Learning language requires more than memorisation

Technology has expedited learning and communicating in languages by facilitating typing the characters, finding out their meaning and pronunciation, automatic translation, and access to language courses and resources.

Yet, barring language-learning apps, it has not been a game-changer.

While familiarity with characters is necessary in order to use the dictionary, develop one's vocabulary, read and write or type, one should always keep in mind to what extent learners of the language require it to take exams, and to what degree they need it for day-to-day oral communication. Neither is it always necessary (or possible) to comprehend all the words in an article.

Memorisation and recycling lie at the foundation of any learning (Repetition, memorising standard processes of learning language, by Mr Syed Alwi Altahir; Sept 13). That does not mean we need to cram everything in the same way Latin used to be taught.

The reason children are frequently taught via mimicry - by repeating sentences, rhymes and songs - is connected with young learners' cognitive characteristics, such as short concentration span, relatively weak memory, lower-order processing, inability to observe regularities and causal relations, lack of awareness of a language's internal structure, undeveloped grammatical sensitivity, and lack of inductive ability.

This is why children's linguistic production does not depend on explicit knowledge, but must be developed implicitly and requires constant repetition.

While vocabulary is based on mechanical, short-term memory, grammar relies on long-term logical memory, which develops in conjunction with abstract thinking and does not reach full competence until around puberty. Thus, learners under the age of 12 or 13 can ably repeat and memorise words and longer expressions, but are not yet able to analyse them.

These limitations naturally do not hold for adolescents and adults, who have the mental capacity to focus on purely formal linguistic features and already possess literacy in at least one other language.

While the grammar-translation method of repeating after the teacher was common in the past, it is anything but "the standard process of learning most languages" now, with language education in an increasing number of countries having shifted to communicative approaches and content-and-language integrated learning models.

Successful language acquisition requires massive exposure to material that learners find meaningful, interesting and useful, and ample opportunities for individualised practice and production.

Michal B. Paradowski (Dr)

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