Memorizing Foreign Language Vocabulary By Hand

shutterstock_2641313-150x150Dear Memorizers,

I hope you enjoyed that great TED Talk about Memory Palaces I sent out yesterday. In case you missed it, here’s the link again (the video is at the end of the article):

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/wray-herbert/depression-memory_b_2931874.html

In other news, I had a lovely bit of correspondence yesterday with a new reader about finding a tandem partner online. This service, for instance, offers a great solution, especially for anyone living away from a town or city with an active center:

http://www.polyglotclub.com/

However, this epistolary service reminded me of an important point: Although it’s great to type in your target language, there is strong evidence to suggest that we learn better by practicing cursive writing. I read about this in Richard Wiseman’s 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot and have come across other compelling studies about it here and there over the years. Many people, for instance, attribute part of Da Vinci’s genius to the fact that he practiced mirror writing.

That’s worth repeating: they attribute part of his genius to his mirror writing. That’s different than saying that he practiced mirror writing because he was a genius.

It’s the same thing that Joshua Foer mentions in the TED Talk I’ve sent you. As he says, none of the people he met while learning the art of the Memory Palace have any extraordinary ability with memory. They have only the persistence needed to train their minds. And just like building muscles, the practice of Ars Memorativa needs consistent training, lest the skills fade away.

How can you develop similar persistence?

Writing by hand every day is definitely a step you can take, especially if you write in your target language.

But let’s be careful here. I’m not talking about writing out words by rote. I’m talking about either writing out your raw vocabulary words for the purpose of testing (i.e. writing the word once and then looking into your Excel file to check your accuracy), or composing a letter, story or some phrases using your vocabulary.

It really doesn’t matter with what level of sophisticated you write. It could be a shopping list or it could be a manifesto. The important thing is to experiment with using your hand rather than typing.

At a more advanced level, you can try writing with your non-dominant hand. I’ve been doing this for about a year now, and although it was slow at first, I’m now quite good and getting better all the time.

This exercise has a very beneficial effect. It is sending more blood to the brain, for one thing, which means more oxygen and nutrients, but it’s also making my mind access different parts of the brain. As thinking and recall skills expand, the brain builds new pathways, leading to greater speed, accuracy and ultimately improved fluency.

The level above this is to write right-to-left in both hands. This practice may seem silly, but it’s actually another powerful form of exercising the mind in relation to the dexterity of the hand. I haven’t gone to the next level, which is mirror writing, but I’m looking forward to adding this exercise to the Magnetic Memory Gymnasium sometime soon.

Here’s what I suggest you do:

1. Using one of your Magnetic Memory Palaces, place 10 new vocabulary words.

2. Make sure you keep a record of the words using an Excel file or some other means of storage (if you haven’t seen it, the video I created for you about using Excel files for your Memory Palaces can be found here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UMPMuOyfke4 )

3. Get out a piece of paper and write out your ten words with your dominant hand in the regular left-to-right fashion.

3.5 (optional) Test your memorizations by referring back to your records.

4. Using your dominant hand again, write out the same 10 words right-to-left, or better yet, try writing at least one complete sentence using one or more of your new words. This will help avoid the drudgery and temptation of rote learning (it’s the ultimate paradox that as one of the most painful activities, we so often want to fall back on rote learning, isn’t it?)

5. Using your non-dominant hand, write out your 10 words in the reverse order of the Memory Palace journey you created in normal, left-to-right fashion.

6. Using your non-dominant hand, write out a sentence or phrase using one or more new words you’ve learned in right-to-left fashion.

7. Let me know about your experiences with this technique, and as always, feel free to send me your comments and questions about anything related to the acquisition of vocabulary using the ancient art of the Memory Palace.

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.

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