Learning Languages: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything

Learning Languages: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything

This article was originally posted on WomenLearnThai.com.

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Learning Languages: The art and science of remembering everything…

My ability to remember names (people or places) is weak. Unless it’s for a short-term project like a script, my memory just doesn’t go there. So I skip over names whether in books or when meeting new people.

Carrying on a conversation without remembering names is doable. It has a potential for being embarrassing but profuse apologies will fix most snafus. Besides, a bad memory for names is not rare. A good one is.

But a lack of memory of this sort also makes learning a language like Thai a challenge. Seems that every new Thai word is exactly like a name. Can you explain the reasoning behind that to me? Because I’d like to know.

Like most (I’m sure) reading this post, over the years I’ve made attempts at improving my memory. Books were acquired but many were turfed out during moves. Still around (for no memorable reason) are: It’s All In Your Head (remarkable facts about the human brain), Dental Floss For The Mind (a complete program for boosting your brain power), and The Mind Map Book by Tony & Barry Buzan.

Last year (or was it the year before last) I purchased both the French and Italian Language Revolution Complete Beginners sets (yet another Buzan creation). Think mind mapping, but for languages. And after a quick skim, these too were put aside (for now).

This past Sunday I read Study Hack: Improve Focus by Tweaking your Senses, written by Zane at Life by Experimentation (no longer online).


Right away I can say that I definitely have noticed that I am paying more attention to my studies. It is not a small difference, either. I walk away from each study session, now, feeling as though I truly learned something. Of course, in my next experiment (to learn French) I’ll be publishing more quantifiable data about just how much I was able to learn in how much time, and how much these techniques helped.

The above quote plus Zane’s mention of using sleep masks, headphones, and earplugs to study a language were quirky enough for me to download the book in question: Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, by Joshua Foer.

The book is so good that I bored the man of the house with it on Sunday, finishing it first thing Monday morning (today). And now here we are. A review. Sort of.

After an intro Josh takes readers through the Loci Method, an age-old method of memorising lists of things (not numbers). Within minutes I’d memorised Josh’s disjointed list. And except for the name of the actor, I can still remember the list this morning. So obviously, following his exact instructions is something I need to work on. And I will.

As mentioned, I’ve read several known books on the subject of improving memory, yet only Josh’s winding explanations convinced me to actually try out the memory suggestions. His marvelous research (I’m a sucker for detail and his book is saturated) plus his wonderful writing kept me reading until the end. Just saying.

There are several ways to get a copy of his book (legally). As I’m way out here in the boonies of Thailand I went with a Kindle download to read on my iPad. But if you want a real book, and are closer to either amazon.com or amazon.co.uk, a hardcopy (an enviable choice) might be the better option.

amazon.com: Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything
amazon.co.uk: Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything
Kindle (co.uk): Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything

PS: No, there is not an affiliate code on those amazon links. The links are included in this post because I really really really want you to read his book. It’s that good. Even Amazon thinks so as it was listed in Amazon’s Best Books of the Month for March 2011.

Joshua Foer: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything…

Amazon has a video where Josh explains how it all came about. With no way to share it here, I checked YouTube to find more than expected. My connection is sucky (I’m downloading heaps) so I’ve yet to get through them all. But as soon as this post goes live, and my downloads are finished, I aim to.

Memory resources…

If you have no intentions of getting Josh’s book (or want more convincing) then read more of what you’ll find in the book:

wikipedia: Method of loci
wikipedia: Mnemonic major system
wikipedia: Art of memory
wikipedia: Mind map

I’ve only just read Josh’s book, The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, but I guarantee that this post won’t be the last on the subject. Because for learning a language such as Thai, discussing tricks to access more memory is just too important to miss.

15 thoughts on “Learning Languages: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything”

  1. Torben, glad you found a use for it 🙂 After reading his book I become fascinated by the Loci Method + the theory behind the top 100 words in any given language and can’t wait to do a trial run (soon). From experience I know that the link-word method works so wrapping the three together should be a sure (and fun) way to increase vocabulary.

  2. Hi Catherine,
    Many thanks for posting this highly inspiring article – I share your passion for this topic and have already ordered my own copy of the book.

    Cant wait till it’s weekend – I am really looking forward to reading and practicing 😀

  3. Rachel, I’ve tried to get into meditation but it hasn’t stuck. This coming Monday I have a post on the subject of meditation… the method just might work for me and others so stay tuned.

  4. Have you ever tried meditation. You should see what actual doctors say about the benefits of meditation for memory.

  5. I love these brain exercises…my favorite site (have I told you already? can’t remember :P) is

    He’s got a lot of good stuff!

  6. Snap, when I’m playing Contract Bridge on a regular basis I notice an improvement in how my brain handles information. There’s a recent study out stating that those who learn two languages in addition to their own stave off the mental deterioration typical with getting older. I’m not going to learn two more because I assume they mean ‘well’. I’ll depend on Bridge + Thai instead.

    An overloaded plate plus insomnia is a memory killer. Which reminds me, how’s your sleep coming along?

    Keith, I’m convinced that this method will improve my short-term memory so I’m going for it. I just need those hooks to remind me a few times, and something to hold my interest (a biggie with me) and then the vocab will become mine.

    Most of what I’m reading has a concentration on remembering masculine/feminine but hey, we don’t need to go there. But we need to remember tones so maybe I should put together memory rooms for tones… now that’s a thought…

  7. I think I will have to take a look at this. 40 years ago, I had no trouble learning (and remembering) words in a new language. Now, I get so frustrated with my Thai learning, forgetting simple vocabulary. My answer so far has been to just spend more time at it, but I think time spent on looking at how to train the memory would be more efficient. I shall download the Kimble book tonight

  8. Before arriving in Thailand, my memory was deteriorating. Some days I couldn’t even get certain words out of mouth. I’d literally need to stop talking to think of a word…every day words.

    Since then, I’ve realised that it was just a case of having my plate overloaded. I also think that learning Thai has had a great influence on improving my memory/recall…and perhaps having nothing much else to remember 🙂

    My Internet connection has been crappy of late, so I can’t view the videos easily. However, I’ve been so wrapped up in learning Thai, that I’ve really never stood back and questioned how I have been learning/remembering. That will be next on my list.

  9. Martyn, a real interest, agreed. Also, enough free time and decent sleep. I was reading his book and he pounded in what a lack of sleep does to what’s regurgitated (not just the learning process). I already knew about the sleep situation but I’m interested in hearing others discuss the subject.

    I found learning French a dawdle compared to Thai because of the many similarities. And except for insomnia, the only other problem I had with the language was the French 😉

    For natural memory, I can recall something someone said years ago, sometimes the clothes they were wearing, and where everyone was standing when they said it. So I guess that’s why my ability to learn a script comes naturally. But names… grrrrrrrrr… I’m going to battle this one to the end.

  10. Catherine I like to think my memory is pretty good, in fact I’d go further and say it’s damn good…but only if I need it to be.

    The key for me when it comes to memorising things is to have an interest in the subject matter. I’d add that you also need to have a fairly relaxed state of mind too.

    The problem with learning languages by pure memory is quite simply the fact that each new word is foreign (excuse the pun) to you and that makes memorising it very difficult. Word association needs to be added to the format for many language learners. If learning a language was all down to nuts and bolts memory then I reckon I’d be fluent in Thai. Unfortunately I think language learning needs special memory methods very much like the ones highlighted in your posts.


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