst learners). When learning its different forms at the present tense, you only focus your attention on the conjugation pattern:

je mange

tu manges

il/elle/on mange

nous mangeons

vous mangez

ils/elles mangent

The root, or stem, of this verb is 'mang' and repeats across all persons, which is why it's a regular verb and easy to remember. At this point of the learning process, it doesn't matter if you're talking about eating cheese, cake, or something else. What matters is learning the different forms accurately. Contexts come later, when putting the language in practice.

Now say you're keen to learn the names of French cakes (a practical endeavour, if ever there was one!), you're unlikely to memorise all the names, just by staring at the picture below and repeating them endlessly. Why? Because there's no context attached to any.

Les gâteaux de la maison Stohrer

If, on the other hand, your significant other, once ate a Paris-Brest and loved it so much, you researched the origin of the name and discovered the cake is round like a bicycle wheel, because it was named after the route of a bicycle race from Paris to Brest, a naval town in Brittany, you're never going to forget its name.

Not that it necessarily takes that much effort, or research, to commit a new word to memory, mind you. What it takes though, is a meaningful context, with a simple example, which is personal: "my wife/husband/partner/best friend always eats Paris-Brest when in France".

Rote learning and sentence building are two vital aspects of language learning, giving you the scope and confidence to express yourself as accurately as possible. You need both, which means you're not always repeating the same things nor the same tasks, and isn't that great news?

Don't hesitate to send me your questions.

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