There’s a snake wrapped around a newspaper in my mother-in-law’s fridge: adventures in language learning

There’s a snake wrapped around a newspaper in my mother-in-law’s fridge. There’s also a cow with a plastic shark’s fin strapped to its head sitting at the dining room table stuffing money into a cash register. There’s a vise attached to the kitchen table. In the vise there’s a brain. And that’s how I’m learning German.

Learning to speak a non-native language (mediocrely) has been a longtime relaxation and rejuvenation tool for me. It’s like taking my brain out for a run. So when time permits, I listen to language CDs during the inbound half of my commute. For years my focus was almost exclusively Spanish (with just a tiny bit of French thrown in). But since going to Munich a few times for work, I’ve discovered I really like the sound of German. Add to that that I’ve got some genetic roots there (along with, it seems, just about everyplace else), and the fact that business will take me back again this March, and there’s plenty of excuse to put my Spanish on hold.

So how does all this relate the menagerie of bizarre images that have taken over my mother-in-law’s house?  Well that comes from the fact I just finished reading Joshua Foer’s terrific book “Moonwalking With Einstein.” The details Foer’s immersion in the world of competitive memory events, and details a mnemonic technique in use since classical times called the “memory palace.”

The theory is, our brains aren’t built to hold data very well, but they are incomparable at storing images and spacial relationships. Makes sense, right? Our not too distant ancestors needed to know how to get back to the village and which mushroom would kill you if you ate it a lot more than they needed to remember phone numbers.

Anyhow, by using the memory palace technique people since the Roman orator Simonides have been executing stunning mnemonic feats by building a mental map of a place, and then populating that place with crazy images designed to spark memories. I’d heard of the memory palace technique before, but never from so enthusiastic advocate as Foer. I was inspired to test it on my German.

I used my mother-in-laws house as the memory palace for all my German words because I know the space very well, have pleasant associations with it, and I’m already using my house for other mnemonic catalogs.

To illustrate how this works, let’s take a second look at those images I described in the opening paragraph. The German word for eat is essen. So Snake, coiled around a Newspaper, in a refrigerator. Not the most elegant mnemonic, but it worked. It was an early one. At first these felt quite hard to come up with, and I thought – this is going to be a terribly time way to remember words. But very quickly, it gets easy and one can snap an image into existence at will. Fun.

The cow with the shark’s fin on its head putting money into a cash register is a better image. That’s the one I use for the German word kaufen, which means to buy. The brain in the vise? German word for “know”, which is weiss. Pronounced vise. My mother-in-law’s house is starting to get crowded – I’ll need to move out to the garden soon. But it really has amazed me how easy it is to retrieve words stored in this fashion. And frankly, even though you can use the technique to “walk through” the memory palace and retrieve every word you know, in order, forwards or back, easily, you don’t really have to. Because once the word’s in there, it seems to be at your disposal in conversation as well.

I could go on, but that would belabor my point, which is: The Joshua Foer (imagine the tree on the U2 album cover with a four-leaf clover hanging from it) book is a great, fun read and depending on your enthusiasm for the techniques, could give you a leg up on memorizing all kinds of things, from the names of folks you meet at tradeshows, to grocery lists to, well, German.

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