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).

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