Memorisation vs. Immersion – Which is the Best Way to Learn a Foreign Language?
By Phoebe Harrison
In schools, universities, and online, there are a myriad of people and publications telling us the ‘best’ way to learn another language – at least from their perspective. Going through all these different suggested methods, we can generally boil down the learning process to two main approaches – memorisation and immersion. But which is better?
Although it seems a tad self-explanatory, memorisation (in basic terms) is the process of committing something to memory for later use, usually by rote learning (a technique focused on repetition of the desired information). In language-learning, this can mean anything from using flashcards, writing new vocabulary down 10 times or repeating expressions, words, and even grammatical rules, out loud.
Advantages of Memorisation
- Provides a more flexible and accessible way of learning – depending on what method you use, practicing your chosen language through memory games or repetitive activities can be done anywhere, from the comfort of your own home to during the daily commute.
- Multiple resources – thanks to the internet, there are a ton of free, easy to use language learning resources available to anyone who needs them. This ease of access lends itself well to the memorisation approach – it is very straightforward, for instance, to download a short vocabulary list from a website and learn the contents by heart.
- Easier for audio-visual learners – those who learn through reading or listening may find memorisation to be their go-to approach for learning.
- Trains the brain outside of language learning – becoming well-practiced in memorisation of language-based information undoubtedly trains the mind to be better able to hang on to other pieces of important information, no matter the topic
Disadvantages of Memorisation
- ‘Theory’ over ‘practice’ – memorisation fosters the learning, rather than the utilisation of, language. Knowing 100 words of vocabulary doesn’t matter if you’re unsure of how to use any of them in a sentence, which is why actually implementing (i.e., speaking or writing) your new knowledge is a vital part of the fluency process.
- Memory fatigue – rote learning and other memorisation methods may (and often do) lead to boredom and a lack of motivation, which in turn leads to giving up the entire learning process. Stimulation and a willingness to learn is a key part of learning a new language, so reading or writing the same information over and over will drain these two things out of any learner if not combined with other learning methods.
- ‘Surface level’ understanding – similar to the notion of theory over practice, memorising blocks of information does not always lead to a full understanding of a subject – being able to recite a general definition of a grammatical rule does not always mean being able to comprehend and use it appropriately, for example.
- A lonely process – though memorisation can no doubt be achieved with the help of a friend (such as testing each other’s knowledge), it is still a very independent approach to learning as it solely concerns the information that a single individual can retain. Learning about another language without being able to share your knowledge and abilities with other like-minded people can be an isolating experience.
Regarding language-learning, immersion is the process of acquiring new knowledge by placing oneself in a situation where they can directly engage with their chosen language. This can mean anything from watching a programme in that language, attending language exchange groups, or actually being in the country where the language is spoken.
- Fun – the most obvious advantage of immersion-based learning is that it is far more entertaining and emotionally rewarding than memorisation. Listening to foreign music or socialising and practicing with other language learners is much more engaging than staring at flashcards.
- Because of the methods involved in immersion-based learning, it allows for direct engagement with the culture of the target language, providing context to any obtained knowledge. This way, any possible errors made, and unspoken rules make themselves more apparent to the learner.
- Fight or flight – choosing to learn through immersion often means placing oneself in a situation where it is necessary to act on instinct rather than on pre-prepared notes. As a result, knowledge is gained through unavoidable experience – for instance, choosing to live in another country to learn the target language forces – or rather, requires – one to use it, whether you feel nervous or not. Though daunting, this fight or flight process is guaranteed to gradually make the learner feel more at ease with their chosen language as time goes on, and less self-conscious about using it.
- Different motivations – though we all have our own reasons for learning another language, the primary one is to be able to communicate with others. Choosing immersion through language exchange groups, pen-pals, and simply socialising with native speakers of a target language will give the learner a more human reason to improve their fluency, often leaving them feeling twice as determined and motivated.
- Accessible – there are a surprising number of ways to learn by immersion, at home or on the go. These range from simple methods such as changing a phone or laptop’s language settings to listening to the radio or a podcast in the target language.
- Requires confidence – most immersion methods demand some level of conviction in oneself, which is often easier said than done for those on the shy side who aren’t used to public speaking or meeting new people.
- Problems with access – though there are home-based methods of immersion as previously mentioned, the most effective immersion techniques involve speaking and socialising with other speakers (native or otherwise). This is not always possible, as much depends on location and travel costs – even finding someone online to practice with is often less than straightforward.
- Though immersion enables a ‘learn as you go’ approach, it is vital to have foundational knowledge of any target language, knowledge best acquired by actual study. Though immersive practices are a good way to improve fluency and become more confident, there is a likelihood that there will still be some important learning gaps that must be filled through reading and more traditional learning.
Which is better?
Having compiled both the pros and cons of each learning style, it is easier to weigh both learning methods up against each other and decide which is superior.
In short, immersion is. Though memorisation helps retain some of the basic foundational blocks of learning another language that are vital to the overall process, learning through immersive techniques allows the learner to engage with the ‘real-world’ existence of their chosen language, and enables them to learn from mistakes in an organic environment with other people and cultures. Moreover, learning through immersion is something that real life educational institutions have started to implement, with many schools (mostly outside of the UK) favouring bilingual teaching and learning – a testament to its effectiveness. However, it is important to not write off memorisation completely – like any learning process, the best way forward is through combining study methods, not only to keep things fresh, but to ensure all ‘bases’ are covered – it is one thing finding a person to practice a foreign language with, but it is another to actually know enough about the language to actually talk to them in it!
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