How To Memorize Anything

One of the items on my "to-do list" for 2014 was to speak conversational Japanese by the time I go back to Japan in November. I have 5 months to go, so I am feeling a weird mixture of terror and confidence. It's such a difficult language to learn, mainly because the majority of words have no point of reference to my English speaking mind. In my mission to learn this huge amount of information, I've been researching all manner of memorisation and learning techniques and have a few tips for you. Even though at times over the past few months I've felt like Johnny Mnemonic, I think things are coming along.

Whether you're learning a new language like me, or if you simply want to remember people's names, there are a few things you can do to help. Since starting on my memory adventure, I came across some interesting articles that explain and back-up the methods I've been using, including this article from Mattan Griffel on spaced repetition:  How to Never Forget Anything Again and the fascinating TV program: Redesign My Brain.

There are two main techniques that work really well for memorisation.

1. Spaced Repetition

This is basically a technique where you use flash cards (or an app or learning program such as Memrise) to help memorize something. It can be anything from putting a face to a name, to learning the Japanese 'alphabets' (they're actually syllabaries, but that's a whole other topic). Mattan's article linked above goes into this method in depth, but the basic idea is that you test yourself on each item you are trying to memorize. If you get it correct, you might look at that card again in a week's time. If you get it wrong, then perhaps you review it in one day's time. The spaced repetition allows you to focus on the areas that need work and eventually, everything gets burned into your long term memory.

Anki is a great resource for when you want to create your own flashcards, and also allows you to download packs created by other people (I used Anki for Hiragana and Katakana learning)

2. Mnemonics

This is any memory retention technique, but generally refers to using sounds/smells/stories and images to create a memory. When I learned Japanese at school, we used pictograms to remember the Japanese characters. One that really stuck in my head is the character for "ru" ル which looks like a kangaroo jumping, so I remember it when I see the 'roo'. The Redesign My Brain TV program had a really interesting section where they taught the host how to memorize an entire deck of cards. It started by assigning a person, action and object to each card (PAO). The PAO attached to each card helped him to recall their order when shuffling through the deck. He attended the World Memory Championships and there were people memorising decks upon decks of cards. Imagine if they put they brainpower toward world peace, or a cure for cancer? But I digress. PAO is not easy, but our brains react way more favourably to these anecdotes than pure data.

I have all kinds of stories rushing through my head about digging below the ground with my toe to find a car (the Kanji for "below" is read "ka" and it looks like the symbol for "toe" stacked under the symbol for "ground") It sounds really complicated, but with all of these little points of reference, you form a vivid image in your head and things snap into place. You can use mnemonics for remembering anything, from the old knuckle trick for counting the days of each month, to remembering how to spell Mississippi. (Mrs M, Mrs I, Misses S S I etc.) You have probably used mnemonics a lot and not even realised it!

If you're interested specifically in language resources, here's a list of what I've been using for Japanese. I'm finding that no single resource gives me the full experience, and as soon as I diversified, things started sticking better.


- Desktop and App - Free

Memrise has courses on all kinds of topics from languages, to geography to memory training. It was co-founded by Ed Cooke who is a Grand Master Memory Champion and uses his own method of memorisation. Memrise is perfect for beginners, and helped me to learn the 'alphabets' really fast. It uses a combination of multiple choice, typing the English answer for the Japanese word, and vice versa. So you never get into a 'rote' memorisation answer, it makes you problem solve by reversing the questions and answers. You can also create "mems" which are image based prompts to remind you of a word, mnemonics style. It uses spaced repetition to calculate what you need to review and how often.

Human Japanese

- App - Free lite version

This is a great basic Japanese course that explains a little bit behind the scenes of what you are learning, so you're not left wondering "but why do I use this word here?!" I might upgrade to the full version, if I can find the time to dedicate to it.

- Podcast, Desktop, App - Free for basic, paid premium membership.

I paid for the premium of this one. It's a great way to learn by listening to conversations, which are spoken normally, then slowly, with translations and explanations. There's often prompts for you to converse with the podcast too, so you can practise speaking out loud (this is so important when you're learning a language!) It's great to hear a native speaker for pronunciation and real-life scenarios. The "--pod101" program is available in heaps of languages and I believe the first month trial is free.


- Desktop - Free trial with paid premium membership.

This program is really thorough and sets you up with an excellent foundation for learning Japanese from scratch. It's built for self-learning, so it easier to stay motivated and learn at your own pace.


- Free on beta test (you can sign up for an invite)

I'm on the beta test for this Kanji learning program right now and it's amazing! Created by the TextFugu guys, I feel so much more confident with those tricky Kanjis (20 down, 2000-5000 to go). An old fashioned paper and ink book has been my greatest source of understanding on the grammar side of things.

Japanese Step By Step by Gene Nishi

has two thumbs up from me. It's been indispensable for understanding the 'why' and getting my head around a lot of questions that aren't answered in some of the other programs.

I'd love to know your tips and tricks for memorisation, and learning new languages. I feel like I have a long way to go, I think my next step might be some in-person lessons. Or a brain meltdown. One of those.