A Memory Palace for Chaucer

SS-Arch-Real-Estate-084-150x150Dear Memorizers,

T.S. Eliot wrote that “April is the cruelest month,” and it looks like he may have been predicting Berlin’s spring of 2013 instead of making a subversive pun on Chaucer with respect to the war he saw in his time.

Thinking of Eliot reminds me that I wanted to talk about the importance of variety when memorizing vocabulary.

For example, we can really stretch our abilities by spending time with poetry. In fact, memorizing poetry in your mother tongue is great practice for memorizing phrases in your target language.

Now, it’s still cold enough for me to be uninterested in memorizing any lines from The Waste Land, but I have always wanted to memorize a bit of Chaucer, especially in Middle English. Have you ever tried to read it? It goes like this:

Whan that aprill with his shoures soote

The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,

And bathed every veyne in swich licour

Of which vertu engendred is the flour;

Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth

Inspired hath in every holt and heeth

Tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne

Hath in the ram his halve cours yronne,

And smale foweles maken melodye,

That slepen al the nyght with open ye

(so priketh hem nature in hir corages);

Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,

And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,

To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;

And specially from every shires ende

Of engelond to caunterbury they wende,

The hooly blisful martir for to seke,

That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.

You can hear how this might have been pronounced by watching this video, one that presents slightly different spellings for these words: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QE0MtENfOMU. It’s also important to realize that different speakers may pronounce these words differently. For example, I once heard Seth Lerer read this passage and he pronounces it quite differently.

In any case, if you are struggling with memorizing the sounds of your target language, the exercise I would suggest here is to spend some time memorizing a few of these lines from Chaucer as a means of practicing pronunciation memorization using words we’re basically familiar with, but are cast differently.

First, I need to pick a location and predetermine a number of stations for this exercise. There are 18 lines, which for me means 18 stations. Some people may need 2 stations per line, while others may be able to squeeze in more than one line per station. Myself, I normally use one line per station when it comes to poetry.

It occurs to me that I haven’t yet used the apartment I’m currently living in, so I can get started in my room/office. It’s a terminal station, meaning that I won’t trap myself by starting at my desk. I can move out through the apartment, into the courtyard and out on to the street. However, because I don’t want to cross my own path, the layout of this apartment limits my options, so I’ll be out on the street quicker than I would like.

Nonetheless, my room itself is rather large and offers me a number of stations based on the objects in the room.

1. Right side of desk

2. Left side of desk

3. Amplifier

4. Bass

5. Top of bookshelf

6. Top shelf

7. Middle shelf

8. Bottom shelf

9. Window

10. Laundry hamper

11. Heat register

12. Bed

13. Bureau

14. Laundry rack

15. Bike (yes, I keep my bike in here)

16. Door

17. Bathroom (transitioning now to entire rooms)

18. Kitchen

Now let’s take a look at just the first line to see how this might work with respect to, not only the line of poetry itself, but its pronunciation.

James Wan is a film director I’m familiar with, so he’s going to represent the sound “Wahn.” To remember the pronunciation of “Aprill,” Wan will be balancing pills on the April page of a calendar (April + pill = Aprill). I find that words like “that” and “with his” don’t really need memorizing, so will skip them, but for “shoures soote” I will see James Wan take his balancing act into a shower covered with soot.

It’s really just a matter of making these images large, bright and colorful and as absurd as possible before carrying on.

If you haven’t already started, give this little exercise a try. It might make working with your target language easier.

Until next time, make sure to teach someone what you have learned about memorization. It’s the best way to deepen your own understanding and to help make the world a better – and more memorable – place. The more we remember, the more we can remember, and the more we learn, the more we can learn.

About the author: Anthony Metivier is the founder of the Magnetic Memory Method, a systematic, 21st Century approach to memorizing foreign language vocabulary in a way that is easy, elegant, effective and fun.

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