Memory is a key component to learning any language. In fact, it pretty much all boils down to memorization. But are you using your memory effectively, or just wasting your time? This is a question that I sometimes find myself wondering about. In this post, I will talk about a variety of topics regarding memory, which I believe can be utilized for actually learning Japanese more effectively.
Amazing Mental Abilities
Human beings are capable of some absolutely amazing feats of memory. In recent years, people even pit their memories against each other in memory sports competitions, which involve things like memorizing a full deck of cards, or an incredibly long series of random digits. Having personally been involved in the hobby of Rubik’s Cube speed solving for a number of years, I was always most fascinated by some of the amazing blindfolded solving records. At the time of writing this, the world record for someone solving a Rubik’s cube blindfolded is 21.17 seconds. This includes both memorization of the entire cube and then solving it. You might think that quickly shoving something into short term memory in the course of a few seconds isn’t entirely relevant to what we are talking about here though. A fair assessment. But what if I told you that the same person who holds this record, also currently holds the “multiblind” record, in which he memorized and solved 41 cubes in under an hour–with all of the memorization done before the first cube was solved.
Your initial reaction to something like this might be that someone who can perform such a feat must be a genius or some kind of savant. But generally, these are just normal people. It’s not that their memory is better than your memory. They just know how to memorize better than you, and they have improved their skill through practice.
One of the most telling stories is that of Joshua Foer. He was a completely normal journalist who went to the USA Memory Championship to do an article on it. Becoming so enamored by the idea that anyone could learn the skills needed to memorize large amounts of information so quickly, he dedicated one year to learning it himself. He came back to the championship that next year, and emerged as the winner and new USA record holder in the “speed cards” event.
In historical times, a memory was an important thing. There were times before computers existed. Times before voice recorders. Times before pens and paper. In the matter of about a decade, phone numbers went from being a thing people were memorizing constantly, to things that that no longer needed to be committed to memory. Students in this day and age often wonder why they need to memorize anything, when they can find the answer on Google in a matter of seconds. Technology allows us to utilize our memories less and less. While that certainly has many benefits, it does unfortunately leave many of us in the position of not really knowing how to memorize things anymore.
So, why don’t we go through various techniques here, and think about how they might apply to learning a language.
This is the main one for language learners, I think. And most people have caught on to it, so I’m not going to waste this article talking about it much. But essentially, by reviewing material at increasingly longer and longer intervals, we can strengthen the memories of that material with a minimal amount of time invested. It lets you learn more material in a shorter amount of time. Since learning a language involves committing such a huge amount of material to memory, efficiency is key. The utilization of spaced repetition software like Anki really ought to be a part of everyone’s study regimen. This thing alone probably leads to better long-term gains than any other item that I’ll talk about here, and unlike the others, there is nothing to learn other than the software itself. So in short, use spaced repetition.
A well known technique for ages, it was brought to the forefront of Japanese study by James Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji. With thousands of learners having completed the course and subsequently being able to write over 2000 kanji from memory, there is no doubt that it works. The technique basically goes like this: we remember things that are out of the ordinary, and we forget things that are mundane. There is probably very little that is more dull than a vocabulary word. So in order to make it interesting and memorable, we must simply visualize some sort of absolutely crazy off the wall situation involving that word, typically an image or story. The more details we include, and the harder we try to visualize it–possibly even incorporating thoughts about taste or smell or other senses into it–the more likely we will be to remember it later. Polyglot Benny Lewis mentions that this is a key to how he manages to memorize hundreds of words quickly.
Method of Loci / Memory Palaces
This is a fantastic method for learning lists of information. As such, its not super useful for every aspect of learning a language, but some people have found it useful for limited purposes, such as learning the readings of kanji. The method basically exploits the fact that we have very good spatial memory, and it involves a mental journey through a well-known location, like your house, school, or around your town. It works best in conjunction with imaginative memory. You will basically follow a fixed path through your location of choice, and at various memorable way-points you will associate an item that you want to remember. It probably works best through example, so here is a great example showing how someone might memorize the list of US presidents using this method. I mentioned a moment ago that some people had success with using this method for learning kanji readings. One such way that this could be done, is by noticing that many kanji utilize the same on’yomi readings, and grouping together kanji that share a reading. You can then use a memory palace to learn this list of kanji which use that reading.
Although I haven’t seen many people advocating it, I believe variations of this system can be used for learning vocabulary as well. For instance, if you are taking a journey through your home, think about all of the objects and locations that you encounter on your journey. Those are all vocabulary words that you can learn during your journey. I found this article which talks about how one can effectively learn foreign vocabulary using this type of system, in conjunction with linkwords (discussed below).
Update: After writing this post, a great new article about using Memory Palaces to learn words and phrases appeared on the fluentin3months blog, which you can read right here.
I’ll just lazily copy straight from Wikipedia.
Linkword is a mnemonic system promoted by Michael Gruneberg since at least the early 1980s for learning languages based on the similarity of the sounds of words. The process involves creating an easily visualized scene that will link the words together. One example is the Russian word for cow (корова, pronounced roughly karova): think and visualize “I ran my car over a cow.”
I see people using this method often for learning on’yomi readings of kanji, though it applies equally well to vocabulary words too. One notable example is the KanjiDamage site, which claims “you can learn 1,700 kanji using Yo Mama jokes.” The author explains:
I give each ONyomi a specific English keyword, which is used in every mnemonic for every kanji with that ONyomi. Thus, しょう(SHOU) becomes SHOW, か(KA) becomes CAR, etc. In the case of our example kanji, まい (MAI) becomes MY.
While the LinkWords method is not entirely without criticism, I believe that it can definitely be beneficial in helping one to learn more efficiently. One thing that you definitely need to watch out for though, is ensuring that your pronunciation does not suffer. Because you are associating sounds from your native language, it can be very easy to use those native words in place of the correct pronunciation that you are trying to learn. But as long as one remains aware of this fact and attempts to correct any errors as soon as they appear, I can’t see there being any major problem arising from it.
Alright, count of hands here. Who still needs to sing the alphabet song every now and then to remember what order letters come in? I have my own hand up, and I hope I’m not the only one here, as that would be quite embarrassing. Rhyme and song are very effective at helping us to remember things. Do you know why a lot of the world’s oldest literature is poetry? Because it was easier to pass down through oral tradition that way. And be honest, you probably remember the hook to almost every pop song that you’ve ever enjoyed, assuming you could understand the lyrics.
I remember sitting in my college Japanese class, and my teacher making us sing aloud a ” て-form song.” I recall it feeling rather degrading that I, a college student, was being treated like a 5-year-old. But you know what? That song helped me remember how to conjugate the て-form.
Here’s a cool example of how it can work:
But what you come up with doesn’t have to be nearly as long or elaborate. Maybe you can put a list of related vocabulary words to the tune of a well-known children’s song. Or maybe you just come up with a single rhyme or sentence to help you remember a particularly tricky word.
Are these techniques really a good use of time?
One might wonder if investing the energy into some of these techniques might take longer than just brute-forcing something into our memory. There is a reason that I started this post off by talking about memory sports. When people use techniques like these, they are not simply doing it to memorize lots of information–they are trying to memorize lots of information as fast as possible. Therefore, it stands to reason that at least some of the techniques that I have mentioned here will very likely end up saving you time in the long run. But I do have to admit, these aren’t things that you can just immediately get good at. At first, it will probably slow you down a lot. But as you get better and more experienced with the techniques, you get faster. That’s how it works with anything really… you can’t just expect to be proficient at something overnight. It takes practice. But as I’m sure you are aware, learning a language is a long journey. Every now and then, it doesn’t hurt to stop and look around for short-cuts.