Can you master a language in a weekend?

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

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 ended up in hospital for three months aged 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," Cooke says.

After his own memory successes, Cooke helped to train the forgetful 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 a free game that it calls a "revolution in online learning". He says the difference between Memrise and the multitude of other memory games available is that "it works".

Cooke challenged me to use Memrise to learn 100 characters of Mandarin Chinese – a language I knew nothing of – over one 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 just as good as his is. "On the Memrise leaderboards I perform in the same way as everybody else."

Memory training was first described in Rhetorica ad Herennium, a Latin textbook written between 86BC and 82BC. 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 (who has a PhD in neuroscience), claim that Memrise enables tens of thousands of users to learn a wide range of subjects, from types of cheese to members of the Cabinet, 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 the photographic memory. "Photographic memory is a myth," Cooke counters. "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 the boundaries of 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," he says.

"We've learnt that with learning, the most important thing is that people enjoy it so that they carry on doing it," Cooke says. "More than 60 per cent of our users use Memrise for the sheer pleasure of it."

As I "grow" my "seeds" over the weekend, I am surprised at how easily I 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 weeks, and fortunes, on language classes.

For centuries, memory training was not a game, but a necessary and valuable skill. Now, that memory 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.

memrise.com

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Extras
indybest
Travel
Flocking round: Beyoncé, Madame Tussauds' latest waxwork, looking fierce in the park
travelIn a digital age when we have more access than ever to the stars, why are waxworks still pulling in crowds?
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Sport
Is this how Mario Balotelli will cruise into Liverpool?
football
News
Ronahi Serhat, a PKK fighter, in the Qandil Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Poet’s corner: Philip Larkin at the venetian window of his home in 1958
booksOr caring, playful man who lived for others? A new book has the answer
Arts and Entertainment
Exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Metz - 23 May 2012
art
News
Matthew McConaughey and his son Levi at the game between the Boston Red Sox and the Houston Astros at Fenway Park on August 17, 2014 in Boston, Massachusetts.
advertisingOscar-winner’s Lincoln deal is latest in a lucrative ad production line
Life and Style
Pick of the bunch: Sudi Pigott puts together roasted tomatoes with peppers, aubergines and Labneh cheese for a tomato-inspired vegetarian main dish
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'
film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40,000: SThree: SThree Group have been well e...

EYFS Teacher

£120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Randstad Education require an ex...

Year 3 Teacher

£120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Year 3 primary supply teacher ne...

SEN Teacher

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Bristol: Supply special educational ne...

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape