Hooked on mnemonics: A new way to conquer foreign languages?

How I "learned" Spanish in a weekend by free association

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

The British, as a nation, are notoriously linguaphobic, perhaps it's a vestige of the grand old days of the empire, where one could comfortably ask for "A spot more Earl Grey, old chap, and a Scotch egg," and be understood anywhere from Shanghai to Srinagar.

Thus it is that language education in British schools has traditionally been a sorry and uninspiring affair. One of only two languages my own school had on offer was Latin. Compelling if you're planning on spending a lot of your time with a selection of long-dead philosophers; not so useful if you've decided on backpacking around Chile. The other was French. France is one of Britain's closest neighbors, so French therefore was deemed necessary to comprehend in case they should decide to invade.

Five years of thrice-weekly instruction left me and my classmates able to say "What a funny hat/cat/tree/grandmother," ask for a strawberry ice cream, and seek directions to the nearest tourist information office. On trying out any of the above on waiters in Paris, however, we would invariably be met with stony stares, arched eyebrows and a derisive "Quoi?"

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So when it comes to learning a new language as an adult, teeth-clenching memories of drafty classrooms, ancient textbooks, and endless verb declensions immediately spring to mind. Taking pleasure in exploring the intricacies of another tongue is hard to imagine. Unless, apparently, you stumble across the Linkword Method.

"Try it," a friend enthused recently, on my casual mention that I'd always wanted to learn Spanish. "You'll love it! It's so easy; one weekend, and by Monday morning, I was speaking Mandarin, easy peasy!"

Although skeptical, I was intrigued by the notion of reading my favorite authors – Borges, Vargas Llosa, Manuel Puig – in their original form; the ability to converse with old ladies on rattling local buses in Mexico; ordering tapas in Seville without pantomime; and all without the hard slog of conventional language learning.

Could it really be true?

On arriving at the Linkword website, I was met by thrilling proclamations, money-back guarantees, and a bevy of testimonials singing the praises of a simple system based on mnemonic devices, invented by one Dr. Michael M. Gruneberg – who, it says, "has spent a significant portion of his life studying human memory'. "The Linkword Method," it explains, "is based on the principle that the human mind much more easily remembers data attached to spatial, personal, or otherwise meaningful information than that occurring in meaningless sequences or basic repetition."

It claims that 300,000 people worldwide have used it successfully. Next comes a simple example: the Russian word for "juice" is "sok." Picture yourself, it instructs, drinking juice out of a sock. Hold the miniscenario in your mind's eye for 10 seconds. Et voilà – the word is allegedly locked into your mind.

So far, so good. I click on the Spanish course options. Levels 1 to 4, promising "Beginner to Advanced Spanish," is on sale and available for instant download, for the grand sum of $79.99. I glance over at the stack of abandoned language tapes, CDs, and hefty textbooks on my bookshelf, testaments to my abandoned attempts to learn Hebrew, which I gave up when my 3-year-old son laughed at me, then asked a waiter for the check on my behalf. I take out my credit card, and order before I can change my mind.

Less than 10 minutes later, I'm staring at Level 1 Spanish, successfully installed on my desktop. I take a deep breath, suppressing a shudder, and sip nervously at a cappuccino. Here goes – again. I read the instructions carefully. Ten seconds, it seems, is the magical time frame required to install each new piece of vocabulary in your mind. Ten to 12 hours, it explains, should be enough to get a good grasp on hundreds of useful words. I recall my friend's apparent new fluency in Mandarin, and press on bravely. "Above all," the introduction concludes cheerfully, "relax and have fun." This Gruneberg guy doesn't sound like my French teacher at all.

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.

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.

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