Can you learn a foreign alphabet in a weekend?

Ed Cooke reckons he can use his techniques as a memory expert to help novices to learn even the hardest tongues. He challenges Enjoli Liston to learn 100 Mandarin characters in two days
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The Independent Online

Someone undertaking a PhD in memory studies once told me there is a reason I have trouble remembering simple things such as phone numbers, birthdays and that eternal enigma: where I put my keys. Aptly, I've forgotten the reason and who told me too.

One third of British people under the age of 50 cannot remember their own phone number, according to a study conducted by the Institute of Neuroscience at Trinity College Dublin in 2007. Many of these would claim they have a "bad memory", but Ed Cooke – a grand master of memory who can learn a 1,000-digit number in an hour – says that's not true.

Cooke insists the key to remembering is learning to think in more memorable ways. He began teaching himself memory feats when he was in hospital for three months at the age of 18. "I realised that if I had the time to spend eight hours a day practising, which I did, then I could get quite good. Plus it impressed the nurses."

After his own memory successes, Cooke helped to train the author Joshua Foer to take part in the World Memory Championships, which Foer chronicles in his 2011 bestseller Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything.

Now Cooke has co-founded Memrise, a website that uses memory-training techniques and crowdsourcing to create what he calls a "revolution in online learning".

Cooke challenged me to use Memrise to learn 100 characters of Mandarin Chinese over a weekend. I accepted, secretly sure that I would fail. "One of the most pleasing things about Memrise is that it's democratising," Cooke says, trying to convince me that my memory is as good as his is.

Memory training was first des- cribed in Rhetorica ad Herennium, a Latin textbook written around 86BC. It calls a memory an "image", and the space it occupies in the mind a "place". Building on this theory, Cooke and his business partner, Greg Detre, claim that Memrise enables tens of thousands of users to learn a wide range of subjects as quickly, enjoyably and effortlessly as possible.

I begin my challenge by "planting seeds" of Mandarin vocabulary in my "memory garden". The first word is the Mandarin symbol for "mouth", which appears as a graphic (Memrise calls it a "mem") and turns into a moving image of a yawning, rectangular mouth. Mems can be cartoons, photographs, etymological explanations, jokes – anything that creates an image in the user's mind. This helps them to know what they need to remember and how to find it when it is stored in its "place".

The memory tools are created by other Memrise users, allowing members to scroll through mems to find which ones click best with them. "The idea behind the crowdsourcing element is that everyone remembers things in different ways," Cooke says. "A user can flick through 10 different [mems] and either say, 'Aha, that makes sense to me,' or, 'None of these make sense – I'll make my own.'"

Cooke says it is this visual, imaginative, engaging way of learning which makes the symbol easier to "install" into my memory. I ask Cooke whether it engages that elusive skill, photographic memory. "Photographic memory is a myth," Cooke says. "Vivid imagery helps install memories in people's minds, but it's more imaginative than it is photographic," he says. The sounds of the words can be remembered using a similar learning curve, but I concentrate on reading first.

In his book, Foer describes stretching his memory by learning from his failed attempts to remember. Memrise uses a similar method, collecting data from its users to assess the time when their memories are beginning to fade, and prompting them to revisit their memory garden to help their "seeds" to continue growing.

"All memories fade but the rate at which they fade depends on the history of that memory," Cooke says. "Every time you repeat a memory, it will subsequently fade less quickly. If you've just started learning something, you'll forget it in half an hour. But if you're reminded of that memory half an hour afterwards, it'll stay in your mind for 12 hours. Algorithms calculate the words that users are about to forget so we can prompt them to zip online for five minutes and remind themselves. It's designed to do all the hard work for you."

Although Foer pushed himself to extremes to improve his memory, Cooke says this isn't necessary for Memrise users. "Learning little and often is best. The most important thing is that people enjoy it so that they carry on doing it," he says.

As I "grow" my "seeds" over the weekend, I am surprised at how easily I can recall them. The game is addictive and fun, but the crucial question for me is: will it help me to remember where I put my keys? According to Cooke, the short answer is no.

"No one forgets where they've put their keys because they've got a bad memory," Cooke says. "When you put your keys somewhere, it's not a big moment in your day – you're not going to ring your friends and say, 'Guess what? I just put my keys down on the table'. You forget because you're not really paying attention."

I manage only 82 characters by the end of the weekend, but that's still double what I had expected my memory to cope with. I am consoled by the fact that, as Cooke says, I enjoyed learning enough to carry on, and have now resolved to learn 250 characters in a week. That means I will be able to read a menu in Mandarin without having spent a fortune on language classes.

For centuries, memory training was not a game, but a necessary and valuable skill. Now, that skill is fading. In the study from 2007, 87 per cent of respondents over the age of 50 could recall a relative's birthday, but less than 40 per cent of people under 30 could do the same.

"I have a theory that it's in the interest of tech giants to make us as empty-headed as possible," Cooke says. "They want us saying: 'Oh, how do I get back to my house?', so they can sell us something to help."

But with the internet at our fingertips and a wealth of gadgets to remind us, what's the point in training our memories? "I think most people would agree that it's cool to have a rich imagination and to just know stuff," Cooke says. I think that's worth remembering.