Memory Palace for Language Learning: Does It Really Work?

Palace with flags to express a concept related to the memory palace technique for language learningIf you’re learning a new foreign language, you’ve probably heard about the Memory Palace for language learning.

Does it work?

Absolutely.

But some people struggle with this mnemonic strategy.

We’ll discuss why some people exert too much energy and remove each and every pitfall.

That way, you can use this incredibly powerful learning technique to supplement your language learning adventure.

Because let’s face it:

The whole point of using this technique in the first place is to make language learning much more fun, a lot faster and easier.

So if you’re ready ready to optimize how you’re using this powerful tactic and go over the ultimate Memory Palace example for language learners, let’s dive in.

First, Avoid These Memory Palace Mistakes

If you’ve tried using a Memory Palace to develop your fluency in another language and struggled, this first mistake is important to avoid.

Stop blaming yourself.

A lot of memory training on the Internet lacks nuance. Worse, a lot of it is designed to peak your interest with big promises, but not teach you anything. That’s not happening here.

In reality, the technique works wonderfully for speeding up retention with any information. Beyond not having good sources of information, people struggle because:

Again, forgive yourself if you’ve encountered any of these situations before. We’re about to solve everything together.

Can a Memory Palace Really Teach You a New Language?

The Buddha reportedly said that “Expectation is the quickest path to suffering.”

And a lot of people mistakenly think that the Memory Palace technique is going to magically “teach” them the language or make them fluent.

But remembering vocabulary and phrases is not just a solitary activity. It’s a communal one.

This is a key point made by Tim Doner in a TEDx Teen Talk where he also shows how he used the Memory Palace technique.

To see such a young person so wisely embedding this ancient memory technique in the larger principles of what it takes to learn a language is inspiring.

Because that’s what it takes:

Use the Memory Palace as a tool from a toolbox containing other tools, not a magic bullet. What are some of those other tools?

How to Design a Memory Palace for Language Learning

The key to getting your first Memory Palace optimized for language learning involves these steps:

  • Making sure it’s a true Memory Palace
  • Making sure you can navigate it naturally
  • Making sure you don’t trap or confuse yourself
  • Making sure it works for Recall Rehearsal (spaced repetition)
  • Making sure you have multiple Memory Palaces
  • Making sure you populate the Memory Palaces with truly Magnetic Imagery
  • Making sure you learn to scale from individual words to entire sentences

Let’s go through each of these steps in order.

One: Use A True Memory Palace

By “true” Memory Palace, I mean basing your Memory Palace on a location you already remember.

Some people don’t mind spending the time to memorize a location in order to use it. Or they are happy to base a Memory Palace on a video game, movie or even a story. All of these are what I call Virtual Memory Palaces.

By all means, experiment with these forms. But if you find yourself spinning your wheels, come back to the principle of basing each Memory Palace for foreign language learning purposes on actual locations. Chances are you’ll be much more successful.

memory palace example

This better outcome happens because you’re reducing the cognitive load by simply laying out associations on a journey you already remember. This principle reduces errors and saves time. Segmenting space you already remember is what distinguishes a Memory Palace from a Memorized Palace.

Two: Navigate Your Palaces Naturally

Many times I receive messages from people who have issues with language learning. When I ask them what they’re doing, they tell me they’re crossing through walls or mentally leaping through space and time.

I counsel them to try navigating their Memory Palaces using one of these five examples.

Each of them involves walking or moving mentally from one station in the Memory Palace to the next exactly as you would in real life.

A visual representation of a Memory Palace journey Anthony uses to help him do the ultimate visualization meditation.

Again, this procedure has to do with reducing cognitive load. If you choose to magically penetrate a window and fly across town, you’ve given yourself an additional memory task. That takes time and energy away from using the technique to memorize vocabulary and phrases.

But if you move from your bedroom to your balcony exactly as you would in the real world, you can focus much more attention on the content you’re memorizing.

Three: Avoid Traps And Confusion

So many Memory Palace tutorials tell you to start at your front door and move inwards.

Sure, this can work, but personally, it makes me cringe. Every time I do this, I wind up running out of space very quickly.

Jared Russell Memory Palace

That’s why I learned to start at the “dead end” and move towards the entrance. That way, I can add more stations if desired by using driveways, mailboxes, etc. This approach allows you to patch in the best parts of the journey method, which involves outdoor locations.

It also helps ensure that you don’t have to renovate any of your Memory Palaces later.

Four: Make Sure The Memory Palace Assists Recall Rehearsal

We know that the Memory Palace technique works. One of the most recent and most powerful studies conducted by a team involve David Reser and Tyson Yunkaporta showed excellent results in a study using an Aboriginal variation of the Memory Palace.

This study revealed positive results for people with dyslexia using a software variation of the Memory Palace technique. And Lynne Kelly’s Memory Craft provides even more research if you’re interested.

The point is that you need to follow all of these steps I’ve outlined because active recall and review are necessary. But you can’t be fussing around with the Memory Palace itself because that drains you of time, energy and enthusiasm for the technique.

Some people find the setup itself daunting, and I can appreciate that. But I don’t think they’re correct when they say that rote learning would be better for them. Research has shown that rote learning can reduce your critical thinking abilities.

So it’s worth the small amount of pre-loaded learning it takes to master the Memory Palace technique for language learning.

Five: Multiple Memory Palaces

Once you’ve made one Memory Palace and put it into action for approximately 10 words, it’s time to make more.

Why?

A few reasons:

  • You can gather related words alphabetically or thematically in different Memory Palaces
  • Rotating between Memory Palaces maximizes the benefits of chunking through interleaving
  • You learn to use the technique better
  • It helps you reuse or expand previous Memory Palaces effectively

Some people find creating multiple Memory Palaces daunting. You don’t have to create dozens overnight.

But if you sit down and complete the exercises I teach, the rusty chain in your brain will soon be oiled.

Plus, once you start thinking alphabetically, you’ll see that the entire world is optimized for you to harness this technique.

A simple case in point is that every street in my town has a name. Even if that name is a number, it can still be spelled.

If I used 1st Avenue as a Memory Palace for ‘F’ words, I have a highly optimized mental journey that leans upon a feature in the world. This kind of Memory Palace reduces cognitive load by harnessing what is already known instead of wasting energy on coming up with invented associations.

Memory Palace for Language Learning example from a student

Six: Use Magnetic Imagery

When people send me their associations, they often involve associations like “a hair stylist” for a German word like Herstellen.

Don’t get me wrong. This is a great start.

But it’s not optimized Magnetic Imagery. Mnemonic Images need more specificity to really pop and help you recall both the sound and the meaning of the words you’re learning.

To improve the example a student sent me, I suggested imagining the German author Hermann Hesse “producing” a hair style for Ellen Degeneres. To be clear, I’ve linked the “Her” in Hermann to the “her” in herstellen, and “Ellen” to “stellen” and had their interaction express the meaning of the world.

This level of specificity follows a variation of the principles I shared above. It relies upon people that are already in memory. They are concrete and specific and easy to animate. “Hair stylist” on the other hand is vague and generic.

Sure, learning to make sure your images are properly “Magnetic” can take a bit of practice. But it’s well worth it and you’ll pick up the habit soon enough. In fact, with consistent practice, the skill will enter your procedural memory and you’ll find yourself doing it on autopilot.

Seven: Scale To Entire Phrases

The best part of this technique is that you don’t have to stop with individual words.

Of course, it only makes sense to start by mastering one word at a time. That’s why I suggest started with approximately 10 words per Memory Palace.

Once you can do this reliably, it’s time to add a phrase to each word.

There are a few ways to do this depending on how you’re using the technique.

For example, I first get all of the words into memory. Then I pick a couple and add phrases on the same station I originally used.

But other times, I will transport the words to completely different Memory Palaces.

Memory Palace Q&As: What Does Success Look Like?

Success obviously looks different for different people. But in general, here’s how I suggest you think about the process.

How Long Will It Take To Learn A Language?

The length of time it takes to learn a language depends a lot on how you define fluency.

Personally, I’m a fanatic of language, including my native tongue. I don’t think I’ll ever be done learning English, so I don’t worry about this question in any language I study.

Rather, I set very specific goals. For example, after CLI heard my language learning podcast episode on The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, they invited me to China. That meant I had only three months to study Chinese.

Instead of making a massive and impossible goal, I set the achievable goal of developing a 300 word vocabulary and mastering basic conversational phrases. And this worked very well.

Later, I was able to start Level 3 at the Confucius Institute school in Brisbane without taking the first two levels. And I set my goal as simply mastering the course content. I passed with flying colors.

But I expect to never stop learning Chinese, or German, or Sanskrit or any language I take up. Each language is an adventure for life.

How Often Should I Use My Memory Palace?

In the beginning, I would suggest using the technique as often as possible. Daily is best, and you can get great results with just 15 minutes a day, or even less.

The reason to use the technique frequently is to ensure that your procedural memory can develop the skills involved in the technique.

As I discussed in my first book on language learning with memory techniques, memory techniques and your mind are a bit like a bicycle. Once you learn how to get them working, you can take time off and still enjoy smooth sailing.

Cover of How to Learn and Memorize German Vocabulary

But without consistent practice, it’s very difficult to build enough brain connections to ride freely.

Is There A “Best” Way To Use Memory Palaces?

Absolutely, yes. You want to use the Memory Palace technique in a way that will get you results.

Returning to the bicycle analogy, you can’t just hop on a bike and expect it to be perfectly comfortable. You usually need to adjust the seat height and the exact angle of the bars.

Memory techniques are like that too. The principles are universal, but some adjustments to personalize them are always required.

Plus, there’s always personal experimentation involved. The need to dive in and get your hands dirty is a common theme in Memory Palace books, and your adventure is unlikely to be any different.

Rather than seek the best way, I suggest you first find the most effective way for your specific language learning goals. Then develop your skills so that you’re more efficient. Finally, experiment with yet other approaches so that you’re able to grow your skills over time.

The best part? You’ll be growing your fluency as you go thanks to developing your own “mnemonic style.”

Now It’s Time to Create Your Own Memory Palace

When you’re ready to start applying the Memory Palace technique to your language learning goals, please grab my free memory improvement kit:

Free Memory Improvement Course

It gives you some powerful exercises and templates that will ensure your Memory Palaces are well-formed and error free.

That way you can dive into crushing your language learning goals immediately.

Enjoy this journey in whatever language you’re learning and I look forward to hearing from you in multiple tongues!

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