Foreign Languages – a call for opinions

I was delighted today to receive a request from a Chinese publisher to publish The Memory Code in Simplified Chinese (as used in China and around the world). It is already in Traditional Chinese (as used in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau). I am so excited by this because the memory experiment which is obsessing me most at the moment is learning Chinese – speaking in Mandarin and writing in Simplified Chinese characters. That’s ‘simplified’, not ‘simple’!

C’est en Chinois!!!

Of all the topics readers of The Memory Code and Memory Craft write to me about wanting to memorise, learning foreign languages tops the list. I used to think that was a bummer because the subjects I failed every year at school were languages. I tried Latin and German, then struggled for five years with French – encouraged by a mother who adored learning languages. I failed every time. Now I love them!

As a result of reader nagging, I returned to French and discovered that with the aid of memory tools, I was able to learn and thoroughly enjoy it. So I became ridiculously ambitious and took on Chinese (Mandarin). It is a fascinating experiment because these two languages are so different that I have had to approach them very differently. I will be writing in detail about the methods and implementation in the near future. I just want to finalise refining my systems and gain enough information from others to list the best resources. I don’t trust online reviews which can be so easily manipulated, so I am asking you!

The memory methods used for the two languages are similar but the way I implement them is very different. I have some clues about French as an English speaker. I have none at all about Chinese. Nothing. Not a scrap.

The techniques I will write about include Memory Palaces (of course!). I am surprised how much I reply on Bestiaries for both languages. These are based on the Bestiary I use for names and words in English, but implemented very differently. I had no idea I would use bestiaries for languages when I wrote Memory Craft. Now I couldn’t do without them.

I want opinions from any of you who are foreign language learners. I am keen to avoid being seen to promote the particular online resources I am using. News in Slow French was recommended to me when I first embarked on French. It is my main guide now, but I also use a lot of other resources, including a conversation class.

For Chinese, again I use a range of resources, but mostly YoYo Chinese. For Chinese, I am addicted to watching the characters formed in the MGDB dictionary. I haven’t worked out what ‘MGDB’ stands for, in English or Pinyin or anything else. The MGDB dictionary also gives me the radicals. I have based my memory palace on the radicals, and found knowing them a massive advantage in using paper and online dictionaries. I was hugely influenced in that decision by this article: Radicals Reveal the Order of Chinese Characters.

None of these resources are perfect, but I am happy with what I am learning. I am particularly keen to hear opinions from other people using the same resources – and from people using different resources.

I have looked at a range of SRS (Spaced Repetition System) apps as well as lots of books. I love buying books – happy to buy more! I am asking for help from people using other resources so I can list them with a brief comment on their efficacy from someone who has tried them. Although I have tried quite a few, I don’t feel that I have tried them enough to give a properly researched opinion.

For Chinese, I am particularly keen to hear from anyone who has implemented the Marilyn Method and/or the variation by Alex Mullen. I am also very keen to hear from anyone who has implemented the story method for characters from Remembering Simplified Hanzi by Heisig and Richardson. I have tried both these methods, but am not implementing them as described although they have certainly influenced my systems. Mullen and Heisig & Richardson are the basis of the memory methods used for Mandarin Blueprint, the only course I could find that specifies that they use memory methods. I am corresponding with one reader of Memory Craft who is doing Mandarin Blueprint and is very happy with it. I’d like to hear from others who might have tried it or any other online courses.

There is a lot of research going on about learning foreign languages for English speakers with no background in the language. Some of this research focusses on the way that native speakers teach the language the way they were taught – but they already had hooks from their background. Does that introduce uneccessary hurdles for people coming from very different backgrounds – especially for English speakers learning languages which are not based on a Roman script nor an alphabet? I am keen to investigate all these ideas over time.

So this post is a call for opinions from anyone who has experience related to learning foreign languages, especially as an independent learner.

Share on Share on FacebookPin on PinterestPrint this pageTweet about this on TwitterEmail this to someone

Author: lynne

I am an Honorary Researcher at LaTrobe University. I am the author of 19 books, the most recent being 'Spiders: learning to love them' (Allen & Unwin), 'Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies' (Cambridge University Press, 'The Memory Code' (Allen & Unwin, AUS; Pegasus Books, US and Atlantic Books, UK), 'Memory Craft' (Allen & Unwin, AUS; Pegasus Books, US) [and foreign translations, audio versions and so on]. My latest book is co-authored by Margo Neale. 'Songlines: the power and promise' and published by Thames & Hudson with the National Museum of Australia.

11 thoughts on “Foreign Languages – a call for opinions”

  1. Hi, thank you for your amazing books. My approach to learning chinese characters is as follows:
    I use Anki decks, classic SRS approach. But then I also use a more active process where I use several components combined: color coding, based on the Pleco software, pinyin mnemonics, etymology and visualization: a graeat source for pinyin mnemonics is the Chinese Blockbuster book set, it is my most valuable asset. The color coding reinforces the tone as well as the fact whether the character serves as a radical or the phonetic component. My learning process is in fact based on phonetic component, not primarily radicals.
    Here is an example: dragon is pronouced as long2, there are other characters pronounced exactly the same way: for example long2 meaning deaf: the character looks like this:聋。 Here dragon is phonetic component, the word as pronounced exactly the same way as the basic character for my whole set: The second tone in Pleco is green, so I imagine green dragon roaring until it is deaf: The ear radical comes natural to me so mnemonic is necessary. Similar logic is behid the throat sign:嚨 When the character is pronouced with different tone: I just change the color. so for rude, barbarian (儱) I imagine a guy riding blue dragon. The next option is that the basic character serves as a phonetic component but the pronunciation is utterly different as in 宠 pronounced chong3 In such cases I use all colors except for black, white, red (tone 1), green, blue, purple (tone 4+5). and I add a pinyin mnemonic chong3 (the method is described in detail in the book above.). These images are then put in my memory palace. So I basically have upto two different methods to memorize the readings, either with color coding or/and the pinyin mnemonic word. The color coding is beter for nouns, adjectives, concrete objects, the peg words for abstract concepts. When the character in question serves as radical in any given compound character, I use black or white color to remeber that, for example in 袭- xi2 a white dragon attacks or is attacked.
    Sorry for the longer post, I am still not sure if this is of any value to you.

    1. Thank you so much, Vera. I appreciate the longer post. What is the basis of the memory palace? Is that the phonetic components? Mine is based on radicals.

      I hadn’t heard of Chinese Blockbuster, so it was very interesting to check it out. From what little I could see, it seems to use stories for the character components, as I have seen done in a number of books. Do you use their stories or create your own?

      I haven’t used colour coding at all, although in my notes all the radicals are green. I must think that through further.
      This is intriguing. I’ll think it over further. Thank you again.

  2. Hi Lynne,

    I’m a non-native teacher of Chinese language, and was an Associate at the Chinese Teacher Training Centre at the Universtiy of Melbourne. I have taught Chinese learners from Kindergarten age up, and trained dozens of Chinese teachers at post-graduate level.

    My thoughts about language learning and teaching have changed over the years. Based on the research and my experience, I teach (and learn) by focusing on comprehensible input. In other words, listening and reading a lot, making sure what is read and heard is understood.

    Essentially, it’s like learning your first language. You didn’t have to bother with mnemonics or explicit learning, you were learning with your implicit memory. The best language instruction spends very little time (a) talking ABOUT the language (b) focussing on explicit memory of grammar or vocabulary. If you’re consciously remembering, you’re not communicating fluently.

    All that said, I believe there is value to learning how the system of characters really works, and for that, I would recommend:
    Outlier linguistics – videos and powerful add-on for Pleco
    Pleco electronic dictionary – (can see the parts easily, lots of useful add-ons)
    Hacking Chinese articles

    But this knowledge will not significantly add to your ability to communicate in written Chinese. A component level of awareness will probably help your handwriting.

    Please look up the amazing Terry Waltz. Her blog and book “TPRS with Chinese Characteristics” have changed the way I teach. Also have a look at Cold Character Reading. If I hadn’t tried it myself, I probably wouldn’t believe it.

    1. Hi Alexander,

      Thank you so much for these ideas. I have Pleco, but don’t use it effectively. Thank you for reminding me to take advantage of its features. I must look into Outlier Linguistics. I have looked at a few Hacking Chinese articles and found them very good, but must look at more. I looked at a lot of these things early in this journey with Chinese and need to revisit now that I have some idea of what is involved.

      I am not sure how to listen and read a lot while making sure I understand it given that I don’t have a teacher offering that approach. But there must be ways! I have ordered “TPRS with Chinese Characteristics” and look forward to learning more about this approach, as well as checking out Cold Character Reading. Thank you again – I was hoping to be pointed at different resources to compare different approaches.


  3. A postscript. I bought some of Tony Buzan’s paperback books for very cheap. When I got back (from West Point) to teaching at USAFA, both Freshman (whom I dearly love, I love teaching “English” to newbies) and graduating kids. Why? They need to know how to deal with new crud.

    Before class, I’d spread out copies of articles, and Buzan’s paperback books. Yours for the taking.
    Lynne, the Buzan stuff vanished instanter.

    Now I know my job at a military academy is deeply philosophical, and my experience is only partially (?) scientific as in double-blind etc.
    My students, my kids, my dogs, are not science experiments.

    I know you did a podcast on Sean Carroll’s venue.
    I’m retired, so no more faculty meetings!! At which, just as a tiny detail, Lori was writing with a glass dip pen. Which I’ve come to cherish–a good glass dip pen (Rohrer &Klinger fits my hand most) .
    Various learning ways. I need to see the stroke, the way ink lays itself on a surface, how that surface interacts with the ink–that juge sequence lodges in my brain that Kanji.

    1. Thank you for both the additional messages, Petra. I know Tony Buzan’s work a bit. I haven’t looked at it in this context, though. I shall do so! Anecdotal evidence is still valuable in pointing me to different resources, which is what I wanted.

      I have often looked at glass pens online but never considered buying one, but I love the idea of trying it in this context. I shall look again. They are so beautiful, but I didn’t know if they would actually write well given the lack of flexibility. I do copperplate which needs a lot of flexibility in the nib. So much to explore! Thank you again,


  4. For what it’s worth, Tony Buzan was a name that I came across as I was trying to help my bored students to get exited anout learning. He did “mind-mapping.” Sometime in the 1980s.
    Basic idea: say you need to give a speech. OK, you sit down (? not necessary but it means you stop and attend).
    You jot down in a loose fashion ideas around the center of your focus.
    It’s usually represented two-dimensionally as a center with however-many spokes radiating out.
    As one works on this mind map, the need for cue cards vanishes. And, if you have this mind map (on a particular focus) you can get up in front on just about any audience and give them a good talk.
    A center-radiating out structure seems to be a good way for the human mind to marshall ideas, without getting stuck on just “one way.”

    Thing is, as you work on this kind of mind-map, you test small, individual pieces of thought propositions. And if you have the tenacity of a Canadian like Jordan Peterson, you question.

  5. Hi–I love this!!
    My life (the kid of a foreign service Dad) started out with German, English, and Tamil. My subsequent decades, which included teaching German, English, ESL, Spanish, with my own attempts at learning Dutch and Irish Gaelic, have only deepened the mystery for me.

    Am persuaded that the three basic learning styles (visual, aural, kinetic) probably play a big part.

    My PhD is in Am Lit but I did a tour as a foreign language instructor at West Point NY, teaching German, ESL, and Spanish. As such, I was keenly interested in how best to help my kids learn.
    A real challenge was the girl who’d grown up using sign language with her deaf mother.
    Anything you can discover would be so cool! and welcome.

    1. Hi Petra,

      Thank you so much for your enthusiasm. You certainly have an exotic background in life and languages! I find your comment on the three learning styles fascinating to consider in this context. I think that considering each, and in combination, will really add depth to any system. Thank you!

      The experience with exploring memory systems for learning languages is the most absorbing of all my experiments. I’ll be writing it up soon and then, I hope, others will run with it and improve on it. Fun times ahead!

      Thank you again,


  6. I would look into Dominic O’Brien’s Town Language Learning methods. Especially combined with Tony Buzan’s 100 Most Commonly Spoken Words lists can give you a quick inroad into learning to speak a new language. In this method, you have a town that serves as a memory palace. You place nouns “downtown,” adjectives in the park and verbs in the arena/stadium. In gendered languages, you split these locations down the middle, and have masculine on one side and feminine on the other.

    For instance, in Spanish, napkin is “la servilleta.” So on the left side of the town square you need a napkin, and a waiter appears and “serves it” on a silver platter. To jump is “saltar.” So in the arena, a salt shaker attempts the high jump.

    The benefit here is that you are associating the foreign word directly with the concept, rather than the to the english word for it, so you’re not translating in your head from English to Spanish (in this example). You’re simply thinking about the things and actions directly in that language.

    I have yet to attempt an Asiatic language, but I think from this point it seems intuitive that you could simply link the image for the new word in it’s location to the combined-radical image used to write it.

    For example, in Japanese, Electricity is Dian. And the radicals that form it are rain + rice paddy + umbrella. So, in the town square, Dionne Warwick is standing in the rain in a 4ft x 4ft rice paddy with an umbrella, and grabs a downed powerline.

    In this way it works in all three modalities… in the context of this town, the idea of “electricity” brings to mind Dian and rain/rice-paddy/umbrella. Hearing “Dian” brings to mind electricity and the kanji. And the Kanji brings to mind Dian and the idea of electricity. The concept, the vocabulary word and the character are inextricably linked.

    Anyway, you can read up on Dominic’s method. And people online have elaborated adapting it to include syntax, stresses, inflections, hierarchies and other aspects that we don’t normally deal with in English.

    Hope this helps, and congrats on exposure to a whole new market! Best of luck,


    1. Hi Danny,

      Thank you for taking so much time to respond. Dominic O’Brien has been very important in my memory journey – I admire him hugely. I stayed with him and his wife in England. He gave me invaluable advice for training for competition. I refer to him a number of times in Memory Craft, including to his gender spaces and memory palaces around town, which I have implemented. Thank you for the reminder – I must go back to his original and see what I have missed, and how much I have diverted with time. I also must see what others have done with it. I didn’t realise that was online. I haven’t seen Tony Buzan’s lists, and couldn’t find the actual lists online. I’ll look into that further.

      It’s interesting that you mention Japanese. My son-in-law speaks it and has just given me books, so I now realise that once I can read Chinese (not soon!) I will only have to add the extra characters and have a go at Japanese. Dian (4th tone) is also electricity in Mandarin. Each character in Chinese has only one radical, but other components added to make different characters. So it seems a bit different in Japanese. I really look forward to when I have managed French and Chinese enough to venture further. That will probably be a good while!

      Thank you again for such an interesting and useful message.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.