Building a Memory Palace for Language Learning

One of the things I’m going to experiment with in my language studies is using memory palaces to retain information.

Can visualizing places like this – the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh – help you remember vocabulary better?

Image Source

What is a Memory Palace?

A memory palace is a place you imagine – it could be an actual palace, or a building, or a city – with plenty of distinct locations in it. Then you go around to different locations in this place and plant things you want to remember.

Later, when you want to recall information, you travel through this place in your mind and recall what you’ve planted. For example, if your memory palace is your house and you want to remember the American presidents, you’d place the presidents at places around your house:

  • George Washington in the front hallway
  • John Adams in the guest bathroom
  • Thomas Jefferson on the couch
  • James Madison on the television

…and so on.

This technique, also referred to as the method of loci or journey technique, has reportedly been used for thousands of years, dating back to Roman and Greek orators who used it to memorize long speeches. It’s still used today by participants in memory competitions.

How Does This Work?

Basically, your brain is very good at remembering spatial information. Once you give information a spatial context, you activate more of your brain.

So by placing information in an imagined location, you’re using more of your peanut, which contributes to forming stronger memories.

How Do You Get Memories to Stick in the First Place?

When you’re using this technique, you still have to associate the item with a location. Using the example above, how would you remember that George Washington was in the hallway and not on the couch?

Well, there are plenty of ways to do this:

  • Think of something ridiculous. If you use your house as a memory palace, then imagine George Washington chopping a cherry tree down in your hallway.
  • Play on the words. James Madison has “mad” and “son” in his last name. Imagine an angry child – a “mad son” – stamping up and down on the TV.
  • Think of something emotionally charged. Using disturbing or emotionally evocative imagery helps memories sticks.
  • Use places you know well so that you don’t have to provide the spatial details. (I actually don’t want to do this personally, as I don’t want to mix up my real memories with what I imagine.)

For language learning, you’d most likely use a combination of all three. If you wanted to remember that the Spanish word for beach umbrella was parasol, you could break the word’s sounds down into “par” (as in, par for the course) and “soul” (as in, a ghost). So you could imagine some ghosts playing golf around a beach umbrella.

If all this sounds convoluted to you, you’re right. It absolutely is. It’s an unnatural way to learn information.

But Does This Work with Language Learning?

The jury is still out on whether this has any real impact on language learning. Use of memory palaces to build vocabulary has been around for years, usually labelled as the keyword method.

Recently, Joshua Foer wrote an article in the Guardian about how he learned the African language of Lingala using mnemonics and related memory tricks. He doesn’t call out memory palaces by name, but he has written extensively about memory palaces in the past, and by his description, his techniques resemble the methods I’ve described in this article.

But no one can agree on whether this all actually works. Even Foer reported limited success with learning Lingala.

Supporters of the method say:

  • You can remember a lot of information, fast.
  • It doesn’t cost anything.
  • There is some cognitive research and neuroscience backing up its effectiveness.

Opponents say:

  • It requires as much time and attention as more traditional language studying.
  • It works better with concrete imagery than with abstract imagery, and doesn’t do anything to help you learn grammar or language mechanics.
  • With it, you remember words in a sequential list, in an unnatural order – i.e., in a context unlike anything it’ll be in actual use.
  • You won’t be able to recall what you’ve learned fast enough to use it in speech or comprehension.

In the end, I feel there’s enough to this method to make me want to give it a try. It probably won’t ever form the bedrock of my language studying, but it might be a good, fast way to beef up my vocabulary of concrete, everyday items.

  • randomname

    I understand the value of using memory palaces to remember information, but I would agree with the last point in the “opponents say” list. That is, the amount of time it would take to recall vocabulary from your memory palace would be too much.

    Memory palaces may have a place in language learning, but I think it’ll be a very special case.

    • Lukas Arnitz

      From experience I can tell, that this technique is great for learning Chinese characters. Common characters stick in your head, through repetition and for the rest it doesn’t matter if you stop to take a journey through your imaginative palace. It also works great for association, like Fire 火, Mars 火星 (Fire-star) or Tuesday 火曜日 (Fire-day). But for vocab i think simple repetition of meaningful or truthful images is better than to take dozens of unrelated images for a single word. Your mind automatically associates those words by meaning rather than translation. River, Kawa, Hé, Fluss and an image of a river, with the smell of fresh cold water and the sound of splashing clear liquid. That is a good way to bind all those words to a single focused image. If no good image comes to mind, we all love a good story. Create one sentence. If you need more, go ahead. As long as you have fun doing it, you will be fine. There is only one thing to keep in mind.

      I good translator always translates meaning and never words.