Friday, 31 December 2010

Memory tricks for words


Various mnemonic memory tricks for remembering words in a foreign language are mentioned from time to time, often involving mental images and mapping sounds of a new word to sounds of your own language that sound similar. These techniques for learning facts have been around since the time of the ancient Greeks (and probably before). They are impressive in that a couple of examples will quickly convince somebody of their power. The problem I have with them is that they do not seem to scale well for language, also the word you know via this method is not properly known yet. The mnemonic is a patch, to help cover a few sticky situations nothing more. You can learn words to the full extent you need them much more efficiently.

My experiences

I posted initially about this technique (a cow with a shopping basket) sometime ago, after some experimentation I can still stay that for me it will never be more than a patch, a little jump-start for the odd tricky word than won't stick or for a new new word I need to use very soon. There are too many disadvantages, for example the danger of associating the word with a sound that isn't quite right, the hesitation (however small it is still there) in recalling the word etc.

As a recent example I was going for a meal with some Chinese speaking (and another Chinese learner) friends and booked a Thai restaurant. I quickly realised that they would expect me to speak some Thai (not really prepared for that in this situation) so I crammed a few words and phrase that I had never learned or needed to use before when eating on my own. Phrases like "have already booked".
Having used this memory technique for many years (it is not just for languages) I was able to cobble together something that allowed me to recall the words I didn't know almost immediately but it felt awkward to use and I know my pronunciation was poor. Now a couple of weeks later I can still recall them but they are not comfortable and don't feel learned at all (if you imagine running smoothly as speaking comfortably then each of these words feels like an awkward gap that you see ahead and have to jump safely, you know you can jump it but it breaks your stride and feels uncomfortable) One word is an exception and is comfortable, but that is because it is more universally useful and been exposed to it a few more times.

Language requires immediate and comfortable recall, in some areas knowing a vast amount of facts that can be recalled "almost" immediately may be useful but not with language. To be fair many of these memory techniques were designed for times and technologies where taking written notes or copying data was difficult. A Jesuit priest famously used the more sophisticated "memory palace" technique to learn Chinese (including the written language) in very little time. The problem is simply that it takes some considerable effort to master the technique. Fair enough if you are a Jesuit priest who can use his memory palace to practice, review and consolidate his Chinese in the darkness of night when there are no tutors or people to practice with, but is that effort worth it now when you can just turn on an Ebook or mp3 to do the same?

For more information on the method of loci follow the link, I think the following quote though sums up my qualms about it for language.
It has been found that teaching such techniques as pure memorization methods often leads students towards surface learning only. Therefore, it has been recommended that the method of loci should be integrated thoroughly with deeper learning approaches..

When I start learning Thai script I will use something similar for the mechanical easy bits (to save time) but the hard slog of learning to read Thai will mostly be by exposure.


There are bold claims for this technique people claiming that you can learn hundreds of words in a short time with little recall delay etc. etc. It makes a useful marketing exercise (because you can easily show it working in a couple of examples). But in practice you then find the same people trying to cram some language (with tuition) into 11 hours and still doing a poor job of stringing a few simple sentences together (the magic goes away I guess). Yes the word does get "burned in if you keep using/reviewing it" but there are other easier ways to do that in the same time-scale.

What this method promises with the hype turned up to 11, is a way to learn a language very fast but I don't find real world example (excluding the odd savant and some of them can just as easily work from boring long lists of vocabulary).

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Stream Languages In


Sometimes it is easy to forget how much easier it is to for most of us to learn languages than it would have been many decades ago. With computers and the Internet it is very easy to stream radio and TV from many different countries. Before this technology a person who could live in a foreign country wasn't at a disadvantage if they wanted to learn the language of that country (exposure is there if they want it). A person who was exposed to many foreigners in their own country could also decide to learn that language. What was very hard would be to pick a language at random and then get exposure almost immediately (leaving the worrying about when and how you are going to speak it with natives until later). Go back further and the practicalities of ever going to the country where many languages were spoken meant that although someone may learn some of a language to help them go on and whilst on a pilgrimage (or similar great adventure) I doubt that many people would have learned a language and then gone on a pilgrimage to practice it.

Recently it is even easier, with an Ipod touch and wireless network, or with an android phone I can stream video and audio content anywhere, any when, and in many languages whenever I feel the need.


TVUPlayer is a peer2peer video application that streams a whole host of TV channels(and pseudo tv channels) from all over the world. There are a number of mainstream channels from some countries (China for example) and a lot of smaller (often stranger channels). Being peer2peer the connection may start off weak but usually picks up.

I have used the player on PC and Ipod there is a small charge for the Ipod and Android versions but you can download a free version (limited to a couple of minutes at a time). Be aware that the player uses a lot data transfer, which is a drain on the battery of your device, also possibly expensive (I only use it over wireless).

There are many, many languages represented, I find the easiest thing to do is to just add a bunch of channels to 'favourites' and filter out the ones I don't like (the channels have little country flags next to them that usually match the language).

I don't use the player for organised learning, just occasionally for when I want to listen to some Chinese, Thai or German. There is a much better choice of Chinese channels than Thai and a couple of the Thai channels I have found are poor quality but still enough to be useful.

If you are learning multiple languages, this application is particularly useful.

TuneIn radio

For streaming radio, I have used the TuneIn radio application on both the Ipod and Android. I think there was a small charge for the Ipod version but the Android version was free (but you don't seem to be able to record on the Android version yet).

You can start your search for stations by language :) there are many types of radio stations including talk show and story channels.


Language is there waiting for you to watch an listen, a significant aid to your language learning and particularly when you consider that many of the native speakers you may want to talk to could have listened to and watched similiar material whilst learning their mother tongue. I have two cousins who grew up without television, probably and advantage in many respects, but one thing they told me is that even as adults they often don't understand cultural references in English conversation because they never experienced them on the TV.

I watch hardly any TV in my own language these days, but in other peoples languages, that is a different matter, even trashy TV ;).

Monday, 20 December 2010

How to start learning a language

Youtube is a great place to pick up some basic vocabulary in many languages. This is not the best example of these particular lessons (they are pretty good ;)) but it is at least seasonal.


I don't feel I wrote a single good summary of how I would start to learn a language so here it is.... I am not a polyglot yet, and I have higher personal standards for fluency than many, but this kind of approach works for me, I am currently successfully applying it to Japanese.

Start by listening

If the sounds of the language are unfamiliar then listen to it, listen attentively and listen whilst doing other things, get a feel for how it sounds, get a feel for words, word barriers sentence intonation etc. You can listen to radio, watch TV, news, drama, comedy, people what ever you can get your hands on. You should feel the language get more familiar. At the same time you can watch the style of the native speakers, how they move, how they express themselves, also pay attention to how they speak your language, if they have an accent this gives you clues about the sounds in their language.

A good test is to determine how well you can distinguish the language from others (especially languages that are similar). If you are learning German, you should be able to easily distinguish it from Dutch or Norwegian or Afrikaans. learning Spanish then distinguish Portuguese, learning Japanese then distinguish Korean.

You may find it hard to listen to something you don't understand, I never have had a problem so long as I can feel the progress. You can listen for word-boundaries, mood, names, conjugates at some point the stream of random sound becomes a stream of words that you don't understand. It sounds trivial but the difference is huge.

You may have done most of this stage already if you have been exposed to the language before and you can continue this process whilst doing other things. You have probably done enough when you can say "right that is the language, now what the hell does it all mean". You are going to be speaking in the style of a new language, for most activities if you are going to do something "in the style of" you would expect to have some experience of what that style is. Play music in the style of, dance in the style of, paint in the style of ......

Pick up some basic vocabulary

A few hundred high exposure words and simple phrases, this is not a significant feat of memory in yours or anyone else's life, if you get stuck in you will learn them.

There is much debate about how to pick up vocabulary, in the early stages though I really don't think it matters. Children learn the basic vocabulary for their own language by massive exposure, you can do the same. Find whatever lessons, videos, podcasts you can online that are teaching basic vocabulary in the language you are learning and get exposed. The words will stick with enough exposure. These very high frequency words don't need tests, flash cards, SRS, lists or similar. If you are being tested on or testing yourself for example on simple words like "yes" or "no" or "thank you", then stop. Just get a bit more exposure and you will just know them. Save the arguments for how you are going to learn vocabulary later on, even guys that have a "bad memory" still seem to manage to remember all the names of the players in a bunch of football teams or similar, so at this level of memory exposure is all that is required, no special tricks or techniques needed.

Youtube is a great place to pick up basic vocabulary, many languages have countless little lessons teaching language, some free offerings from commercial organizations and some from members of the public. Quality doesn't matter too much, get as much variety as you can and it will all even out. Free introductory lessons to learning podcasts, free cut-down versions of learning software, all may give you audio you can practice.

People are obviously a good source of vocabulary, friends, family, associates, people around you, anyone who can speak the language. If you are in a foreign country then you are surrounded by sounds that will help you, don't ignore them. If not in a foreign country then rejoice at all the technology available to you that will help.


If you watch small children learning a language you will see them play, babbling, making their toys have pretend conversations etc.. When playing they don't stress about whether it makes sense. Sometimes they may have to talk to a big scary adult they don't know and then you can see the stakes raised, suddenly they are more careful, perhaps more nervous. Have fun with the language, pick up a few words and start mashing them together in ways you think they may work, play in your head or with a trusted friend, or in safe environment (where your ridiculous accidents will spark humour rather than a fight).

Think about when you will talk

Start to think about how you will talk the language and to who. Maybe that bit is easy at first, perhaps there are friends, colleagues people there already, so armed with the style of the language and some basic vocabulary start practising. If not then just start to work out where you will find the opportunities when you will need it. When the speech is bursting to come out you want to have planned an outlet.


Get yourself used to the sounds of language and when you speak your pronunciation will be OK at least. It doesn't take long to get used to a language, if you really don't like the sound of it then you are going to struggle learning it anyway (you can get to like it but not if you resist it).

Don't stress about the initial basic vocabulary that gets you started, that bit is easy. It is high exposure, you will learn it. If it takes you twice as long or twice as fast then over the course of learning the language it is not a big deal. Keep getting exposed, pay at least some attention and if you have any interest in the language you will learn the basic vocabulary.