Here in India, both the phrases learning by heart and learning by rote are taken to have the same meaning, i.e., blind memorisation without true understanding.

However, some sources say that to learn something by heart implies that one knows something so well that it has been thoroughly internalised and imbibed.

So is it wrong to conflate the two?

  • I think the two expressions mean the same. I assume that in some regions "by heart"is more common and in others "by rote". There is a tendency to assume that there must be a difference when there are two expressions for the same idea. And such speculations sprout like grass. – rogermue Jan 30 '15 at 7:58
  • By the way, the etymology of "by rote" is unclear (Oxford). I would guess it was shortened from "by routine". – rogermue Jan 30 '15 at 8:29

No. They are not the same. In fact, they are not even related much. Sadly though, the expressions came to be used interchangeably and even Wikipedia has merged them into a single entry.

Learning by rote is about the technique or practice of memorizing. Learning by heart on the other hand, is the nature or quality of what has been learned.

The director told me to learn my speech by heart. I had to go over it many times before I learned it by heart. (TFD)

This clearly shows the difference. go over many times is the process of 'rote learning'; I learned it by heart is the effect it produced or the quality of learning that was acquired.

learn something by heart
Fig. to learn something so well that it can be written or recited without thinking; to memorize something.


learn something by rote
Fig. to learn something by memorizing without giving any thought to what is being learned. I learned history by rote; then I couldn't pass the test that required me to think. If you learn things by rote, you'll never understand them.

Do you notice the without thinking part? It occurs in learning in case of 'rote learning', and in recollection in the case of 'by heart'!

  • Nice to be of help. Keep coming back to ELU! – Kris Nov 27 '13 at 10:17
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    I think that hits the nail on the head. +1. – WS2 Nov 27 '13 at 11:56
  • I found this excerpt from a commencement address. I don't know if this would qualify as more of an opinion than an "official" definition, but it seems relevant: "Learning by heart — which may be somewhat of a dying tradition — means to learn something so deeply that it becomes part of our core: it fills us; it changes us." The difference might be less in technique than in what we do with the acquired information. – J.R. Nov 29 '13 at 10:34
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    You should say whether this is your personal interpretation or whether you have some clear evidence. As the etymology of "rote" is unclear I don't see how you can say they are not the same. – rogermue Jan 30 '15 at 8:34

When I was at primary school in the early 1950s we were encouraged to learn things 'by heart'. For example we learned all our times tables from 2 to 12 'by heart'. We learned poems by 'heart'. At that time the practice had not come under the sustained criticism of educationalists that it has today. And the expression 'learning by heart' had a nice gentle ring about it.

I never encountered the term 'learning by rote', nor 'rote learning' until the practice started to become derided by people who claim to understand these things almost as though it were harmful to children's health.

My own suspicion is that whilst they mean the same thing, learning 'by heart' sounded too wholesome and positive a learning experience for those people who wanted to get rid of the practice. So an altogether less enticing term was introduced. I may be completely wrong about this, but that is my impression.

Is it wrong to conflate the two? I think that would largely depend on who you were talking to. Personally I have never understood why 'memorisation' excluded the possibility of 'understanding'. After all actors and actresses learn their parts 'by heart', or is it 'by rote'?

I would say the terms (which mean the same thing) are used by people depending on what impression they wish to create. Whilst Shakespearean actors probably memorise 'by heart' (because that is deemed nice), children are taught times tables 'by rote' (because that is deemed nasty).

Further thought.

@Damkerng T (below) has suggested that learning 'by rote' is only one method of learning 'by heart'. If that idea has substance it suggests that 'by heart' is a more general term and that 'by rote'is a subset of it. Could it be that 'by heart' refers to an end-result e.g. I know the 23rd psalm 'by heart'. And could 'by rote' refer to just one process by which you get there?

  • I would myself learn to spell some words by heart. I was never exposed to a teacher standing in front of class going "D-O-G, dog, C-A-T, cat" or similar and the kids are repeating in choir, which is what I think of when I hear "learn by rote" – mplungjan Nov 27 '13 at 9:19
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    This is a lovely example (sadly) where the denotations are virtually identical but the connotations (as you say) are, probably by design, widely divergent. Of course, 'by heart' emphasises the wholesome (and heart-warming and even fun) internalising / end product, whereas 'by rote' emphasises the tedious slog involved in the process. – Edwin Ashworth Nov 27 '13 at 9:35
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    I would like to add that "learning by rote" is not the only way to "learn by heart". Jingles are good examples. I don't know how many jingles that I learned (unconsciously) without having to learn them "by rote". – Damkerng T. Nov 27 '13 at 10:38
  • @DamkerngT. So what is the subtle distinction in meaning between 'by heart' and 'by rote'? I take it 'jingles' are 'by heart' since they sound warm and cuddly. But you are the first to indicate a difference in meaning, so would it be possible, for the benefit of the OP to put some flesh on the idea. – WS2 Nov 27 '13 at 11:35
  • @DamkerngT. I will edit my answer to take account of what you have said. It is interesting. – WS2 Nov 27 '13 at 11:38

If I want to learn anything by rote, I would have to "consciously" keep repeating the thing I want to learn again and again, usually by speaking out aloud, until finally I can remember it. Usually, given that I repeat this enough times, I might finally "know it by heart". So in my opinion, "learning by rote" is a way (but not the only way) to "learn by heart". But the outcome ("knowing it by heart") is not guaranteed, since more often than not, students usually find the process of "learning by rote" hard to endure, so they stop before they can succeed.

  • So what I think is evolving here is the idea that 'by heart' refers to an end result. I just happen to know something 'by heart'. How I achieved that could have been by a deliberate act of repeating it to myself many times (by rote), or through a process we have yet to name where because we hear something frequently we automatically know it 'by heart'. I would be interested to hear further views about this. – WS2 Nov 27 '13 at 11:50
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    I have read a bit of some recent learning theories (but I'm not an educational expert whatsoever). It seems to me that a new trend of learning is to have people learn things by heart "unconsciously" (jingles is a very good example, I believe that learning to drive is another, to name a few). They appear to believe that this "unconsciously" learning is more effect than the other way (usually imply "learning by rote", or to remember things "consciously"). – Damkerng T. Nov 27 '13 at 11:57
  • Learning by heart .. A strange expression that. What it usually means is memorization – sticking things in your head and keeping them there, ready to reproduce when required. How else do you remember irregular verbs other than by committing them to memory? What I’m interested in here though is the heart part – the seat of the emotions. While we can all remember information, if there is an affective as well as a cognitive element – if what you are reading touches your feelings together with your understanding .. then you may interact with the material and make it yours (possibly for life). – J.R. Nov 29 '13 at 10:42
  • ...In other words, I think you're onto something here. {Source} – J.R. Nov 29 '13 at 10:43
  • @J.R., thank you very much. It's very interesting! Songs and rhymes help indeed. I remember that since the first time I heard To be or not to be: That is the question, (maybe in the movie Shakespeare in love), I've never forget the phrase hearing it just once. – Damkerng T. Nov 29 '13 at 10:56

Surely, learning by rote memory and by heart according to me are two different steps involved. Man has a natural tendency to forget so we use rote memory. While we need to understand what we are learning and reading. It simultaneously occurs. So read aloud first then write. Putting both ur mind and heart will express in form of a nice memory.

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