Rote learning gets the bad rap in education and for good reason. Many countries have come to the realization that products of a rote education system are not competitive in the current world, especially since we as humans are on a fast track to storing most of our memory in external drives. It won’t be necessary for schools to be dispensers of information since we can get what we need from the cloud. The current verdict is that rote learning is dead.
For language acquisition however, there is still too much that is not known. Interaction, immersion and tapping into our multiple intelligences are unquestioned requisites for competency though the hard reality is that what looks good on paper doesn’t always work for the vast majority of language classrooms in the world which are overcrowded and handled by non-fluent teachers. The issue is management and management by default becomes the method. This usually ends up being parroting and rote drilling. It’s a bit militaristic but convenient for crowd control.
When learning a language on our own, we instinctively resort to something that could be called rote learning or brute memorization. We have vocabulary lists and sound files that we try to hammer into our heads. Any private language class will be about sound and repetition. Even when learning from movies or songs, one time is not enough. Parroting is the ability to imitate well and the most skillful have the best pronunciation. Of course we feel we learn the most on a bar stool or on a chat line, but when it comes to long-term memory, we know we have to hammer the words and phrases into our brains.
Like anything, we can get too much of a good thing. When excessive repetition taxes our patience, it’s called “semantic satiation”. It can happen quicker in the conventional classroom when students know the drills are less about language learning than about crowd control. They know this because of the teacher’s tone of voice, lack of variation and the lack of anything fun or pleasing. Crowd control and language learning are two different things and young children understand this well.
Lao classrooms still have a lot going for them. Teachers complain that students are naughty, but believe me I’ve seen much worse in other countries. Still, teachers can easily find more engaging ways for crowd control and ways to stimulate rather than satiate. Lao students love singing and can memorize long passages in a blink if they have a tune. Children have an ear for rhyme and rhythm and early learning can be wildly productive if a good amount of the time is given to singing, moving and creating. These are activities considered important in the approaches of Waldorf, Montessori and Reggio Emilia and are also valued in brain-based early learning approaches.
What about critical thinking? We can’t learn sequence without concept or risk becoming test-taking automatons. Without deeper comprehension, we can’t master complex subjects at an advanced level, but this might precisely be the point. We build a healthy brain before we move to more complex levels. We learn to walk before we can run. Sufficient stimulation for the brain varies with its stage of development. Even rote memorization done creatively can stimulate the brain in productive ways once we understand the beat of the drum in “repeat after me” is something inside us all.