Foreign Languages

The research which takes a great deal of my time, and providing a great deal of pleasure, is looking at the way memory systems can be used in learning foreign languages. I am comparing techniques for French compared with Chinese as an English speaker with no heritage in either.

I was delighted 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.

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.

I have also completed three semesters through the Confucius Institute at LaTrobe University. LaTrobe provided the places in the classes for me as a staff member.

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.

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18 thoughts on “Foreign Languages”

  1. Hi Lynne

    I’d like to begin learning Latin so I can read Cicero and several other authors in their original language.

    Do you have any suggestions for beginning using mnemonic techniques to learn quickly/effectively?

    1. Hi Andrew,

      That is such a great objective and a great question. I am working on a project related to learning foreign languages – comparing learning French to Chinese (Mandarin) from an English speaking background. I would imagine learning Latin would be much nearer French than Chinese in that you have some hooks and the familiar alphabet.

      I am using memory palaces for vocabulary, but I am also using a Bestiary extensively.

      In Memory Craft I talk about a Bestiary and Visual Alphabet to learn names, but mention it could be used for any words. I have now created a bestiary in French, finding animals – or something else if I can’t find an animal – for each of the first two letters which can come up in vocabulary. The same would work for Latin. I can then link any word to a story or image related to that animal. That will give me at least the first two letters and almost always that is plenty to to recall a word.

      I have set up various memory palaces for different aspects – nouns, verbs and, for French, used the characters (rapscallions) I mention in Memory Craft for genders.The genders approach using those characters works really well.

      To get grammar, I use typical phrases and sentences. I then create very short stories associated with the memory palace location related to the key noun or verb of the grammar that I want to remember. I carry these phrases or sentences with me until they are fixed, repeating them as I walk the palaces. That gives me a sample phrase or sentence to base word order on.

      For Chinese I use the same methods – memory palaces and a Bestiary – but implement quite differently because it is such a different hurdle to get over to even get started. I mention the start of that in Memory Craft, but have worked way past that now. I am loving learning Chinese!

      It really is much too much to explain here. I am sorry.

      I will be writing up this research soon, but it will take a great deal more than I can put in response here. I use music and art and all sorts of techniques as well, depending on what I am trying to recall. With a poor natural memory, I can’t imagine doing either language without the memory aids.


      1. Thanks for your reply. I very much look forward to reading about your expanded language-learning experiments.

  2. Hi Lynne,

    I’m studying teaching in Tasmania and I’m hoping to teach Chinese in schools next year.

    I learnt Chinese largely through self-study. Remembering the Traditional Hanzi was a big part of my life for a few years, and that combined with wide reading got me to a decent level of Chinese literacy. The strengths and weaknesses of their method is what led me to Memory Craft. I haven’t applied myself to Chinese with same enthusiasm as I used to, so I haven’t done more than a few little experiments with memory palaces or the Marilyn Method, but that’s been enough to convince me that they’d work. I’m thinking about how I would teach Hanzi in schools as part of a small independent research project at uni, which is how I came across this page.

    I got absolutely sidetracked in my character studies trying to find real etymologies to replace some of the meanings from Heisig which I didn’t like. I’m sure you’ve seen some of the other-worldly oracle bone script. If I had to learn the characters again, I’d use the components here instead of the RTTH meanings.

    How has Chinese learning been going for you in the year since the last comments here? I know from your book that you’re a believer in bringing memory techniques into schools. Do you think something like Remembering the Hanzi would be effective in schools? I’d love to hear your opinion.


    1. Hi Felix,

      I am absolutely delighted to hear from you. I have done a great deal on Chinese since writing the page – it has become one of my most obsessive experiments.

      My concerns with the Marilyn Method is starting with students – there is such a complicated memory palace to gain up front. I think they need an easier, gentler starting point. There is a great deal to explain about what I have been developing and I am very keen to share my work now with someone who would understand and have ideas to refine it. With Heisig, I really like the story telling and using the components, but again I think there is a better way – back to my beloved radicals.

      You are way further down the track than me in speaking and reading, so I would really appreciate your ideas on what I am doing – maybe we can work together on it?

      I am doing a lot of work with schools and memory methods, but not specifically Chinese yet because my own Chinese isn’t advanced enough. I have been getting ideas from Aboriginal colleagues on making my memory palaces more effective by implementing more aspects of songlines into the memory palaces. The main palace I am working with is my Chinese palace, based on the radicals. I walk part of it almost every day.

      There is much too much to write about in a response to a comment here. I have your email address, so I hope it will be ok if I shift to email.

      Thank you hugely!


  3. I am one of those people who do not know Chinese but know a lot about it (see my website, Eohan) and I have a few tips.

    1. It is essential to understand the different types of character, particularly phonetic compounds and semantic compounds. These are explained in hundreds of websites and books.

    The traditional six-fold classification is misleading in one respect. Jiajie, 假借, a character used as a rebus, is not a sixth category alternative to the other five. Any character belonging to the other five types can also be used as a jiajie. Where the jiajie meaning has become the main one, the old meaning usually survives as a phonetic compound. For instance ‘is’, 是 shi4, is a picture of a cicada, now written 蝭 ti2. Phonetic compounds standing in this relationship to a jiajie are called <guwen 文古. It is often easier to memorise a compound than a simple character of vague or forgotten meaning.

    2. Learn sets of characters with a fixed membership. The numerals. North, south, east, west. Then on to the provinces of China, the Chinese zodiac and the Chinese chess pieces.

    3. Give characters individual nicknames and go from the character to the nickname to the meaning. E.g. ear + dragon -> Puff the Magic Dragon. Puff the Magic Dragon roaring -> deaf.

    On another topic, I recently read your book The Memory Code. Can you shed any light on cup and ring carvings? I could well imagine that they were memory loci.

    1. Hi Philip,

      Thank you so much for these ideas. I have been working a great deal at Chinese and French since writing The Memory Code. Your ideas are in agreement with what I have discovered, but it took me much longer than it would have if I had those hints earlier! I will be writing up my techniques when I get a chance, and the sort of ideas you suggest are certainly part of that. I must play around more with your nickname suggestion. I have a few nicknames because some things just suggested themselves to me and it stuck. But I haven’t worked on that formally. I have compared two courses in Chinese (Mandarin) but both believe in lots of vocabulary before they start on characters, so I have not done as much with characters as I want. Having all my vocab in a memory palace based on the radicals means that I have a good start on any character.

      Your site looks really interesting. I shall explore it more. I am learning simplified characters, but am fascinated by everything about the language and the way the characters have developed. I am also finding the traditional art absolutely intriguing, especially the handscrolls.

      I have no doubt that the cup marks reflect memory locations. There is some recent research showing that they mark pathways. I need to get that report. I am going to rework my website to an information site rather than blog, and include all the new stuff I am doing including the languages, archaeology, applications to education and a very recent approach linking the mnemonic technologies to human evolutionary genetics. I need to understand more about that, but the American academics who have contacted me are very convincing.

      So much fin to be had!

      Thank you again,


  4. 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.

  5. 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.


  6. 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,


  7. 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.

  8. 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,


  9. 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.


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