Today we have a fantastic post from memory specialist Bartosz Czekala. Bartosz is a Computer Science and Econometrics graduate and he’s learned over 7 languages. Check out his awesome website, and enjoy the post!
Many of us dream of having better memory. As if your memory was something static, something immutable. As if you couldn’t do anything to improve it.
But the truth is that it’s easier than you realize! Learning vocabulary, or should I say, learning in general, can really be an enjoyable activity… assuming, of course, that you use strategies to learn. And you use them, right?
Learning without any kind of strategy is kind of like straying in the dark and wondering why you can’t get to the place you’re supposed to go. If you’re serious about learning your target language, you’ll likely spend hundreds or thousands of hours getting exposed to it.
So hey, why not have fun along the way? I’d have certainly gone crazy, learning the 7 languages I speak, if it weren’t for using the right strategies. So what are they?
1 – LEARN WITH MNEMONICS
The effectiveness of mnemonics techniques has been confirmed many times throughout recent years (e.g. Bellezza, F. S., 1996, Mnemonic methods to enhance storage and retrieval). But why are they so effective? Because your brain craves all the things which are interesting. This is what keeps its motor running! And how interesting are some black letters on the white page?
The three principles that underpin the use of mnemonics are association, imagination and location. Combined, these three elements make it possible to memorize and recall beyond what you would’ve thought is possible.
When you see a foreign word, the first thing you should do is to associate it with something that you’re already familiar with. It’s easier said than done, of course, but the great thing is that with practice, it really gets easier (and funnier!) over time.
Let’s use German word “die Frau” (wife, woman) as an example.
If you have never learned German in your life, this word might not evoke any feeling of familiarity in you. Most learners quickly come to terms with this fact and resort to rote learning. Urgh!
But you know better – you know that you have to encode this information. You need to associate it with something well-known to you. After closer inspection it turns out that this word actually is not only familiar but also makes perfect sense!
Well, the chance is that if you have a wife, she FRAUns at you frequently! Alright, we have an association. What next?
We don’t think with words. We think with images. When you hear the word “cat”, chances are the image of a cat pops up in your mind. That’s why your main encoding strategy should be creating vivid images, since this is exactly what appeals to your brain and what makes it easy to remember stuff. But how should you do it?
There are certain rules which tend to make your images more memorable:
- Use senses – the more the better. How does the object you want to imagine looks like? How does it taste? How does it smell? Use your senses in every way imaginable.
- Add details – is it old? What color is it? Once again, use your imagination to its fullest.
- Use emotions – your images should always trigger some reactions. Do you feel amused? Maybe scared? Sad?
- Exaggerate – don’t imagine a key of normal size! Make it huge! Or make it talk to you!
- Add some action – images you create should be like movie scenes. A lot of explosions, collisions and sudden plot twists!
- Include yourself in the story – because you are the most important person according to your brain, and anything related to you is important as well, so you might as well include yourself in the story you’re making up.
If you’re not sure if the image you’ve created will work, ask yourself this: “could it happen in the real world?” If not – that’s great. Then you’re good to go! Indeed, the crazier your image, the better.
Once you have an association and an image, you have to place that image somewhere. And no, it can’t be just any place. You have to know it really well. It must be distinctive. It must mean something to you.
Your home, for example, is always a great starting point. So go ahead, let’s mentally place your FRAUning wife on the porch. This is where your mental story starts! Create more associations and images and generate scenes which your brain won’t be able to forget.
2 – LEARN WITH MUSIC
You probably have heard this piece of advice before. After all, music evokes emotions, which in their turn help us to remember better (Jäncke L., 2008, Music, memory and emotion). But what if you want to memorize some specialized vocabulary or something non-generic?
Perhaps, after all, you don’t really want to know your target languages’ counterparts of “Baby, I’m standing in the pouring rain”. Yeah… So that’s why we need to innovate a little bit.
Say that you want to learn some industry jargon. First, choose your favorite song. It doesn’t matter from which language. Then, substitute the original lyrics with yours. Next, go to YouTube and find a karaoke version of the song and sing along! If that sounds too tedious (although it really does work well I must say), just try to find songs that have vocabulary you’re likely to use in everyday life.
3 – CREATE YOUR OWN STORIES AND CONTEXT
Don’t just read aloud. Speak from day one! The well-known advocate of this method is Benny Lewis of www.fluentin3months.com.
Remember that if you don’t have a conversation partner or you’re an introvert like me, you can (or rather should!) talk to yourself! In the early stages of language learning, almost every word is important and you’re likely to come across these new words many times over. Link them together and create some funny/absurd situations, once again using the power of your imagination.
If you learn Spanish, for example, and you know how to say “I’m hungry” and you stumble across the word “chair”, try to combine them!
“Tengo hambre y voy a comer una silla” – “I’m hungry and I’m going to eat a chair”.
Then add some more words and continue this bizarre story! It sounds crazy… no wait, it is crazy—but that’s the whole purpose. When you make crazy stories you are twice as likely to recall them.
4 – CREATE A GRAMMAR CHEAT SHEET
Take a sheet of paper (personally I prefer A4 format) and write down all of the most important grammar constructions from your target language. Include things such as conjunctions, verb conjugations, etc.
Use this sheet before every lesson or conversation (even with yourself) you have. Let it refresh your memory whenever you need it without having to rummage through all your textbooks. This’ll save you tons of time and will really come in handy to remember quickly the most useful grammatical structures of the language you’re tackling.
5 – CHANGE LEARNING ENVIRONMENTS
It’s time to reveal why: limiting your learning to only one place limits your active recall. Our brain tends to facilitate the retrieval of information in the environment where it’s been acquired (Smith & Vela, 2001, Environmental context-dependent memory).
If you learn only at home or at school, be aware that your recall elsewhere might be impaired. Try to diversify the places where you learn to prevent this from happening.
6 – CHOOSE YOUR OWN WAY
I have just one more piece of advice for you: at the risk of sounding paranoid, don’t trust anyone!
Nobody knows you as well as you do. And that’s why you should be the only person who decides which strategies to use and which not to. Don’t get caught up in thinking that there’s only one solution. Experiment to see what sticks. If you suddenly discover that yodeling helps you to remember better, then be it!
So, what about you? Do you use other out-of-the box strategies to learn?
Let me know in the comments below!
Bartosz Czekala is a polyglot and an avid learner of about everything. Obsessed with making learning easier and faster. On the never-ending quest for perfect recall. You can contact him through his website: www.universeofmemory.com.
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