In Praise of Memorization. Why you should be memorizing in your language classes.

In college, I studied Japanese using a now slightly out of date textbook series-Japanese the Spoken Language Volumes 1, 2, and 3, co-authored by Professor Mari Noda and Professor Eleanor Jorden. Okay to be honest, extremely out of date. When I was organizing our basement at home, I found a photocopied version of the same text from my mom`s college days (along with accompanying audio cassettes). The vocabulary list includes “Sovietto” for the USSR~!! That country does not even exist anymore.
Where the USSR used to exist… even though it still apparently exists in my Japanese textbook!
Many have criticized the JSL series for being esoteric, boring, and tedious. Admittedly, the textbooks are extremely outdated and the grammar explanations mind numbingly dry. The author, Professor Jorden, is clearly a linguistic perfectionist- unsatisfied with the three (!) Japanese-English romanization systems that already exist, Professor Jorden created her own special system for the textbook series.

Students often find the textbooks restrictive. Each chapter begins with a set of so-called “Core Conversations” based on the vocabulary and grammar points to be introduced. The conversations are to be memorized and then recited in class, with the professor correcting pronunciation, accent, and in some cases even body posture and movement. Lots of people, including students in my class, criticized the series for this focus on memorization, rather than a focus on creating original sentences.

Yes, I mean memorizing such Core Conversations might seem pointless and ridiculous. When after all will you be sitting with a friend looking at a girl`s picture from a dating service and need to have the following interchange- “Is she pretty?” “Well now… she is not very pretty.” “How unfortunate.”Or the equally thrilling exchange – “What is that?” “This?” “Yes, that.” “This is a pen.” Great. Okay we all laughed in class learning this seemingly inane and pretty useless-seeming phrases. Honestly is there any point in learning such a conversation?

What is that? This? This is a pen.


This exchange is actually kind of famous in Japan, since “This is a pen” is one of the first sentences that most Japanese school kids learn in English class. Credit for this image to MyAbridged. Check out an entire hour of “this is a pen” –

Admittedly, I have never had to have this exact conversation while living in Japan. However, the such memorized phrases and sentences have come in extremely handy. The month after I arrived in Japan, I was with a friend attending a formal dinner event. She had run out of business cards, which are invariably exchanged during introductions in Japan. I advised her to say, “Moosiwake gozaimasen. Meesi ga kirasite orimasite…” (My apologies. I have run out of name cards.) She was surprised that I would know such a sentence and in keigo, the polite form of Japanese speech.

Often I find myself pulling phrases and sentences directly from sentences and conversations that we drilled in class. I still remember despite having studied them years ago. “Excuse me. Could you tell me where the Okura Hotel is?” “Um, could you explain to me how to use this machine?” “No! Please let me pay today.”

Memorization may be considered a crutch in language acquisition and a hindrance to natural and fluent speech. However, I would have been lost sometimes without my memorized phrases. On those days when my brain just cannot form an original sentence, I am most grateful for memorization.

2 thoughts on “In Praise of Memorization. Why you should be memorizing in your language classes.

  1. Charles Posey says:

    In 1962, living in a Japanese neighborhood, a neighborhood boy came up to me and, in perfect English, said “I have a pen. Do you have a pen?” After that indication of his current efforts with my language, not another word was said by either one of us. But he led me down to the local Shinto shrine, where he showed me the circle used for Sumo wrestling, No one else was present. We wrestled; and, once I had pushed him out of the circle, we were done. Later on, I read that, before Sumo was a sport, it was a divination ritual; I have often wondered what question he was resolving with our Sumo match. All I know is that later I was invited down to the shrine with all the boys our age of the neighborhood to doff my shirt; don a Hapi coat(which I got to keep); and carry the portable shrine around the neighborhood to bless the houses.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. J LeClair says:

      What a great story! I love these chance encounters that come with traveling. I know that the internet is making it easier and easier to “travel” virtually. But these kind of serendipitous experiences just aren’t possible through a computer!!


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