Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

Remembering is a skill you can learn

The most common mistake people make when it comes to memory is to treat it as being something fixed; either you’re born with a brilliant memory or you’re not. Of course there are differences between individuals, but practice and the correct technique matter much more than talent. There are some really simple techniques you can use to remember things very efficiently.

Last week’s sensible character learning challenge is in full swing, but to really make the most of it, you need to know how to use the full capacity of your memory. If you’ve missed the challenge, you can still check it out and join the fun. This article is meant to explain the background to the challenge. Here are all the articles related to the challenge:

  1. Chinese character challenge: Towards a more sensible way of learning to write Chinese
  2. You can’t learn Chinese characters by rote
  3. Remembering is a skill you can learn (this article)
  4. Sensible character learning: Progress, reminders and reflections
  5. How to create mnemonics for general or abstract character components
  6. Don’t use mnemonics for everything

First and foremost, I’d like to watch the following TED talk by Joshua Foer. I wish I could make every student watch this video and I’m going to start with you. It’s 20 minutes long, but those are 20 very well spent minutes. It is as informative as it is inspiring. In fact, this entire article can be viewed as an attempt to make you watch this video. Here’s the introduction on TED (my emphasis added):

There are people who can quickly memorize lists of thousands of numbers, the order of all the cards in a deck (or ten!), and much more. Science writer Joshua Foer describes the technique — called the memory palace — and shows off its most remarkable feature: anyone can learn how to use it, including him.

Now, let’s look at the video:

Here are some key points in his talk that you more or less have to understand if you want to boost your Chinese learning. Your only legitimate reason for skipping the above video is if you’re already very familiar with all of the below concepts:

  • Good memory is the result of practice
  • The history of human memory
  • Most people could become memory champions
  • Elaborate encoding (which is what the character challenge is about)
  • Remembering meaningless things is very hard
  • Introduction to the memory palace
  • A small note on holistic learning
  • Great memories are learnt
  • You should hire a poet instead of a DJ to your  next party

If you want to read more about Joshua Foer and his experience, check his article in the New York Times.

Mnemonics-related experiments

I have conducted a number of experiments with mnemonics in Swedish high-school, just to prove to students that their minds are actually quite powerful and that they’re just using the wrong methods. The memory technique I used is very similar to the one Joshua Foer used in the video above. It’s not the perfect method for anything in particular, but it works well to show how much better you can become at remembering things without practising that much. This technique will enable to you to complete almost any challenge involving “look at these objects for one minute and remember as many as you can”.

(By the way, did you actually watch the video? I’m serious, if you’re new to this, it will probably be the most important video you watch this year. Scroll up and watch it if you skipped it, keep reading if you’re already done.)

Step 1 – Benchmarking

First, I have students spend around one minute trying to memorise fifteen objects I’ve come up with more or less randomly. Try it out if you like! How many can you remember?

  1. balloon
  2. cannon
  3. sun
  4. child
  5. king
  6. tree
  7. rabbit
  8. sword
  9. bottle
  10. rain
  11. ship
  12. book
  13. mountain
  14. shovel
  15. water

Step 2 – Understanding the result

Most students who do this without any specific method can remember between 5 and 9 objects, because that’s roughly how much you can keep in your working memory (this topic is actually very complicated, but the seven plus minus two rule is good enough). This knowledge will go out the window the second you need to focus on something else, though. Some people already use memory technique of some kind, such as linking together all the initial letters of all the words, which might enable them to remember a dozen objects or so.

Step 3 – Explaining the method

If presented with a list like this, the easiest way to remember the objects is to mentally store them in a location you’re very familiar with and then follow a logical path in that location and add the items you want to remember (just like Foer did in the TED talk). You need to create strong associations between the objects you want to remember and objects in the memory palace, otherwise you will forget them.

It takes some practice to be able to create these links quickly and effectively, but there are some basic principles you should follow. First and foremost, the objects have to interact with each other. This is so obvious that I sometimes forget to teach it. Linking is about combining two concepts. The combination can be done in many ways, but it has to be extreme in some sense. It can be absurd, shameful, disgusting, scary or funny, it doesn’t really matter, but it has to be memorable. The links you create must also be vivid, actually see what’s going on in your mind, feel it, hear it, smell it. I’ve written much more about this here.

Let’s look at the above list to give you some examples. I’m using my room as reference, walking around it clockwise.

  1. balloon – I imagine opening the door to my room and hundreds of balloons fill the entire space, I have to force my way through with a kitchen knife.
  2. cannon – On my desk, miniature artillery is lined up, firing on my computer screen, which breaks. Shards everywhere.
  3. sun – Something is smouldering under the blanket on my bed. I can feel the smell of burnt cloth. A sphere of fire is eating it’s way through the mattress.
  4. child – A small child is trying to escape from my room through the window, but he’s very fat and got stuck in the window, now wailing away, crying for his parents to come to the rescue.
  5. king – I picture king Arthur sitting on top of my second desk. The space is very small, so his crown keep getting tangled in the wire connecting the AC unit to the power supply.

And so on. Using this method, I could easily remember all 15 words in order and it took me little more than 30 seconds, providing that I already had a reasonably well-defined memory palace. You could use any space, actually, like levels of first-person shooters (I use Quake levels sometimes) or the way you drive to work everyday. Six days have passed since I created the above list for this post and I checked how many I could remember now. I actually forgot the last one, water, probably because I a bit too eager to finish quickly, but I remembered the rest easily.

Practice makes perfect

Creating good associations isn’t easy, so practising is essential. If these objects aren’t enough, you can get more from this random noun generator. You could also practice directly on Chinese characters, but that means you have to either know the components or look them up. Also, I suggest you start with objects, because they are much easier to remember than abstract things. You can also check out how this can be applied to numbers or more abstract things such as pronunciation.

I have conducted this experiment in several Swedish high-school English classes and in general, people improve quite a lot between the first and second try; I’ve seen many go from 50% to close to 100% with only 10-15 minutes of practice after the principles have been explained. If you’re not used to coming up with crazy ideas out of the blue, it will take more time than that. If you find it boring, you should probably try something else, but if you just find it hard, practise more! I personally find it quite fun to come up with cool associations, making my studying much more enjoyable. Still, no method is worthwhile if you find it boring. This month is #mnemonicmonth on Twitter and we’re discussing more mnemonics than usual on Facebook, join us!

A similar method more suitable for character learning

Although the principles remain the same, simply associating the objects to each other might be quicker. That’s also what I do for character learning most of the time (i.e. I don’t associate them with familiar places as such, but I create combinations of the components that make up a characters that are so special I don’t forget them). Here’s what the first five words of the list above might be associated:

  1. balloon – cannon (I picture an air battle between cannons lifted up by festive balloons)
  2. cannon – sun (the fight takes place on the sun, so cannons fall into a sea of fire and melt)
  3. sun – child (on the fiery surface of the sun, I can see a small child swimming in the flames)
  4. child – king (king Arthur is standing on top of the swimming child’s face, pushing him deeper into the fire)

Characters usually contain only a few parts, so it’s often possible to combine them into one single picture. For instance, I imagine the balloon-powered cannons locked in battle above the surface of the sun, but instead of making it a long story, I simply picture a child (my niece, perhaps) being the admiral controlling the guns on one side and king Arthur being her adversary on the other. This is a complete picture involving five elements, which is much more than the typical Chinese character.

My previous articles about using mnemonics to learn Chinese

This is all very cool, but how do we apply it to learning Chinese? Have a look at these articles:

How I got into mnemonics and what I learnt from it

I became interested in memory and mnemonics for a somewhat unusual reason: Rubik’s cube. I had been able to solve the cube for quite some time (this is not as hard as you think if you get help with the last layer), but then I learnt that some people could solve the cube blindfolded. That blew my mind. I could not imagine how that was possible. I drew the following conclusion.

People who can memorise and solve a Rubik’s cube blindfolded must be freaks of nature with inhuman memories and visualisation ability

After looking around for a bit, I found Shotaro Makisumi’s guide to 3-cycle blindfolded 3x3x3 cubing. In the introduction, he says that someone who is reasonable familiar with the cube (can solve it about a minute, which doesn’t take that much practice once you know the basics), it takes roughly a week to learn how to solve it blindfolded using his method.

Something I thought inhuman could actually be accomplished in a week

At that time, I happened to be roughly at the level he described and decided to give it a try. I to took me eight days, spending perhaps three or four hours a day before I did my first successful blindfolded solve. It felt unreal. Other people still seem to think it’s done by magic (it’s called 魔术方块/魔術方塊, “magic cube”, in Chinese after all).

Of course, there are two components to blindfolded cubing. First, you need to know how to manipulate the cube. Second, you need to memorise the state of the cube. For Chinese learners, only the second is relevant. The desire to know how people could solve ten, twenty or even fifty cubes blindfolded propelled me into the larger world of mnemonics and memory techniques. I was especially intrigued by this thread on a cubing forum, discussing memory techniques.

There is a whole world out there

If you’re interested, the resources about memory and mnemonics on the internet are almost limitless. If you have no idea where to start, here are a few sites you can check out:

Don’t forget to share anything cool you happen to stumble upon! We’re all students and should learn from each other.

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  1. Marc says:

    I have been aware of memory techniques, especially the memory palace technique for years and I have used it before to memorize lists of random words, objects, etc. However I have only used mnemonics sparingly for my study of Chinese. This has been going rather well, but as I have said before, there seems to be a maximum of characters that one can assimilate this way. The main problem being that being a non-native speaker living in Europe, my exposure to Chinese will always be too limited to learn the language properly. So I really need the shortcuts that memory techniques can bring me. I have been following your rules for a few days now and although it is frustrating to ban so many words, I feel that relearning them in a proper way is already yielding results. Somhow I can feel that my mistakes and inaccurate guesses are becoming less frequent.


  2. Sara K. says:

    Even though I wouldn’t call this the most important video I’ve seen this year (okay, it is because I tend to read transcripts instead of watching the videos), it’s still very interesting stuff.

    There is, actually, a technique for memorizing words verbatim that I learned about way back in high school (though I didn’t actually try it until I was in college) called the “trigger method”. It was developed for actors who need to memorize their lines, but I think it could also be tweaked to memorize something like the Tao Te Ching too. I’d send you a link, except there is basically no information about this online (I can’t even find the magazine article in which I first learned about it online).

    Anyway, it uses some of the basic principles described in the video, as well flashcards.

  3. George Herzog says:

    There are some significant facts in language learning.

    A. People that learn multiple languages generally achieve a higher level of intelligence.

    B. These memory exercises may actually be for only short term recall in competition. The parts of the brain that retain facts for longer periods of time might require use of the language, not only rote memorization.

    C. We retain what we learn the earliest for the long. So our childhood memories are longer lasting, more durable than recent learning.

    D. Chinese poses more challenges to the average westerner as the characters and the phonology require more and different brain resources than learning another western language such as French or Spanish.

    I’ve been studying Chinese since 1994 as a resident in Taiwan and teaching English as a second language. Some of these factors are motivating, others seem daunting. But the outcomes are rewarding. I started studying Chinese at 43 years old and it still is worthwhile to do, though there are advantages to being younger. And just developing memory is not really enough, one must apply language to a body of knowledge that interests the learner for it to really stick. I use Windows in Chinese as well as English. I read street signs and menus on a daily basis. All these are helpful. Stay engaged. The most difficult for me is to input Chinese from a keyboard as all approaches are rather tedious. I have even learned Tsang Jie method of speed typing. But it is best to not expect too much from writing too early as phonology and visual recognition are more important and first acquired.

    1. Jeff Lau says:

      Do you have any sources or statistics on some of your facts? I’m not disputing any of them really, but would like to do further reading. Especially on the first point and also the third point.

      1. Olle Linge says:

        Those aren’t my facts, that’s a summary of what Joshua’s talk is about. I ‘m not entirely sure what you mean by the first and third, but I guess you’re referring to the list right under the video? Those are obviously not statistical truths, especially since they are so vague. The goal here isn’t to say how many percent of the population can reach a certain level, the goal is to get people to understand that memory isn’t a static ability you’re born with and that can’t be changed. If you want scientific research into this area, there are loads of papers and books, but I haven’t actually studied this for many, many years, so I don’t have any good recommendations, but Wikipedia is usually a good place to start.

        1. Jeff Lau says:

          Actually the question was aimed at George, as I replied to his comment 😛

          1. Olle Linge says:

            Waa, sorry. 🙂 I don’t reply to comments through the same interface as you do and it’s fairly hard to see who replied to what. My apologies. 🙂

      2. Sara K. says:

        This study provides evidence that bilingual children have more ‘mental agility’ than monolingual children:


  4. Jeff Lau says:

    Amazing post Olle. One of the best I’ve read this year so far! I’m also very interested in memory techniques and will be doing some further reading with the links you posted.

    How do you feel some of these competition memorisation techniques can fit into learning Chinese?


    Your ‘notify me of follow-up comments by email’ is quite well hidden behind the ‘post comment’ on my browser.

    (MAC OSX 10.75 – Google Chrome Version 23.0.1271.101)

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I know! There’s also a duplicate of the same function. I haven’t had time to fix this, but I will try to get some stuff done on the website during the winter vacation, hopefully this will be one of them. 🙂 Thanks for alerting me, I had forgotten about this.

  5. Sascha says:

    I imagined my oldest son sitting in my foyer on a cannon, with a crown, with a balloon and a rabbit in each arm, smiling,

    I imagined my second son sitting underneath a tree, in the rain, in my living room, stoically sharpening his sword with an empty bottle nearby

    I imagined my wife, in the bedroom, which became a scene from Alaska 1998 that has never left my vision, on a ship, with a mountain in the background, reading a book. I was nearby, shoveling water.

    it worked. and it was also a fascinating look at my family.

  6. adrienshen says:

    I was familiar with some rudimentary memory techniques due to my hobby for card magic.

    It was very similar in the basic principles in the way you explained it. I imagined several scenes that have meaningful, colorful links between a few words(not necessarily in order) And then meaningful links between all the scenes I created. For example, I imagined a “scene” of balloons and cannons outside under the sun(already very visual), then if you look over to the right you will see 2 rabbits sparring with swords and then having a drink from a water bottle. Just to the right of them, you have a King with his kid on his lap sitting under a tree. If you look over towards the river banks, it happens to be raining and there is a pirate ship with the captain writing something in his book. Looking pass the ship, there are people shoveling snow from a mountain.

    It seem very much like story creation and with practice, the scenes can be imagined and link very fast, (15 seconds).

  7. adrienshen says:

    And I wanted to add that to carry these techniques mentioned already in the ted video and “Hacking Chinese” to very uninteresting abstract concepts such as “numbers or indexes of cards”, then all one has to do it just make an association between the abstract concept such as “33” to a interesting visual concept such as “sparring bunnies”. Then proceed to use the techniques about. A “autumn tree” is much easier for the mind to remember than say the 7 of clubs.

  8. Thomas Smith says:

    How would one use mnemonics remember how to pronounce characters?

  9. Mike says:

    I found doing a combination of studying of new vocab words and reading practice helps me the most. It is proving to be a good thing to do that-especially since I am recognizing more and more characters and it seems more natural. You have to start somewhere and move from there!

  10. Patrick Freericks says:

    More importantly than creating strong visual associtions for each discrete word on the list, I create sort of a storyline linking all of them in order. For example, I just made up a random story going down the list very quickly:

    a balloon was shot out of a cannon which blocked the sun a a child was watching it; that child later became a king whose throne was on top of a tree; he ruled over rabbit(s) with a sword in hand; during a drought he threw a bottle in the sea with a message for the gods to make it rain; soon after a ship came to his shore containing an important book which was brought up to a mountain and burried on top with a shovel, then the king’s kingdom had water.

    it took me less than 30 seconds to perfectly memorize the entire list.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I don’t see the contradiction! The important thing in a storyline is how the things in the story relate to each other so you can remember what the next item in the story. You still need to associate A with B and B with C and the general principles apply here. The exception would be if you use a geographical landscape you’re already familiar with, such as the street outside your home and simply place things in a logical order along the road. I think that the journey method works better for other things than Chinese characters, though.

  11. German says:

    hi Olle, thanks for the very interesting sharing.
    I entered “learn to remember” in my personal list of things to learn, which unfortunately is a very long list as one never stop learning.
    But for sure, your article shows a great methode.
    thanks for sharing.

  12. Michael says:

    Memory palace stuff doesn’t work for people with some degree of aphantasia, which is much more common than people realize. Students need to be at least 3/5 in terms of visualization. Otherwise, rote methods are preferable.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I looked around a bit and it seems people say 1-4%, but that there isn’t much research. I also think it’s inherently hard to measure, because it’s possible to have it without realising it. The only person I know who has it didn’t realise it until he was almost 30. I assume that people with aphantasia will find visual mnemonics harder, but I think you are mistaken when you make it sound that it’s either visual mnemonics or rote memorisation. I would say most mnemonics work very well without visualising anything. I don’t need to visualise a horse riding my mum to remember the character 妈/嗎, as the idea will appear bizarre and therefore memorable anyway. People with aphantasia have no problem imagining that two things typically don’t go together and would therefore work well as a mnemonic. You can also use other senses, even though I agree that visual mnemonics are the most powerful, assuming that you don’t have aphantasia then. But even if you do, rote learning is certainly not the best way.

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