I am not a language learning specialist but learning languages is one of my favorite hobbies and I invest a lot of time in it. What follows is just advice based on my own experience.
Learning by heart, a lost skill?
I went to a private school and I remember that learning by heart was a skill à part entière that our French teacher wanted us to acquire. We had to learn poems and recite them in front of the class. I know it may sound old-fashioned but my school was the old-fashioned style. I don’t think that they were doing it in public school at the time (I am not sure though), or that they are doing it now.
Anyway, I am thankful to have been through those boring hours when, walking in circle in my room, I was saying out loud again and again, first those children-friendly Fables de La Fontaine, and later poems from Verlaine or Baudelaire that I didn’t fully understood. Today learning something by heart isn’t a daunting task to me, it is almost as natural as doing drills, learning vocabulary or studying grammar. Simply because it is something I did a lot at school. And if it was boring and a little dreadful at that time, it has now become a learning strategy.
Learning by heart applied to language learning
Apart from poetry, learning by heart can be a very powerful strategy when learning a new language. I am not talking of learning everything by heart, without thinking or reflecting in the language. I am talking of selecting a text you like, studying it until every word, every structure are familiar and then learning it by heart.
If you know something by heart, it becomes your knowledge, you own it. Learning something in a foreign language has the obvious benefit that you can recall the structure you learnt more easily.
Befriend those grammar points
Better understand bizarre grammar points
Some grammar points are really hard to fully understand because they don’t exist in our mother tongue. For example, ていく is a challenging one. Sometimes, it is pointless to try to fully master a difficult grammar when learning it for the first time. You have to accept that your comprehension will progress with time and that you have to read and to listen to a lot of Japanese to accelerate the process. The more you will see this grammar in various contexts, the more you will be able to grasp its meaning. The problem is that, when we only see this grammar in a book or hear it on a radio program, we may not recognize it at all or, even if we do, we may forget about it right away because our attention is dragged away by what follows in the text we are reading or the program we are listening to.
That is where learning by heart is useful. Learning by heart is a slow process, you can fully concentrate on the particular phrase you are learning and you give it all your attention. If a grammar you don’t fully master appears, you will not miss it and you will be able to study it outside the grammar textbook. I will take the example of 星の王子さま, the Japanese version of The Little Prince. The very beginning of the books explains that a boa has to rest for 6 months in order to digest its prey. “to digest” is translated as: “消化していきます”. A beautiful example of the grammar ていく which allow us to take a step further in its comprehension.
Recall more easily grammar points you have learned
For example, let’s say you learnt the grammar （よ）うとする, which means “to be about to, try to”. Knowing the grammar and how to use it is one thing, but being able to correctly recall it and use it when you speak or write is another thing. Evidently, the more you speak or write, the faster you will be able to do it. But for most learners, speaking Japanese is not something that belongs to the daily learning routine.
Now let’s say you are learning The Little Prince in Japanese and know the phrase “猛獣を飲み込もうとしている…” by heart, the grammar will be much more familiar to you, you will be able to recall it and use it without much thinking. In fact, knowing phrases where a given grammar appears has the positive effect that you won’t see it like a grammar anymore, it will just be a part of the language and you won’t even think about it if you see it in a novel. I bet you don’t reflect of the particule が or を when you see them in a novel, because you are so familiar with them. But they were grammar points when you first studied them. The goal here is to apply the same process to all the grammar points of this painful grammar book.
Make seemingly complicated structures yours
When I learn a new language, I dream of that moment when I will be able to leave behind me those insipid textbook structures and use cool phrases that sound complicated. Especially for Japanese. It is a challenge to use correctly one grammar point but the thing is, Japanese people often intertwine several grammar points together.
Again, learning complicated structures by heart can only help to later build one’s own sentences. To give an example, let’s have a look at this excerpt from The Little Prince: “ほかの職業を選ばなくてはならなくなった僕は…”
Knowing such a sentence by heart means you own a pattern which you can use to build your own phrases. And you know it’s correct because you are using this particular, reliable template. Learning a paragraph or even an entire chapter means you own a little pattern collection from which you can draw when needed.
Learning words in context
Last but not least, it will be much easier to remember words you learnt in your text than the ones you learnt from your vocabulary textbook. Learning by heart provides a context for a lot of words.
Of course one may object that, no matter which text you pick, there will probably be a lot of useless words in it. In my case, I can answer easily that there is no such thing as useless words. As my goal is to be able to read comfortably anything in Japanese even words like 猛獣・もうじゅう are potentially useful… who knows when it will pop up again?
And anyway, if your goal is to get better at Japanese and leave behind you the intermediate level to reach an advanced level, all words are worth learning. You will certainly encounter them later anyway, either in a book or in a JLPT preparatory textbook.
A little extra
Of course, learning something by heart trains your memory. This benefit alone could be a sufficient motive to get started. Some people will challenge themselves with learning by heart to boost their memory or train their brain. Imagine that you are not only training your memory, you are doing it in a foreign language: you are a genius!
Which book to pick?
So concretely, if you want to give it a try, you should pick a text that you like because learning by heart will require that you spend some time working on that text.
Don’t choose a too difficult text because it is important that you understand everything you learn (learning something you don’t understand is really hard). It can be a magazine article, a chapter of a book or even a film if you have the script.
Ideally, choosing a text for which you have an audio has obvious benefits. Listening to it will help you remembering it and you work on your pronunciation and intonation as well.
In this article, I have taken examples from the Little Prince. I personally think that it is a good choice. First, it is a book for children, easy to read and understand, but a good book that suits adults too, so you will not get bored. It is easy to find a translation in your language. It has narrative and dialogue parts, so you learn a bit of everything: long and complex sentences and natural and informal dialogues. It is easy to break down in small parts because it has short paragraph.
How shall I learn?
As I wrote earlier, this is only my personal advice.
First, set your daily goal. Choose how much you want to learn today, it can be just a phrase or two or a whole paragraph.
Study the passage you want to learn, that means search for words and write down their pronunciation, be sure you understand every phrase by trying to translate them in your language.
Then it should not be too difficult to remember what you want to learn. I have noticed that when you understand perfectly something, it is easy to learn it by heart, but if the meaning, the use of one word or the grammar structure is not clear, learning by heart is an almost impossible task.
After some minutes, you should be able to recite what you have learned, but it doesn’t mean you really own it. That’s why you will have to review what you have learned, ideally several times a day. That’s something that can be easily managed. There are dozens of moments during the day where we have nothing to do but wait and where our brain is available for a one-minute exercice. You can review mentally what you have learned while waiting for the bus, waiting to cross the street, cleaning the room, in the elevator, in the toilet, everywhere in fact. If you learn only one or two phrases per day, it really only takes a few seconds to recall it. The more often you try to remember what you have learned the better you will know it.
Once a day, you should take time to review the whole text you are currently learning. Try to recite it from beginning to end and check what you forgot.
I really do think that learning by heart can be achieved by anyone. If you don’t have time, if you think you don’t have a good memory, if you don’t want to invest too much in your language learning routine, then learning only a phrase a day is still possible. Anyone can do it. And the more you do that extra effort, the easier it would be to do it.
Learning by heart is an old-fashioned skill and is often overlooked when setting strategies for language learning. I think that it is a highly beneficial way of improving yout language skills. But, even if you are not convinced about learning by heart applied to language learning, it still is a skill that deserves attention. Why not pick a poem and learn it by rote as suggested in this episode of the BBC?