Japanese Mnemonics

Do mnemonics really work in learning Japanese kanji and vocabulary? Are they just a silly trick? Or do they have a deep cultural history and a fundamental connection to how our brains work? Dolly looks at Japanese Mnemonics and explains the Dolly Method.

Japanese mnemonics work - <BR>IF you know how to use them.
Japanese mnemonics really work – IF you know how to use them.

Mnemonics, with their funny stories and (in the case of vocabulary) often odd and irrelevant sound-matches, tend to be considered vague and messy.

But in fact mnemonics of just this type played a huge and very serious role in Western culture. I don’t know about Eastern culture, but I suspect mnemonics were used there too. They are a pretty fundamental learning technique, although there have not been (or if they have we aren’t aware of them) any ground-breaking studies like that of Dame Frances Yates (The Art of Memory) in China or Japan.

But from the earliest times, elaborate systems of mnemonics have been used to help people in various disciplines to memorize seemingly impossible amounts of information. Very few people today can match the memory-feats of the ancients, and those that can use mnemonics. The fully-elaborated art of mnemonics was lost in the West after the Renaissance (after a history going back certainly to the Pythagoreans and possibly to ancient Egypt) – mainly through Protestant influence.

So, mnemonics are not something odd and peripheral. They have a long history of being a surprisingly integral part of culture. If you want to learn more about this, you can read Dame Frances’s book, or look up the Art of Memory on the internet. For now let us think about how it might impact us as Japanese learners.

Professor Heisig, as far as I know, is the only person to have formulated a systematic Japanese mnemonic system – in his case for learning the general meanings of kanji without knowing the words or pronunciations. I have to confess that I dont’ use his method and am not much in sympathy with his approach. But I have read his books and have been influenced by the core of his method, however, I won’t be dealing with kanji mnemonics directly in this article. You can read about my organic kanji mnemonic approach here.

I will also confess that I do not use mnemonics systematically. I don’t have a systematic mind. But I do strongly believe that the use of mnemonics is very important to learning Japanese – or any language.

In Japanese, mnemonics have two main functions – learning kanji and learning vocabulary. Prof. Heisig separates the two radically in his method. We take a more piecemeal approach – and in some cases the kanji are the mnemonics – or a part of them. Cure Tadashiku talks a lot about this, but here let’s talk about mnemonics in the more usual sense.

The way I see regular mnemonics is that they are “pins” or “tacks”. They hold a word or concept in place while we are learning it. They might also be likened to those surgical sutures that don’t need to be removed because they just melt away as the wound heals. This is how mnemonics work. As the word begins to become second nature, the mnemonic fades away and one forgets it.

This is important, because one can be wary of attaching a lot of strange chaotic nonsense to a word in order to remember it. “Why fill my head with this stuff?” you may ask. Well the answer is that you are only filling your head very temporarily. It is a pin that will hold the word in place until it is welded properly. Then the pin will naturally fall away.

However the pin is important. Mnemonics are much more fundamental to the art of learning than many people give them credit for. Very often when one uses a word and knows roughly what it means but forgets the exact meaning, one can go back to the mnemonic to “check” the meaning – like looking it up in a dictionary, but much faster and easier to do on the fly!

So how do we form mnemonics? I think most of us know the basics. I am talking mostly about vocabulary (rather than kanji) mnemonics here. One needs a sound-association that will fix the meaning of the word. If it can be striking, humorous, surprising etc it will stick better because that is the way the mind works.

One thing to bear in mind is that mnemonics don’t have to be English-to-Japanese. You can use Japanese words you already know to pin other Japanese words. You can mix Japanese and English in mnemonics. Also, as one gets closer to the real etymology of Japanese words, that is the best way to remember them (etymology is, if one will, the natural mnemonic).

Let’s take an example:

独り占め hitorijime : monopoly

We can pin this with an “irrational” mnemonic. “Hitori” (one, alone) :”Jimmy” (English name). Mnemonic: “Jimmy alone runs all the shops in town – he has a monopoly“.

Note that we mixed English and Japanese in the mnemonic. Hitori is a very basic Japanese word that we know well, so we can use that. An added bonus here is that we are actually using it in its correct etymological sense. As we learn more about the kanji we find that 独り(hitori) means the same as 一人 (hitori) = one person, single, alone. As such it is directly equivalent to the mon of monopoly (Gk. monos – single, alone). Later we will also learn that 占む (jimu) means to hold, command, account for. So 独り占め is single-holding (or controlling).

As you see, the real etymology is, in this case as in many, more organic and helpful than the mnemonic. On the other hand, one can’t learn a word by learning all its ancestors. Since one doesn’t (at first) know any of them, none of them serves a mnemonic function. In the example we gave we used a mnemonic “pin” to keep the word in place in our memory, and then gathered more information over time.

Now let’s take a few more examples – picked from my recent vocabulary list:

そり sori = a sleigh or sled. My dictionary tells me it is usually written using kana alone, so I am not going to worry about its two different kanji. Let’s just picture a child careering down a busy street on a sled, continually bumping into people and saying – sorry.

記憶 kioku = memory, reflection, remembrance. Now what I did with this was remembered that 記録 kiroku is a record. If you take the R out of kiroku, you no longer have a Read or wRitten Record, you just have memory. Maybe that’s just the way my odd mind works. Note that this is just a quick and useful pin. It helps me remember the word. It also helps for “real” etymological vocabulary building over time. The ki of kioku is the same ki as kiroku 記 it means an account or record. It is the same ki as in 日記 nikki – diary – a “day-record” (the dia of diary also means “day”, as does the jour of the French equivalent journal).

遥か haruka means “far” in both English senses (as in “it is far away” and “it is far bigger”). I am not learning this kanji yet; I just wanted a sound-pin for the word. I thought of Wordsworth’s “If winter comes, can spring be far behind”. Haru, of course, is spring in Japanese. So I mix languages again to make “Haru can’t be far“. Now in this case the etymology is wrong. the haru of haruka is not haru meaning spring. But as with irrelevant English words, it serves a punning purpose as a pin.

Which leads us to the subject of…

Using “irrelevant” Japanese mnemonics

In some cases we may not use Japanese words in their proper etymological senses. We may want a striking image to associate with a Japanese syllable. One writer on the internet said that he always used the image of a Jewish person for the syllable “juu”, saying something like “you may not like it but what else can one use?”

Well if one mines Japanese and not just English, there are various things. じゅう alone can mean a handgun. This opens the door to a lot of striking images – things can be shot out of a gun, shot with a gun etcetera, in various pinning-scenarios. In these cases, the juu of the mnemonic will not be the juu of the word, so it is just a sound-pinning exercise. But these can be very useful. It also helps you to remember juu the gun, so that is useful too.

An important note relating to the Art of Memory here. One may say “I don’t need help remembering juu as gun”. But “help remembering” is an inadequate term. One of the reasons we find it hard to read/hear language at speed is that while we may know all the words, it takes microseconds more than it should to remember each one. That is why foreign languages feel to us as if they are being spoken super-fast whereas in fact, in the case of Japanese, it is usually being spoken slower than most people speak English. It feels fast because we are being bombarded with too much processing at once. There may not be a single word we don’t know, but all but the easiest ones take microseconds more than they should for us to process and the harder ones may take whole seconds. In a vocabulary-test situation, that is fine; but for real-time language use it just isn’t fast enough.

That is why it is good to keep “helping ourselves to remember” that, say, juu means gun. We may well “know” it. We may be able to retrieve it within microseconds. But until we have dealt with it thousands of times, we can’t process it as fast as a native. Using Japanese sounds as mnemonics – even when they are irrelevant to the word we are using them for – helps to further that “wearing-in” process that language requires. So, wherever you can, use already-known Japanese words to form mnemonics. That way you get two important learning processes for the price of one.

To conclude this brief look at mnemonic practice, let me say that you should use mnemonics. They are fundamentally related to how the brain works. You will be able to use them, even when you know a word, to “double-check” its meaning against your brain’s amazing reference-system. And they will naturally fall away when they are no longer needed at all. That is the way the brain works.

So why not make it work for you?