Memorizing and Speaking a Foreign Language Vs. *Listening*

Last edited: Mar 11, 2022

"He who has ears to hear, let him hear." (Matthew 11:15)

Growing up living part-time in the ROC (Taiwan), and part-time in the US, language learning was always something that I grew up participating in but never fully enjoyed due, in part, to the ways in which I was taught.

Over the years, I have been taught and attempted to learn to speak Mandarin through many different methodologies. Chief of these being rote memorization. If you have ever used a flash card in Spanish class then you have probably used this method.

Here is how it usually went for me: Write new vocabulary on a flash card; try and memorize them; quiz myself until I was able to recognize all of them... then forget all of the words about a month later.

In some ways, it is impossible to avoid some level of rote memorization for some languages, chief of these being Mandarin. From kindergarten through high school, this is how native students learn to read and write their own language. Chinese characters are pictograms; there is no way to phonetically "spell it out" when writing a character.

This is why I think that Chinese language learning programs are so focused on memorization; it is how the teachers learned to read and write themselves. Therein lies the rub, however.

The reality is that by the time that a native student has attempted to read and write a Chinese character, they have probably heard it spoken in context hundreds if not thousands of times. This does not translate well to a student who has never heard that word or read that phrase in its own cultural context.

Listening, and not speaking, writing, or even reading, is what is missing in most language learning programs.

Recently I have taken up learning Spanish after many years of learning (and forgetting) Mandarin Chinese. Being a (sort of) engineer, I wanted to pick the easiest and most effective path. So I did some research. I found many different recommendations for Youtube channels and websites, but one kept coming up: Pablo's Dreaming Spanish. Dreaming Spanish introduced me to the idea of "Comprehensible Input" related to the Input Hypothesis research done by Stephen Krashen in the 1970s and 1980s. The idea of Comprehensible Input is that one learns through being introduced to new words and grammatical constructs through repeated exposure to those words and constructs in context not memorization . That means that none of the native language is used to learn the new language. For a more detailed explanation of his methods (there are English subtitles) here is the playlist where he explains his method.

Or for those who prefer to read, Dreaming Spanish Method

This idea of learning through listening was not an entirely new idea to me. My mother learned Chinese in Beijing in the 1990's and started out her learning with a teacher that spoke absolutely no English at all. Not to explain a word; not to make a joke; not to tell students that class was over etc. As a kid hearing these, it sounded like absolute nonsense. But isn't that how we all learned our own native language?

Stephen Krashen and Pablo go even further than not using the native language to teach by saying that one should not speak the language they are learning, more than necessary, until they have reached an intermediate or advanced level. This seems counterintuitive. Isn't the goal of learning the language to be able to speak in the first place?

I can attest that speaking too early can have bad effects on language learning. Although it is anecdotal, I believe that it is useful.

While going to a public Taiwanese elementary school, I had to be able to speak to my teachers and fellow students. I slowly became comfortable translating my thoughts that I had in English to Chinese. However, I wasn't really speaking Chinese, but rather a small subset that I was comfortable with. This led to my speaking a pidgin Chinese that, while effective, never allowed me to really integrate into the culture as I didn't sound very natural.

While I have moved on a bit past Dreaming Spanish's comprehensible input videos to more native media, I have committed to language learning with the technique of Comprehensible Input. I have found that it has led to a much more fluid speaking ability and much less awkward translating of grammar on the fly. I have been learning with this method for about 8 months and I am looking forward to when I am able to understand and truly comprehend native content. I also plan on going back to my first-second language, Mandarin, and trying to become a more faithful and accurate speaker of it.

Below I have left some useful (to me) links for comprehensible input.

My Favorite Video Sources (from easiest to most difficult):

My Favorite Podcasts:

Reading Sources:

Shows in Spanish:

Other Youtube Channels:

Other Podcasts