Why Rote Memorization Is the Easiest Method In Town (When It Isn’t Busy Being The Hardest …)

man in mirror to represent rote repetition feature imageI’m going to introduce you to someone very cool today.

It’s someone I’ve met recently through my efforts with this newsletter and we’ve been talking about the muscles, the misery and possibly even the merits of rote learning recently.

Merits? you ask. Well, yes, but not very good ones, I’m afraid.

Gary Orman is the man behind Learn Thai the Rapid Way and he even has a free mini-course that you should check out right now before coming back to read what he has to say about rote learning.

Because Gary says something quite shocking.

Gary told me that rote learning is actually the easiest path to memorization.

I have to admit that maybe he’s right, albeit in an ironic way.

As a reader of the Magnetic Memory Method blog, you know that I’m always talking about how strange I think it is that people engage in rote learning because it consumes so much time and requires so much effort.

Is Gary Right About Rote Memorization?

Don’t worry.

Even though I think Gary has a major point, my habit of championing mnemonics over rote learning is not going to stop. I’m far too devoted to memory tricks and tactics that actually work.

So what makes rote learning easier? Read on, dear Memorizers, read on.

Actually, Gary’s given me permission to quote directly from what he wrote, so I’m going to hand things over to him. And I’m grateful that he’s the opposite of the man who fought against mnemonics in his approach.

 As for preferring rote learning, it is the easiest way to learn (and teach) anything.

Sure, it takes longer and you have to work harder to remember stuff, but the crux of the matter is that you don’t have to think. And most of us prefer this way of learning, it’s a lazier way.

What most people don’t realize of course is that by investing in some active, focused creative thinking to devise a scheme or mnemonic hook of some kind then the overall amount of work is reduced.

The reason people don’t realize this is that it seems like a huge effort to produce and memorize and become fluent in a memory scheme (all that effort just for one word?).

And in a way they are right. The Memory Palace technique requires a big step back to prepare the scaffolding for storing all the words to memorize.

It might take a month of practice just to be completely familiar with one’s own “Memory Palace”. And the mental effort to engage one’s imagination and walk the Memory Palace path without ruining something is considerable.

In addition, it can sometimes become more confusing than just trying to memorize each word as a simple one-to-one correspondence.

But in my research, I’ve discovered that it does pay off to create a mnemonic structure of some kind.

If you have a list of, say, 400 vocabulary words, then on average – with good mnemonic “movies”, you only have to be exposed to each word about 3-4 times (depending on the language, 3 for related Romance languages, 4 for Russian, Hebrew, Thai, maybe 5-6 for Chinese or Japanese) for it to be fixed in your long-term memory. (You do need to refresh your member – using the spaced repetition approach – every now and again, otherwise you need to work through it at least twice to get it back, as it were.)

If you learn vocabulary the “brute force” approach then you need to be exposed to each word at least 20, but usually 30 times! (More for Japanese/Chinese.) But if you used a spaced-repetition approach then this can be reduced slightly to 15-25 times.

 20 times doesn’t seem like a huge amount, but if you multiply that by a couple of thousand words, which is what you need for a basic everyday conversation, then it means working through at least 40,000 instances. Using mnemonics when you’re dealing at this scale starts to make sense, because it’s an 80% reduction of mental effort.

I think Gary’s point explains why I sometimes get nasty reviews from people about the memorization method I’ve adapted and expanded upon in order to help people acquire the vocabulary of other languages. The method I teach does take “work.”

However, it’s work that’s designed to be as effortless as possible by being based on elements you’re already intimately familiar with and using preparation principles that will strengthen everything you do.

To be honest, “work” isn’t quite the right word for it. What we’re really talking about is “effort.” And as learning and memory expert Barbara Oakley details in Mindshift, there are ways to make sure that you don’t feel overwhelmed by the effort.

Is This The Right “Numbers Game”?

But just look at the numbers Gary presents. Merely by spending a couple of hours developing a mnemonic strategy for yourself and practicing visualization, you can reduce your mental effort by 80%.

There aren’t many supplemental skills that can boast a figure like that. And there aren’t many skills that are as rewarding as exercising the natural capacities of your mind.

I’m going to be signing up for Gary’s mini Thai learning course today and suggest you do the same.

I actually have a reason to learn Thai (a friend lives in Thailand), but I’ll bet that Gary’s ideas will benefit anyone learning any language.

Just read through the quote above again and realize that here is a man who has thought this stuff through and through.

Why I Still Disagree…

Although I take Gary’s point, here’s the reality:

Rote repetition isn’t for everyone. And if rote learning can be done well, it’s going to need to involve elaborative rehearsal.

So here’s what I suggest:

Instead of making it an either/or and a right vs. wrong argument, why not combine the two?

Flashcards with Chinese characters on them.
Flashcards as mnemonic devices for Chinese characters

Here’s how:

  • Get out some index cards
  • Draw associations on them for vocabulary you want to learn
  • Then review them using rote learning techniques

In this way, you’ll get the benefits of both worlds as you learn new skills.

That’s what I call a win-win!

Additional Resource

Also, be sure to check out Learn To Speak Thai by Olly Richards. It’s an amazing resource that will entertain you with tons of video content, knowledge and inspiration.

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Anthony Metivier is the founder of the Magnetic Memory Method, a systematic, 21st century approach to memorizing foreign language vocabulary, names, music, poetry and more in ways that are easy, elegant, effective and fun.

Dr. Metivier holds a Ph.D. in Humanities from York University and has been featured in Forbes, Viva Magazine, Fluent in 3 Months, Daily Stoic, Learning How to Learn and he has delivered one of the most popular TEDx Talks on memory improvement.

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