My Experience with Rote Memorization

The Chinese phrase Si Ji Ying Bei (死记硬背), literally translated as “memorizing to the point of death”, has always been synonymous with the Chinese education system, which is known to focus on rote memorization. Critics believe this system stifles creativity as students do not learn to think analytically. Some go as far as alleging that the education system was the root cause of the phenomenon of Chinese companies copying technology and ideas from others. After all, their managers grew up discouraged from thinking critically for themselves.

Having lived in China until third grade — and briefly returning for a semester in sixth grade — I actually never minded this system. I was always better at memorization than application and to this day, I still wonder if I would have been more successful academically had I not emigrated. Regardless, my parents did not believe this was the best form of education for me, and so in April 2008, my late mother and I moved to Toronto and I began attending elementary school here.

Ironically, despite being a firm believer against the system of Si Ji Ying Bei, my mom was convinced that rote memorization was the best way for me to learn English. She worshipped these English textbooks called “New Concept English” because they were what she used to learn English back in the early 1990s. These textbooks were essentially a collection of passages pulled from various books and articles that featured progressively harder vocabulary and grammar.

What these textbooks look like

I am still unsure where she got this idea from, but in the summer of 2008, she assigned me with the objective of memorizing and reciting the passages from all four textbooks. That meant well over 200 passages and I was supposed to recite a different passage every single day.

When I told this to my ESL teacher, she thought my mom was downright insane. This method of learning English probably broke all the rules there are when it comes to language acquisition. In any case, I began slowly chipping away at this impossible endeavour over the course of the summer and the first half of fourth grade. This is one of the daily passages that I had to recite, from the second New Concept textbook, in May 2008 when I was first assigned this objective:

Last week I went to the theatre. I had a very good seat. The play was very interesting. I did not enjoy it. A young man and a young woman were sitting behind me. They were talking loudly. I got very angry. I could not hear the actors. I turned around. I looked at the man and the woman angrily. They did not pay any attention. In the end, I could not bear it. I turned around again. ‘I can’t hear a word!’ I said angrily. ‘It’s none of your business,’ the young man said rudely. ‘This is a private conversation!’.

The next is one of the passages from the fourth New Concept textbook, that I recited in January 2009, barely seven months later:

People are always talking about ‘the problem of youth’. If there is one — which I take leave to doubt — then it is older people who create it, not the young themselves. Let us get down to fundamentals and agree that the young are after all human beings — people just like their elders. There is only one difference between an old man and a young one: the young man has a glorious future before him and the old one has a splendid future behind him: and maybe that is where the rub is.

When I was a teenager, I felt that I was just young and uncertain — that I was a new boy in a huge school, and I would have been very pleased to be regarded as something so interesting as a problem. For one thing, being a problem gives you a certain identity, and that is one of the things the young are busily engaged in seeking.

I find young people exciting. They have an air of freedom, and they have not a dreary commitment to mean ambitions or love of comfort. They are not anxious social climbers, and they have no devotion to material things. All this seems to me to link them with life, and the origins of things. It’s as if they were, in some sense, cosmic beings in violent and lovely contrast with us suburban creatures. All that is in my mind when I meet a young person. He may be conceited, ill-mannered, presumptuous or fatuous, but I do not turn for protection to dreary cliches about respect for elders — as if mere age were a reason for respect. I accept that we are equals, and I will argue with him, as an equal, if I think he is wrong.

The before/after difference was tremendous. It is evident that the latter passage featured grammar and vocabulary that one would not expect from any fourth-grader, let alone a fourth-grader who was still in ESL. Granted, during all of that time, I was reading other English books and speaking English with my multicultural group of new friends, and reciting New Concept English was far from being my only source of progress. But it would be untrue to say that this seemingly pointless and time-consuming practice did not play a huge part in my learning of English.

I left ESL fairly soon after and my mom could not have been more exhilarated. This proved that her method — which everyone counseled against — was successful. For most of that year, whenever we had guests over or were at any gathering, she would show off my recitation as her “party trick”. She would have our bewildered family friends flip to random pages in the New Concept books, and have me recite the exact passage on the spot.

My mom’s obsession with memorization as a form of learning also applied to other subjects that I was learning: for example, when I first started learning French after she transferred me to the French Extended program in seventh grade, she decided at whim that I had to recite the entire Le Petit Prince. My French marks throughout middle and high school were quite good, though unlike New Concept English, I seriously doubt memorizing Le Petit Prince — which took over two years — played a significant role in my acquisition of French.

Although it has been more than seven years since my mom last commanded me to recite anything, this habit has stayed with me. Sometimes I just “like” to recite things, whether consciously or unconsciously. Whenever I listen to a new song that I enjoy, my first priority is always to search up the lyrics and make myself memorize them, instead of just listening to it repeatedly as a normal person would. I also have a natural tendency to recite my favourite movie scenes. Something I am extremely proud of is that I can re-enact the entire 3-minute business card scene from American Psycho, with — I like to believe I can — every single little expression, tonality, and detail down cold. These are just random tendencies that I have, however. For more than seven years I have not consciously recited anything for the sake of learning — it helps that as a business student, I do not have to memorize much compared to my friends of other disciplines.

Since this summer, I have slowly begun to pick up my old habit of reciting things — this time, with traditional Chinese prose/poetry. In my last Medium post, I have stated my objective of going back to my old hobbies, and reading/learning traditional Chinese literature was one that I was keen to regain. Some of the stuff that I was reading was just so damned beautiful that I unconsciously began trying to recite them. On a side note: the beauty of most of these pieces become lost in translation, but one passage I am particularly fond of — “The Rhapsody of Epang Palace” by Du Mu of the Tang Dynasty — has a brilliantly translated English edition that I enjoyed almost as much as the original.

One thing that I have always lamented in recent years is the decrease in my attention span. My prolific use of social media and smartphones have obliterated my ability to concentrate. I used to be an avid reader and could easily spend an entire day curled up with a good book. Now it seems hard to even focus for half an hour without my mind wandering off, or my left hand reaching instinctively for my phone. This was something I have discussed extensively with various friends who have been experiencing similar symptoms. Some things I have tried to do include making myself read every day and decreasing my smartphone usage. But up to this point, progress has generally been limited.

In my endeavour to redevelop my interest in traditional Chinese literature, I have pleasantly realized that reciting literature is also an awesome way to rebuild my attention span. From my personal experience, recitation is underrated for rebuilding concentration for three major reasons:

  1. Reading is a passive use of your attention span and generally does not require effort; after a certain point, your mind will just wander off uncontrollably. Memorizing and reciting, in contrast, requires active effort. It is much more difficult for your mind to wander off in the midst of a high-effort action;
  2. Because it takes countless iterations before you can fully recite an entire passage of anything, you are forced to become much more patient and you can rewire yourself from seeking instant gratification;
  3. You can track your progress very easily — e.g every iteration you are able to recite more from the passage compared to the last — and you are motivated to keep going. When the recitation becomes finally flawless, it feels extremely rewarding.

I think poetry, prose, or famous speeches are all good places to start if you are interested to get into this. It helps if there are particular poets or authors that you already enjoy reading, as your appreciation of the work itself will help ground you in case you ever get frustrated in the progress.

There are different ways you could use to help with memorizing. In my New Concept English days, I would draw out visual cues for myself to rely on for each passage and use them to stimulate my brain as I memorized. For the past few months, however, I have been “bruteforcing” the memorization process: I would just read each passage out loud, then try to recall the entire passage from memory, read the passage again for details I am missing, and iterate the procedures for anywhere between ten to however many times I need. This is probably the most inefficient way of memorizing things, but I believe it has been the most helpful with reaping the aforementioned benefits.

I look forward to hearing your comments :)

Self-Improvement. Chinese lit. World history.