The Author of “Moonwalking With Einstein” Memorizes—A Language

Those of you who are fans of Moonwalking with Einstein will be happy to hear that its author, Joshua Foer, is at work on another book, “about the world’s last remaining hunter-gatherer societies and what they can teach us,” as he writes in The Guardian. Josh’s efforts to learn Lingala, a language spoken by a community of pygmies in northern Congo, led him to some fascinating insights about language learning in general:

“Readers of [Moonwalking With Einstein] will remember the brilliant, if slightly eccentric, British memory champion named Ed Cooke who took me under his wing and taught me a set of ancient mnemonic techniques, developed in Greece around the fifth century BC, that can be used to cram loads of random information into a skull in a relatively short amount of time. Ed showed me how to use those ancient tricks to perform seemingly impossible feats, such as memorising entire poems, strings of hundreds of random numbers, and even the order of a shuffled pack of playing cards in less than two minutes.

Since my book was published, Ed had moved on to other things and co-founded an online learning company called Memrise with a Princeton University neuroscience PhD named Greg Detre. Their goal: to take all of cognitive science’s knowhow about what makes information memorable, and combine it with all the knowhow from social gaming about what makes an activity fun and addictive, and develop a web app that can help anyone memorise anything – from the names of obscure cheeses, to the members of the British cabinet, to the vocabulary of an African language – as efficiently and effectively as possible. Since launching, the site has achieved a cult following among language enthusiasts and picked up more than a quarter of a million users.

‘The idea of Memrise is to make learning properly fun,’ Ed told me over coffee on a recent visit to New York to meet with investors. ‘Normally people stop learning things because of a bunch of negative feedback, such as worries about whether they’ll actually get anywhere, insecurities about their own intelligence, and a sense of it being effortful. With Memrise, we’re trying to invert that and create a form of learning experience that is so fun, so secure, so well directed and so mischievously effortless that it’s more like a game – something you’d want to do instead of watching TV.’

I have never been particularly good with languages. Despite a dozen years of Hebrew school and a lifetime of praying in the language, I’m ashamed to admit that I still can’t read an Israeli newspaper. Besides English, the only language I speak with any degree of fluency is Spanish, and that came only after five years of intense classroom study and more than half a dozen trips to Latin America. Still, I was determined to master Lingala before leaving for the Congo. And I had just under two and a half months to do it. When I asked Ed if he thought it would be possible to learn an entire language in such a minuscule amount of time using Memrise, his response was matter-of-fact: ‘It’ll be a cinch.’

Memrise takes advantage of a couple of basic, well-established principles. The first is what’s known as elaborative encoding. The more context and meaning you can attach to a piece of information, the likelier it is that you’ll be able to fish it out of your memory at some point in the future. And the more effort you put into creating the memory, the more durable it will be. One of the best ways to elaborate a memory is to try visually to imagine it in your mind’s eye. If you can link the sound of a word to a picture representing its meaning, it’ll be far more memorable than simply learning the word by rote.

Memrise encourages you to create a mnemonic, which it calls a “mem”, for every word you want to learn. A mem could be a rhyme, an image, a video or just a note about the word’s etymology, or something striking about its pronunciation. In the case of languages such as French and Chinese, where there are thousands of people learning it at any one time, you can browse through a catalogue of mems created by other members of the Memrise community. This is especially fun for Chinese, where users have uploaded videos of various logographic characters morphing into cartoons of the words they represent.

As I was the only user trying to learn Lingala at the time, it was up to me to come up with my own mems for each word in the dictionary. This required a good deal of work, but it was fun and engaging work. For example, engine is motele in Lingala. When I learned that word, I took a second to visualise a rusty engine revving in a motel room. It’s a specific motel room I stayed in once upon on a time on a cross-country road trip – the cheapest room I ever paid to occupy. Twenty dollars a night, as I recall, somewhere in central Nevada. I made an effort to see, hear and even smell that oily machine revving and rattling on the stained carpet floor. All of those extra details are associational hooks that will lead my mind back to motele the next time I need to find the Lingala word for engine . . .

Memrise is built to discourage cramming. It’s easy to spend five minutes learning vocabulary with the app, but hard to spend 50. That is by design. One of the best-demonstrated principles of memory – proven both in the controlled setting of the laboratory and in studies conducted in the wilds of the classroom – is the value of what’s known as ‘spaced repetition.’ Cognitive scientists have known for more than a century that the best way to secure memories for the long term is to impart them in repeated sessions, distributed across time, with other material interleaved in between. If you want to make information stick, it’s best to learn it, go away from it for a while, come back to it later, leave it behind again, and once again return to it – to engage with it deeply across time. Our memories naturally degrade, but each time you return to a memory, you reactivate its neural network and help to lock it in.

The effect on retention of learning in this manner is staggering. One study found that students studying foreign language vocabulary can get just as good long-term retention from having learning sessions spaced out every two months as from having twice as many learning sessions spaced every two weeks. To put that another way: you can learn the same material in half the total time if you don’t try to cram.

One of the great challenges of our age, in which the tools of our productivity are also the tools of our leisure, is to figure out how to make more useful those moments of procrastination when we’re idling in front of our computer screens. What if instead of tabbing over to the web browser in search of some nugget of gossip or news, or opening up a mindless game such as Angry Birds, we could instead scratch the itch by engaging in a meaningful activity, such as learning a foreign language?

If five million people can be convinced to log into Zynga’s Facebook game Farmville each day to water a virtual garden and literally watch the grass grow on their computer screens, surely, Ed believes, there must be a way to co-opt those same neural circuits that reward mindless gaming to make learning more addictive and enjoyable. That’s the great ambition of Memrise, and it points towards a future where we’re constantly learning in tiny chunks of our downtime.” (Read more here.)

I love Josh’s vision of continual, incremental learning.

How about you—any Memrise users out there? Has it worked for you?

One Response to “The Author of “Moonwalking With Einstein” Memorizes—A Language”

  1. Carol says:

    Yes, I have used Memrise and Duolingo to learn Spanish. I must say that memrise is very effective for vocabulary learning. I have not been as active lately, but find myself recalling words during my twice a week conversational Spanish class. Duolingo was also very helpful in grammar and sentence formation. I am trying all methods–Live Mocha and even games such as WoW and Age of Empires in Spanish. Also, Hulu Latino is a help. You are able to use close captions to read the dialogue.
    I believe one must not only learn vocabulary but at the same time be exposed to that vocabulary and grammar through authentic communication and use. How lucky we are to have so many fun, free and effective learning tools available to us!

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