How To Use A Memory Palace To Improve Your Language Learning

You may have heard of a memory palace before, but have you ever considered using one?
European castle representing a memory palace

A “memory palace” sounds like something out of a fantasy novel. That’s probably why you’re more likely to hear about it in a TV show than a language classroom. The two most famous memory palaces belong to Hannibal Lecter in the Hannibal Lecter novels and Sherlock Holmes in the BBC show Sherlock. Given the fact that they’re associated with people who are considered unnaturally smart (if not sociopathic), it makes sense that memory palaces haven’t caught on; they sound too strange to be a regular part of learning. A language-learning memory palace isn’t as weird as it sounds, however. You can use one to boost your vocabulary and aid your language learning.

How Does A Memory Palace Work?

A memory palace — sometimes called a memory journey, a mind palace or the method of loci — is based on the fact that humans have very good spatial memory. Evolutionarily, this makes sense. Members of a hunter-gatherer society didn’t spend much time memorizing abstract ideas; they just needed to know what was where in the world.

A memory palace combines the abstract with the spatial to create a modern learning device. Well — “modern” might be overstating it. The “method of loci” can be traced as far back as 477 B.C.E., when a Greek figure named Simonides used the method to remember all the guests at a party, who died during a roof collapse, before the bodies were found. Yes, this story is a tad dramatic, and might not be entirely true, but it is the earliest example of a person using spatial memory to recall a huge amount of information.

In any case, there are just a few steps to making a memory palace.

Choose A Good Location For Your Memory Palace

Ideally, this would be a place that already exists, and a place that you know really, really well. Maybe it’s a park that you walk through every day, or maybe it’s your house. Even if you think you know the place well, you might want to visit it in person and get all the details down. You’ll want to mark certain places where you’ll “store” memories later. You might even want to draw a simple diagram of the space and label where you’ll store facts.

Fill Your Memory Palace With What You Want To Remember

Next comes the memory part of the palace. You’ll want to walk through your palace (usually you’ll want to use the same route every time, for consistency) and “place” memories in certain locations with associated objects. Of course you’re not placing things literally, but rather just in your mind putting bits of information in various places. You can also write down where everything is on a piece of paper of spreadsheet while you’re still constructing the palace. Don’t become too reliant on it, though, because you really want to get all the information into your brain.

Let’s say your memory palace is your home, and you start in your bedroom. First you’ll see your bed, so you can place a piece of information — probably a vocab word — in that spot. I’m learning Spanish, so maybe I would want to put the word for “bed” there, which is la cama. And then you progress through the palace repeating this over and over, putting vocab words in the places you want them.

You don’t have to have the thing you’re trying to remember correspond with the place you’re putting it. If you’re learning all the state capitals, you could put Philadelphia in your bed, too. You will want something to connect the image with the fact though, so perhaps you could put a Philly cheesesteak in your bed (in the memory palace bed, not your real bed). Yes, that does sound ridiculous, but practitioners of this technique will tell you that the weirder the image is, the easier it will be to remember.

Visit The Palace Regularly

You might want to start out with a little cheat guide to what information goes where, but you should slowly wean yourself off of that. After a while, you should be able to walk through your palace and find whatever it is you need in the proper spot. And eventually, the terms should move to your long-term memory, so you don’t have to walk through a memory palace every time you’re trying to communicate in your target language.

Wait, Does This Actually Work?

This can all sound a bit over-the-top, so naturally, you’ll want to know if it’s an effective method of memorizing stuff. And yes, we probably wouldn’t be writing about this if it didn’t work, but you probably want some evidence.

Look no further than the U.S. Memory Championship. At these competitions, participants go through various trials where they need to quickly memorize words, faces, poems, digits and playing cards. Winners regularly swear by the memory palace method of memorization. They use this in conjunction with other mnemonics to memorize a lot of information very fast.

Can memory palaces help language learning, though? Also yes! I could talk about my own experience using the memory palace — it’s going well so far! — but polyglot Timothy Doner has a much more impressive story. He studied over 20 languages, starting from the age of 13, and in his TEDx Talk described his use of the memory palace technique. He used Union Square Park in New York City to learn Japanese vocabulary, tying certain words to certain features of the park.

If this is so successful, then why isn’t everyone using it? Well, it’s kind of work-intensive, and there are lots of simpler methods for learning vocabulary. But if you’re struggling with vocab, or want to learn a bunch quickly, this is definitely a method worth exploring.

Tips And Tricks For Building A Memory Palace

If you’re interested in building your memory palace for language learning, here are a few more tips!

  • Start with the obvious connections. If you’re starting to learn a language, you’re going to encounter a lot of simple vocabulary for things that you run into every day. These will be the easiest to incorporate into a memory palace. Put all the food terms in the kitchen, the clothing terms in the bedroom and all the bathing terms in the bathroom. There’s no reason to make it more complicated than it needs to be.
  • Once you’ve exhausted the obvious, go wild. As mentioned earlier, it’s a lot easier to remember weird things, so make your palace weird. Need to remember that the German word for “pear” is die Birne? Imagine a burning pear in your kitchen. Or maybe for remembering the word for “boring” is langweilig, you could imagine a really long Wile E. Coyote giving a lecture in your living room. These are highly specific examples, but the point is to find what works for you.
  • Make more than one memory palace. Presumably, you have a good knowledge of more than one place in the world, so when you’ve filled one up, move to another. You can use your commute to work to create a palace, or maybe a friend’s house. It’s good to try to find palaces that vaguely correlate to the vocab you’re trying to memorize, if possible.
  • Reuse your palaces. It may sound counterintuitive, but memory palaces are reusable! If you feel like you’ve got a pretty good grasp on the vocabulary in one, start cycling in new terms and new images. This way, you’ll never have to worry about running out of ideas for new palaces.
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