The Memory Palace

How memory techniques are helping me learn -- and retain -- vocabulary

It seems these days that for every new French word I learn, I forget two. And since the less commonly-used words come later in whatever course I'm taking, that means I know the words for crutches and cast, but have forgotten what we call that thing with five fingers that's attached to my arm!

Obviously, this is not a good situation. So, inspired by the book, Moonwalking With Einstein, by Joshua Foer, about so-called "memory athletes," those oddballs who can memorize the order of a deck of cards or attach names to 200 faces, I've begun looking at whether memory techniques can help in learning -- memorizing -- French vocabulary.

The Memory Palace
The history of memory is generally dated to the legendary story related by Cicero about a tragic incident that occurred back in the fifth century B.C. The Greek poet Simonides of Ceos was attending a banquet, the story goes, and had just stepped outside to have a smoke or take a phone call or something, when the palace collapsed, killing everyone inside, leaving the corpses so crushed under tons of stone that identification of the victims was impossible. One could not even say for sure who was inside. Families rushed to Simonides, asking if their loved ones were among the victims. “How the hell should I know?” he might’ve said (except that the concept of Hell was still a few centuries off), for he certainly hadn’t taken attendance or even paid much attention. Yet, in the desperation of the moment, Simonides did a creative and unique thing. He closed his eyes and rebuilt the palace in his head, replaying his entrance and exit through the hall, visualizing the scene. “Ah, I nodded hello to Pseudolus on the way in, and remember wondering, how did he get a date with that cute Philia,” recreating in his mind’s eye the seating arrangements. In this manner he was able to recall a remarkable number of those in attendance.

This event is the origin of the memorization technique commonly known today, with a nod to Simonides, as the “memory palace,” a room (or a village, or a route) in which you strategically place the items you are memorizing. The Romans called it the method of loci (loci being Latin for “place”), and you may also see it referred to as the peg system, for in one variant you hang the objects you are trying to remember on pegs in a familiar place. The memory palace seems to be most effective if, instead of imaging the mundane object you are trying to remember, you substitute something related but more outrageous that will recall the object. Thus Foer uses the example of having to memorize a long shopping list that includes a snorkel and cottage cheese. He constructs his palace in his home, but instead of placing the snorkel on, say, the kitchen counter, he visualizes a man snorkeling in his kitchen sink, a much more bizarre — and therefore memorable — image. Likewise, for the cottage cheese he summons up Claudia Schiffer swimming in a vat of cottage cheese.

Well, it turns out that some linguists have indeed been promoting (and, naturally, others deriding) a mnemonic approach to learning foreign vocabulary for at least the past thirty years. Called the keyword method, this technique for memorizing foreign vocabulary is a rather simple two-step process: Step One, you take the foreign word and think of an English word (the keyword) that sounds like the foreign word. Step Two, you form an image in your mind that links the foreign and English words. For example, you are trying to memorize the French word for bread, pain (pronounced “pah”) This sounds like “pan.” So visualize a pan. Now picture that pan coming out of the oven filled with bread, and concentrate on that image for a few seconds. Bake it into your brain. Now, the next time you see the French word pain you should be able to conjure up this picture, and say, aha, bread! How is this any better than simply memorizing that pain means bread? For the same reason that Simonides’s memory palace technique works: the mind is remarkably adept at remembering images, not so good at retaining words. In fact, the average adult can only remember a list of seven items. That humans are better at remembering images than words would make sense since, evolutionarily speaking, humans acquired sight way, way before we developed speech, not to mention writing. For that reason, various forms of visualization constitute the primary technique employed by all contemporary memory exports. The most common technique for memorizing the order of a deck of playing cards (a classic memory competition event) is to substitute a vivid image for each of the fifty-two cards in a deck. Foer uses Bill Clinton smoking a cigar as a placeholder for the king of diamonds and his grandmother for the eight of hearts. This mapping takes some time and effort, but is actually no more daunting than learning a list of fifty-two French vocabulary words.

Simple enough. I take a crack at the mnemonic keyword technique, returning to my English-French children’s dictionary of a thousand words which, even though I’d sworn to memorize from A to Z, remains bookmarked at C, and apply the technique to a few words. For plaindre (to complain), I picture a bunch of talking plantains complaining about me every time I walk by. Rather funny, actually. The French word for lawn is pelouse. Having had some, shall we say, issues with landscapers in the past, I rue having paid a louse to mow my lawn. One word that has evaded me for weeks is autoriser, a verb meaning “to give permission.” This would seem like a common word, but in five trips to France over thirty-five years, I don’t recall ever encountering it even once. Its opposite, interdit, I’ve known since my first trip to France, because you see it on signs everywhere. This would suggest that a lot more in France is forbidden than permitted, which, excepting nudity and extramarital sex, I’d say is actually true. Anyway, back to autoriser, I close my eyes and picture myself in my mechanic’s garage asking him for permission to put my car on his lift — his auto riser. Bingo. Ten minutes later, I test myself with a handful of new words, and pass. A day later, I still remember them. I should have been doing this from the start, I think, as I start adding more words. And immediately run into trouble.

What do with poîntrane? It doesn’t sound like anything in English, let alone anything that will remind me of my chest. Same with brouillard. I think of a foggy brew yard with barrels of beer to link it to fog, but the linkage is apparently too forced to be remembered long-term. Indeed, a little research reveals that I’ve stumbled across one of the documented limitations of the keyword method for foreign language vocabulary: the weaker the links, the less effective the technique. Looking for some help, I find a language instruction book written by one of the keyword proponents. Michael Gruneberg’s French by Association supplies you with the keywords so you don’t have to make them up yourself, but some of his associations are so tortured as to be funny. For instance, he writes, “The French for plate is assiette. Imagine yourself looking for a plate and saying, ‘I see it.’” Okay, assiette does sound like “I see it” (especially if you have a Southern accent). But that’s as far as I get. I know I see something, but what? My keys, breakfast, my wife? I’m stuck and have to look it up.

Gruneberg’s linkage for pomme de terre is nothing less than egregious: “Imagine you throw potatoes at terrorists carrying bombs. Potatoes are bomb deterrents,” he instructs. This borders on the idiotic, especially since pomme de terre is one of those wonderfully colorful French words, and if you know and care nothing else about the French you should know that the people who introduced the world to French fries call potatoes “apples of the earth.” Furthermore, it’s the kind of thing you’re not likely to forget! If Gruneberg had pointed that out, instead invoking images of terrorists, you 1) would have just learned two new words (pomme and terre), and 2) found another reason to fall in love with French. Yet you can in fact find good keywords for many French words, so I continue, though on my own, finding that it’s more effective to make my own connections than to use someone else’s. And I’m encouraged, although I realize I’m cheating a bit. I’m only looking at French words and coming up with their English equivalents, never the other way around. Once I start testing myself in the other direction, starting with the English, I run into another problem that has been noted by critics. The keyword method gets you from French to English, what linguists call “forward recall.” Pain to pan to a pan filled with bread. That’s useful for reading or listening to French. But what happens if I should actually want to say something in French? Suppose I’m in a Parisian café and would like some bread. How do I come up with the French word for bread? (linguistically, “backward recall”) I’ve got no path from “bread” to pain, only the one in the opposite direction.

More trouble: once my list has grown beyond a handful of words, I don’t remember them anymore. Again, I’m far from the first to notice this. Linguists have questioned the long-term effectiveness of the keyword technique, and in fact most of the studies done by its proponents have tested student recall over a very short time span — often during the same classroom session, which is mind-bogglingly pointless. Thus after flirting with it for a few days, I throw my Bill Clintons back onto to the table in disgust, deriding the keyword method as an impractical gimmick. I’ll return to rote memorization. Yet there' one image I can't get out of my mind: poor Claudia Schiffer, still stuck in that vat of cottage cheese! At the same time, I am dismayed, discouraged, and even panicked to realize that I’ve forgotten the past tense of “to have”! Clearly, Claudia is trying to tell me something. There must be a way to use the memory palace with French. I return to my English-French children’s dictionary — back once again to the bookmarked letter C — and, covering the French translation, look at the word “coat.” Damn, I learned that word in the seventh grade, again in high school and in my night-school course, and once again just a few Rosetta months ago, not to mention the last time I was on this very dictionary page. But I still haven’t learned it! Okay, I’m going to build a memory palace and stick a coat in it. But where? I remove my hand to reveal the translation: manteau. Borrowing from the keyword method of association, I first connect it to mantel. Then, with a nod to the memory palace, I place the coat on the fireplace mantel in my living room. Mantel/manteau. Good match, but a coat on a mantel is not very memorable. So let’s put a man inside the coat and give him a hat, a chapeau. Ah, he just became a British chap.

Any well-dressed British chap up on a mantel needs an umbrella, that wonderful French word parapluie, which can double as a parachute if his needs to jump off. His wife, an unfortunate, homeless bag lady, wears a diamond bague on her finger and, a dog collier (necklace) around her neck as she wanders undressed, save for her jewelry and a bath robe (dress) plus very threatening heels (talons)! This couple’s daughter is jumping rope in her skirt (jupe), impermeable to the rain that’s falling onto her yellow impermeable. As kids are wont to do, she is pulling constantly at the sleeve of her sweater (pull). But what is this strange crew doing in my living room? Sadly, it’s a wake, for the son, a ten-year-old kid, is laid out in a casket wearing a baseball cap (casquet), and sneakers (baskets) under a basketball hoop.

I run through the scene with this odd family, whom I’m rather 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. So it seems that while the keyword method itself doesn’t work, and the memory palace doesn’t even really even apply (it’s usually employed to memorize a list of objects), combining the two methods — assigning a keyword and placing that object in a palace — clicks! Of course, a week is one thing, but the big question remains: Will the Addams family still be in my living room jumping rope at the wake in the rain next month, or next year, or will they have gotten bored and faded away? I suspect that to keep them there I’ll have to visit often.

Another question is, how many words can one memorize with this method? For starters, how about I try the thousand words in my beginner’s English-French dictionary? Returning to the letter A, I divide the words that I don’t know into themed rooms. The first room I build is an action room, for verbs. Nothing says “action” like a gym, so for this room I choose my former health club. As I enter I see a cute brunette on the exercise bike trying to attract (attirer) me with her sexy attire

, a strongman bench pressing in a hurry (être pressé), while another athlete fills up (remplir) a water bottle to replenish his thirst, and so on. The next day, I’ll revisit the gym, along with what has turned out to be my clothing-themed room (the Addams family) and begin the construction of my adjective room (the reading room of the New York Public Library), then a weather and outdoors room (the beach — it doesn’t have to be a real room), and more.

When I need to retrieve a word (and for some reason the memory palace model seems to work for both forward and backward retrieval, while mere keyword association does not), I simply go to the appropriate room and conjure up the right character. I review these lists nightly, and after a while I realize I’ve stopped using the keyword. I don’t need to see to see the boy lying in a casket to recall the casquet on his head anymore, but the association is there if I need it.

When I’ve built and populated all my rooms, I give myself a test, running through the entire thousand-word dictionary from A to Z. My score: 98.5 percent! In ten days, not ten weeks or ten months, I’ve memorized virtually the entire Mon Premier Bescherelle Anglais. My success surprises even me. I’m back in the game, bébé!

— William Alexander


  1. Great post.Learning different languages is hard but fun.We were able to grasps the culture of every languages we translate.A lost in French translation or any translation should not hinder us to know exactly about one's history and culture.I could say that translators really play a big role in our society.I can't see machines taking over the jobs of human translators in the near future, as they have done with so many other professions.

  2. Great Article thanks. I have just started to build a memory palace for learning German and I have tried some keyword association as well. I can see that it will take some time to get good at building up the wild stories and associations to memorise words, but your success is encouraging. 1000 sounds like a good target.

    1. I'll have to do a memory palace for german language too

  3. Frankly speaking, reading and listening to materials corresponding to your level are still the most efficient ways to acquire vocabulary.

  4. Awesome article :-)
    I would like to know how is this technique working for you in the long run?
    Are you still learning more words this way and how good is the retention?
    I'm using the memory palace technique for learning sentences and once I started to drop the loci for every sentence my sentences started to fade a bit here and there but overall the technique is working a lot better for me then rote learning or srs software.
    I have done 500 sentences and had an average of 96% when reviewing them in a three month period.
    btw you did a 100 words a day if I understood it correctly that means you must be able to come up quickly with mnemonics.
    This is one thing I'm always having trouble with if I need to make up a new link/mnemonic it takes me a lot of time.

  5. I think it's holding up pretty well, though I can't compete with your 96% retention rate - that's awesome! Coming up with mnemonics is sometimes hard, and I find that the ones I have to work for the most are the least effective. For some words there just aren't any at all. Keep up the good work - you're a much better student than I am, and look for my book that covers ALL my techniques next September.

  6. I agree with you that some words just can't be formed into a working link and they keep slipping away from the long term memory.
    However there are people that are so good in doing this they don't seem to have this problem.
    I like to call them black belts in mnemoncis and they can do 2 words a minute.
    That's a skill I would love to have like Dominic O'Brien that did 320 German words in an hour after seeing them only once using the same technique you are using. Maybe calling him a black belt in mnemonics is even an understatement ;-)
    Good luck on your book sounds like an interesting read :-)

  7. When you categorized things into rooms, how many rooms did you end up with? And how many "things" was placed in a room? I started this but quite soon it got a bit crowded just having one room for verbs...

  8. If I may give a suggestion toFredrik's problem.
    You can add a place to your room that you know or make up and connect them together.
    So your room now has a new door or wormhole(star trek) and you keep adding that way.
    This way your verbs are still in one location only this location is in real life maybe far from the other place but in your mind it will be seen as one place.
    Also using paintings/pictures in a room can be a very nice trick.
    for example I have one picture hanging on the wall in one of my rooms that I made myself that has 5 pictures of telephone-scenes in it.
    This way I could put 5 complete sentences just in that one picture.
    Another example by using pictures I have one big room and this place has about 17 paintings that give me 91 pegs to work with.
    So if you have a few rooms you can store a few hundred verbs without a problem as long as all of your pegs are different.
    A bookshelf will not work or a cd-rack, skyscraper etc...
    The pegs/files need to be clear but the space between them is not important.
    This is just what I do I hope this technique works for you.
    Best of luck to you.

  9. 'Poîntrane' isn't the French equivalent for 'chest' (the part of the human anatomy): that would be 'poitrine'.

  10. have you got a spreadsheet with the palace? can you post it? that would be amazing!

  11. Sorry, I haven't. But it's best if you build your own - you're far more likely to remember the connections. Bonne chance!


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