Hooked on mnemonics: A new way to conquer foreign languages?
How I "learned" Spanish in a weekend by free association
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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?"
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.