Learning a foreign language involves injecting meaning into essentially arbitrary sounds. No teacher, however talented, can logically explain to us why the sound “long” should be connected with a dragon – and yet it is the Chinese word that means “dragon”. There is just nothing inherently dragon-ey about that noise. It seems arbitrary.
Our brains are set up to spot patterns and to associate with things that we already know, and trying to find links where there are none is a disheartening business. They are impressive beasts though, and if we repeat anything enough, they will eventually find a way to find links and so to incorporate them into memories. It just takes time.
This is the basis of “rote learning”. The sad thing about rote learning is, other than making language learning a joyless and tedious process, is that is also rather wasteful: every person who wants to learn the Chinese word for “dragon”, for example, has to go through that repetition process for themselves. It doesn’t matter if one person has learned that word or one million. The word becomes no easier to learn, the weight of collective numbers of people tramping that cognitive path has no effect on the ease with which the next person’s memory can pick it up.
That seems to be a bit of a shame.
Our imaginations are incredibly powerful tools that can make learning abstract facts (like new foreign words) immeasurably faster and even delightful. It can effectively short-cut the rote learning process. If you take a moment to imagine an absurd link between the sound of a new word and what it means, then you give your mind something to work with, something to grip on to. Something to remember. You imagination is, in a sense, a tool for spotting patterns where no obvious patterns exist. So this is its perfect task!
The picture above is an example of a tiny nugget of imaginative insight (my imaginative insight, since you ask) to show you how you might make the link between the sound “long” and the meaning “dragon”. It is by no means a stroke of imaginative genius. It is just some simple text over a picture. But nonetheless it is enough to get the image to stick in your mind. Making the link can be that easy: it can happen for every new word you learn.
These imaginative links are called “mems”. Mems help us learn faster, but just as importantly, they stay around to help the next person to learn faster as well. Every new person who learns that word can tweak and improve the mems, making each word incrementally ever easier to learn for everyone. Crowd sourcing the imagination of the world’s learners.
If you want to feel the power of mems for yourself, why not try out one of our new introductory language courses – to get you started these have been seeded with some delicious mems by our resident team of illustrators. But the real power will come when you add your own mems. That is when learning can become collaborative, and so start becoming easier for everyone, learning everything.
How wild and creative is your imagination? How might you make a link between the German “ich möchte” and the meaning “I would like”? Or the Portuguese “eu fao” and the meaning “I speak”? Pick a language and see how others have made these words instantly unforgettable – then add your own mems and help to make the world a more learnable place!