Friday, April 13, 2007

Rote learning & vocabulary

Listen to this article

Over on the TESL-L list there has been a renewed round of skepticism about the value of rote learning as applied to vocabulary learning.

Before the idea that language acquisition is an innate human ability became widely accepted, rote learning was among the most common methods used by people studying foreign languages, just as it was and still is for acquiring a wide variety of other knowledge and skills. The innateness theory, however, led people to believe that language was somehow special and different, and rote learning fell out of favour. However, language is not the inseparable entity that this idea suggests. Phonology, syntax and vocabulary are all interrelated, but the learnability of each is different.

When researchers talk about an innate language ability, they are not talking about vocabulary. There may be a critical period for acquiring syntax and phonology, but vocabulary is not constrained in this way. Indeed, while a normal child of six has mostly mastered the syntax and phonology of their first language, they have learned only a fraction of their adult vocabulary and will continue to pick up new words and expressions at a fairly constant rate until they complete university. Even then, the deceleration in vocabulary learning has more to do with the dearth of new words in the environment than with the brain.

What I take from this is that vocabulary is learned more or less like any other kind of knowledge or skill. If you look at experts in most areas, from golfers to chess players to doctors to painters, they have spent massive amounts of time observing other experts, massive amounts engaged in the performance of their craft, and massive amounts of time practicing independent aspects thereof, that is learning by rote. This suggest that rote learning, done well, potentially has a significant role to play in learning vocabulary.

The difference between learning chess or painting and learning a language, is that with the first two, you can actually try them out almost right away. You may lose your first five chess games, but you will have spent an enjoyable afternoon doing so. Moreover, most people have no expectations of mastering chess. They're quite satisfied to stay at or near the level at which they began. Not so with language.

Comparatively speaking, there is much more needed in terms of second language vocabulary before you can really start to employ it either receptively or productively. And many people have this notion that they will one day be fluent in the language that they are studying.

Yet far from receiving an instant payback, language learners often find the horizon of proficiency receding into the distance as they progress and the tedium of rote practice begins to overwhelm them before they notice their results. People trying to exercise and be healthy run into similar problems.

This is a long way of saying that all the research we have tells us that rote learning, DONE WELL, is a powerful way to increase vocabulary quickly, but that it is only the disciplined student with sufficient motivation who is likely to travel this route very far.

No comments: