Castles Made of Sand Fall Back Into the Sea…


This is not only a line from a great Jimi Hendrix song; it's also a fact about memory palaces.

The concept of the memory palace is very simple, but I often see overly simplistic descriptions of its use. There are tons of lightweight descriptions out there with a kind of “see how amazing it is” attitude. These often merely point theoretically at what is possible by using such memory techniques and systems, but one often gets the feeling that the author has not actually applied the techniques directly very often or at scale…

When you get into the world of creating memory palaces, you quickly realize two things: 1) the application of the theory of spatial memory is not always as simple as it seems when practicing on set lists of information, and 2) with creativity, you can not only develop new patterns and systems for yourself to store anything you want, you can also begin to explore the versatility of the memory palace for different applications. While the first point may seem off-putting to some people, the second point far outweighs the challenges you might encounter on the way.

One of the things to realize about memory palaces is that you can build them with varying degrees of detail and varying degrees of strength. You can, for example, quickly create a spatial structure that will give you an overview or outline of a topic. Perhaps you create a space for each of the 12 structural components of language as we outline in our memory course. You can do this very quickly, and almost instantly have a spatial sense for the structure of a language. Later, you can add the details as you need or want.

You can also vary the strength of your memory palace depending on what it is you want to accomplish. If you are trying to memorize a speech to give within the next hour and then can forget it forever, your operating style will be different from that you would use to create a permanent resource in your mind. Considering your objective will help you decide how much time and effort to put into the strength of your memory palace.

I usually recommend building a memory palace for grammar, but not as much for vocabulary, unless you are under the gun to learn huge amounts in a short period of time, usually for assessment. Even then, I prefer absorbing vocabulary through context and through a range of material. High-frequency elements get repeated often, and this gives me a better sense for what is important and what is less important. Even if building a memory palace for the structure of a langauge, however, you can decide whether you want to use it just as scaffolding or to build it as a permanent resource.

If you want to develop conversational fluency as quickly as possible, you can build a memory palace in a kind of “quick and dirty” way to get all the details into your head fast. You don't need to embellish with a lot of vivid visual details or rearrange things to get them perfect if you've realized you could have organized them better. Instead, you use lightweight hooks to get the material into your mind quickly, then practice using the language as much as possible. You'll start developing proficiency and then fluency quickly, and will be left with very good grammar in your usage. Your memory palace will fade away, but that's ok as long as it served the purpose of springboarding you to fluency.

This is great for a lot of people who want primarily to develop conversational proficiency in one language. If, however, you want to use a language professionally or if you want to learn multiple languages, I would recommend investing more time in your memory palace. Take the time to flesh it out with vivid details and also to run through a full review process to ensure the palace is burned into your long-term memory.

Consider your objective and determine how strong you need to make your memory palace. If you don't need one made of stone, don't waste your time. But remember that castles made of sand do fall back into the sea… eventually.

For our full course in memory systems for language learning, please click here.

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