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JLPT Memorization Techniques

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Long ago we needed tremendous memories. We didn’t have computers to catalog and tag our memories. No Facebook to post our mindless musings and latest kid pictures too. We had to keep all that junk in our head.

And we used to be pretty good at it. Great orators of years past could remember long, lengthy tales that they could recite for audiences perfectly. But these days, there really aren’t too many situations where you need a strong memory once you’ve graduated from college. We have devices that assist us, some with that will even understand or spoken commands for reminders.

But recently there has been a revival of sorts. People are starting to try to take back their forgotten memory skills. It is actually quite an exciting time if you really want to memorize stuff, because records are being set and broken on a pretty regular basis as people take others techniques and improve upon them in their attempts to be able to memorize bigger and bigger pieces of information in faster and faster times.

Ed Cooke, the Founder of Memrise and Grand Memory Champion, recently did an interview with Timothy Ferriss on his podcast (an amazing podcast by the way), where he mused on everything from what we should consider meritable to what it means to have a good memory and how that can ultimately change our perception of the world. The podcast inspired me to go over some basics of how memory works as it pertains to language learning and, well, life in general.

Bad Memory

There is a common myth that you are born with good memory. That it is just in your genes and if you don’t have it, then you will have problems with it all your life. There might be a little bit of truth to that, but in general you can train your brain to memorize a whole chunk of stuff as long as you are determined to do so. It really just comes down to having good memorization techniques, which could take a little while to learn and master.

I’ve talked before about what kinds of things can lead to nothing really sticking in your mind. If you are not chewing through the information and just skipping over it by re-reading your notes for example, that is not going to stick. You need to chew on it and reprocess it in some way. Brute force memorization techniques such as trying to memorize everything piece by piece is also another technique that a lot use, but it really doesn’t pack the punch that some other methods do.

You also have to remember that different people remember facts in different ways. What is memorable for you may not be all that memorable for me and vice versa. So there are no one size fits all for building mnemonics or locking in pieces of information. That’s why I think Memrise has a pretty good spin on things because they let you choose what kind of mem you want to use or you can pretty easily create your own, which makes it a lot more personalized to you.

Good Memory

In order to build up and have a good memory, you need to use the full array of what is available to you in your head. Don’t limit yourself to just words. Words are only the easiest form for ideas to travel across time and space to your head. How you really think of things is more like how you imagine images, so use images as much as you can. Some people also use scents or even rhythmic music (without words). All of your senses are at your disposal, so don’t be afraid to use them.

The key here is to hook the information into your head.  You can’t cram too many things into one particular spot in your head.  You need to move around and layer the words, grammar points and kanji that you need, otherwise they simply won’t stick.  This why the best thing to do when you seem to plateau with your studies is to try something completely different.  Something that shocks your brain and makes it all more memorable.

Think of it this way.  If you are walking down the street you will see plenty of sidewalk, lots of different blocks with only minor differences.  It isn’t very memorable.  But if you happen to see a man walk by in a giant white fur coat, you’ll remember it.  Especially if you are walking down the street in the middle of summer.  So, keep that in mind when you are digging through a pile of kanji and vocabulary you need to memorize.  Think about what will stick for you and stop brute forcing the words into your head.

What do you do to Remember Things?

Do you have any tricks for building mnemonics?  How do you remember tricky, non-sticky words?   What is a word that, despite your best efforts has refused to stay in your head?  Let us know in the comments below.

{ 1 comment… add one }
  • Anthony Metivier February 15, 2015, 9:08 am

    Great post! And the Ed Cooke/Ferriss interview is definitely worth everyone’s time.

    I love using mnemonics for language learning and used them really well to get the hiragana and katakana down very quickly (1.5 hours). Obviously, the accuracy of accent and stroke order takes longer, but it’s very easy and fun. I don’t want to post a link uninvited, but if you search “memorize japanese hiragana” + “magnetic,” people will find a page with a video talking about how to do this.

    In brief, you make a Memory Palace with a sufficient number of stations for each character and then use images to make the shape and sound memorable.

    I’m now applying the same method to memorizing the Kanji Radicals with four Memory Palaces and will then go on to experiment with memorizing full Kanji.

    Some people think that the memorization process wastes time that could be spent on language learning, but it’s really just another way of approaching learning that utilizes different aspects of your imagination without hammering it to death with SRS. Sure, it can work, but it’s not for everyone and a barrier to progress for many due to boredom and the dishonesty automated and real flashcards encourage.

    Thanks for the great site and the frequent updates to your paid area. Very cool! 🙂

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