167. Memory, Mnemonics & Learning English

How to improve your memory and learn English more effectively with memory techniques & mnemonics.

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The following is a transcript of this episode of the podcast.
Hello, and welcome to the podcast. Today, we are going to take a journey into the palace of the mind! We are going to venture into the deepest parts of your brain, and in the process we’re going to clean it up, brighten it up, sweep out the cobwebs and make it a much more effective place for learning and remembering English. Have a glass of water, take a deep breath and get ready for a brain upgrade because this episode of the podcast is all about memory, mnemonics and learning English!

Recently I’ve been doing a series of mini podcast episodes called “A Phrasal Verb a Day”. It’s quite a popular series, which is great. Lots of people have been listening to it, and I’m updating it every day. You can find a link to the episodes on my webpage audioboo.fm/LukeThompson. I’m hoping to do 365 phrasal verbs this year, that’s one a day, which may be a little ambitious but we’ll see. 365, that’s a large number of phrases for me to teach, but also a large number for you to remember. You might be thinking – this is great Luke. 365 phrasal verbs, all explained by you with examples and transcripts, but how am I going to remember them all? Well, you don’t have to remember all of them, but you definitely can. Your brain is an amazing thing. It’s capable of remembering massive amounts of information. It’s just a question of how you get the information in there.

English has one of the largest vocabularies of any language in the world, which is quite an overwhelming prospect for those of you who are trying to learn all of those words, even just a portion of them – like the commonly used ones. But it’s not just the words, it’s the phrases, the idioms, the spelling, the rules of grammar. It’s a challenge, but you can do it. The question is: How? Well, let’s look into it.

In this episode we’ll be looking at ways to improve your memory and some specific mnemonic devices for remembering English vocabulary and spelling. So strap in, this is going to be a useful one. With the methods in this episode, you’ll be able to remember massive amounts of vocabulary, and you’ll be able to remember the spelling for loads of difficult-to-write English words. There’s also a transcript for this which you can read at www.teacherluke.wordpress.com. You’re welcome.

The techniques I talk about here are well-known methods, used by lots of people including some of the most famous brains in the world. The illusionist Derren Brown is an example. He’s famous for being able to remember vast sequences of information, and uses this technique in his magic shows. Then, there’s the world famous detective Sherlock Holmes. I know he’s not a real person, but in the modern TV adaptation called “Sherlock” starring Benedict Cumberbatch, he uses a mnemonic device known as a  mind palace in order to remember all kinds of information, which allows him to solve deeply complex criminal cases. You can create your own mind palace too, or just use memory techniques to help your remember names of people at a party, business contacts, telephone numbers, lists of phrasal verbs or the way English words and spelled and pronounced. We’ll be looking at all these things in this episode.

These are tried and tested techniques and I invite you to try them for yourself, even if you’ve never considered the idea of improving your memory. They’re a lot of fun and surprisingly useful, and you don’t need to try very hard to just play along. I don’t want to go on about it too much, but if you just listen – it’ll be quite entertaining, but you’ll get the most benefit from actually trying these things yourself, and if you do that – if you try to apply the memory techniques in this episode, it could transform your English learning in a really exciting way.

You might need a pen and paper, so you can join in with some activities. Don’t forget you can read everything I’m saying by visiting teacherluke.wordpress.com.

Let me give you a run-down of the systems I’m going to talk about here:

1. Firstly I’ll talk about some advice for learning English more effectively, based on mnemonic devices. I’ll give you a summary of what I’ve learned from reading about this subject.

2. Then I’ll outline some specific systems for remembering lists of things such as a shopping list, people’s names, the order of adjectives in English, or lists of vocabulary.

3. Then, we’ll go through some specific mnemonics for remembering English spelling, which can help you to improve your spelling massively.

Just to explain, a mnemonic is a method of remembering something. It’s a memorising technique. Mnemonic has slightly weird spelling. It’s spelled M-N-E-M-O-N-I-C but the first M is silent. So that’s pronounced “NEMONIC”. There is a mnemonic device for learning the spelling for the ‘mnemonics’. It goes like this Mnemonics Now Erase Man’s Oldest Nemesis, Insufficient Cerebral Storage. The first letters of the first words in that phrase all spell “mnemonics”. Say it again… Mnemonics Now Erase Man’s Oldest Nemesis, Insufficient Cerebral Storage. Again, you can read that on the webpage, and you can check out words like insufficient (not enough), cerebral (of the brain) and storage (where things are stored, or kept.

I’ve discovered while reading about this subject that the key aspect of mnemonics seems to be that you have to push the thing you’re trying to remember deep into your mind, and make links to things you already remember well. The more personal the the connection to that word, the more likely you are to remember it. How do we do it? This means creating an image in your head and making it as vivid and clear as possible, attaching some kind of narrative or story to it or connecting it to an already existing deep memory. I guess this is because in your brain there are electrical pathways – the brain is like an electrical system. Each electrical pathway is a connection to that word. It’s a way for your brain to access that particular bit of information. So, the more electrical pathways, or connections you have to something in your brain, the more likely are to be able to access that thing later, and remember it.

How does this relate to learning English? Let’s see if you this confirms that you are already learning in the right way, or if there are some new approaches that you can pick up.

First, you should really engage with the learning process. Don’t let information just go in one ear and come out the other. It has to go deeply into the brain. So, as a learner, you need to put yourself and your personality right into it, and become an active member of your class (if you’re studying in a class) with a sense of independent responsibility for your own learning. Remember that the stuff you’re studying (like vocab or grammar) is not just abstract information but something that involves you in a very personal and specific way.

So we’re talking about personalising new words. Think of examples or definitions of new vocabulary in a way that is meaningful specifically to you or your life. Put yourself into the examples of vocabulary you use. Imagine that you’re living these words and phrases somehow. Picture yourself acting it out. If I teach you a phrase like “to doze off”, meaning to go to sleep, just imagine a time when you’re really tired and can hardly keep your eyes open, even though you want to stay awake. Then imagine yourself reacting to that by saying “oh god I keep dozing off!”. Imagine people you know in your examples of new grammar or vocabulary. Vividly picture something familiar to you when you’re trying to remember the words. Bring the language to life in your own head. Create stories with the new language. Involve you, your friends or family in those stories, and make them really vivid, colourful and dramatic – like my Pink Gorilla story for example. Make your own pink gorilla story and aim to include lots of new language in it.

When you’re trying to practice using new grammar or vocabulary, don’t just make a random sentence. Make a sentence which you really feel or really mean. Obviously, this is not always possible – for example if you’re doing an exam practice exercise in a book or if you just have to play with the grammatical structure of a phrase quickly – in that case you might have to just dash off a quick sentence with the phrase in it, for structural purposes. But at some point you should aim to use the phrase to express something meaningful and personal to you.

This works for teachers as well. When explaining new words, try to give vivid examples. Bring the expression to life. The more vivid and colourful, the better. If you can, try to attach some personal element to it. Put yourself into the example perhaps. If you need to use the 3rd person, pick a real person, like a famous person or someone in the class, rather than just a name. I know it’s not always possible to think up these vivid examples, or you can’t always share personal details, but just remember – the more lively and vivid the example, the easier it is for the students to internalise. It also might encourage them to personalise the language enthusiastically too, when it’s their turn to use the language.

New words can be quite abstract, so try making them familiar by attaching them to things you already know. For example, maybe the English word looks like a word in your language, or perhaps it reminds you of somebody’s name. You can then associate the English word with that name, and it sticks in your mind more effectively. For example, the Japanese word for apple is ‘ringo’. I always remember this because Ringo is one of the Beatles and the Beatles’ record label is called Apple, so now I think of an apple, and I think of The Beatles, and Ringo. This method is common sense really, but we often just don’t apply these techniques to remembering things as much as we could. Instead we just try to cram information into our head, without doing it in a meaningful way, and as a result we just fail to remember things.

It works with names as well. I have to remember lots of names in my classes. At the moment at university I have over 200 names to remember. Sometimes the only way I can do it is to make an association to something. For example, I had a Saudi student once called Faisa. It can be difficult for me to remember Arabic names, because they’re quite foreign to me. We don’t have many Arabic names in English. So, Faisa was quite a difficult one to remember at first, and it’s important to remember names in class because referring to someone by their name helps get their attention, but it’s also a nice way to establish rapport with that person. So, Faisa – F-A-S-I-A. In English, we have a similar sounding word, which is ‘phaser’, spelled p-h-a-s-e-r. A phaser is a kind of laser-gun, like the guns they have in Star Trek. “Set phasers to stun!” for example.  I imagine the old Star Trek TV series, in which they used these laser guns, with cheesy special effects and sounds. In the classic 1960s version of Star Trek which I used to watch on TV during the 80s and 90s there was always a scene in which Spock and James T Kirk went to an alien planet, and they took their phasers with them. So, I just imagined my student Faisa, in Star Trek, beaming down onto an alien planet (England?) with her phaser set to stun. It didn’t take long – just that image of Faisa in Star Trek, with a phaser, maybe shooting an alien. I didn’t tell her this. She had no idea she was in Star Trek, but it helped me to remember her name. This could work for anybody, at a party for example – when you’re introduced to someone, as soon as you get their name, make a point of connecting that name to something you know well. For example, if the person’s name is John – imagine him with John Lennon, or imagine him wearing John Lennon glasses, walking across Abbey Road. JOHN. Perhaps you have another friend called John. Imagine the new John and the other John together, perhaps having a fight – like Street Fighter 2. John vs John. “Round 1 – fight!!! Hello John, hello John! PERFECT… John, wins….” You won’t forget it. Do that with everyone at the party, or everyone at the business conference. You’ll remember their names, and you’ll have fun doing it. Just remember not to tell them. For example, if you get drunk a bit later, don’t go up to John and say “Hey John! How’s John Lennon?? How are all the other Beatles. When’s the new album coming out?? JOHN! I love you John… ” Don’t do that.

Sometimes it works against me though. I have a student called Charles, and to me he looks just like Roger Federer, the tennis player. Sometimes I call him Roger by mistake, and he has no idea why I keep calling him Roger. I haven’t explained that I think he looks like Roger Federer, and that’s because he doesn’t look enough like Federer for everyone else to agree with me. They’d probably just think I was weird, and I’m supposed to be a professor, y’know. Anyway, there’s just something Federer-ish about this student. So, I mistakenly call him Roger sometimes, even though his name is Charles. What I need to do is imagine Federer meeting Prince Charles, and perhaps being knighted by Prince Charles for being such a great tennis player. Roger Federer and Prince Charles. – that should help. You might think that remembering all these connections is more complex than remembering the individual words or names themselves, but it’s not true. We’re just making connections to things that already exist in our heads. The more connections there are, the more likely you are to remember the words. Words that exist with no connections at all, are just lost in space, in your brain. Disconnected and missing. Words like to hang out with other words. They’re all connected in some way. It’s worth remembering that, and people often draw mind-maps to create visual representations of the connections between words. This is a good vocabulary learning strategy.

Also, it can help people to learn new words when they find out the origin of those words. There are lots of TEDed videos which explain the origins of many words. You can find TEDed’s youtube channel online. Again, go to my page and I’ll give you a link. Here is the link to the TEDed YouTube channel: ed.ted.com/series/mysteries-of-vernacular

So, in all these mnemonic devices, the words that come up a lot seem to be these ones: vivid, personal, funny and weird. So, when you’re linking a word to an image – make it vivid, personal, funny and weird. That’s how you really lodge the word deep in your brain. You could probably create a mnemonic to remember that! Vivid – meaning bright and clear, personal – meaning related to yourself or something you know personally, funny – just something that makes you laugh, and weird – something bizarre, out of the ordinary and strange. I’m just imagining The Simpsons, like Homer Simpson, just glowing! They’re vivid because they’re bright yellow and have big bulging eyes. They’re funny, obviously. At its best The Simpsons is one of the funniest shows on TV (in English – I’m not convinced it’s as funny in other languages, but in English it is generally hilarious sometimes). They’re personal because it’s about a family, we know them well, we’ve grown up watching them on TV. Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie. They’re weird – because they’re yellow, that’s strange. They only have 4 fingers, and the sense of humour in the show is pretty bizarre. Also, they’ve been on TV for 20 years and yet they’ve always stayed the same age. Bart has never grown up. That’s pretty weird. So, vivid, funny, personal and weird. Those are the key qualities for mnemonic images.

So, I’ve just given you some quick memory techniques for learning English, as they occurred to me, but let’s have a closer look at some specific tried and tested memory techniques and mnemonic devices.

Some specific memory systems

These might seem like pretty weird techniques, but as I said earlier, if you just listen to this you won’t get the full benefit. You’ll just enjoy listening to it as entertainment. So I invite you to try them for yourself, because only then will you realise just how effective these things are. It can make a huge difference to your life.

Let’s listen to a short presentation from The University of Western Sydney. This video is available on YouTube and also on my website. This video is about 5 minutes long and it clearly explains some mnemonic systems. The guy in the video speaks with an Australian accent. It’s not a strong one, but you might be able to notice the way he says some words, like numbers 1 – 9 for example.