Being a Language Poet (and not knowing it)

A buddy of mine on Twitter made the following posts the other day, which prompted some interesting discussion that I will endeavor to continue here. First, the set up (edited together from the original separated tweets):

so this will sound like a very Victorian method, but does anyone practise memorization of extended passages for language learning? i guess song lyrics would be the prime suspect here, but to memorize a speech, or a chapter of a book, there could be a lot of benefit there. you’d have to pay attention to every detail of grammar, think about it, internalize it. and in a few pages, there’s a lot of grammar.

To which I replied that it is totally doable and it isn’t necessary to pay attention to grammar points. In reply:

quite right of course 🙂 and if you can recite it, you will have to have internalized the structure to a considerable extent … there won’t be any wondering of “was this は or が again”, because it’s, well, memorized. Then if that’s the case, the knowledge should transfer to when you need to use that structure in speech or writing. probably.

This reminds me of a very interesting article someone posted a while back, which had this to say (a quote I’ve saved specifically to remind myself how useful this method is):

Through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries a classical education often included rote memorization of long poems in foreign languages, which strengthened the auditory memory (hence thinking in language) and an almost fanatical attention to handwriting.

(Source. Ironically also shared by Lan, and referenced in a post I wrote before. I guess this can be considered an extension of that article.)

Actually in going back to that article there was a comment Lan left that I think is worth bringing up since it ties together some other points I plan to touch on in this post:

I’ll be interested to hear how you get on with this. I’ve been thinking occasionally as well of adding some passage memorization to my routine. Memorization of a passage requires one to pay attention to all the details like little else does. “Was that particle a に or a で” – if you’re just reading, even in an SRS sentence, you might barely notice, but if you have to have it memorized it’s a different story. So I suppose I should get to this sooner rather than later, now where to fit it in …

Whew, I may be a history major but enough quoting and let’s get to some fresh content! Anyway, my favorite poem that I memorized is this one:

「靜夜思」-李白

床前明月光,疑是地上霜。
舉頭望明月,低頭思故鄉。

This is kind of considered a “childhood poem”–it’s memorized by almost everyone that I’ve met in Taiwan, so it’s also a really great way to connect with people. My professor in university also recommended that we study this poem, as it is great practice for tones and pronunciation. Anyway, it wasn’t until years later that I really appreciated this method. How did I come about it? Connections I made from other studying/reading I had done. Poetry–and the Chinese classics as I’ll get to in a minute–is something that I won’t touch with a dictionary. I just learn to read it, and practice reading them without going into the meaning. It sounds counter-intuitive, but it actually works really well.

For example, I’ve been reading the 《三字經》, which is a classic children’s textbook (used up until the end of the Qing dynasty). It outlines famous people as well as Chinese history. Only by reading it over and over have I been able to internalize what it is talking about, without really needing to rely on a dictionary. Grammar, too, became internalized. While this is classical Chinese, it still has a profound influence on my modern writing. Plus, you get to learn some really neat stuff!

Anyway, I really recommend giving this method a try. Pick one poem–or as Lan even suggested, a song–and just go at it. Don’t go with a dictionary, just try and read it once a day or at least 3-4 times a week. Get the pronunciation down. Wait a few weeks to months (don’t expect quick results; if you want quick results then you’re in the wrong field my friend!) and you’ll be amazed by what happens.

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2 thoughts on “Being a Language Poet (and not knowing it)

  1. Your blog is inspiring. Thanks for writing it! 正在学习汉语的人很多,但你却是一个突出的例子!

    • Why thank you! I’m really happy if I can be even remotely inspiring to someone. Thanks for your comment! 你太客氣,我沒什麼特別的人,只是一個愛讀書的人而已!

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