Written by:
Jul 13, 2018

How to Learn a Language Like a Memory Champion

Many people wish they learned a language. But when you ask them why they haven’t, there’s a good chance you’ll hear one response in particular (or at least, some variation of it).

“I have a bad memory.”

We often view memory as this thing that you’re either good at or bad at, as though it’s some inherent quality that we either have or don’t have.

But I’ll let you in on a secret…

Memorization is a skill.

That means even if you are technically bad at memorization, it’s something that you can improve.

“We often talk about people with great memories as though it were some sort of an innate gift, but that is not the case. Great memories are learned.” — Joshua Foer, Author of Moonwalking with Einstein

Learn a language like a memory champion

Memorize Like a Champ

It’s hard to imagine being able to remember thousands of new words or complex grammar rules when you can’t even seem to be able to recall important dates, the names of people you’ve just met, or whether or not you locked your front door when you left the house this morning.

But there are people who are able to memorize 16 packs of playing cards in an hour, the full names of 126 of complete strangers in photos in 15 minutes, and a previously unpublished poem again in less than 15 minutes. And if asked, many of these people will tell you they just have average memories.

What are they doing differently?

We No Longer Hone Our Memories Like We Did In the Past

In the past, we didn’t have all of the technologies we do today to help us remember important things.

Need to remember a phone number? Most likely you’ll save it into your phone’s address book. What about that important appointment? It goes in your calendar. The information that’s going to be on the next test? There’s a good chance you have it stored in your notes.

Before the invention of our writing systems, of photography, the computer, and the smartphone, we had to internalize our memories. Today, we’re able to outsource them to any number of devices or tools we have within reach at every second.

According to Joshua Foer in his Ted Talk, these technologies have “changed us culturally” and “they’ve changed us cognitively”. (source)

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How a 2,500 Year Old Memorization Strategy is Still Relevant Today

Several thousand years ago, Roman statesman, orator, lawyer and philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero was renowned for his speaking skills. He’d give speeches and performances were not only well-crafted but memorized.

How did he do it?

Cicero would associate the material he memorized with visual cues — in his case loci. As he paced his home rehearsing, he would associate certain locations within his living space with sections of his speech. In doing so, he could create a sequence of visual cues (the door, a basket, a table) to remember a sequence of topics. He would then draw on this when delivering his speech to create a powerful impression.

These visual cues and tactics are still used today by memory champions. And they’re something that you too can learn.

The Power of Visual Learning: Memorizing Like a Memory Champion

A study from 3M showed that we process visual information 60,000 times quicker than text-based information and that learning can improve by up to 400%. And when learning a language, using images rather than translations reduces the learning process by an entire step. In essence, you cut out the middleman.

Easier and faster? Sign me up!

How do you use visual cues to learn more effectively? Here are a few ways you can harness the power of memory champions:

Location, Location, Location

Loci, or spatial and environmental cues, are one way that you can add a visual element to your learning. This technique is popular amongst memory athletes and it works best when the locations you use are those you’re most familiar with such as your home, school, or workplace.

Memory champion learning strategies

Once Upon a Time

For generations, stories have been used to pass down information. Whether it was to share the laws of physics (Newton’s apple) or a code of ethics (most fairy tales), important information is often shared through story.


They’re a powerful way to retain information because stories make information more engaging. And thus, more memorable.

Build Memory Palaces

Memory palaces combine both loci and storytelling to help you construct powerful memories.

Here’s a quick demonstration on how Memory Palaces work from former memory champion Joshua Foer.

By using both location and narrative to remember new words, you can make sure your new language sticks.

Dual Coding

Does cutting out the translation entirely sound a little scary?

As adults, knowing what a word means in our native language helps us remember what it means in the new language we’re learning. But visuals can also do this.

So then… which is better? Visuals or verbal translations?

But why not both?

Allan Paivio advocates dual coding. This means, when you cut it down to the basics, that when you have both a visual cue (an image) and a verbal cue (a translation), the two separate areas in your brain that access this information are activated. And having information coded two ways adds up to improved memorization.

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With all of the apps, alerts, and pings constantly vying for our attention, focus is hard to come by. But it’s something our language learning desperately needs.

When we pay attention, we remember. When we are engaged, we remember. And when we are focused, we remember.

Short, focused study sessions that happen regularly beat long, intense (and often unfocused study sessions) 10 times out of 10.

The reason visual learning works is because it makes you focus. It encourages you to sit down and think about the material you’re learning. To engage with it.

Language learning strategies

Use Your Muscles

Today, with such a wide variety of digital devices at our disposal, writing by hand is no longer the preferred choice for many.

Why take notes by hand when you’re going to end up having to type them up anyway?

Because writing by hand helps you remember.

According to the Association for Psychological Science, “there is something about typing that leads to mindless processing. And there is something about ink and paper that prompts students to go beyond merely hearing and recording new information…

This means that using your hands, flexing those writing muscles, can improve whether or not you remember the new vocabulary you’re learning.

When it comes to memorizing new information, there’s no one right way to do it. It’s all about playing your way to a new language. Experimenting with different methods and figuring out what works for you.

If you want to start learning like a memory champion, adding a visual element to your learning, whether it’s through building memory palaces or dual coding, is a good place to start.

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