Friday, July 17, 2015

Linkword review

Lately I've been discussing mnemonic techniques for memorizing vocabulary. It turns out there is software that uses this method, the Linkword Language Courses developed by Michael Gruneburg.

This screenshot gives you a pretty good idea of the premise behind Linkword (I tested the Spanish course, because I speak no Spanish at all).  There are hundreds of these screens in a Linkword course, divided up by skill level and then category (animals, clothes, food). You can choose to hear the foreign word spoken, or work in silent mode.
It works like this: When a screen like the one above pops up, you spend a moment visualizing the imagery suggested: in this case, a camel lying on your bed. Concentrate on the word and the image of the camel on your bed. If all goes according to plan, the next time you see the word cama you'll recall the image of the camel in your bed and remember that cama is Spanish for "bed."

Click "Next" and repeat. And repeat. After 10 of these you get quizzed, then see a review screen with all the words. Then you go to the next unit. Eventually you end up composing (meaning, typing; there's lots of typing in this course) simple sentences.

Your first impression may be that this software must have been created in Basic in 1978 on a Commodore PET, but the (extremely) bland interface and choice of yellow on black are said by Dr. Gruneburg, who invited me to review the course, to be intentional choices that contribute to focus and memorization. I'm not sure if I buy it, and I have to wonder if a lively illustration of a camel in repose on a bed might not have been helpful. Certainly it would've made it more interesting as you pass through screen after same, feeling like you're stuck in DOS land. (Sorry for all the nerdy computer references, but that's what I do in my day job.)

Some of the linkages are good, and helpful, but for me too many are a bit, well, tortured.

Consider the pig. Third O'? Really?  I would've had the pig eating Certs to kill the stink, and why on earth you'd link "fox" to zorro by using the word "sorrow" instead of putting a Zorro mask on the fox is mind-boggling. But that's the nature of a mnemonic technique -- it's very personal. Which raises the question: are you better off creating your own linkages, rather than using those suggested by another? Almost certainly, I'd say (Dr. Gruneburg, for the record, does not agree), but that takes more effort, and perhaps few students would be willing to spend the time to do that, as I did when learning the 1,000 French words in a children's dictionary in a week. And, of course, there wouldn't be a Linkword product to sell if the users were creating their own images.

More importantly, the other thing that I did to facilitate learning vocabulary, if you recall from an earlier post, was to put these objects into themed rooms. For me, it wasn't enough to connect jupe to "skirt" by having the girl in the skirt jumping rope. In order for this technique to work, I had to put her and her family (and all their clothes) into a room, a busy room with lots of activity and words (refer to Flirting with French for details) - that is, combining mnemonics with the memory palace. That also greatly relived the monotony of memorizing word after word. Of course, I used my own images. In fact, my editor called me out on (and edited out!) the image of the woman in a tank top sweating on the exercise bike. But, hey, I remembered her (and her associated word)!

Anyway, back to my review of Linkword and the crux of the matter. Is this product an effective way to learn vocabulary? I would say, having spent some time with both the PC-based and mobile versions, that it can be, for some, a useful adjunct to other study, although I found it more useful in going from French to English than in the other direction. And note that, while there are some screens in the advanced sections that deal with grammar and sentence structure, and it's marketed as a full-fledged language course, in my opinion this is really a dressed-up vocabulary-learning tool. The product website claims that "Level 4 will enable you to read and understand the average newspaper article, watch a foreign language film and converse with people in a very wide range of situations abroad." I didn't make it to level 4, so I shouldn't judge, but I'll confess to a little skepticism when it comes to that lofty goal.

 As a vocabulary-learning supplement, it might have some use. I prefer the mobile version, which is something that you can do for a few minutes while waiting at the doctor's office during your lunch break. Think of it as a little snack between your language-class meals, and keep your expectations limited.

As my grand-mère de Brooklyn used to say, "It couldn't hoit!"

The Linkword language courses are available at

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Jumping rope in the rain in my liviing room

To summarize the last two posts on learning French vocabulary (my, where has the time gone!), I had only a little success with both the mnemonic keyword technique, where you associate a French word with an English image that will remind you of the word, and the memory palace method, which seemed more suited to remembering a shopping list than learning vocabulary.

Neither worked.

Until, in a moment of uncharacteristic brilliance, I combined them. I took my vivid images of complaining plantains and the like and assembled them into themed rooms. Thus to learn French clothing words, I put a British chap wearing a chapeau and a coat (manteau) up on the fireplace mantle in my living room. 

Any well-dressed British chap up on a mantel needs an umbrella, that wonderful French word parapluie, which can double as a parachute if he needs to jump off. His wife, an unfortunate, homeless bag lady, wears a diamond bague on her finger. This couple’s daughter is jumping rope in her skirt (jupe), impermeable to the rain that’s falling onto her yellow impermeable.

But what is this strange crew doing in my living room? Sadly, it’s a wake for the son, a ten-year-old kid, laid out in a casket wearing a baseball cap (casquette), and sneakers (baskets) under a basketball hoop. I run through the scene with this odd family, whom I’m starting to enjoy, a few times in my head, jot down some notes, and test myself an hour later. Still there. The next day, the next week, still there. Thus it seems that while the keyword method itself doesn’t work and the memory palace doesn’t even really apply (it’s usually employed to memorize mere lists of items), combining the two methods — assigning a keyword and placing that object in a palace — clicks!

Try it yourself! And, of course read the full story in my New York Times bestseller, Flirting with French.  In the next post I'll tell you about my experiences with a software product that uses one of these techniques.