Use mnemonics

Rule #7 in the 20 Rules for Learning is “use mnemonics”. This is such a fundamental part of effective learning that it is covered in several articles on this site and elsewhere. Rather than reiteriting that here, this post gathers together a set of trail-starters on using mnemonics and how they can help you to learn Chinese.

Mnemonics around the web

Using mnemonics to learn Chinese characters was mentioned in the previous article in this series, and in more detail in the series on how to learn Chinese characters.

Olle Linge has some great content on using mnemonics for language learning over at Hacking Chinese, including how to break down characters into abstract parts, a warning about overuse of mnemonics and how mnemonics can be applied to other areas of language learning such as pronunciation.

Controversial language blogger Benny Lewis has an article describing how to use a memory palace for learning vocabulary, and writes about the importance of imagination in building strong memories.

The udemy blog has a post warning us not to rely on mnemonics created by other people. Because mnemonics rely on your own personal associations, creating them yourself will be a lot more effective. Having said that, I do find it helpful to see other people’s mnemonics for inspiration, and quite often they create a strong enough mental link to be effective.

Mempowered describes a fairly standard mnemonic image technique for language learning, and BuildYourMemory.com has a similar write- up.

Finally, the original Internet bible of language learning Omniglot.com has a quick introduction to mnemonics for language learning.

This is such an old and classic technique that there are many more guides out there; it’s worth reading a few to get some familiarity and then ensure you’re incorporating this in a personalised way into your own studies.

Books on mnemonics

Along with Chinese reading, I also get through quite a few books about the learning process itself. The extra effort and hurdles required in getting a book to publication often mean they have higher quality and deeper content than what you can find on the web (though not always). Adding this kind of learning-to- learn content into the mix pays off in the long run.

A Mind for Numbers

A particularly good book I can recommend is A Mind for Numbers by Barabara Oakley. Whilst the book is aimed at people taking maths and science courses, the learning advice it offers is useful for a much wider field of learning, including language learning.

A Mind for Numbers goes into some depth about mnemonic techniques, and has a refreshingly skeptical take on a lot of the dubious claims about learning that are waved around elsewhere. The book also references the studies its claims are based on, and those make for interesting reading too.

Moonwalking with Einstein

Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein is an eye-opening insight into the world of memorisation. It focuses on the extreme end of these techniques – such as international memorisation competitions – and as such does not apply directly to language learning.

However, the value it offers to those of us learning a foreign language is that it puts our task into perspective. The book shows just how far the human mind can go in rapidly accepting huge quantities of information, far more than most people believe. After reading this, you’ll be more motivated and better equipped to get going on large vocabulary lists, sets of example sentences and learning Chinese characters.

The Art of Memory

One of Joshua Foer’s recommended books is The Art of Memory by Francis Yates. This will be more interesting for those who are interested in the historical background of memory techniques; the book looks at how general knowledge of the topic has shifted dramatically across the centuries.

The Art of Memory isn’t a recent publication itself, having first been printed in 1966. It has inspired a lot of research and personal interest into the topic of memory techniques since then, and in a slightly meta way will help to cement the ideas themselves in your mind. If you do get on to reading The Art of Memory you’ll have veered pretty far away from the track of learning Chinese, but I think you’ll find this short deviation interesting.

The usual memorisation note

Memorisation and mnemonic techniques often get criticised, particularly when it comes to language learning. Native speakers did not acquire their fluency by memorisation, the argument goes, so neither should you. I think this is a flawed understanding of how memorisation fits into learning languages.

Mnemonic techniques let you jump straight to being able to recall information that would otherwise take repeated natural exposure and recall over a much longer period of time. Of course that natural acquisition process is very beneficial, but as second language learners we usually do not have the luxury of having the time and resources to do that.

Mnemonics give you an initial boost to recallability, even if it is conscious, slow and “unnatural”. From that position, you’re much better placed to go on and reinforce that knowledge, as well as combine it with other parts of your learning. Gradually, information that once took conscious effort to retrieve can be used more and more fluently; then it is a skill that you have acquired.

In short, memorisation and mnemonics are a practical shortcut in the early stages of acquiring knowledge.

Series: Twenty rules for learning

  1. Understand before you learn
  2. Learn before you memorise
  3. Build upon the basics
  4. The minimum information principle
  5. Cloze deletion for learning Chinese
  6. Use imagery to learn Chinese
  7. Use mnemonics (this article)
  8. Graphical deletion and audio deletion for learning Chinese
  9. Avoid sets
  10. Avoid enumerations
  11. Interference when learning Chinese
  12. 5 ways to optimise your Chinese flashcards
  13. Refer to other memories
  14. Personalise your Chinese learning
  15. Using emotional states to remember Chinese
  16. The importance of context in Chinese flashcards
  17. Why redundancy is good for language learning

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