Memorisation: maybe it does actually work?

The other day at work I was discussing language learning with a few colleagues since we all need to speak multiple languages during a day so adding a language to our portfolio is something most of us consider. Some of my colleagues are true polyglots speaking some 5-6 languages fluently (oh how I wished I could do that), and in a neighbouring department they can count some 35 languages in total so things are pretty international.

During that conversation, I realised that one of my co-workers has not been in Denmark for particularly long, but her Danish is excellent and apparently she was fluent enough to get a good job after having been in the country for only 6 months. That is pretty darn impressive because Danish is a “weird” language in many respects and many foreigners (though especially the Swedes hehe) make fun of us by saying that it sounds like the Danes speak with hot potatos in their mouths.

It turned out that she had been attending a special language school targeting professionals and one of the requirements was to learn 15 sentences by heart for each class. The idea was that the sentences they memorised would provide a structure for the students, and then they could alternate the words depending on what they wanted to say.
She thought it was nice to be forced to memorise words and sentences because she would never get around to doing that at home and now she remembered them. I suppose she has a point there. If someone tested my Korean in some particular area on a set date (let’s not think of the TOPIK right now but more casually and on a weekly basis) then I would probably also try to memorise some more things to at least not make a fool of myself for not knowing some key words.

She still has a hint of an accent, but she is eloquent and does not appear to be in any way inhibited when speaking. Danish is her working language and she is able to handle even stressful situations in Danish. That’s more that I can say about my Korean skills at the moment…

Personally, I’ve gone through some phases concerning memorisation, and I know many learners feel very strongly about the topic. Some are strongly against it while others seem to live and breathe for it. My initial approach was to make lists and flash cards. After a while I didn’t really review them and just looked up words as I went along. Then I revised flash cards again and now I have had my feet solidly planted in the “no word lists” camp for a while – letting my poor collection of flash cards collect dust.

What I have done is to go through my TTMIK and Sogang books, going over the lessons and looking up whenever needed. Of course I have thought “seriously, this is the fourth time you look up that word, just remember it!” but I haven’t really gone though a “memorisation regime” in relation to these books. I’ve also looked at the word lists and grammar lists provided at the end of the chapters in the Sogang books just to check my comprehension level, but I never “drilled” the lists.

I’m still a newbie when it comes to Korean, but I sure have passed the 6-month mark by now and my Korean is nowhere near my colleague’s level of Danish. Of course I’m not in Korea, I don’t have to speak it in my daily life, and I don’t even have the opportunity to subject Koreans to my language learning struggles on a daily basis, but still, kudos to her for her efforts and her results. They are still impressive.

Have any of you learned a language through the method she has been following? A method where memorisation was a very integrated part and considered crucial?

Do share your experiences with memorisation and your thoughts about it in the comments 🙂


10 thoughts on “Memorisation: maybe it does actually work?

  1. Dusk

    I haven’t learned through that method, but I have been trying to memorize (some) sentences using Mnemosyne. Even though I haven’t been as active with that as I should be, I’ve found that it helps with noticing patterns in sentence structure and being able to use the structures. Have you heard of AJATT ( or Ask a Korean ( Both of their language learning methods are different but similar in some aspects. They both advocate memorizing, but in different ways.

    1. koreanlearner Post author

      Hello! Sorry about the late reply, I have been away for the weekend.
      Interesting, I have never heard of Mnemosyne before. I should check it out 🙂
      I think I have looked at AJATT at some point, but I found it very difficult to actually do. I’m a fairly talkative person when I speak Danish or English but when I have met with my language partner to speak Korean and I really should speak only Korean, it seems like my mind goes blank or I end up wondering how to say ALL of the words.
      I never knew that AskAKorean was also about language learning…

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  3. sinnew

    stumbled upon by Google search.
    thought I’d share some of my thoughts.

    I never thought memorization was smart way but at certain points, it feels like there’s no avoiding it.
    It improves much faster, i guess, when i try to memorize and words I come across naturally are somewhat limited.

    1. koreanlearner Post author

      Hi there! I agree that learning a language by mindlessly reading a dictionary is not the way to go, but some words are just more important than others… For instance, things like numbers and what your own degree is called in Korean is something you might just as well know by heart. The same would go for words you know that you absolutely must know such as “I’m allergic to…”

      Maybe it’s easier to drill something than to just learn as you go along if the words are part of a particular system. For instance it doesn’t make much sense to learn numbers by first stumbling across 33, then 45, and 79 without ever seing the system as a whole.

  4. Autonomous Korean

    Memorization is so over-emphasized in some quarters that it gets a really bad rap from others. When memorization is your entire regime, without any application, without any content-based learning, then it isn’t very effective. But as part of a balanced course, I think it can be very useful.
    Still, it partly depends on personality, and some will be able to tolerate more memorization than others. But if it’s going to work, it’s got to be done right – not mindlessly (like some of my students). An important part of it, I believe, is knowing what to focus on and what to try and memorize. Selecting the right words to memorize is really important, and something most learners don’t really know how to do, and don’t even think about, relying on pre-made lists instead.
    As for memorizing entire sentences intact, that may be useful if it helps you to notice – noticing is a key to acquisition… but if not, it may not work that well. Again, depends on personality.

    1. koreanlearner Post author

      I think that’s a good point, knowing what to memorise and combining it with actually using the words you memorise. For instance it probably makes good sense to memorise words related to your studies/what you do for a living and so on because you are bound to get such questions whenever you meet someone for the first time. But that is differerent from “mindlessly memorising” as you say.

      Perhaps some things just have to be memorised – like numbers.

      I think the school picked out the sentences based entirely on the structure they had to learn for the day’s lesson. I suppose it’s a bit like if you were in a TTMIK class setting and were to memorise the sample sentences from the lessons and be tested in the following class.

  5. 1fiftysix

    By looking at the words itself and trying to get them into my head doesn’t really work for me. I would often try to associate them with pictures, music, feelings or even the surrounding. 🙂

    1. koreanlearner Post author

      Yes, that is probably right. It’s difficult to remember a word just for the sake of remembering it. If it’s associated with a situation it’s so much easier because it feels more relevant.


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