Mnemonics and their limitations in studying vocabulary

The keyword mnemonics technique uses keywords and mental images to associate verbal material. For example, let’s say you want to memorize the French feminine noun affiche that means poster in English. For this, you could imagine a feminine looking fish attaching a poster to the wall.

This technique has become increasingly popular lately. It is also the core learning strategy of Memrise, an online language learning platform. Memrise was founded by the memory champion and author Ed Cooke.

I hadn’t practised this technique until I came across Memrise. I started fanatically creating mental images and keywords to memorize words in Russian. I realized that not every word is easy to tackle with mnemonics. However, I managed to use my imagination and come up with some surreal mental images that helped me to memorize a few Russian words. I got really excited! “This technique is gold”, I thought!

However, we have to be careful with how we arrive to “cause-and-effect” conclusions. Do I successfully remember these words because of the mnemonics per se, or because of the repetition of the retrieval process? In fact, I was over excited to confirm that this method works, so I kept going back to recall the mnemonics from my memory (retrieval process or self-testing). In that case, maybe it was the repeated retrieval process that helped me to memorize the targeted words.

For this reason, I decided to dig deeper into research. I found that lots of studies show a benefit of the mnemonics in the short-term, i.e. when someone is tested soon after a study session. However, when targeted words are not keyword-friendly, or someone receives delayed tests on them, the benefits vanish.

Hall (1988) conducted several experiments and showed that a control group outperformed the mnemonics group on English words that were not keyword friendly. Even when the mnemonics group was given the keywords, i.e. they didn’t have to waste time generating them, the control group performed better.

Condus, Marshall, Miller, Raugh & Atkinson (1975) investigating the long-term benefits of the mnemonics, they included a test soon after the practice and one after a longer delay of several days, or even months. These studies showed a benefit of the mnemonics method for both the immediate and delayed tests.

However, the promising results of the later research were compromised by the design of the experiments as the exact same groups were tested both on the immediate and the delayed tests. Given that the mnemonics group showed increased performance on the immediate test, this initial successful recall could have boosted the performance on the delayed test. In other words, the advantage in the delayed test performance for the mnemonics group could have been due to the retrieval practice (immediate test) and not due to the mnemonics per se (It is known that retrieval practice slows forgetting.)

For this reason, researchers tested different groups on the immediate and delayed tests. The results below show that although the mnemonics group outperformed a rote repetition (repeated study) group on the immediate test, the benefits on the delayed test vanished for those who received only the delayed test.

Mnemonics Experiment 1

In a second experiment, after researchers nearly equated the performance of the two groups on the immediate test by giving more training to the rote repetition group, the repetition group performed much better than the mnemonics group on the delayed test as shown on the chart below:

Mnemonics Experiment - WangThis shows that the mnemonics are not as effective for long-term retention. This is probably because it gets harder to decode the mnemonic if lots of forgetting has occurred . For example, for the feminine looking fish we have lots of target words, “fish”, “poster”, “wall”, “feminine” etc. Which of these words corresponds to what?

Apart from the long-term retention disadvantage of the mnemonics, their critics also report the following:

  • Time is needed to train someone to generate appropriate mnemonics.
  • Time is needed to generate keywords and mental images.
  • There is no evidence that mnemonics are superior to traditional self-testing or repetition of study.
  • Mnemonics are limited in terms of learning domain to foreign languages. Even within that domain, not all the material is keyword friendly, i.e. it is not always easy to create keywords.

Going back to Memrise, Ed Cooke and his team, apart from mnemonics, rely heavily on repeated retrieval practice using sophisticated algorithms. So, their system throws you a certain word several times spaced with intervals that are optimized for effective learning.

As a conclusion, you should use mnemonics for keyword-friendly words when you learn a foreign language but make sure you refresh them frequently in your memory. In general, testing and spaced practice are proven methods that promote effective, long-term and durable learning. Stay tuned, I will soon come back with more interesting results…

Mnemonics limitations in language learning

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We have 3 winners!

Hello lovely diversified people,

We have 3 winners from the last italki prize competition:

1) Daniel Smith

2) Emmanuel Tartagal

3) Sarah Kim

The guys above each wins $40 to spend on italki private language lessons! I would like to thank you all for your participation and very useful intelligence you gave to me regarding your difficulties learning a language and your needs! I promise to do my best to help!

Subscribe here as more prizes are to come!

Thanks again,

Angelos

 

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Win private language lessons!

Hi all!

I am working on some big plans to create the best methods and resources for language learners, and I need your help.

I would like you to answer just 3 questions as much in detail as possible! It would be a massive help and there is something in it for you – scroll below:

1) What is your favourite website or software which helps you learn a language and why?

2) What is your favourite method for memorising new words?

3) What is your biggest difficulty in learning a language?

What’s in it for you??? I thought you’d never ask!

I am going to give away three iTalki promo codes, each one worth 400 points ($40), to three lucky participants. Italki helped me to practise my Russian with native speakers at very affordable prices. To learn more about iTalki please read my article here. In addition, everyone who takes part will be the first to get access to my upcoming ebook ‘Learn Russian the smart way’, for FREE.

Please send the answers to: livediversified@gmail.com until the 7th of August 2015!

Thank you,

Angelos

Live Diversified italki promo

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Does money make you happier?

A couple of months ago, I came across this BBC Business Daily Podcast. I quite often listen to podcasts but this one really struck me. The guests are trying to answer whether more money makes us happier, more motivated and more productive. The findings are astonishing and totally counter-intuitive.

Economist Carol Graham from Brookings Institution says that income correlates with how people evaluate their lives as a whole. I make more money; thus, I am more successful. However, when we measure daily quality of life, this correlation vanishes. More income does not necessarily mean that you smile more often, you enjoy your friends more, or you are less worried. Very poor people may experience stress as their daily existence can be a struggle. However, once certain basic needs are met (food, home, etc.), the relationship income/wellbeing becomes very weak. Carol says that people who do not have many choices and feel that they cannot substantially change their lives tend to focus more on the daily experience of wellbeing: ‘I have my friends, my family, enough to eat — I am OK!’ She also says: ‘The happiest people care least about money and a lot about learning and creativity. Least happy people care mostly about money, but even if they earn more money, that will not make them happier.’

Psychologist Dan Ariely from Duke University ran an experiment to determine whether money incentives make us more productive. He told three groups that if they did certain tasks well, they would get a bonus of 1-day, 1-week or 5-month wages respectively. It turned out that as the reward increased the performance went down. People of course cared about the money, but the high incentive increased their stress which then damaged their productivity.

Psychologist Dacher Keltner from the University of California in Berkeley finds that poor people are better judges of human emotion. He ran an experiment showing an image of a starving child to people from different social classes. It was shown that lower class people had a stronger ‘vagus nerve’ reaction which is associated with empathy and compassion. He explains that people who live in an environment where everything is scarce around them tend to connect and empathise more with others.

The science has spoken to confirm what you already knew: money will not make you happy.

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My little story and a new chapter in life.

Hi,

My name is Angelos. Five years ago, I left my country Greece that was struggling with unemployment, to start my professional career in London. I was twenty five and had a burning desire to succeed. The definition of success is different for each one of us and usually changes as we grow older. For me, when I arrived to London, success was to work in investment banking and make lots of money. However, I didn’t have any finance background or working experience and I knew my goal would not be that easy, especially at the onset of a global financial crisis.

Within a month, I got my first job and became a Christmas tree seller! After the Christmas season, I was doing different things to make a living; I was teaching maths, setting up the Wifi in coffee shops and working as a musician in Greek venues. At that point, my financial situation was still tight and I had to keep costs to a minimum; I was living in a tiny single room, chasing the ‘2 for 1’ Tesco deals and commuting on my bike. It was not an easy year, but certainly a colourful one. I smelled so many Christmas trees, saw kids become confident with maths, enjoyed free carrot cake in coffee shops across the city and taught English people the basic steps of ‘Sirtaki!’ In the meantime, I was loyal to my goal of getting into finance. I was studying the mechanics of the financial products until late night and schmoozing every banker I was meeting. I even bought my first full suit!

After loads of unsuccessful interviews, I finally became a consultant in an investment bank. My wages instantly quadrupled. I called my Mom back in Greece to say: ‘I made it!’ I was not a trader or any ‘top-dog’ but still the professional environment looked fabulous to my eyes. I started to learn interesting things, read the Financial Times every day, and work long hours. Initially, I was enjoying my job and particularly my ‘daily-rate’ which was constantly increasing. Soon, I gave up maths lessons, music and even my bike (it was uncomfortable to ride in a suit…) I started a part-time postgraduate course in maths but I had to freeze that too as I didn’t have time to study. Also, I couldn’t stay late any more at my friend’s on a weekday as I had to be fresh and productive the following day at work. I entered a life routine, a fully-programmed schedule. I could only enjoy my weekends and I always had that strange feeling that time was passing so quickly. Eventually, I realised I had to change my life. However, although I knew I needed an exit point, I was constantly pushing that point further down the line: ‘Let’s wait until Christmas, let’s wait until Easter, let’s wait for another month so I have some more savings in my bank account.’ People kept telling me: ‘You can work for another ten years, buy a couple of flats and then you are sorted!’ Others would even scream at me: ‘Are you crazy? Do you know how many people would die to have your job?’ But, I knew that was all nonsense! How can you compromise your life so you start living it ten years from now? Only you know what makes you happy and no one else can live your life for you.

Eventually, after more than three years in banking, I decided to quit. I am now back to maths tutoring and music performances. In the last few months, I passionately started learning Russian, something I always wanted to do. After immersing into the language and experimenting with different learning techniques, I am currently writing a book with tips and methods for learning Russian effectively. At the moment, I see every day my savings go down while I am trying to make a living with different activities. Am I scared? Yes, I am. Do I doubt sometimes whether I did the right thing? Yes, I do. At least, I feel I was honest to myself and stopped something that was not making me happy.

Why this blog? I want to connect with people who faced similar challenges like the ones above and decided to follow their interests and live a diversified life instead of a monotonous one dictated by the social norms. I want to read your stories and learn from you. I hope you will learn too from my experiences and mistakes. Do I have any secret recipes or a magic answer? No. I have just scratched the surface and the ice is thick.

 

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