Using emotional states to remember Chinese
The fifteenth rule in 20 Rules for Formulating
Knowledge is “rely on emotional
states”. Let’s see how you can apply this to learning Chinese.
Trying to learn Chinese in a vacuum is difficult. There is very little knowledge
that exists independently of the rest of your mind, and that includes your
emotions. This isn’t a problem, and you can turn it to your advantage by making
conscious use of the fact that emotions lead to stronger memories.
For example, you will easily remember the word 崩溃 if you associate it with that
day you missed your flight, lost your phone and then got food poisoning. You
really felt 好崩溃. If you then also associate 崩溃 with the recent economic
recession and all the effects it had in your country, you’ll have that aspect of
the word well-covered too. Using these personal emotional states makes strong
This is how real language works
The reason this works is because it’s a large part of how you use your native
language. From the day you were born you’ve been building strong personal
associations with all the knowledge you have of your own language. It’s easy to
use and recall because it’s so well integrated into your general mental
processes and chains of thought.
This is harder to achieve with Chinese because you haven’t had that head-start
since the beginning of your life, but by recognising the effect you can speed up
your learning by several factors. It’s one reason why immersion and real-life
use of Chinese is effective.
You don’t need to use highly personal associations to benefit from this, though.
Any emotional image will help. In his write-up, Dr Wozniak describes a 25×
improvement in learning speed from incorporating vivid scenes into the learning
process. You might be skeptical of the exact figure, but the point to take away
is that it makes a significant difference.
If personal responses and remembered scenes aren’t forthcoming, you can go ahead
and make up a vivid image to associate with what you’re learning. The more
shocking, obscene or otherwise memorable you can make this, the better. No-one
else needs to know.
Try making up dirty or disgusting mnemonics for Chinese character components,
and you’ll find that they become far easier to remember (what this says about
the human mind is a topic for another post). If that doesn’t suit your
sensibilities, there are plenty of other ways to trick your brain into storing
the information you want: make things funny, sad, weird, frightening or whatever
the flavour of the day is.
We’re stuck using a system that is by default more interested in emotion than
dry facts, so work with what you’ve got.
Another example: emotional tones
A quick example of how this can be applied to learning Chinese is a way to start
acquiring Mandarin’s tones in the early stages. This is a common stumbling block
and it’s hard to get past it when you first start learning the language. Some
emotional images will make the tones stick in your mind:
To be clear, these are not guidelines on how to pronounce the tones. They’re
ways to get the tones to stick in your mind with less effort than brute force
repetition, letting you learn the language more quickly. Before long, you’ll be
able to recall the tones naturally and without this conscious effort. Using
vivid images like these lets you get to that stage faster.
This content was originally published here.