Memory Techniques For Learning A Hard Language Like Basque

| Guest Post, Podcast

Memory Techniques For Language Learning with Daniel WelschHow To Memorize Even The Most Difficult Words In The World Using World Class Memory Techniques

Hey everybody, this is Daniel Welsch.

And I’m here today as a special guest host for the Magnetic Memory Method podcast.

Anthony invited me to do the podcast today about using memory techniques for Basque and it’s a great pleasure and enormous honor for me to do so, also in Spanish in a general way:

I’ve been following Anthony’s work for about a year and I’ve been corresponding with him for nearly the same length of time and he’s been a great inspiration to me, not only in my memorizing ventures but also in my own work as a teacher and writer here in Madrid, the beautiful capital of Spain.

So when he offered me the chance to do an episode of the Magnetic Memory Method podcast on memory techniques, of course I jumped at it…

So first I’m going to tell you a bit about my language learning journey. And then I’m going to tell you how I became acquainted with Doctor Metivier and his work with memory techniques. And finally, I’m going to take you through one of my Memory Palaces to show you exactly how I memorized some very difficult material from a language that’s like no other language in existence.

Now…  A little bit about me.

Aprende Más Inglés

You probably don’t know me, because most of the work I do is in Spanish.

But I have my own website called Aprende Más Inglés, which you can find at aprendemasingles.com. There I teach English grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation—and now, learning memory techniques and how to be a more effective student and person in general.

You might want to know a bit about me. Well, I was born in the US, specifically in Phoenix, Arizona, a city in the middle of the Sonoran Desert a couple of hours from the Mexican border.

Filling In Blanks On Worksheets Has
Never Been One of My Passions

In school I learned Spanish but never took it too seriously. After that I ended up working in a kitchen with some guys from Mexico and found that speaking languages was a lot more fun than learning them in school.

Filling in blanks on worksheets has never been one of my passions.

When I was 21 I moved to Madrid, Spain, which is kind of a long story, and ended up, one way or another, teaching English.

And at the same time I was learning more and more Spanish. I was doing it organically, for the most part. I had some free Spanish classes, which I barely ever went to. And the rest of the time I was walking around, talking to people, reading the newspaper, watching TV, things like that.

At the same time, at work I was teaching English.

And I was kind of startled by how ineffective language learning in Spain was. Of course, back in the US it wasn’t any better, but in Spain learning English is just hugely important for a lot of people. Now that Spain is in the European Union and with the massive amount of international business and tourism that goes on, almost everybody needs to learn English.

It should almost be a strategic objective for all of Spain, to get the general level of English up to the level where they could compete with any country in Europe.

But unfortunately, the system wasn’t very effective at actually creating bilingual Spaniards. And after a few years I started to discover why.

But we’ll get back to that…

Couldn’t Speak, Or Even Worse, Refused To Speak

While I was teaching, I had a website where I was writing about grammar and vocabulary.

And in the meantime, my Spanish was getting better and better. I eventually got the highest level diploma in Spanish offered by the Instituto Cervantes, which is an international organization that teaches Spanish like the British Council teaches English.

And the thing about it was that I never felt like learning Spanish was a chore or an effort. I did the minimum possible in school, and later learned working in a kitchen with some guys from Mexico. And my Spanish really took off when I moved to Madrid and discovered that I could use it to meet girls.

Meanwhile, a lot of my students had studied for years and couldn’t speak, or even worse, refused to speak. They were terrified!

I decided that maybe more grammar wasn’t what people needed.

And after a couple of weeks on vacation in Italy, with my girlfriend at the time, I realized that everybody was going about it all wrong.

A Sort Of Exotic Dialect …

What happened in Italy is that I was in contact with a sort of exotic dialect of Italian that doesn’t sound anything like “standard” Italian. As far as I know there are no textbooks for this sort of thing.

They don’t even really have a literature in this dialect—it’s a small-town thing, and if you want to leave the town and do big things in Italy as a whole you need to learn proper Italian.

So I had been there surrounded by this dialect, and I had found that the book I had read to learn some Italian before going had been pretty useless too, since the pronunciation was so different than what I was hearing in small town central Italy.

In any case, by just listening and imitating and having fun with it, I was able to pick up enough of this dialect to have a sort of conversation pretty quickly.

With my knowledge of Spanish, my knowledge of standard Italian, and just listening, I was able to pick it up.

And on the way back to Spain, my flight was delayed, and I was stuck in an airport in Bologna or something similar and decided to write the outline for a book about language learning.

It took me several weeks to get it all on paper, once I was back in Spain, but I wanted to make it a sort of compendium of everything I had discovered about language learning, both as a teacher and a language learner, in my years of experience.

I called it 6 Claves para Aprender Inglés, which would translate to 6 Keys for Learning English, and I published it on Amazon, followed by a few blog posts.

In fact, I had very low expectations, but the book went to #1 in Education on Amazon in Spain, and eventually to #1 over all.

And one thing leading to another like it does, I decided to leave the grammar alone for awhile and start focusing on learning techniques and writing about how to be a more effective language learner.

So…

A Podcast About Memory

That brings me to how I met Anthony. I was in the park down the street, working out with my friend Jef. My friend Jef is a brilliant guy in his own right. And in between our sets of pullups he told me he was going to send me a link to a podcast about memory.

I had heard about memory palaces before, but it sounded sort of complicated. And I had never gotten into it. But I listened to Anthony, and his enthusiasm for the topic was so convincing that I sat down the next day and started memorizing.

I memorized, just as an exercise, the 50 provinces of Spain, from Álava to Zaragoza. It was surprisingly easy.

And I wrote an article about it for my website, which I sent to Anthony.

The next day, being the kind of guy he is (the on top of his email kind of guy, something which I aspire to imitate him in… some day…) he answered me and said we should do a podcast about it.

You can check out the podcast we did together, where we talk about imagination, pink elephants, Jimi Hendrix, and a lot of other things.

They Had All Used Memory Palaces …

I got some feedback from my readers—the doctors, especially, said that they had all used Memory Palaces to pass their exams back in the day. And that it had worked for them just as well as it had worked for me. So as a next step I decided to use the technique for language learning.

Well, in the course of 10 years teaching English I’ve come across a lot of people who say they have problems memorizing.

I’ve never had a big problem learning new words, because (as Anthony says) I think I automatically form associations. It’s just how my brain works. Maybe I learned it in elementary school and by now it’s just automatic.

This became especially clear when I started learning Italian—I could associate with English and Spanish and it was pretty easy, one way or another.

But I thought, I should do the experiment. For all my students who have difficulty memorizing, why not try the memory palace with some vocabulary?

And to make it more difficult, I decided to try with a language that had no associations at all.

No Associations At All

It’s easy to associate something like “estación” in Spanish with “stazione” in Italian and “station” in English because they’re all very similar words.

I wanted to test the method in a new way, on some truly difficult material.

The language I ended up choosing is Basque. If you don’t know about it, Basque is a language that’s spoken in a small area of the north of Spain and the south of France. Basque sounds like this:

The fact is that Basque is apparently unrelated to any of the other European languages. You can take a look on Wikipedia for some of the theories (and use memory techniques and How to Memorize a Textbook to absorb the info), but the one I like best is that the Basque people are the original barbarians who lived on the Iberian Peninsula before anyone else, and who managed to hang on to their mountainsides and their valleys through 2000 years of invasions by a long series of other civilizations.

You really have to admire the Basques, whatever the explanation is, because while virtually all the rest of Western Europe is speaking some dialect of German (English, Dutch, and the other languages of the North) or a dialect of Latin (Spanish, French, Italian, etc) the Basques are still speaking Basque… Or as they call it, Euskera.

They’ve defended their language and identity for, like I said, 2000 years of European history, which I’m sure has been difficult at times.

An Arbitrary Sequence Of A Lot Of Ks And Xs And Ts

And it’s a language with no association to anything else. To me most Basque words just look like an arbitrary sequence of a lot of Ks and Xs and Ts, without any way to make a guess at what they mean.

Nothing like Italian or French or German or Dutch, which you can often get the gist of, either if you see it in writing or if you hear it.

So I asked a Basque friend to make up a list of words, and she gave me 30 words. And I decided on a place to build my Memory Palace: the United Nations building where I give English classes every day here in Madrid.

And I sat down to do the method. I guess you’ve heard Anthony explain the guidelines for using Magnetic Memory Method memory techniques here on the podcast, so I’ll just take you through my Memory Palace, and some of the things I took into account while constructing it.

Using Anthony’s instructions for using memory techniques:

I started in a terminal location. Actually the UN building has 9 stories, but as a teacher I never have to go higher than the second floor. So I started in the Human Resources office on the second floor and went down from there. I put a mental image that reminded me of both the sound and the meaning of the word in each station I created along the way.

I created a mental path through the building all the way out to the streetcorner outside the door, putting mental images all along the path. From Human Resources, I went down the hall, past the other offices I’ve been in, the photocopiers, down the stairs, to the classroom where I teach, and then out again and further downstairs and out the door.

And finally, I practiced. A few times the first day, a few times the second, and a few times a few days after. And after that I generally had it.

The Most Difficult Thing Was The Set-Up

As I had found in previous experiences with the Magnetic Memory Method, the most difficult thing about using these memory techniques was the set-up. Once I had organized my list of words, list of stations, and thought of appropriate images, it was easy. I took Anthony’s advice and actually wrote it down, but it’s also possible to do it in your head, at least for me. Whatever works for you!

Now you may be wondering what sort of images I would use for a language with no associations—well, it turns out that the syllables can be associated with one thing or another. And I was able to mix English and Spanish associations with no problem.

For example: the word Entzun, which means listen. I had one of the Ents (those magical talking tree-people from Lord of the Rings). That was the first syllable. And for the second I had Kim Jong-Un, the young dictator of North Korea, who’s pretty memorable with his chubby cheeks and his military uniform and the fact that he’s supreme leader of a whole country despite being in his early 20s. So he was Un.

So I had him climbing up the tree, the Ent, and holding a hand up to his ear to listen for something in the distance. So I had Ents, I had Un, and I had the fact that he was listening to remind me of the meaning.

Another example using these memory techniques: Eskerrik asko, which means thank you. I separated that into “scary” and “casco” (which in Spanish means helmet) and I had something like a bicycle helmet with fangs and claws flying onto a girl’s head. The girl was down on her knees praying and giving thanks for something, it doesn’t really matter what, and so I was able to remember: scary casco, eskerrik asko, thank you.

A third example with these “Magnetic” memory techniques: garagardoa, which is beer. For this one, I had a doe (like a female deer) gargling a glass of beer. Gargle + doe = beer.

Forget The Association And Just Remember The Word

What I found on my journeys through the Memory Palace is another thing that Anthony suggested: Once you make the association and practice a few times, you can really forget the association and you just remember the word. You walk through the Memory Palace in your mind and the word is just there. It pops into your head.

Also, keep in mind I was following Anthony’s recommendation to make things violent, ridiculous, or offensive—in this case not too offensive, but I had violence in the scary bicycle helmet, and ridiculous in the gargling does, and Kim Jong-un climbing a talking tree—all things you don’t see every day, and things you’d definitely remember if you saw them.

I think that’s one of the strengths of how the Memory Palace works in the end—rather than spending a lot of time creating associations organically (through living in contact with the language) you create an artificial association. And then you can use the memory techniques to repeat as much as you want until you remember the word.

Rather than spending a few weeks or months bumping into a word before you’ve created enough associations, you can do it all in a day or two if you want.

My language learning really took off when I realized I could use languages to meet girls—later I found out that there are really only two ways to get things into long term memory: with repetition and with emotion.

And the Memory Palace works on both of those shortcuts to memory. Thank goodness for memory techniques!

Create Emotion In Your Head

As Anthony is always saying: make your images big, colorful, sexy or violent and you’ll remember them a lot easier. It’s just a way of creating emotion in your head, rather than going out and finding it externally.

Of course, finding native speakers to cause strong emotions in you can also be a lot of fun and extremely educational. But the key is balancing your study on the one hand with your contact with the language on the other.

Learning vocabulary is one thing, acquiring fluency is another. As I have said in my books many times, the only way to learn how to speak a language is to go out and speak that language.

I’ve Spent A Large Portion Of My Adult Life
Butchering One Language Or Another

And that’s the last thing I’d like to leave you with here.

A lot of people have this unnecessary fear of going out and speaking. They think they’re going to make mistakes and be embarrassed and have to go live in a cave somewhere due to the shame of conjugating some verbs badly.

In reality, I’ve spent a large portion of my adult life butchering one language or another, and I’ve really never had a bad experience because of it. Most people are happy that you’re just trying.

And most native speakers aren’t even aware of their own grammar. I learned years ago that it’s perfectly useless to ask anyone other than a Spanish teacher “Why did you use the subjunctive in that sentence, rather than the indicative?”

Generally, they have no idea—they may not even be aware that they even used the subjunctive.

So when you’re speaking to a person in imperfect Spanish or German or Italian or Mandarin, chances are very good that they’re not mentally giving you a score, like it’s some sort of test.

They’re probably only aware that you’re making a valiant attempt, and they’re trying to communicate the best they can with you.

So…

Make All The Mistakes You Can

Where I’m going with this is that it’s important to go out and make all the mistakes you can. In the worst case, people will laugh at you butchering their language. And you can laugh back. And learn something from the experience.

I don’t know anybody who’s learned a language just by studying grammar until they “knew everything” and were then able to go out immediately and start speaking with no errors.

It never happens. You’ll always make mistakes—you probably even make mistakes in your native language, even if you’re using memory techniques.

The key in my mind is having an objective for your conversations besides the conversation itself—and making your success criteria reflect that goal.

Just as an example, if you’re in Korea and you’re going to the market to buy vegetables, your goal can be to buy your vegetables—not to speak perfect Korean the whole time.

That takes the pressure off… You don’t need your level to be perfect, you just need it to get the job done.

Go Out And Use Memory Techniques!

So, go out there and memorize something! At the very least, you’ll have an interesting experience of what’s possible in your imagination… Whenever I use the Magnetic Memory Method and other memory techniques, I feel almost like I’m going on an adventure, inside my head, because I’m just so focused and I’m able to forget the outside world for a while and just live in imagination.

Nothing more to say today. I’d like to thank Anthony for handing the podcast over to me for the day to talk about memory techniques. Stay magnetic! as the doctor would say.

You can find more from me at the site I linked to above if your Spanish is good enough, or you can see all my other projects at danielwelsch.com. I write about Spanish culture, American culture, food, politics, and more, on a variety of websites out there.

And if there’s one thing I’d like to leave you with today it’s this: don’t be afraid to communicate—just say what you think and what you feel you need to say, in any language. Life is short, and as Mark Twain said, “Twenty years from now you’ll be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.”

So go out there! Speak languages, and be awesome. Life is short to do anything besides live up to your full potential. So, enjoy it.

This is Daniel Welsch, and I hope you have a great day. Goodbye.

Further Resources

How To Train Your Memory To Memorize Any Word

Memory Strategies Of The World’s Top Language Learners

Gabriel Chats With Language Trainer Daniel Welsch

12 Responses to " Memory Techniques For Learning A Hard Language Like Basque "

  1. Cathal says:

    Brilliant article, Daniel.

    Muchas gracias y eskerrik asko! (Thanks for teaching me that, by the way. I can say ‘thank you’ in many major world languages and now I have added Basque!)

    I am taking Anthony’s Udemy course as I love both languages and memory techniques.

    I teach Irish (Gaelic) and have a little eBook up on Amazon called “20 Irish Phrases in 13 Minutes” which uses some similar memory techniques to those that you and Anthony teach. I still have to finish Anthony’s course yet, however, so I’m not sure if we’re singing of the exact same hymn sheet.

    You mentioned learning by making mistakes and it reminded me of something that happened me in Italy a few years ago. My wife and I had finished our meal and I wanted to pay by card. I needed to ask the waiter if they had a card machine so I asked: “C’e l’hai una macchina, per favore?” The waiter smiled and answered:
    “Si! Pero e a casa!” (Yes. But it’s at home) “Ma c’e ‘ho una machinetta qui!” (But I have a card machine here!”)

    Now I KNEW “macchina” meant “car” but it was only by allowing myself to be embarrassed that I learned the word for a card machine…and I’ll never forget it! 🙂

    • Thanks for stopping buy, Cathal!

      And thanks for mentioning “20 Irish Phrases in 13 Minutes.” I just bought it and will give it a read. I appreciate knowing about it very much! 🙂

    • Yes, absolutely, Cathal, learning by making mistakes is one of the fastest ways to learn. You say something embarrassing, someone laughs at you, and you remember that moment forever–along with the associated word or expression.

      Thanks a lot for commenting, I’m glad you like the podcast!

      Daniel.

      • Cathal says:

        Thanks, Anthony. I’m really honoured that you picked up my book.

        It’s actually on a free day on Amazon today if anyone else is interested.

        I’m recording an audio version of it at the moment so I’ll send you that when I’m done, so you can hear what our language sounds like!

      • Cathal says:

        Gracias, Daniel. ¡Lo siento! I sent my reply for Anthony to you too!

  2. Gema says:

    Thank you! I wish English teachers thought the same as you, I mean , if you want to pass a speaking exam (in an EOI in Spain, for instance)you must pronounce words in the right way, although you’ll be able to express yourself correctly, even when native speakers understand what are you saying, it isn’t enough to pass an exam. Anyway, thank you so much! I’m going to recommend your article. It’s great!

    • Thanks for stopping by, Gema. I’m glad you liked Daniel’s post. He’s a great writer and master teacher and will appreciate that you said so. 🙂

    • Hey Gema, it’s true that speaking is often a small part of the exams I prepare people for. An exam like the CAE or the First is possible to pass without having a great level of spoken English, because the test is mostly about grammar. Thanks for commenting, I’m glad you liked the article!

  3. Diana says:

    Thanks, Daniel and Anthony.

    “The circle is rounded”. That might be a mistranslation, but let me explain it.

    I’m a Spanish girl now living in the UK. I’ve always enjoyed learning languages both by studying grammar and by just speaking them. I love mistakes.

    Now, I just feel the urgency of learning more vocabulary. I need words to better express my ideas. That’s why I googled “methods to quickly learn vocabulary”. I found a post in Spanish by Daniel, who linked me to Anthony’s MMM. I asked Anthony how could I improve my English, and he linked me to this Daniel’s post. I’ve taken all the steps Daniel suggests to learn a language, but the MMM. I now want to try it. The circle is rounded.

    I’ve just started my memory journal. I’m a bit overwhelmed but excited about the idea that this is going to work…

    • This is great news, Diana. Taking action is one of the best teachers you’ll ever have. Let us know if you need help as you move along.

      And please do send me a scan or photo of one (or more) or your Memory Palaces. I might be able to give you some hints on creating them. 🙂

    • Daniel says:

      Hey Diana, I recommend Anthony’s method because it really does work. Of course, on my website I have a lot of other articles about language learning, but it mostly boils down to just doing something every day to improve. Making the effort daily across the different abilities of speaking, reading, listening, writing.

      If you already love making mistakes, you’re way ahead of the game and I’m sure you’ll be fine. Thanks for the comment!

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