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Memes in English Language Learning


What is a meme?

Let's start off with a definition from Princeton University:


A cultural unit (an idea or value or pattern of behavior) that is passed from one person to another by non-genetic means (as by imitation); "memes are the cultural counterpart of genes"

A meme can be a simple idea, or a complex idea. The most important point about a meme is that it propagates. In other words, a meme is an idea, value or pattern of behavior that is especially attractive and is passed from one person to the next - or even one society to the next.

Let's take an idea of a simple meme: 'love, love, love (music) love, love, love ...' If you are familiar with the Beatles you probably are humming that tune right now. That tune is a meme (at least as it is understood by the experts - references below!). It is passed around the world through the radio, people singing, etc. The Beatles were very good at creating musical memes, and the life of their music continues on beyond their own lives.

A more complex meme might be the idea of democracy. Many feel that this is the best system in the world, while others might vehemently disagree. It's an idea that's very attractive and has been passed down through the generations. Some people (Richard Dawkins who originated the idea) claim that religions are memes.

The great thing about thinking about ideas, values, etc. in terms of being memes is that it allows you to distance yourself from memes. If it is just an idea that is propagated effectively, it is not necessarily THE TRUTH. How does this apply to learning English? I think that many of our learning techniques are memes. They are ideas that have been passed down from one teacher to another, to students, etc. They are ideas about how you should learn a language. Unfortunately, what makes a good meme does not always make a good language learning technique! Let's take a look at what I consider to be some of the more damaging memes.

  • The best way to learn grammar is to study all the rules.
  • It's best not to speak if you are going to make a lot of mistakes.
  • The only way to read English is to make sure you understand each and every word.
  • You should be able to translate from your own language while speaking English.

These are all methods that someone, at sometime, thought were the best techniques. Remember all the conjugation drills? Just a meme! Many memes teach us things that are very helpful - that is a reason they are so successful as memes. However, it is important to keep in mind that many learning techniques are passed on as memes, but might not necessarily be truly what you need. Any idea or technique that doesn't work for you or your class should be thrown overboard! There's no reason to keep a meme around once its past its prime.

On the other hand, there are plenty of excellent memes that will help with language learning. Here are some of my favorites:

  • Language is made up of chunks - learn the most common chunks.
  • Study vocabulary in context.
  • Multiple intelligences means everybody can learn a language - they just need to figure out their own.
  • Learning styles are important and you should look for educational tools that leverage your type of intelligence.
  • Role-plays are a useful way of practicing English.
  • Social networks can help you find English speaking friends.

Of course, these ideas are not necessarily strong memes - yet. I hope that some of these ideas do well as memes, because I believe they are powerful teaching tools. I also do my best to present these ideas on my site to help them become stronger memes.

To return to my original argument: Some language learning rules are really just strong memes that have been very successful in propagating themselves. If these memes do not seem to be working for you or your class in your English language learning, try to find some new, stronger, and more helpful for you. Go out and launch the memes you like best, help them grow strong, and hopefully, you will help others improve their own English learning experience.

Learn More About Memes

Wikipedia's entry on Meme
They Daily Meme

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