Hooked on mnemonics: A new way to conquer foreign languages?
How I "learned" Spanish in a weekend by free association
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Section 1 of Level 1, I'm advised, is a little longer than the rest, a confidence-building introduction to the Linkword method. It will largely involve animal-related vocabulary, since animals are easy to picture in a 10-second scenario.Skip to next paragraph
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Moments later, I'm in the thick of it, imagining a cat eating a gateau (gato), a cow vacuuming its field (vaca) and a monkey wearing a monocle (mono). Though I feel a little silly, this is actually quite fun. I forge ahead, speeding through vocabulary, working my way through various tests – which, unlike school, seem effortless to answer. Interspersed between each little segment of vocabulary, there's a simple explanation of an element of grammar, which is immediately put into practice in the following segment. No mention of irregular verb tables; just easy to follow, practical stuff.
An hour later, at the end of Level 1, Section 1, I'm exhilarated. I've learned to distinguish between a masculine and feminine noun, the difference between 'el' and 'la,' and how to convincingly say: "The elephant is hard" or "The quiet wasp is fresh."
"Some of the sentences in this course," the lesson warns, "might strike you as being a bit odd." This, it explains, is intentional – meant to prevent you from simply parroting stock phrases. True, the freshness of wasps, for me at least, is a topic that doesn't surface often.
I press on, losing track of time as I learn to describe the prettiness and depth of the bathroom floor, and how a small blue bear might climb atop a cupboard in the dining room. Committing all these strange images to mind makes me wonder what strange dreams I might have. But still, the material seems to stick, and later, I force my husband to give me a vocabulary test. To his astonishment, and my glee, I get almost every word right.
My Mandarin-proficient friend calls for news. "You see?" she crows, when I admit its efficacy. "I told you! I'm going to start learning Welsh next, or Swahili."
I begin to think that the Linkword system owes its success as much to its pupils' inflated pride, as to its myriad mnemonic devices.
It's said that once we hit our teenage years, our ability to learn a new language decreases dramatically. While my husband grew up fluently switching between Finnish, Swedish, English, and Hebrew on a daily basis and still does, his later attempts to learn Dutch, during a stint in Amsterdam, were an unprecedented failure.
But a week after starting the first level, I could finally understand Dora the Explorer – and Boots, her mono friend – along with my 2-year-old daughter.
Lest you think I'm completely sold on the program, let's just pause here for the caveats. There's nothing new about creating mental associations to build bridges to new material, explains Michael Geisler, head of immersion language schools at Middlebury College, in Vermont.
"If I just wanted to learn enough vocabulary to get from my hotel room to the theater and the opera and the airport ... I think [mnemonics] is very useful," he says. But it's the "actual conversation with a native speaker or someone you might meet in an international context," he adds, that will pull the curtain on the illusion that I've learned Spanish in a weekend.
OK, I agree that I might not be quite ready to tackle Borges's "Labyrinths." But after a sneak peek at the final chapter of Level 4 – which requests Spanish translations of "The can opener is on the flute but the corkscrews are on the oboe," and "Nobody has doubts. The postman has no pity" – and, I decide, you can thrust me into a surrealist Beat poetry meeting in Madrid or Buenos Aires and I'm quite certain I'll be able hold my own.