Questions on the Speed of Memory Techniques


I recently received a message from someone asking about the speed of using memory techniques to learn pieces of a language. In particular, this gentleman was trying to use Tony Buzan's SEM3 Method, which involves starting with a series of 100 keywords and systematically linking new keywords to those you already have. He was using this method for learning Mandarin vocabulary, and finding it taking about 10 minutes to learn one word. In this post, I'd like to respond to the gentleman's queries about speed in using memory techniques for language learning and building vocabulary.

First of all, creating associations is an "expensive" process in terms of mental capacity and sometimes time. For this reason I don't recommend that people do this right away with vocabulary. Instead, using memory techniques is much better applied to the core structure of the language. When you work this way, you find that you have fewer associations to create, as patterns repeat themselves and you can use what I call a "conversion system." With the structure in place, vocabulary becomes much easier to hold onto.

When attempting to learn vocabulary lists (of which I am not a big fan), the greatest danger to comprehension, motivation, and speed of acquisition is learning (or trying to learn) these words out of context. When presented within the context of a complete thought, surrounded by structurally significant elements, there are many supporting factors that aid comprehension and retention, including recognition of grammatical function, intonation and stress patterns, and a more nuanced sense of the semantic range of the word itself. Learning words in lists out of context slows the process down tremendously.

Without context, you have to create context, which is mentally taxing. Another way of looking at context — particularly in terms of memory techniques and frameworks — is that you need to create a structure to hold onto the mnemonic or association. In our programs, we provide the structural framework for the complete memory system to store, retain, and recall all the structural patterns of a language. We can do this because the patterns themselves are finite. For vocabulary, there's something of a different story, as there are so many lexical items in a language, you could easily get lost trying to create a mental storage system for all the vocabulary. I believe Buzan's method is designed to help create a framework that is flexible and expandable, but the method is somewhat cumbersome and would only gather speed with significant practice.

A simpler and more entertaining means of creating a mental framework which you could populate with vocabulary is to use a visual or spatial structure into which individual vocabulary items are placed and themselves linked together with narrative. Because the items don't need to be connected beforehand, one's freeform associations can be used to create wild or ridiculous (and therefore memorable) narratives connecting the various pieces of information. The new words are doubly rooted both spatially / visually and within the context of the narrative. In this way, instead of needing to create a separate narrative for each word, you can create a single narrative connecting all ten words, significantly reducing the time it takes to learn an arbitrary group of ten words.

In my experience, a simple and visual framework — perhaps using the rooms of a house or a memory structure like our “Macunx” — is much more effective for storing many pieces of information than complex frameworks designed to create linkages more “out of thin air,” so to speak. The more complex the system, the more frequently the data needs to be used in order for the system to be functional, memorable, and worthwhile. A complex conversion system for the numbers 00-99, for example, is worth taking the time to develop and become swift at using. If aiming for speed, the more physical and visual the framework, the more your mental effort is going toward the new material rather than to maintaining the framework itself.

Finally, there are two additional factors that affect the speed of using memory techniques to store vocabulary. The first is that it does just take practice. At the beginning, it can take a very long time to cover a small amount of material, but the speed can increase exponentially as you become used to the techniques and processes, particularly if you let your mind go and allow it to form associations freely. It's easy to try to make the process of forming associations too “active” instead of just letting it happen.

The second additional factor that can affect speed with memory techniques, specifically for learning the vocabulary of a new language, is that the first few hundred words of a new language take a disproportionately longer time to learn than the words that come after that. You are building up a new network of knowledge, so the first new items you learn will be like pillars that support the rest of the language learning process. Over time, these pillars will be reinforced and you will be able to add more and more in a fluid manner. You can't forget, as well, that much of your metal effort is being consumed by factors other than the meaning of words: grammar, tone, intonation, new writing system, etc. When these other factors become more familiar, more of your mental capacity can be directed to the vocabulary itself, which then aids in speeding up the process.

Memory techniques can be exhausting, so it's important in my view to use them for the highest value content: structure / grammar. With that in place, the rest of the language comes much easier. Then you can learn vocabulary in context, and you'll understand all the relationships between elements. I find that vocabulary comes naturally and quickly with the language's structure in place.

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