By Anthony Metivier
If your Chinese fluency increased 50-60 percent or more in three months, how would your business relationships change? The positive impact would be huge. And in the business world, there’s no excuse for not learning the language.
Learning the “world’s hardest language” is all about your mindset and how you use your memory. And the good news is that there’s a fast, easy way to store Chinese vocabulary in your memory and recall it on command.
All it requires a bit of setup. If you’d like to be able to look at a word or phrase, play a simple game a few times a week, and use what you’ve learned, then you’ll love these memory techniques.
Nothing new about memory techniques
The Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci arrived in Macau in 1582. He quickly learned the language and eventually wrote a book, Xiguo jifa, in Chinese about the memory techniques he used to learn the language in record time. Ricci is believed to be the first Westerner invited into the Forbidden City.
Ricci used three simple principles to memorize Chinese:
- Create mental imagery and sensations to help you recall the sound and meaning of words.
- Store these images in a strategic way so you can find them whenever you want.
- Practice recalling and “decoding” the imagery in a way that embeds the target Chinese vocabulary into long-term memory.
- Use what you’ve memorized, by speaking, reading, writing, and listening to Chinese as often as possible — ideally every day.
Ready to learn?
Your memory responds to images — particularly action-filled, emotion-packed images. The stranger the images you create, the more you increase your ability to instantly recall them. And when you connect gripping — and even shocking — imagery to sounds and meanings, you can recall words with ease.
Take the word 办公室 bàngōngshì, which means “office.” If you want to memorize the word, take stock of its characteristics. It has three syllables, which suggests you’ll need three images in play.
Imagine a giant rubber band on a slingshot firing a massive gong at a flock of sheep wearing businesses suits as they’re about to enter an office. Really take a moment to picture the scenario. Imagine the figures as huge, vibrant, and bursting with color and action. Focus on those three key figures and the larger-than-life action and remember what the sheep are doing: entering an office.
As you focus, break down the relationship between the image and the sounds: “band” has the core sound “ban” in it. “Gong” is very similar to “gōng” and “sheep” has shì in it. If you can get a simple picture like this in your mind, you can quickly memorize any Chinese word.
But, how can you find this word when you need it? And how will you connect it to other words you want to memorize?
Create and use a Memory Palace
A Memory Palace is a location-based mental construct based on a real location you can use as an organizational device for coding, storing and decoding mental imagery.
It’s worth knowing the technical definition for deep understanding; but in simpler terms, a Memory Palace lets you use a familiar building to create an imaginary journey. Along that journey, you create “stations” for imagery and as you repeatedly take the journey backward and forward to practice memorized words.
Key principles to ensure an effective Memory Palace include:
- Selecting a place you can easily recall. It could be your home, your 办公室 bàngōngshì, or a favorite cafe. Just make sure you have a solid recall for the rooms and can see or sense the location of each corner. The corners will be your stations.
- Drawing the Memory Palace. Just get out a piece of paper and a pen or pencil. Drawing the Memory Palace will get your muscles involved in the process, strengthening your mental image and activating more representation centers in your brain.
- Listing your stations. By writing out the stations in a linear format, you give your mind another way to process the journey. You’ll also use this list to record the images and test yourself.
- Practicing your Memory Palace. Now that you’ve created it, move forward and backward along the journey. It’s also good practice to leapfrog along the odd and even numbered stations to ensure that you know the journey well.
If this is your first time making a Memory Palace, don’t overdo it. Eight to 10 stations is more than enough to get started. Later, you can create larger Memory Palaces to store more words.
Which words should you pick?
It’s entirely up to you which words you choose, but ideally they will be words that you will use or frequently encounter. A Memory Palace for pronouns, verbs, or conjunctions that you need to practice will serve you well.
Another option is to consult the index of a character book and proceed alphabetically based on the pinyin. I prefer this method because it lets me dedicate a Memory Palace to words based heavily on a specific sound.
For example, four stations from 办公室 bàngōngshì in my “B” Memory Palace (it’s my doctor’s office), I have 准备 Zhǔnbèi, or prepare/get ready. Although this word starts with Z, it fits nicely here nonetheless and I use the film director Michael Bay being kicked by a June bug to help me memorize the sounds. Bay and his camera crew are not “ready” for the assault and that’s how I remember the word’s meaning.
How to rehearse ords into long-term memory
After putting the images on the stations of your Memory Palace, rehearse them. Think of each station as a theater stage and each image a set of actors. Once you set them in motion, they deliver their lines and tell you the sound and meaning of the target information.
How often should you rehearse?
It depends. If you read, write, speak, and listen to Chinese every day, not much. A good rule of thumb is to rehearse the images 5 times the first day, 1 time a day for the next five days and 1 time per week for the following five weeks.
Memory champion Dominic O’Brien calls this The Rule Of Five, but you can certainly tweak it. The more you actively engage in learning the language, the more you’ll already be rehearsing these words.
And while you’re rehearsing, it’s wise to add a phrase to each word. You’ll use the same technique of creating crazy images, so make sure the core word is already stored in long-term memory to avoid confusion. If you’ve already got the real estate staked out in your Memory Palace, maximize its value. But if you think all of this activity is going to take too much time, try the Mandarin Chinese Mnemonics And Morning Memory Secrets.
准备好了吗? Zhǔnbèi hǎo le ma? (Are you ready to get started?)
All you need is a little time and effort.
As for making sure your tones are correct, there is a memory technique for that too. It involves learning the Major Method for numbers, but you can also pick up the tones from regular speaking and listening practice. The most important thing is that you have the core sound in your memory so that you can make mistakes for your teachers and speaking partners to correct. Then it’s just a matter of using the imagery in your Memory Palace to help you get it right the next time.
About the author: Anthony Metivier is the author of over 12 bestselling books and video courses on using your memory for specific topics. Get his free Memory Improvement Kit and start memorizing more Chinese vocabulary and phrases.