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Text Memorisation in Chinese Foreign Language Education

Xia Yu

In China, a widespread learning practice for foreign languages are reading, reciting and memorising texts. This book investigates this practice against a background of Confucian heritage learning and western attitudes towards memorising, particularly audio-lingual approaches to language teaching and later largely negative attitudes. The author conceptually examines a number of issues central to the understanding of the practice of text memorisation in the Chinese educational context. Furthermore, there is an empirical inquiry into Chinese learners/teachers’ practices and perceptions of the inclusion of text memorisation in foreign language learning and teaching. Drawing on heuristics yielded by both theoretical and empirical findings, this study promotes a ‘different-rather-than-deficit’ perspective in understanding Chinese learners and their learning practice by way of challenging the uncritical assumptions about the negative impact of a Confucian philosophy of education. More importantly, the topic and theme discussed in this book are timely and relevant to some long and widely debated issues in foreign language teaching and learning within China and internationally.

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CHAPTER 1 Text Memorisation: A Historical Overview

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As an experienced English learner and foreign language educator brought up in China, I have long been fascinated by the way some Chinese learners learn English – learning texts by heart1. Yet it was not until recently that I began investing serious thinking in this learning practice when I found that it con- tinued to be used by the new generation of Chinese learners of English even though they were equipped with various types of modern language learning equipment such as video, multimedia systems, language laboratories, internet and so on. One student born in the 1980s wrote: From Junior One to Senior One, I spent four years learning texts by heart. According to our ancestors, ‘Memorising 300 Tang poems makes one a poet himself ’. … It is also true to foreign language learning. I regret not reciting enough texts then. (L. Sun, 2005: 218; Chinese original)2 The research to be reported in this book was, in effect, inspired by English learners like Sun in China, who seem to have a lot to say on this practice based on their own learning experiences. Anecdotes abound, and feelings are strong and mixed. Is it something our students ‘can neither live with nor live without’ (Ding, 2004)? The practice of learning texts by heart makes one straightforwardly relate it to the stereotype of Chinese learners who have long been described as ‘prover- bial rote memorisers or recyclers’ (Dekert, 1993: 133) or ‘relentless rote learn- ers’ (Biggs, 1991: 27). There has been an increasing...

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