How to structure a Memory Palace for foreign language vocabulary

As I mentioned in an earlier post I’m an Australian currently in Tbilisi Georgia, and my only language is English. Instead of trying to learn a few get-by words and phrases in Georgian I decided to use Russian instead. Russian is widely spoken here and has a global presence as well, whereas Georgian is little used outside the Caucasus region.

Anyway, after mastering the Cyrillic alphabet purely out of curiosity, I’m toying with the idea of trying to take my Russian further than just a few words and phrases. And of course mnemonics, in the form of Memory Palaces, has to play a big part in building a vocabulary.

Although I’m no mnemonics expert (having discovered the art quite late in life), I do understand the basics of Memory Palaces and have used them with success in the past.

In one of his language books Anthony Metivier recommends using the Russian word as the keyword that is parked at each location. I thought about this quite a bit and my conclusion is that I don’t particularly like it.

I speak and think in English and it will be a Russian word that I will be trying to come up with for an English word that is in my mind. Yet doing things that way the actual English word may not exist in the MP, but just be represented by a mind picture. And even if the word itself is there, I believe it will be much harder to locate then if it were a keyword.

Seems to me that it would be much simpler and more usable for the English word to be the keyword, and the associated mind picture should provide the pronunciation and meaning. The spelling in Russian characters is omitted but I don’t see that as being very important for basic conversation. And anyway I can read Russian, even if I may not know the meaning of what I’m reading, which is where learning vocab comes i.

Of course I could be missing something, so I would very much appreciate any thoughts on the matter, particularly (but not exclusively) from people who have used Memory Palaces to learn a language.

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You don’t have to use a Memory Palace to memorise vocabulary. At the very core, memorising vocabulary is not a sequential task in the sense that the order of the memorised words don’t matter. It’s a simple association task - create an image/story for the meaning of the word and one image/story for the pronunciation, and then associate them with each other. Then rinse and repeat for all the words you want to remember. Add all the words to Anki or a similar Spaced Repetition System, and you’re good to go. No need for a Memory Palace at all.

However, using a Memory Palace can also be helpful in certain ways. I’ve read about people grouping words into the locations where they are used (eg words for kitchen utensils are placed in the kitchen etc). I’ve read about someone who groups the words by their first letter, so that they have some sort of alphabetical listing. Yet another groups the words according to their preceding article or gender (eg in German you have 3 different main articles: ‘der’, ‘die’ and ‘das’. You could put all the ‘das’ words in one location, all the ‘der’ words in another and so on). There are certainly advantages with either of the above approaches, but it all boils down to your preferences and what you feel most comfortable with. Personally, I’ve never used Memory Palaces for learning vocabulary. It’s an extra step that takes a bit of time, and for my purposes I didn’t find that it was necessary at the time.

With all of that said:

What was his argument for that recommendation? He obviously would not suggest it without a reasoning.

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Yes Florian, I accept I don’t NEED a Memory Palace for vocabulary, but after giving the pros and cons some thought I decided that using an MP would facilitate revision. You know, lying in bed at night or sitting in a taxi without any reference material handy. Less chance of missing any words in a group (see below).

The author also uses one of the methods you mentioned: grouping words by first letter. So for Russian vocabulary he has 33 Memory Palaces.

Maybe I’m being too contrary, but I decided I didn’t like that approach either, after I got thinking about my regular activities.

At least a couple of times a week I shop for fresh fruit; maybe once or twice a month I will visit a pharmacy; I use a Bolt ride-share car regularly; and so on. So to keep my learning as practical as possible I had decided to group words according to type/use: fruit & vegetables; weekdays & months; kitchen utensils; household furniture; numbers; and so on.

As for Anthony’s reason for using the Russian keyword at each station, I don’t know. I went back and reread that section in case I’d missed something, but he doesn’t give any reason.

Anyway, unless someone comes up with a good reason as to why that approach would be advantageous, I’ll push on as outlined above. I’m being very cautious before I start because I don’t want to risk deciding there is a better way after I’ve started.

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Ive done a lot of Russian and a lot of memory palace use and I strongly suggest to focus on full sentences needed to be used right away, not words, unless they can be used alone to express what is needed).

I know it seems harder but iy is only harder at first. Now I use palaces for sentences and its as easy as placing the simplest words. Only, now I have everything needed to say what I need to say. Idioms , questions(my images fly when its a question), basic chitchat…

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I was intending to include some partial phrases along the lines of “Can you direct me to…”, “How much are…”, etc, to which appropriate word/s would be appended from the vocabulary words.

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Never forget Stephen Krashen in all this! “We all learn languages in one way and one way only, when we understand messages”

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Interesting, and thanks for the lead - I’ll seek out some more Stephen Krashen, see what else he’s got to say.

Note though that he modified that statement slightly in his summary as “…when we get comprehensible input in a low anxiety environment”. And I’m sure we would all agree that “comprehensible input” is not necessarily a message in the form of a sentence. And where sentences are used, they are always made up of individual words.

So while I agree that it will be useful to include some ready-made sentences in the Memory Palace, along with single-word vocabulary, a good selection of subject/verb/object words provides the flexibility to create pretty much any sentence as required.

This might interest some Russian learners:

Before I had even decided to tackle learning some Russian I had been following a YouTube channel called “Bald and Bankrupt”. He’s an English dude who has obviously become quite fluent in Russian, and he uses it to great advantage travelling and filming through Eastern Europe. His vids are both entertaining and informative, and have been helpful in a number of ways with my learning.

When I started taking an interest in learning some of the Russian language, I remembered some advice he gave about learning Russian. He recommended forgetting all about grammar rules and advocated loading up on vocabulary. I went looking for that video again but haven’t managed to find it yet. Anyway I seem to recall this is also the method used by Tim ferriss of “4-hour Workweek” fame when he is preparing to visit a new country. Like Ferris I have no aspirations towards speaking like a native. My goal is just to get-by. I don’t know what goals the Bald & Bankrupt guy started with, but it’s clear that he has become very accomplished indeed. The load-up-on-vocabulary approach is one that I have heard from quite a few different sources. Obviously it all depends on what your goal is.

Another thing I’ve been doing is leaving my TV on a Russian channel all day. I’m in Tbilisi and the small handful of English language channels don’t hold much interest, so I put myself in an environment where Russian language is washing over me all day. I haven’t specifically been trying to learn anything from it, but I have already noticed that I’m hearing words now, whereas in the beginning I was just hearing a constant stream of gibberish. I just wish Russians didn’t naturally speak so damn fast!

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Thanks for that channel I have subscribed! They Speak Way too fast! But your ear will eventually break it down. Hahaha good memories. I was wondering why they were always repeating to me “clock/watch” all the time tchass tchass tchass, took me about a month of tchass repeating and confusion ! I finally realised they were saying saytchass, a word I very well knew, meaning NOW