Mnemonics and When to Use Them


What is a mnemonic? Mnemonics are memory tools. Typically, the term mnemonic refers to a memory hook or association. It is used to connect something new and unfamiliar with something known and familiar in the learner's mind. It forms a bridge to the new knowledge using the old.

Associations can be powerful tools for remembering individual pieces of information. That is what they're designed to do. If you need to remember a license plate number or a historical date, you can use a mnemonic to hold onto that information. But what if you need to remember a thousand license plates or a thousand historical dates? How effective are mnemonics then?

Mnemonics are only one piece in the larger puzzle of using memory systems to master an entire subject. The analogy I like to use is that creating a mnemonic or association is like binding information together into a book. Suddenly the information becomes more accessible and useful as a reference. If you have thousands of books, though, just heaping them all together in a pile is a nightmare; instead, you need to have some kind of larger organization system. You need a library with shelves and sections. This is true for memory systems as well. You need to have an organization system in which to store the individual mnemonics.

There have been many attempts over the years to teach various subjects using mnemonics. The success of these systems tends to be in the detail level. Certain pieces of information are remembered because of the mnemonics used. Again, however, what about the larger picture? How can you ensure that the entire subject is mastered?

ShaoLan's beautiful Chineasy is a perfect example. The mnemonics presented are well thought through and visually attractive, but there are in fact thousands of characters to learn in order to be able to read and write Chinese fluently. Where do you keep these mnemonics in your mind? How do you store and retrieve all of them at will? The answer lies in using spatial frameworks or memory palaces - often a missing link in many mnemonic systems.

Using space to organize vast quantities of information is not the only issue with mnemonics. In fact, there are two other key challenges: first, mnemonics are not transferable, and second, you need to know what information to convert into mnemonics.

If you are using a mnemonic system like Chineasy, some of the associations presented will in fact resonate with you and they will stick in your mind. But many of the associations might be a stretch to understand, or might not make any sense at all. If you take a room full of people and you say, “Create a mnemonic to help you remember the Italian word dove means where” you will get a range of answers. Even if you say, “Let's use a dove as the mnemonic since it's spelled the same,” there will be people who reject that association. There will be others who, instead of thinking of a bird flying to a particular location, will think of Dove soap or Dove chocolate. Any attempts I have made in the past - even for the purpose of demonstration - to pass on pre-constructed mnemonics have at best only been marginally successful.

Since associations can't effectively be transferred between people - especially not at scale - it pains me sometimes to see the amount of work people spend on creating their own systems of associations with the hopes of then passing them on to others. These systems are nonetheless valuable in one other respect: they present organized information, the information that's necessary to learn for a subject. If you don't know what's necessary to learn a subject, you can waste a lot of time creating mnemonics for non-essential information. Chineasy's greatest value - in my opinion - is in explaining how the building blocks of the Chinese characters work.

Knowing what to create associations for is one of the major challenges in using memory systems for language learning. Do you store forms of a word - like eat, ate, eaten - all together, or do you store them separately based on their function? How do you create associations for grammatical patterns? Do you need to create mnemonics for all vocabulary you learn?

Personally, I recommend only using mnemonics for high-value content, like structural patterns and possibly vocabulary you really need to know. In general, I don't recommend overusing mnemonics, particularly for vocabulary, as this comes more naturally once the structural system is in place.

As long as you know what they are and how to use them, mnemonics are great. They are for capturing individual pieces of information and holding those pieces in your memory. Remember these three considerations:

  1. With lots of information and lots of mnemonics, you will need a spatial library
  2. Associations are not transferable between people
  3. Carefully consider what material needs to be stored in your memory before you go creating mnemonics for anything and everything.

Follow these steps to understand both the value and the limitations of mnemonics.

Check out our Memory Course HERE.

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