Chinese character dictionary by Ian Lamont
Why should you be interested on memory?
The reason for which people that have a better memory will learn a language better and faster should be obvious. No matters the language you are studying, if you want to achieve fluency you’ll need to remember a ton of words: nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs and prepositions. Also, you’ll have to learn the grammar and pronunciation rules.
Mandarin takes this challenge to the next level. Not only you will need to learn the tones and a new pronunciation system (pinyin). But you will also need to remember the characters (if you are planning to learn Chinese without taking characters in to account you are only misleading yourself).
What’s Quantum Memory Power?
People often believe that good “memory” is something that we either have or not. This is plain wrong. Beautiful hair are something we either have or not. Memory can be trained. Today I would like to introduce a program that aims at improving your memory.
It’s called Quantum Memory Power and was developed by Dominic O’Brien, the eight time world memory champion.
I will first introduce the basic principles of O’Brien’s method and then illustrate how you can use it for learning Chinese with a simple example.
Even if at the end you decide not to use this method for learning Chinese, I believe that you can still benefit from this article by understanding how we fix new information on our mind and therefore how we can use these principles to improve our memory with little effort.
The three ingredients of memorization
We often think about our memory as a storage zone where we stock the things that we learn. Some people even go so far to say that you can only memorize a limited amount of information. This is a urban legend comparable to the fact that you can see the Chinese Great Wall from the moon. There is no such a storage zone nor limits to the amount of information that our brain can learn.
Our brain is much more powerful than what we think. The fact that at school nobody took the time to teach us how to use it is another story.
O’Brien states that we only need three ingredients to remember things: Association, Location and Imagination.
We stumble upon “association” every day. If I say “iPod” you will probably think about “music” while if I say “Michael Jordan” you are more likely to think about “basketball.”
We don’t learn new things by stocking them into some hypothetical storage zone. Our brain is not a USB memory stick.
We can only learn new information by linking it to something we already know (it can be a past information or, even better, a sensorial experience as a taste).
Thus if I tell you “pizza margherita,” in order to understand what I’m talking about you don’t need to think that a “pizza” is a pastry of flour, salt and water with mozzarella and tomato sauce. It’s more probable that you recall the experience of a pizza that you especially like (maybe its image, its flavor or its consistency).
Association is the key element of our memory. And this explains why “context” is so powerful while learning a new language.
Some practical examples
Let’s make an example and take the word “pijiu,” which means “beer” in Chinese. If you learn the word at school, or through your flashcards, but you never drink beer in China, you are probably going to forget it quite soon. The reason is that you are lacking the right “context” to learn such a word.
But imagine that you go to a bar with four Chinese friends, ask to one of them how to say “beer.” The you tell to the barman “qing gei wo si ping pijiu” (“please give me four bottles of beer”) but, while you are getting back to your friends, spill a beer on the t-shirt of a beautiful girl (or handsome boy). Let’s also say that the girl (or boy) initially gets angry with you but then calm down, let her phone number to you and then become your girlfriend/boyfriend.
Now you can associate the word “pijiu” to a whole experience and it becomes quite easy to remember it.
Life experience is the best way to create an association because it’s extremely difficult to forget something that you actually did. This is the same reason for which you mostly learn by taking action and making mistakes (you cannot forget how to drive a car, ride a bike or make love, it just doesn’t happen).
When I was learning Spanish there was a word, mejillon (it means “mussel”), that I was absolutely unable to remember. I tried for years without any results. Then I went to Madrid and I eat a lot of mejillones in a nice Galician restaurant in Calle de Jesus. I was with two Spanish friends and we also drunk two bottles of white wine. When I asked them how to say “mussel” and they answer “mejillon” I was sure that I couldn’t forget it anymore. And I didn’t.
Here I was, eating mejillones with two charming Spanish girls in a Galician restaurant in Calle de Jesus. There was plenty of context, how the hell could I forget this word again?
This holds true for any piece of information and it also represents the most important limit of flashcards. If you only rely on flashcards to learn new words your brain will lack the context, that is it won’t be able to associate the new words to something that you already know and, in the long term, it will refuse to keep going by filtering the information that you are trying to learn.
This is why we often perceive studying as a torture. You are actually torturing your brain by trying to stock infos in a storage zone that doesn’t exist.
The next time that you have the impression that you brain is saturating don’t blame your limited ability to stock new information, blame yourself for being lazy and not providing the right context for what you are learning.
An important recommendation from O’Brien is to trust your brain: the first association that comes to your mind is usually the most powerful and the easiest to remember. The reason is that our unconscious brain relies on past experience to create new connections. Sometimes it doesn’t seem like that, but it’s only because your conscious brain forgot that given experience.
Let’s explain it with another example. Try to create an association between the words “tree” and “chocolate.”
I would instantaneously think about a banana tree that, instead of bananas, is growing chocolate bars. This works for me, maybe because two months ago I was in South East Asia and I saw a lot of banana trees (or at least I think they were banana trees). But maybe you thought about a chocolate bar with a tree painted on the top, which is fine as long as it works for you. Just trust your instinct.
Location, to use the words of O’Brien, is the map of your memory, the key to access to the information.
If for instance I ask you to tell me how you were dressed last Thursday, you probably cannot answer me on the spot. But if you start to think where you were that day and what you were doing, you will also ending up remembering the clothes that you were wearing.
It happens the same when you try to recall a word that you cannot remember. I write a lot and this happen to me all the time, even in Italian. Before to resort to a dictionary I will ask to myself where I learned that word or where I was the last time that I used it. A lot of time it works.
Another example may be the task of remembering the name of a girl that you meet last week. Let’s say that you meet her again but you cannot remember her name. Your best bet is to think where you met her and in which situation. Many times you will end up remembering her name.
I could keep going but I think you got the point.
“But I don’t live in China so everything I read till now is useless,” you are maybe thinking now. Not really ; )
Imagination is the glue that you must use to fix things in your memory.
Let’s take the character 站 (zhàn), which means “station.”
Sure, if you see it enough times you will probably remember its meaning. However there is a shortcut, and it may be created by your imagination (well in this example by my imagination but it’s the same).
Call me drunkard, but in the character 站 I clearly see a glass (the left side of the character) and a bottle of wine (the right side). Now I can think about a man that is pouring himself a glass of wine from his bottle at the entry of the Central Station of Milan.
I’m using association because I’m linking a character to an experience that I lived (the entry of the Central Station of Milan is full of guys drinking wine at any time of the day). As you see I don’t need to live in China for that.
I’m resorting to location because I’m exploiting a place that I know (the train station of Milan) to remember the meaning of the character.
And I’m using imagination because I moved from a Chinese character to a full story that embeds all the information I need to remember that character.
We obtained a similar result to the one described by Heisig on his best seller Remember the Hanzi, which I reviewed a couple of months ago (click on the link to read my review).
There are two important differences. First, Heisig doesn’t talk about “position” (unless I lost it while I read Remember the Hanzi but I don’t think so). And second, while following the Remember the Hanzi approach you can only learn the meaning of the characters, I want to go a bit further.
Pushing the limits of my imagination
Instead of just thinking about a generic man drinking wine, I could imagine my French friend Jean Baptiste sitting at the exit of Milan’s Station pouring himself a glass of Bordeaux Saint Emilion from his bottle of wine.
Why would I want to go to such a great detail?
There are two reasons. First, thinking about a specific person and wine instead of a generic man requires me much more imagination. Hence the image will be much more vivid on my mind and it will be easier for me to remember. Second, and here is where it get interesting, the French sound “Jean” is very close to the Chinese sound “zhan,” that is the pronunciation of the character 站.
Hence I can now remember the shape (a glasses and a bottle), the meaning (“station”) and the pronunciation of the character 站. Since our memory only needs a trigger (the so-called association), it’s not necessary to have two identical sounds. “Jean” and “zhan” are enough close to do the trick for me.
Again, my friend Jean may not work for you. It’s better if you find the “link” from your life experience.
What you get with Quantum Memory Power
The program contains eight CDs. In this review I only scratched the surface of the first disk.
The program goes on teaching you a whole set of skills. In my opinion the most practical chapters are the ones that explain how to memorize phone numbers, how to remember the names of the people you met, how to memorize the order of a deck of playing cards (great to impress girls in a first date haha) and how to win at blackjack (you are more luckily to win if you can remember the cards).
I’m not going to hide you the fact that learning each one of these skills will require time and work. So only the most motivated people will go for it.
In my opinion the real value of this program lies on the first, simple exercises (for instance how to remember a list of ten objects by using the principles of association, location and imagination) that teach you how to train your memory and use it at its most.
Learn a language with Quantum Memory Power
Quantum Memory Power also contains a chapter devoted to learn a foreign language. O’Brien has some original tips and they make sense to me. However I believe that its ideas apply more to western language than Chinese.
Last year, after I went through the program, I spent some time developing a simple system to remember Chinese words of two or three characters (most of modern Chinese words contain two characters so learning isolate characters is rather useless).
The idea was to come up with a framework that takes into account the meaning, the pronunciation, the tones and (tentatively) the shape of the characters.
I’ll write an article about this project as soon as I get enough examples. So if you are interested on the topic make sure to subscribe to my newsletter at the end of this post.
Some lessons that we can learn from O’Brien
- Flashcards alone don’t work as your memory needs a context to remember stuff. However they are still useful, especially if you can balance the lack of context with imagination.
- Your brain is more powerful than what you think. Just use your imagination and there is no limits at the number of characters that you can learn.
- You do need to make an active effort to memorize new information. Our brain is not a storage zone nor an hard disk. There is no such a thing as “passive” learning.
Learn Chinese: My lazy way (Month nine)
Maybe you just landed on my website and you don’t know what “my lazy way” is. Basically it’s the way I’m trying to learn Chinese, you can get the details here.
Let’s be honest. October was my worst month. I lost my iPod so that I stopped to listen to my daily Chinese podcast (I’m using Chinesepod), I broke up with my girl (she’s Chinese and I used to talk a lot in Mandarin with her) and I moved to Shanghai (which I admit didn’t help my relationship) where almost everybody speaks English. Hence I got lazy and practiced very little Chinese.
The environment is important but I think that, after eight months of study, I also got a bit bored and I needed to break my routine for awhile.
In November I still kept up with my daily flashcards sessions (click on the link above if you are interest to know how I’m using flashcards) but I didn’t force myself to watch Chinese movies, listen to my podcasts or talk in Chinese. I only did it when I was feeling to (which wasn’t often).
Let’s say that I took a break from Mandarin. I could have stuck with my routine but, frankly speaking, the only reason to do so was my commitment on this blog. And I don’t think this is healthy as I was risking to burn out, start to hate Chinese language and given up.
After a couple of weeks I felt that I was missing my study time and I decided to open a Skritter’s account. In the case you don’t know it, Skritter is a software similar to Anki that also teaches you how to write the characters (but it’s not free).
So far I’ve never made an attempt to learn how to write characters because my focus was on developing my speaking ability (for obvious practical reasons).
Hence I’m very excited about this new project as the main reason for which I started to study Chinese was the challenge represented by the act of understanding and mastering characters.
To me learning Chinese is a bit like playing chess or solving second order differential equations (yes, I know how to do both, deep inside I’m a nerd). Chinese people had developed a crazy writing system and I will always be grateful to them for this gift!
[Photo Credits (Creative Commons License): thepismire]
Jamie Wen says
Memorization for the sake of memorization without testing or ‘prodding’ on whats stored. It would be interesting to test your memory of the chinese characters with a quiz app like HSK Locker or Babel quiz, on not just only your comprehension but also on speed and accuracy when confounded with multiple choices.
Olle Linge says
Excellent post! I’m going to comment on one thing I don’t agree with, but please don’t take that as a general criticism of the article. I think it’s awesome and I will definitely share.
If you’re going to learn thousands of characters (needed to become literate), I don’t think that associating the two parts of 站 with glass and bottle is very good unless you do so every time these components appear. I call this “the man with the hat trap” (http://ow.ly/fRu6A) because you end up with thousands of pictures that are sometimes very similar (different men with different hats).
In essence, you’re doing everything right here, except that you need to connect components to what they actually mean, otherwise you can’t use them again in other characters. Still, I think it’s very good to use physical, concrete and specific representations. For instance, you can let a glass represent the concept of “to stand” (立) even if the character isn’t related to a glass at all. This makes it much easier to create powerful mnemonics.
I do this a lot, especially for more complex character components. Take 翏 for example. It appears in many characters (traditional at least, like 膠，廖，戮). It means “to soar” or “the sound of the wind”. This is very hard to incorporate into a meaningful picture/story/mnemonic. However, I simply decided to use a long-haired angel with wings to represent this character part (I think you’ll see why if you look at the components).
This way, I have concrete mental image I can use instead of a complicated character part with an abstract meaning. I then use this to create mnemonics. This requires more time to build “infrastructure”, but I really believe it’s helpful. Your glass would be an example of that only if you used the same glass for other characters with 立. In case anyone wants to read about how I learn characters (which is similar to the method presented here), check this: http://ow.ly/fRunp.
Hey Olle, thank you for the comment!
Yeah, I used the “drunkard” example because was one the first I came up with and because it was good for storytelling (my real love hehe).
But I agree with you. If you are going to learn thousands and thousands of characters you should choose carefully your mnemonics and connect the primitives to their original meaning.
I went through 150 pages of Remember the Hanzi, Heisig was very clear about this point and when you have to manage a lot of characters it makes sense.
There are two downsides:
1) It becomes mechanical and boring as Remember the Hanzi
2) Sometimes I can’t rely with the original meaning and the mnemonics kind of doesn’t click for me.
I actually given up to use mnemonics for isolate characters unless they appear to me without effort. This happen a lot to me, probably because I have a 99% visual memory (that is I’m only able to remember what I see but I’m really good at it).
I would like to try developing some mnemonics for modern Chinese words (2 and 3 characters). I do have an idea and it works for some words but I need to go through a lot of more words to see if it’s worth the time.
Also, I may end up with the same problem you highlighted at the beginning of the article.
翏 for me is a rooster with a long tail : P
Confused Laowai says
Memory & language learning is very closely related. I’ve been trying to improve my memory capabilities recently. I came across a similar kind of method done by Scott H Young ) which talks about creating a map/framework of your learning. It has a similar approach.
My initial thoughts about mnemonics and creating additional information to my learning, was that I thought it was superfluous and unnecessary. But I realized, that it does help, but I think I also had a different reasoning about it. Books like Remember the Heisig create the “stories” for you and that I don’t like. I prefer to create my own framework and stories.
Similar with Memrise for instance, where there are crowdsourced mnemonics. Everytime I see them, I just go “Urgh, that is just incredibly lame”. I would much rather create my own.
Thank you for adding your point of view. The more I dig into studies about memory the more I find them fascinating. I’ll check Young’s blog tonight : P
I agree that “stories” for mnemonics aren’t that good, I wrote a review of Remember the Hanzi a couple of months ago and I was quite critical.
What I like, instead of using stories, is to use “images” (as the drunkard on the station that I described on the article for remembering the character 站).
Also, I don’t think one should adopt a “systematic” mnemonic approach. I mean, you’ll remember most of words just because you use and see them often enough.