Memory power – how does your garden grow?

March 6, 2012

I love it when students tell me about sites they’ve found/are using as it’s an indication to me that they are really switched on to independent language learning. A month or so ago a colleagues drew my attention to Memrise, a site for helping you learn vocabulary by stimulating the brain to make connections between a word and its meaning.  The “mem” is in fact short for mnemonic and could be in the form of an image, story, phrase, audio or video and so on.  I had a brief look at it when my attention was first drawn to this site but it was only when one of my year 12 students mentioned recently that she had been using it that I gave it a closer look.

Memrise is a wiki and aims to provide a fun way to learning languages and facts by creating a community of learners who share their own “mems”. The concept is simple; your memories start as “seeds”, you nurture them in your “greenhouse” (or short term memory) and finally you can harvest them in your “garden”  (long term memory).  Over 50 languages are available and once you have created your free account you can access any of the courses within each language.  The “courses”  are created by members of the Memrise community and can be anything from the vocabulary featured in a chapter of a course book to a thematic list of words.

When you start a “course” the words appear as flashcards; there are also sound files and you can see what “mems” have been created by other users which could help you learn the words.  The words are presented in groups and every so often you are “tested”; this takes various forms from multiple choice recognition to writing the English for the word, or writing the word in the target language.  In the case of the latter there is a bank of special characters that can be used in the case of French/German words etc that require accents or umlauts.  You get instant feedback and you hear the word spoken.  This stage of the learning process is the “watering” where words are constantly revisited whilst new words are introduced.  Once the words are well established in your short term memory (after several “waterings”) they are ready to be “harvested” or transfered to the “garden” of your long term memory – you will get an email telling you when your “plants” are ready for this process.  Even here your “plants” will need periodic “watering”.

I had a look at a few of the Mandarin courses first and was impressed with some of the visual mnemonics especially those where the character is essentially a pictogram.  There are also some great “mems” where complex characters are broken down into their individual elements or radicals such as 青 (green) being made up of the radicals “one” + “earth” + “moon” where we can think of the whole of our natural (green) environment.  Amongst the “courses” are the Asset languages Breakthrough word list, various HSK word lists and vocabulary from individual chapters of text books such as Jinbu, the Edexcel GCSE course book and Chinese made easy. 

For learners of other languages the same principles apply.  Amongst the French  “courses” I found both the OCR and the Edexcel GCSE word lists;  AQA is probably there as well if you scroll through the courses for long enough. Amongst the German courses there is one based on AQA AS vocabulary and one on Edexcel GCSE vocabulary.  If you don’t find the exact course you are looking for you could always create one for your learners, or get them to do it – there is a dictionary for each language!

If learning 50 + languages is not enough for you there are also courses where you can acquire knowledge, such as the wild flowers or trees of Britain, or the names and faces of the members of the British cabinet or the Chinese Politburo standing committee!!

All in all it’s a great way to learn vocabulary and the emphasis on making connections and frequent revisiting helps to make it stick.

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The power of song

April 21, 2010

In the workshops I have been doing in phase 3 of the new secondary curriculum support programme for the Association for Language Learning I have included a session on using songs because they can be such powerful aids to language learning.  Indeed at a recent meeting for Links into Languages trainers we were asked to think back to our early language learning experience and to share that with those around us.  Although I can’t claim to recall my very first lesson I do remember that my first year of learning French, somewhere around the age of nine or ten (yes there WAS some primary language teaching going on in the sixties), was spent using magazines published by Mary Glasgow called “Bonjour”, a title which of course still exists to this day.  Although I can’t remember whether the accompanying tapes were reel to reel or cassette such is the power of song that to this day some forty plus years later I can still visualise the classroom in which those lessons took place and can recall the words of one of the songs we learnt:  “Un elephant qui se balançait sur une toile d’araignée…” 

So, if nothing else songs are a great aid to memory – helping through rhythm, music and repetition to fix sounds, words, phrases even whole grammatical structures in the mind.   I’m sure I’m not the only teacher to get a brief rendition of “Quelle est la date de ton anniversaire?”  from the “Kilo de chansons” collection in response to a date related question!

It’s also worth noting that whilst consideration of VAK learning preferences (all the rage some years back with the backing of the then DfES), current resources in support of the SEAL agenda on the National strategies site has a questionnaire based on Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences.  According to his theory musical intelligence is one of the nine forms of “intelligence” which individuals have in different combinations and strengths, so let’s make sure we remember and include those “music smart” pupils when we are planning learning and teaching.