Learning a Foreign Language through Poetry

Laraine Flemming
© by the author

Memorizing and reciting poems written in a language you are trying to learn is a pleasant and painless way to increase your grasp of the language's vocabulary, syntax, and grammar. In this post, I'd like to illustrate why German is no exception to that general rule.


Having trouble remembering what form of "to be" goes with the pronoun du? If you are, then commit to memory Heinrich Heine's Du bist wie eine Blume. (You are like a flower.) It's all but guaranteed that once the poem resides in your long-term memory, you will never again forget what verb form teams up with du. Or take the opening stanza from Eichendorff’s poem Mondnacht (Moon Night):

Es war, als hätt der Himmel
Die Erde still geküsst,
Dass sie im Blütenschimmer
Von ihm nun träumen müsst.

Here is a literal line-by-line translation:

It was as if the sky
Had silently kissed the earth
So that in the glimmer of blossoms
She1 now had to dream of him1.
1In German, Erde (earth) is feminine and Himmel (sky) is masculine.

Note that this stanza introduces not only nouns like Himmel and Erde, but also tells you what gender each has (you may have noticed that remembering the gender of German nouns is one of the thorniest aspects of learning the language because unlike in English, the gender of German nouns is for the most part arbitrary). Note also that this stanza gives you a nice example of the use of the subjunctive in German. And all of this is expressed in a lovely and memorable image, that of the sky kissing the earth.


Because memorization has, over the last half-century, gotten such a bad name from people who (wrongly, I believe) claimed it did not involve any real learning, it's worth noting that memorizing poems to learn a foreign language fits perfectly with the latest research on how the brain works. As people like Stanislas Dehane, the author of Reading in the Brain, have pointed out, different parts of the brain influence different functions. One section of the brain is involved in associating letters and sounds, while a different area is crucial to recognizing words in written form. That's why people with a brain injury can frequently recognize letters, but not name them, or else write them but not speak them.

What this research suggests is this: Any new information stored by activating several areas of the brain simultaneously has the best chance of making its way into long-term memory. Memorizing certainly involves different parts of the brain. When you memorize and then recite a poem, you read the words and hear them as you recite. Different regions of the brain respond to the sight and the sound of the words, and it's this dual processing that makes memorizing poems such a useful tool for language learning.

A Suggestion

If you really want to memorize a poem quickly and build up your mastery of a new language, you can add a third cognitive activity that employs yet another part of the brain, writing. Here's a procedure I suggest you follow:

Start by selecting a poem whose subject, imagery, or musicality resonate with you. Then

  1. Write the first two or three lines of the poem.
  2. Say the lines aloud, even sing them if you can carry a tune.
  3. The next day, see how much of those first three lines you can write from memory.
  4. Look at the actual text and correct what you might have left out until the first lines are accurate.
  5. Say those lines aloud again and then write the next three lines.

Repeat these five steps until you know the poem by heart. Having stored the poem in your long-term memory, you'll also have stored its vocabulary, along with the grammar and syntax that tie the words together.

Put these steps into practice and commit to memory numerous poems over the course of time. Along with the poems, you'll learn a good deal about the vocabulary and syntax of the language you are learning.

Last change made to this page: 4 July, 2013
Leave comments on KrautBlog