What does the Aardvark say?

Italian Map Percentage

This past week, I learned Italian grammar from an aardvark. I met him in the bar off the great court of St. John's College, Cambridge. On my way to meet the aardvark — who was a retired Japanese military officer — I had to pass a vampire named Alice and an enormous anaconda...

At least, that's how the narrative is stored firmly in my memory now.

This was the first time I attempted storing a complete map of a language using memory systems and techniques. While I made some costly mistakes that kept me from finishing the whole map in under a week, the results have nonetheless been incredible.

A random paragraph from an Italian newspaper showing everything represented on our Italian map (in yellow), everything directly accessible from English (in grey), and everything closely cognate to English (in dark yellow). What this means: learn just our map and you'll have 90%+ comprehension of Italian.

Image: A random paragraph from an Italian newspaper showing everything represented on our Italian map (in yellow), everything directly accessible from English (in grey), and everything closely cognate to English (in dark yellow). What this means: learn just our map and you'll have 90%+ comprehension of Italian.

At first glance, our language maps seem to contain a daunting amount of material. We include all structural patterns, including variant or archaic patterns, and exhaust exceptions wherever possible. We put a huge amount of work into creating the maps so we can say, “Learn this, and you're done with grammar.”

In some recent posts, I've discussed the need for stacking up layers of familiarity with elements of a language in order for those elements to stick. Essentially, you are working to bridge a knowledge gap with several layers of material.

Though mostly focused on language, I'm fascinated by emerging technologies, and often read up on the advances in stem cell technology. Scientists are now able to create cartilage, bone, and even skin and other organs using biomaterials as scaffolding, then injecting stem cells into these biomaterials. As the stem cells grow into the desired organ, the biomaterial dissolves. The end result is an organ in the exact size and shape of the pre-designed biomaterial.

Building up layers of familiarity can be like letting a wound heal naturally. Gradually, the flesh fills in the gap and the skin closes. This can take a long time, however. For large wounds, it also leaves heavy scarring or is insufficient on its own. Using memory techniques is akin to building biomaterials in the right size and shape and injecting them with language stem cells. This means you get to the end result immediately, and the language is in the perfect size and shape in your mind. Over time, as you work to apply the patterns and see them in action, the cells grow around the form and solidify into a perfect knowledge of the language.

Like stem cells, each person's system of associations used for the construction of a memory palace will be unique to them. As in emerging stem cell technologies, however, you can use the same biomaterial across patients. In other words, you can use the same structure — the same memory structure — and simply inject the patient's own stem cells (own images and associations) for each case. No threat of rejection.

What this means is that I can personally go through each of our maps and create the appropriate memory system for the language (which is much trickier than it seems in theory), then instantly pass this structure on to others. This means that included with each program will be the tools necessary to store, retain, and recall a language's structural patterns with 100% in a matter of weeks or even days.

Once the scaffolding is in place and all the pieces of the language are stored in the memory system, the growth of these language stem cells can happen incredibly quickly through a combination of mental reviews, audio reviews, passive exposure to the language, and practice of active production. After initial storage, it will still take time and patience to recall the material, but the recall accelerates rapidly. After a week, I can create complex sentences in Italian — it may take me several seconds to pull the pieces together, but I can do it, and do it using correct forms. Fluidity comes after accuracy.

The application of these methods also addresses most people's revulsion to dry and boring grammatical material. Looking at our maps and seeing just tables of words is certainly judging a book by its cover — when I look at the map of Italian now, I see warrior aardvarks, elaborate fountains, and threatening berserkers. The world of Italian grammar is, in my mind, richly imaginative and fun because of how it is stored.

With my background and training, I understand that I am not representative of an average person learning a new language with little or no previous experience in learning grammar. The point here, though, is to test the upper level of the extreme. I know I made several mistakes this past week that cost me considerably in terms of time. On the next language, I'm confident I'll be able to apply the process more smoothly and perhaps bring the storage time down from 7 days to 5, to possibly 3 or fewer. Perhaps I'll eventually be able to store an entire language map in a day. Regardless, I'm able to take the learnings from this experimentation and pass them on through the programs we're creating. If I didn't have to figure things out, but instead had someone explaining how to create the memory system, the actual storage would go much faster.

For the average person working full time, it will likely still take several weeks to go through all the materials and store the structural patterns. Nonetheless, I see it as totally within reason to expect someone committing an hour a day to the program to be able to learn the entire structure of a language in 6 - 8 weeks after going through our core course first. Considering most people don't even learn the subjunctive within their first year of language study, 6 weeks to have a full active command of the language's grammar is not too shabby.

It's important to remember the structure is not everything there is in a language; it is the key that opens up the language to the learner. We provide the materials and resources to go well beyond the structure, but the structure is the one thing you have to really sit down and learn fully. The rest can be done in a more relaxed manner over time and through actually using the language. More on that in another post.

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