I was terrible at memorizing when I was younger. I was like, I remember we had to learn the periodic table in high school, and I just thought, how could anybody ever possibly remember this? And of course, I failed that class. I failed grade nine science. But now I'm sure if I wanted to learn the periodic table, I could probably do it an hour. Maybe a bit more than an hour, but I don't think it would be that hard.
Growing up in Canada, I didn't find a lot of fulfillment outside of things other than work. So I just worked a lot when I lived in Canada. And so now I'm really happy to be able to live in Taiwan, where I feel like I kind of have more interesting things and not just be obsessed with work. There's so many things to get obsessed with in Taiwan.
The two things I'm focused on right now are hiking, which I do fairly regularly, and Chinese characters. Before I came to Taiwan, I had absolutely no idea about Mandarin and Taiwan. I remember when I first got here, they talked about how in China they use simplified characters and here they use traditional characters, which is annoying that we're in the place that has the more complicated characters, that are harder to learn, but whatever, I appreciate it, historically that it makes Taiwan unique. I remember when characters were such a big daunting thing, and even I'd get to know some of them and I'd look at signs and in my heart of hearts, it didn't really feel like someday I'm going to be able to read all of that newspaper or something. I'm still not there, but my attitude is definitely totally switched by having the new technique to be able to say, looking at the characters, like, oh, I will be able to remember that in time. So, yeah, it's been, like, really freeing, I would say.
So I found out about this system from a book I read, and it was a really interesting book. It was called "Moon Walking with Einstein". It's a few years old, and it's about memorization. There's this kind of normal guy kind of learned the techniques to memorization, and it wasn't so much a self help book, but there were kind of nuggets in there to build upon.
And one of the big things was that just as humans, we've evolved to have a good spatial memory. You can think of it intuitively, it makes sense. It's more important to know how to get home than, say, remember the name of somebody you just met, and that's why we do better with spaces in memory than we do with things like names or just remembering how to write characters on their own. But if I try and add that geographical element, it helped me a lot. It was a big difference and kind of opened my eyes reading that book to how you can manipulate your memory a little bit.
Actually... I wasn't even thinking about this, but the first time I heard about it, it was really random. It was probably 10:00 or 11:00 pm at night. I just went to do a hike here in Taipei and there's this German guy at the bottom of the trail. He was an interesting guy and I had just finished the hike and we were chatting for ten minutes or something. I was like, well, I'm going to go do the hike, you can join if you want to do it again. So then we did it again. And at some point on the hike he mentioned this method.
So I ended up making my own stories. It's kind of weird, like, never even crossed my mind to do it this way before. And just such a chance encounter. I haven't heard many people talk about this method since, or anybody without me bringing it up. So I was very lucky to just happen to meet him at 10:00 p.m, at the base of some random mountain here in Taipei.
For me and Mandarin, being an English speaker, the tones is by far the most difficult part. So what I do is I have five locations for each of the tones. Maybe people don't know that each character is just one syllable and it's not at all phonetic. Well, some look similar and then become phonetic, but it's not a phonetic system.
It's kind of like having thousands of paintings and just knowing what each painting that sound is, you have to kind of memorize it anyway. So for each character, there are going to be one of five tones, and I have a location for each tone.
First tone is kind of up high, and I'll use the character "ma" as my example. So "mā", I picture all those stories happen on an airplane: "mā", because it's up high, and stays up high.
Then the second tone goes up, so that would be "má". All those stories happen in my hometown when I was growing up, or anywhere else in Canada. Works for me as I was growing up.
And then the third tone, this is kind of a harder one to make a story for, but it goes down and then up. That'd be "mǎ" it's kind of deeper. So for that, there's a bar here in Taipei that has a half pipe, which for those who might not know, it's like a skateboarding. It's as if you cut a pipe in half and that's what they use for skateboarding. So all those stories happen at this bar in Taipei. For my more elaborate stories, it makes it more memorable to have a place like a bar that a story wouldn't really be probable to happen.
And then my fourth tone. A few years ago, I did a really long hike. It took me five months, and it was five months of hiking in the US. It's called the Appalachian Trail. When I finally finished the last mountain, when I was hiking down, it was a very memorable time in my life. I was 20 years old, and I had just finished this crazy big hike, I really remember that time. So that's my fourth tone, which is coming down that mountain. So that would be "mà".
And then finally, the fifth tone is the least common one, and it's kind of like short. So I put all those stories up in space. I imagine them in a space station, so that'd be like "ma".
So, I use tea as an example of a character that people might be able to look up online. You can use Google Translate to search tea in Mandarin Chinese is 茶 "chá" . It's second tone, so my story takes place where I was growing up - then I know it's second tone, and I imagine that there's a tea shortage in my town, but there's one building, it's a church. You can see the cross out front and then the roof, and then coming out of the cross, there's kind of two lines, one on each side, so I imagine those as people praying to the cross. And then there's tea leaves you can see as the plus signs on top of the roof, so they're praying. They're not Christian people, but they're praying because that's the only way to get tea in this town, it's this church that is hoarding all the tea in my hometown.
It is kind of how I've used the memory palace. So people use memory palaces - and for those who aren't familiar with the concept, the basic idea is that maybe you can take your childhood home and if you go in and you have a list you want to remember, you just find the rooms in your home and put a memory on each wall or something, something you want to remember. And then if you do that, you'll be able to go back and remember where you mentally put those things on each wall in the room. So that's kind of the memory palace that people talk about. Mine is a bit different, I kind of went a bit more broad just for remembering tones, and I think that one's a bit better for remembering lists or remembering things that necessarily go together, but for what I'm learning, it's just too big. So I do repeat the same places.
There are times when characters and tones, the two things my story helps for were my two least favorite parts about Mandarin, and now I'd say they're definitely my two favorite parts. Well, not tones, but characters is my favorite part. And I'd say my two biggest strengths is being to recognize those two. So, it's weird to have done that complete flip flop.
It's just a good lesson to always try different things, like, you know, try things in life. Maybe just somebody invites you up to do something weird, I don't know what. It could be surfing or a games night or something. I'd say you should always try that once at least and maybe it'll just totally change your life! I could have just say - that German guy is weird, whatever, I'm just going to keep doing what everybody else told me to do. But I'm really glad I tried it.
Yeah, I think sometimes people stick to things that aren't working way too long without really trying to branch off... I don't know why we do that as humans, but it's good to remind yourself to always try different things if it's not working, and really evaluate how things are working. And I'd say it's important for people to kind of find their own way and to just kind of challenge what everybody tells them is the way to do it. Like, people always told me just to write characters a lot - that's what Taiwanese kids do. Me as an adult, I did much better with doing it this other way. And I also find it's more interesting.
I mean, I get tired of just telling weird stories that don't make a whole lot of sense, but that's still better than just sitting there writing characters. Just making creative stories, especially if you can do it with somebody else, is just so much more interesting than trying to remember dates or just a periodic table. But maybe that's I do have a bit of... I would enjoy a more creative class. It's funny that the sciency and the creative are so separate in schools and there's room for it to be more valuable to combine the two. Oh, I definitely wish I would have had this technique back when I was in school and learning French. I think with French, with all the male and female, put the male words somewhere and the female words in another place. Then I think that would be really helpful. "Quand j'étais un enfant, j'ai étudié un petit peu de français, c'est vrai, c'est vrai."
It is interesting that I was just not interested in language at all as a kid. Of course, that's when you can learn it the best. I wasted those good years and then now as an adult, I've come to appreciate it more. But also it's really interesting that I've done so much better being able to study in my own ways that I find it worked for me.
So I've definitely come a long way from no interest in the language particularly to now really spending a lot of my time focusing on it. Just memory, or languages or anything - a lot of things can kind of grow on you. You'd be surprised. I remember something I realized when I read a first year psychology textbook, it was that we recognize that we've changed a lot, but we tend to think, okay, but now we're not going to change. And then I kind of thought back to my life and I was like, yeah, I do kind of always think that, but then I do always change in the future. So we're kind of in this weird perpetual state where we think we're not going to change much, but it's okay. It makes life more interesting, I think, when you think about like, oh, no, I will change a lot in the future and that's okay.
To anybody interested in learning a second language or feeling overwhelmed by it, just start small and just look at words and kind of figure out what word does that sound like in your language and try and make that building connection. Then pretty quickly find ten vocabulary words, like maybe pick ten body parts or something and see if you can make connections in your brain to them and see if that's something that interests you and maybe it'll come really naturally to you. And then a language wouldn't be as overwhelming.
I think I was guilty of this too, is you look at Chinese characters as this big daunting thing, but really if you use chunking - chunking is the kind of idea of if you put stuff in groups, it's not as daunting. You just gotta remember the one group of things, and then remember the next group of things. So most characters have 15 strokes if you follow the proper stroke order, but then there's just maybe three different parts in there. So your story just has to encapsulate what three things they are.
And usually it's not too hard to once you kind of get the ball rolling on, memorizing it to kind of then, oh yeah, put it all together like this. That's the same reason phone numbers, we usually separate into groups of three, we don't just give them as one big intimidating number. I think it would be easy to say like, well, that's great to have those associations, but does that work when you're speaking, when you're actually speaking the language? And of course, at first it won't, but the goal is to start just to make those connections and be able to make them in your head and then eventually, hopefully, those connections don't need to be made like the connections you made, they just naturally are so intertwined from you telling that story so many times and then you just remember the words.
People say there's not a lot of practical use to remembering lists in the days of the Internet, but it's really useful for language learning, of course. And then for me, I have decided to try and broaden my memory, I'll try and use it with names more, like I'll try to find associations, but that's something I think I want to grow on more in the future. Recently, on my last hike, I tried to remember the last 40 Stanley Cup champions, for example, and I did it. It took me 20 minutes or something through weird stories, and it was helpful. And so what I did was I broke it into five year intervals, and I broke it down into years, and I'd find, like, a memorable time of that year to put it there. So, for example, in 2001, I thought of myself as a young person. I was probably six years old in Colorado skiing. So that's the "Colorado Avalanche".
And then I was skiing down, I tripped over a red Wing, the "Detroit Red Wings", and fell down. And then I got a stain on my New jersey that I was wearing. It's the "New Jersey Devils". So those are the three years there, from Colorado Avalanche to Detroit Red Wings to New Jersey Devils. And then the stain was taken out by lightning that struck me in my chest. So the "Tampa Bay Lightning" were the team after that. So that was stories like that is what I used to try and remember the last 40 Stanley Cup champions.
I've always kind of been interested in memory challenges stuff, but I've always never been good at them. I always kind of like Trivia, but I'm always terrible at it. And when I first started playing GeoGuessr, I liked it, but I wasn't good at it at all. I couldn't remember what made a Polish sign and what made a Finnish sign. But then recently reading that book, it kind of motivated me to think, oh, I can do better than other people, or I can really upgrade my memory if I just kind of go about it in a different way. So that's been really exciting. That's been a lot of fun.
I like it in a way that I always need to be doing something productive in my life, and I always need to kind of have a challenge so I think maybe a lot of people do that like... You need to be motivated to do something, but to say it's, like, necessarily pleasurable, I don't know if I'd say that, but I'm happy I have it in my life to give me a challenge. I enjoy that challenge in my life.
-"Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything" by Joshua Foer