Memorize or Understand First?

I wrote a blog post a long time ago and someone linked to it (but it doesn’t show on trackbacks). I’m embarrassed reading it again… but I can only write from my own experience. Memorize first or understand first? Well, it depends.

I don’t always remember the theory of conjugation. If you ask me to explain about irregular conjugations, I will have to check a Korean textbook first because I really don’t remember which part has to be deleted or which part changes, etc. But I usually remember the conjugated forms of verbs. For example, I know off the top of my head, that the -면 form of 덥다 (hot) is 더우면.

더우면 에어컨을 켤까요? If it’s hot, shall I turn on the air conditioner?

There are textbooks that show conjugated words like this: 덥다 – 덥고 – 덥지만 – 더우면 – 더우니까 – 더워서 – 더워요 for memorization and I think it’s helpful.

So it’s possible to memorize conjugated words without understanding why… because those words (in conjugated forms) appear frequently and you remember them because you often see/hear them. Besides, just imagine, when you have to speak to a real Korean person, you won’t have time to remember the theory of conjugation. There will be no time to remember which letter drops and which letter changes to something else. It’s easier and faster to just remember that the -면 form of 덥다 is 더우면.

But, it’s not always the case. Memorization without understanding could be really boring and painful. And if it’s painful, you will hate it and naturally you will want to quit.

It’s in fact easier to remember expressions when you know the reasons or you know the definition of every word used in the expression. For example, in Korean, to say ‘have a nice holiday!’, you can use ‘휴가 잘 다녀오세요’. (This expression appeared on TOPIK Level 1).


It’s easier to remember the expression if you understand the meanings of each word: 휴가 (holiday), 잘 (well), 다녀오다 (to go and come back), and the grammar -세요 (for giving instruction to do something the polite way). So when you use ‘휴가 잘 다녀오세요’ to say goodbye, you’re actually telling someone who is going on his/her vacation to go and return safely. Which is nice, right?

And when you find out you can change 휴가 (holiday) to 여행 (trip), 여행 잘 다녀오세요 (have a nice trip), your brain will be convinced that it is an important expression to remember and so it will be kept in your long-term memory.

As a K-pop fan, I use 잘 다녀오세요 to comment on K-pop idols’ social media accounts because they travel a lot. I left comment 미국 잘 다녀오세요 to B1A4 recently because they had a concert in US/미국.

It is true that when you understand, you’re more likely to remember, or recall.

Song: Don’t Recall by K.A.R.D

What I wrote here is just my experience. Everybody is different and learns differently, everything is case by case,  and you should do whatever that suits you because you’re the one who is responsible for your own learning. ###

2 thoughts on “Memorize or Understand First?

  1. I have similar thoughts! I have learnt the theory of conjugating verbs, but memorizing conjugated verbs is just too dry. I prefer to learn already conjugated verbs (for more practical usage), and then in my spare time, reduce them to their basic form based on whatever theory is left in my memory. I find that it makes me remember them more, but perhaps it’s just me. Does it even make sense? Thanks for putting this into a blog post!

    Liked by 1 person

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