A colleague of mine buzzed (that’s Google-speak for twitting) a New York Times article about a journalist, Joshua Foer, who trained to be a memory athlete and the different techniques he used to acquire a formidable standing in the U.S. Memory Athlete Pantheon (if such a thing exists) for remembering a deck of cards in 1’40”. The article focuses on how memory athletes are simple folks with average memories but who can also create, with time and technique, huge “memory palaces” by which they sort all kinds of data, from suites of numbers to pages of poems, all in a limited time.
I’ve been learning Japanese for the last three years – actually more than that but I’ve been a little more serious these past years, meeting a teacher and all – and I’m always interested in reading about various techniques for language learning. Pure memory of signs and words isn’t a new thing as a technique. I, myself, enjoyed building lists over lists of words when I was learning Hebrew and Greek in my twenties, organizing them in different groups, semantic or other. That article prompted me back to one of the first book I bought when I started Japanese called Remembering the kanji by James W. Heisig which uses a technique similar to the one used in the article. It focuses on how simple kanji (the Chinese characters used in Japanese) can tell a story that you remember and build on further stories to remember more complex kanji. It’s an interesting method – and it was part of my daily routine for a few months when I was between jobs. As the stories get weird and wild, just like the narrative opening up the article above, you have a sense that you can commit the kanji to memory far more easily that learning through all the standard classifications such as school grade or character stem, etc…
In about three months, I got as far as 250 kanji, over 10% of the required kanji at the end of high-school in Japan – the so-called “jouyou” kanji. But then other things came along … then I lost some of the kanji I remembered … then I lost the narrative pointers described in the book. Getting back into the book’s methodolgy was the hardest thing. I finally gave that up. But I didn’t want to drop out of Japanese, so I went for a more traditionnal way, a one-on-one with a native-speaking sensei.
I’m not going to argue whether or not this technique is good or not, only to point out that after checking out on other friends and colleagues who focus a lot on learning kanji (in some cases, for years) with the help of flash-cards or some portable tool, the more general goal of learning Japanese seems to elude them. Kanji is such a tiny fraction of the real deal and one can learn the foundations of Japanese grammar and its vocabulary without it.
There are probably people – Heisig most likely and several other enthusiasts – that argue that such a technique as “narrative building” is good for learning kanji – although you find many detractors in the Amazon.com comments for this book. After reading the article, I found that it doesn’t really answer that question. To be fair, it talks about our ancestors’ ability to memorize as a survival skill, for a person’s character was determined by what he/she could remember, not like today where reading a lot – but memorizing little – is the norm. But it mainly describes how these mental geeks actually acquire techniques for a upcoming competition, a short-term goal of sorts, then flush it all away for the next one. So what about language – or kanji for that matter – ? Is it simply about cramming and *not* flushing it away ? Foer’s mentor, professor K. Anders Ericsson, could reassure me a little if he could transpose his work from what can be an impressive violon d’ingres to fields of endeavor that are actually, quoting Foer, “character-building, a way of developing the cardinal virtue of prudence and, by extension, ethics.”
Not that I’m am against any form of drills myself. Drills, tests and pop-quizzes are an essential part of learning – and true to myself, even more so as a programmer, I now have the skills to build tools to, yet again, generate lists over lists of contents for such events.
But the lesson I discovered here is that learning a language can be the same as remembering a deck of cards, if one has to, to quote Foer again, “focus on technique, stay goal-oriented and get immediate feedback on performance”.
And then remembering that:
- You can’t get feedback from a single book.
- Staying goal-oriented is hard.
- Technique takes time to hone and then you need to go beyond your “OK Plateau” and change it once in a while.