How to learn a language
How to learn a language

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How to learn a language

6.3 Memory palaces

Another way in which you can use mnemonics is through the technique known as ‘the method of loci’ (from the Latin locus, place) also known as the memory palace

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Imagine a place you know well, such as your house, your office, or your street. Now walk around that place in your mind, and select ten specific spots in that place in the sequential order you would see them if you walked around it. For instance, in my house, the first room is the sitting room, where there is a sofa, the fireplace and the piano. Then there is the corridor, and a small toilet on the left. Then there is the kitchen, where I can see the dining table, the fridge, the sink and then the hob, etc.
Now if you make a map of that place and identify those specific points in your map, you can use them to remember things. So for instance, here’s a random list of elements:
bottle of white wine
The way you would remember those words, in that specific order, is to place each them at a station of your memory palace, and to do so in such a way that each one represents a memorable image:
So, using my memory palace of my house, I would imagine a mouse sitting on the sofa, reading the Sunday papers, then a bottle of white wine inside the fireplace, with a label on it saying ‘drink me’ and then a giant strawberry sitting at the piano playing the tune of Strawberry fields forever. As I go down the corridor, I can imagine seeing a giant birdcage and having to squeeze through the bars of the birdcage in order to get to the kitchen, where the kitchen table has been replaced by a stool, and we are sitting around it trying to make room for our tea on the tiny surface of the stool…. You get the idea…
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It is important that you remember the stations in your memory palace, and it helps to draw them. Here’s a map of the memory palace I used for this activity, with eight stations:

Described image
Figure 8 A memory palace.

This technique of the memory palace can be really useful to learn words in a foreign language too. You can rely on how the word sounds, what it reminds you of, etc, to make it memorable. Now you can put it into practice.

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Rather than using a language that you might already know, let’s try using a memory palace to learn some vocabulary from an invented language. The language is Toki Pona (or the language of good), a language invented by Canadian translator and linguist Sonja Lang.
Here are three Toki Pona words.
Meli: woman
Ike: bad, negative, irrelevant
Kala : fish, sea creature
So the first word, Meli, means woman. I can imagine Melisandre, the Red Woman from the TV series Game of Thrones sitting on my sofa: meli = woman. Then, as I walk to the next station, the fireplace, I can imagine trying to build a fire with a lot of Ikea catalogues – as the stove fills with smoke, I realise this is a really bad idea (Ike = bad). Sitting at the piano is an enormous squid (Calamari) playing the piano with its eight arms: Kala = sea creature…. and so on.
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Activity 4 Creating a memory palace

Timing: Allow about 10 minutes

So now it’s your turn. First, create a memory palace around a place you know well, such as your home, and select ten ‘stations’ in your palace in the order in which you would encounter them if you were walking around it. It is useful to draw it, and number the stations, like I did.

Now, place one of the following Toki Pona words in each station, making memorable associations between the word and what it sounds like, or anything else that will help you remember it.

Jaki: disgusting, obscene

Insa: centre, content, inside

Kasi: plant

Lape: sleeping, resting

Kute: listen, hear

Noka: foot, leg, lower part

Linja, cord, hair, rope, thread

Poki: container, bag, bowl, box

Kili: fruit, vegetable

Nanpa: numbers


I hope that doing this activity has shown you how you can use memory palaces to remember vocabulary. Try walking through your memory palace again tomorrow, and try to remember the Toki Pona words you placed there. And try it again in three days’ time, and again next week – by rehearsing your walk around your memory palace saying the words you have placed there, you are making your memories stronger.


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