This article was originally printed in Issue 400 (July/August 2012) of the Australian Mensa magazine, TableAus.
A friend of mine made a trip to New Caledonia. He had been a student of French for some time and was eager to test his skills in a ‘live’ setting. He decided to ease into bi-lingualism with a trip to a nearby café – a scene rehearsed in nearly every beginner’s French textbook. He ordered a drink and when it arrived he did his best to thank the waiter, offering up his best “merci beaucoup”, believing he was thanking the waiter for his service. Indeed, correctly pronounced, this is exactly what “merci beaucoup” means. The cafe fell silent. The waiter turned red.
“My friend,” whispered a local at the next table across. “You just thanked your waiter for his nice arse.”
Learning a foreign is as intimidating a challenge as it is exciting. Even the most cautious learner is only ever a few misplaced syllables away from embarrassment, or worse, offense. What’s more, the thought of having to spend years trying to commit vocabulary to memory prevents many people from ever attempting this bucket list item. What if one could learn a language in months instead of years? What if it were possible to learn a new word and keep it forever to be recalled at will?
Some people can. Bruce Balmer, a competitor from the first world memory championships taught himself 2000 foreign words in 18 hours. Dr Yip, a Malaysian mnemonist, memorized the entire Chinese to English dictionary and could recall any word and its definition when asked (He could even give the page number!). I watched my own teacher, Tansel Ali, committed his Chinese textbook to memory over a period of several weeks, covering as many months worth of material in that time. Although these feats of rapid learning were performed by experienced mnemonists, the techniques that they used can be very quickly learnt by anyone. The most powerful and elegant of these techniques, I describe below.
The link method
As with any effective memory technique, the key to the link method is to create creative mental images and organize them in a way that allows us to easily recall them later.
What this means is that we need to come up with an image that sounds like the word in question, and link it in an imaginative way to its meaning. For instance, the Spanish word ‘aburrido’, which means boring, sounds like the English noun ‘burrito’ (Okay, it’s not technically an English noun, but it’s one we are all familiar with!). In order to remember that ‘aburrido’ means boring, we might create a mental picture of a man in his kitchen searching for something to eat. He swings open the doors to his fridge and cupboards but finds only stacks and stacks of burritos. The man’s facial expression and body language all point to the fact that he finds the prospect of another burrito to be boring.
Perhaps we want to remember the word ‘por’, which in Spanish means through. To do so, we might imagine someone pouring something through a window. To make it more memorable, we might imagine a great ocean pouring out of a tiny cup, and perhaps landing on some unfortunate passer-by.
The Spanish word for cap, which is ‘gorra’, might be remembered by creating an image of an Angora goat gore-ing two holes in a baseball cap for its horns.
As you go about your day, test yourself on these examples. To recall them, simply bring the relevant images to mind. What does the Spanish word ‘abburido’ mean? What is the Spanish word for cap? What does ‘por’ mean? If you got them all correct, congratulate yourself. In only a couple of minutes and with only one viewing of each word you have taken your first steps towards learning another language. As well as being faster, mnemonics are much more enjoyable method of learning vocabulary.
The link method can be made even stronger by combining it with a variation of the method of loci known as the language village.
The language town
The language town combines the method of loci with the link method described above.
To use this technique, imagine a small town you know well, and use objects within that town as pegs on which to hang the foreign vocabulary.
For instance, you might walk into a café and see a man trying to spread a slice of bread with a pan (the Spanish word for bread is ‘pan’), or see leeches swimming around in a jug of milk (leche is Spanish for milk).
Verbs might be stored in a gym and adjectives in an art gallery. The benefit of this method is that it provides an excellent method for recalling definitions. Although we may be unable to immediately call to mind the appropriate image for the word for boring, knowing that it is stored in our kitchen means we can go back and find it.
Armed with a frequency dictionary and the mnemonic methods described above, learning the thousand most frequently used words in Spanish, which accounts for well over 90 precent of the spoken language, presents itself as a fun and do-able challenge. Indeed, more important than the increased speed with which mnemonic techniques allow us to acquire vocabulary is the way in which they allows us to reorient our attitudes towards learning. Rather than having to call upon the discipline and effort required for rote learning, mnemonics offer us an opportunity to exercise our creativity and approach challenges with a sense of play.