05 February 2012

Rote vs Meaningful

Last time I wrote about the confusion of "Rote and meaningful" learning with "discovery and reception" learning.

This perhaps isn't as big a problem in language learning as it is in other forms of learning, as it would appear to be accepted in language-learning circles that all information learned is equal.  For example, if I learn the conjugations of a verb, then regardless of how I have done so, I have learnt it.  But it is the contention of David Ausubel that this is not the case -- if I learn something by rote, I learn it without structure or association, and if I learn it meaningfully, I know it by structure.
To quote Educational Psychology: a Cognitive Approach,
Rote learning occurs ... if the learner lacks the relevant prior knowledge necessary for making the learning task potentially meaningful, and also (regardless of how much potential meaning the task has) if the learner adopts a set merely to internalize it in an arbitrary, verbatim fashion (that is, as an arbitrary series of words). (2nd Ed, p 27)
The part I've put in bold here is the bit that most language teachers don't seem to appreciate.  There is a belief that somehow the inherent meaningfulness of language will shine through and all the rote-learned material will spontaneously become a single meaningful whole.  But core to Ausubel's core argument is that meaningful and rote learning are not merely superficial different methods, but that the internal modelling of learned knowledge relies on how it is learned.

So if a learner memorises yo estoy, tu estás, el está, nosotros estamos, vosotros estáis, ustedes están without having any previous exposure to Spanish verbs, each item will be more or less independent and unitary -- the inherently meaningful information (the regular and partially regular inflectional suffixes) cannot be noticed by a learner who has no previous concept or understanding of them.  Even once the learner is taught the rules of Spanish conjugation, the original representation of the rote memorised conjugations will remain intact -- it will not spontaneously decompose into morphemes.

A strong learner will eventually generalise this away and learn the verb meaningfully, but this will not take the form of "adjusting" the learned language, but of relearning it in a meaningful way.
What rote learning gives the learner is therefore not true learning, but the possibility of memorising the learning material which he can then teach himself at a later date.  By this token, phrase-based learning could be justified as providing a "corpus" (Wikipedia) which the learner can subsequently learn from. 

Such a "memorise first, learn later" approach can only really be justified if the memorisation stage takes significantly less time than the learning step, as a means of getting more learning out of a limited amount of tutor time.  Unfortunately, as I pointed out in a recent post entitled Who am I?, it takes a very long time to learn very short phrases, and it seems far more efficient to learn meaningfully from the outset.

Besides of which, "memorise first, learn later" assumes that all students are equally capable of teaching themselves, which is not true.  In my first foreign language, I made plenty of mistakes in trying to move from memorisation to learning, and from conscious to unconscious competence: mistakes that I now know how to avoid repeating in my subsequent languages.  How did I overcome these hurdles in the first place?  I was looking for them.  But nobody told me to look for them, so many people don't ever realise that they're there -- they instead justify their failure with phrases like "I'm no good at languages".

So to me, it makes no sense to have a student ever say anything if they don't understand it completely, ground-up.  The meaning of the sentence is irrelevant if they don't understand the vocabulary and construction of the sentence.


Anonymous said...

A layman's question: one of the first things I learnt when beginning with Gaelic was that the n in an changes to m before b, f, m, p. Was it rote learning (because I wasn't told why these particular four) or meaningful learning (because it constituted a rule)?

Nìall Beag said...

That would be rote learning, because your rule simply revolved around memorising a list of letters.

Eventually it became meaningful to you, and at that point you learned it meaningfully, but it would have been quicker if it had been taught meaningfully to you in the first place.

But thanks -- that's a good example, and I might just have to use it as a worked example of meaningful vs rote in a future post.

Anonymous said...

You're welcome - looking forward to that post!