Since last week I’ve been having a daily dialogue session with Tenny, and at the same time figuring out a learning system to suit me. I know from previous attempts to learn languages that my biggest stumbling block when I arrive in Iran will be vocabulary, so I’ve decided to make that the focus of the next few weeks.
Delving into the world of self-taught language learning has been fascinating because it departs from my school-based learning on so many levels. The biggest difference, of course, is that I actually give a toss. (I haven’t plucked Persian out of thin air. I wrote about my learning motives last week, if you missed it.)
The next is that I’ve no exams to pass. My efforts won’t be directed by the National Curriculum or measured against government targets. After the basics, I can concentrate on topics that are actually going to be useful and (importantly) interesting — broadly, the same topics that I’d find it interesting to talk about and listen to in English.
But probably the most interesting departure from old-school language learning was an omission: how exactly is it that we remember stuff anyway? Memorization and recollection underpins this whole endeavour. So why aren’t we first taught how to use our memories, and then given the material to memorize?
Last year I read a great adventure story. It was the one-year journey of a young journalist into the world of ‘competitive mnemonics’. The author, an interested layman at the start of his journey, was twelve months later crowned the Memory Champion of the USA. During the competition he set a new record for memorizing and recalling correctly a deck of 52 playing cards, which he did in 1 minute and 40 seconds.
His book, Moonwalking with Einstein*, follows this exploration of the world of memory, and explains precisely how these normal humans were able to perform seemingly superhuman feats of mental athletics. The main point is that humans evolved a fantastic memory for places and images, not for modern abstractions like numbers and lists and foreign words. The key to learning abstractions, then, is to convert them into (imaginary but vivid and multi-sensory) places and images that can be easily recalled.
If this sounds weird, that’s because it is, but it’s also ridiculously effective. It should be taught in schools. I’ll never forget the first word I memorized using the technique. It’s the Persian word for eraser (پاک کن, or pâk kon).
When I picture an eraser in my mind, I’m reminded of a lush, green, grassy area in central Tehran, criss-crossed with gravel paths, the gushing sound of a fountain nearby. I’m reminded of this park because — in this imaginary picture I’ve made — there are giant erasers standing in every direction, metres tall, like the Stonehenge uprights. (They’re those grey-white Staedtler ones with the blue cardboard surround.) And between these blocks of rubber are darting cartoon criminals, with stupid black eye-masks and stripey tops and swag-bags, in the middle of executing an elaborate con.
And this reminds me that — in Iran — an eraser is a park con (or pâk kon, or پاک کن).
Words I’d find impossible to remember simply by bludgeoning myself repetitively with them will now stick forever. It was something of a revelation to come across this technique, the so-called Linkword technique, connecting a foreign word to something in your native language that sounds similar by means of an unforgettably bizarre image.
(If you close your eyes and recreate the image I described above in your mind, taking time to see the erasers and hear the fountain and smell the grass and feel the gravel and watch the cartoon criminals darting about, you’ll associate Staedtler erasers with a park con for years to come.)
There’s a more sophisticated variant of it called the Memory Town. You can read about both here. (Seriously, this world gets weirder by the day.)
So every day I’m choosing a topic I’m interested in, chatting with Tenny until my brain melts, then writing up all the new vocabulary on flashcards — English on one side, Persian on the other (actually virtual flashcards, which I’ll write more about next week). I’m using this Linkword technique to help with committing them to memory, and revising the cards using spaced intervals (again, more next week) to build up my vocabulary.
At a rate of 20 new words a day, that’ll be 120 a week (I do get Sundays off!), or almost 1,000 words by the time I arrive in Iran. 1,000 well-chosen words, in normal conversational situations, could cover pretty much everything.
To wrap up this week’s Farsi Friday I’m going to attempt a paragraph of written Persian. It’s a really simple ‘magic letter’ that would be useful for a cyclist passing through Iran (feel free to adapt and print it if you’re going to Iran yourself). Here goes:
از آشنایی با شما خوشوختم. اسم من تام است. ٢٩ سال دارم و اهل انگلستان هستم. دارم از کشورم به استرالیا با دوچرخه مسافرت می کنم. این سفر خیلی بلند است و برای چند ماه در سفر خواهم بود. من اغلب خیلی خسته هستم و از هر کمکی که از دست تان بر آید سپاس گزار خواهم بود.
In English — though the translation is not quite literal, Persian being full of airs and graces — this roughly reads:
It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance. My name is Tom. I’m 29 years of age and I’m from England. I’m cycling from my home country to Australia. My journey is long and I’m often very tired. I’d really appreciate any help that you can offer.
Until next week…
Do you have a ‘magic letter’ like this in other languages? Post them here and I’ll gradually compile them into a usable resource for cycle tourists.