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Mnemonic Devices and Other Tomfoolery

Otherwise known as

shortcuts for your brain

Memory in loci is an awesome technique with a rather gruesome beginning in ancient Greece. Follow this link for the full story. The important thing to know is that you can take a place that you know well (your home, for example) and use it to remember information. It’s particularly good for remembering speaking points or recalling lists. You just visualize the place in question and imagine walking through it. As you walk through it, you place objects symbolic of what you want to remember in different places. This technique has been used for well over 2,000 years and is commonly used by people who win memory competitions. Personally, I recite these out loud, talking my way through the visualization, and I often incorporate hand gestures as well.

Which brings us to TPR, or Total Physical Response. This is a language learning method, but you can use it for lots of things, not just foreign language acquisition. (Almost anything I’ve ever tried to learn can at least be expressed in terms of language, so anything that helps you remember language can help you remember anything.) I often use this technique alongside the memory in loci technique, which allows me to “act out” the story I’m telling about a place. I feel like this is starting to get a little too abstract and esoteric, so let me give you an example.

I had to remember the “Seven Steps of Problem Solving” for a class. It was very abstract and I kept getting the steps out of order. I was getting frustrated and learning it was not very fun.

Here are the steps: 1)Define the problem 2)Remove barriers 3)Gather facts 4)Generate solutions 5) Select a solution 6)Implement 7)Evaluate

So I fell back on the memory of loci technique, picturing myself standing in an imaginary house. First, I DEFINED THE PROBLEM by looking in a dictionary (I mime opening a book). Then I walked outside and REMOVED BARRIERS by pulling up the white picket fence around the house (I mime grabbing something and pulling it out of the ground). With the fence gone, I can see a field of fact-flowers, so I GATHERED FACTS (I mime picking flowers and gathering them into a bundle). Then, I walk down the road and see a big hydroelectric plant GENERATING SOLUTIONS (I mime the turbines spinning as the water passes over them). After that, I SELECT A SOLUTION (I mime reaching out and pulling a stream of water toward me). Now that I have the solution in my hand, I IMPLEMENT it (I mime hammering because a hammer is a tool is an implement). Finally, I EVALUATE (I mime waving my hand over everything to show how it works).

Remember, if something feels foolish or awkward, it doesn’t matter. What matters is the end result – did you learn it? In fact, you can embarassment, disgust, anger, delight, or any other strong emotion to fix memories even more firmly in your mind. I talk about this more in my post on grammatical gender.

When I am alone in the car, I quite often sing very loud and annoying songs full of personal pronoun declensions or verb conjugations. Just to clarify, the sounds are not annoying in and of themselves, it’s my off-key singing and boundless enthusiasm that makes them that way. The Arabic personal pronoun song is actually very pretty. Songs aren’t as effective for me, so I don’t use them often, but they work wonderfully for remembering “nonsense syllables” until they cohere into recognizable elements of language. They’ve helped me with declensions, conjugations, and alphabet sounds, among other things.

Speaking of declensions, I have a series of hand gestures which help me remember the Latin/Greek cases. I’ll try to get a video posted on this soon, since I’m sure my explanation here is lacking. Nominative (point at myself, who is doing the action), Accusative (look at the imaginary ball in my hand, which is receiving the action), Dative (throw the imaginary ball to someone and point at them), Ablative (put my arm around an imaginary someone/something next to me for the idea of with), Genitive (a scooping motion, showing from) and Vocative (I wag my finger at someone, so they know I’m talking to them).

[For Russian, you can also pretend to hammer with something for the Instrumental and point at something you’re standing on for the Prepositional. Whatever works for whatever case system you’re in.]

But what about improving memorization and speed for conversation? It’s all well and good to memorize lists of vocabulary or grammatical patterns, but knowing how to ask where the airport is will probably be more helpful than reciting the past subjunctive endings.

For this, I talk to myself a lot. In the car, in the shower, in the middle of the woods, anywhere that I’m fairly certain I won’t be institutionalized for gibbering to myself. It’s kind of fun, having extremely theatrical conversations with myself… When you have a vocabulary that’s limited to about fifty words, it often comes out “How is the dog?” “The dog is blue.” “Why is it blue?” “I don’t know!” Then my little recitation starts over again with the use of the words “cat” and “yellow.” The important part is that I’m reinforcing the sentence structures, getting my mouth comfortable with shaping the sounds. The melodrama helps memorization and intonation, and it also makes things a lot less boring so I do it for longer. Which is another reason to do it in the shower or while you’re driving; you can’t be distracted by the internet or a movie, so you’re essentially trapped with your own brain for entertainment. However, there’s still enough stuff going on so your brain wants to switch the speaking over to “autopilot,” which is a good thing… you want that language to just come tumbling out like your mother tongue. I don’t know if that makes much sense, but if you give it a shot, you’ll see what I mean.

Published inArabicForeign Language ProductionLatinMnemonicsRussian