Musings on Memory Palaces in the Language Classroom

Naomi's Photos
Naomi’s Photos

Every now and then I encounter the memorization method commonly called “Memory Palace”,  though a more precise name would be “method of loci”.  “In basic terms, it is a method of memory enhancement which uses visualization to organize and recall information” (Wikepedia). This current round of musings on the topic was sparked by reading the book “Moonwalking with Einstein – the art and science of remembering everything” by Joshua Foer.

First of all, I’d like to point out that the book is not a self help book, in the style of books with titles like: how to improve your memory in 10 easy steps. It is an interesting, accessible read about how memory works and what we know about it and how memory-athletes train their memory. The  techniques are discussed as well, of course.

And here’s the first point – it’s not easy. Learning how to build a memory palace, learning how to place what you want to remember in different locations in the structure (resting on the armchair, dripping wet in the shower, etc.) and then strolling through the palace visually in your memory to retrieve the information, is not something you can easily begin doing. It requires training and practice. How and when exactly would such training take place in the classroom?

Naomi's Photos
Naomi’s Photos

Which leads to the second point – are the skills needed for successful acquisition of a foreign language the kind of information we want to store in such a manner? Isn’t this method most suitable for facts, or discrete items? If I were a history teacher, I’d me much more enthusiastic about classroom applications. If my students could visually walk through their “palace” on their test and remember all the important events & dates leading up to World War Two, for example, that would a useful skill indeed. I don’t know how useful it would be outside the classroom (even Foer discusses this issue) but it certainly works for standardized testing.

But what information would the students store in the EFL classroom? The only thing I can think of are lists of words of even collocations. Unfortunately, in my classes of   Deaf and Hard of Hearing students I repeatedly see students who have memorized a great many words but do poorly on reading comprehension tasks and exams, while others (using a dictionary) do so much better. And in classes where conversation in English is practiced, I can’t imagine someone pausing, strolling through the memory palace to locate the collocation needed, and then resuming speaking.  That doesn’t seem to be the way we should think about language.

Do you agree?

On a personal note – the method for remembering numbers by using letters is really helping me in my own life. Since the Hebrew language has an ingrained letter-number match, I didn’t even have to learn the corresponding letters given in the book, I just needed to apply the method! Now that’s an easy strategy to use!

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