Journalist learns African language in 22 hours

A new website combines modern science and ancient techniques to pack vast amounts of information into your brain. But in the age of the internet, does memory really still matter?

When journalist Joshua Foer was told to go to the Ndoki forest to research a story about chimpanzees, a serious problem lay before him. In this wild and remote region of the Republic of Congo, he would have to communicate in Lingala, a difficult and obscure language.

Foer spoke no Lingala. Yet ten weeks later, after just 22 hours of methodical study, he was sitting around a campfire telling his Congolese hosts about his home in the USA.

By Foer’s own account, he has ‘never been very good with languages’. His mind-boggling feat was accomplished using technology available to anybody, and principles that have been known over two thousand years.

In the weeks before his trip, Foer spent a few minutes every day on the free website Memrise, which uses scientific techniques to pack huge amounts of information into your brain in a short space of time.

Memrise works by linking each word with a ‘vivid sensual memory’, such as a rhyme or an image. This kind of memory is much easier for the brain to recall than abstract information, making the associated word far more memorable than it would otherwise have been.

The website is the brainchild of British memory champion Ed Cooke, who aims to transform the learning abilities of the modern mind. Cooke believes that our brains’ natural capacity to retain facts has been blunted by the ease with which we can now access information: instead of remembering a quote or a fact, we simply ask Google.

The Ancient Greeks, by contrast, were able to learn swathes of information easily – a necessity in a world where few could read and write. The poet Simonides came up with a learning technique in the 5th Century BC called the ‘memory palace’, which involves picturing familiar rooms in your mind’s eye and then filling them with the words or numbers that you need to remember.

Using contextualising methods like the ‘memory palace’, Cooke and other memory experts can perform amazing tasks: learning the precise order of cards in 36 shuffled decks over the course of one hour, or flawlessly memorising a sequence of 4,140 numbers in just thirty minutes.

Remember remember

Some say that one of the great benefits of living in our digital age is the fact that we no longer need to spend hours jamming information into our cluttered heads; anything we need to know is already at our fingertips, easily accessible on a computer or smartphone. This gives us time to focus on more important things.

But Foer believes that our declining memories are a serious concern. Memories make us who we are, and our minds are enriched by the facts and the knowledge that we store there. By using fun and accessible tools such as Memrise, Foer argues, we can resurrect a dying skill and expand our shrinking minds.

You Decide

  1. Do you think that the internet has a positive or negative effect on your mental abilities?
  2. Does memory have any value other than being practically useful?

Activities

  1. In pairs, give each other a list of ten items and try to remember them in order using the memory palace technique. For example, take your bedroom. Visualise each of the ten items in odd places in the room. Then go round the room in your imagination and see if you can find them there.
  2. Use Memrise to learn ten words of a language you have never spoken before. See how fast you can do it, then compare your time with the rest of the class.

Some People Say...

“You are what’s in your head, not on your hard drive.”

What do you think?

Q & A

So I could learn a language in 22 hours?
In theory, yes! It takes effort and focus, and you will only be able to hold fairly simple conversations. But anybody should be capable of teaching themselves enough to get by.
Is there anything else that these memory techniques could be useful for?
You may already use some of them without realising it. Have you ever memorised a set of words by combining their first letters to create a new word or a rhyme? If so, this is one example of a mnemonic, which is the same basic technique are used by Memrise.
Anything else?
Techniques like the memory palace can be used to recall anything from scientific formulas to shopping lists to telephone numbers. Some students even burn incense while they revise, then recall the smell to help remember facts!

Word Watch

Joshua Foer
Science journalist and younger brother of novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, Joshua got involved with the investigation of memory back in 2006, when he entered and won the USA Memory Championships. He wrote a book, Moonwalking with Einstein, about his experiences.
Lingala
With only about two million native speakers, Lingala emerged as a Central African language in the 19th Century, and has French, English, Portuguese and Dutch influences. A lack of linguistic resources for Lingala in the Western world renders it notoriously difficult to learn!
British memory champion
Someone can become known as a ‘Grand Master of Memory’ by learning 1,000 random numbers in one hour, ten decks of cards in one hour, and one deck in less than two minutes. British writer Ed Cooke won his title in 2005, and there are currently 121 other Grand Masters around the world.
Simonides
Simonides of Ceos, the Ancient Greek poet, supposedly created the memory palace technique after being able to perfectly recall exactly which guest was sitting where in a collapsed hall from which he had just managed to escape with his life.

Subjects

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