Learning is a complex process that involves more cognitive steps. In my experience I have found often that learning is not a linear process, rather iterative: that means that we need to go back to what we already know, to see if we need to upgrade our knowledge package or if something needs to be fixed and reinforced.
I guess that this cyclical process involves broadly three steps:
- Loading is when we are accumulating information on our working memory;
- Processing is when we breakdown and then restructure such information;
- Memorizing is when we manage to “save” those information in a permanent fashion.
It is not a case that some of the terminology I used is borrowed from computer science. After all, the cognitive processes are studied to implement technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, based on how the human brain works. Nonetheless, we all know how frustrating is not to be able to remember stuff we actually mean to store for some purposes.
Is it a problem of learning sources?
For most of the time, when we are studying something, like a language, we tend to focus on only one channel of information: so either you are self-educating yourself with the help of a book, or you are attending some language course, you focus on that and that only. Although, since the dawn of cassette and audio-books, then interactive CDs, then YouTube and finally specialized language apps, we have multiple items at our disposal, we usually tend to work on one of preference and disregard all the others.
I’ve seen my parents working on their German using an home course with papers and audio-cassette. Was not even the year 2000 and I was quite fascinated to see them learning, although I did not understand what they were exactly doing. My point is that at the same time I’ve known also people living in Germany for 75% of their life but unable to make up a sentence in German. That I could understand even less. A demonstration that the availability of resources is not (always) the problem…
You have an additional, extraordinary resource
Anyways, whatever we use to learn, we tend to forget our major skills as human being, and one of them is imagination. The issue with it is mostly that during the process of growing up, we are so pushed to see things as adults that we start believing a wrongful fact: that imagination is a childlike skill.
Even worse, those which actually live out of imagination and creativity are just the artist. So basically we really do not consider to use imagination during the learning process. At the end of the day, majority of learning through books can result boring if we are unable to be transported by our wandering mind through it.
Imagination: the ability to create pictures in your mind; the part of your mind that does this.Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries
One of my main goals from 2020 is to seriously learn Slovak Language. I’ve been living in Slovakia since 2016, yet I am incapable to communicate with locals if they do not speak English. Considering that I don’t want to end up like those acquaintances of mine living in Germany, I’ve considered whether I was too dumb to learn the language and I found that the answer is yes.
I have been a dumb, but because I had a major frustration into such a different language that I was not able to assess a good learning plan. So, every time I was putting myself on the way to learn, I lasted couple of weeks. Simply put, the method I used with French, very similar to Italian, was not effective for a Slavic language.
I finally realized that I needed a different use of my imagination.
Let’s talk about Dual Coding
When a concept is too hard to understand or to get it past through the loading stage it is generally because it is too abstract. Some people have more difficulties to learn mathematical formulas than others, however everybody is potentially remembering the Mona Lisa. That happens because concrete and real objects are easy to remember. The amount of information contained in one picture is exponentially high compared to the one in words: consider the colors, the forms, the size, the expressions of the face, the status of the canvas, etc. All those information are tangible, therefore the core data of all this is more likely to stick in our memory than the description of the Mona Lisa if we actually never saw it.
However, combining the visualization to the abstract information, we are going to remember more. This is because the two types of data relates to each other, and there would be no description of the picture, without the picture itself.
We can exploit such dependencies of abstract information using our inner eye. I will take a case I was working recently. Take the Slovak adjective “špinavý” (read: shpinaví). To make sure I am going to remember both the word and its meaning, I need to use something which is going to be unforgettable. You will find that often the most ridiculous image is actually the best – as indeed, everything turns out better when we don’t take ourselves too seriously!
My image for špinavý is actually Popeye in a bathtub, trying to reach is can of spinach. But he cannot manage, because he is covered in grease and dirt and weighted down by electric plugs (in Italian, my native language, this is translated as “spina elettrica”; if you want, you can imagine that the bathtub is full of spines instead. Can be gross, but surely unforgettable).
What I’ve just done is to be able to picture an unknown word with well known, vivid pictures. In this way, I am able to encode and recall that word easier in the future. Few considerations here:
- Popeye is a very well known character. I always prefer to use a cartoonish memory because it is somewhat more creative for me. You can use real people, famous ones or some you know very well too.
- The spinach can is disproportionate, big as Popeye itself. Big images stick better, but in this case, it is improbable to find a Guinness World Record spinach can.
- Note that everything is happening inside and around the bathtub. It is the place where generally we will wash away the dirt from us. Therefore, the imagery I am using is spatial. The idea of spatial memory is the engine of memory palaces, of which I am an user too.
Advantages and limits of Dual Coding
Now that I showed you how we can use imagination to encode new data in our mind, let’s see also what are the best practices to make sure it really works.
This process can be very slow at the beginning, especially if you have never used it before. An induced mindful state is ideal for beginners. I invite you to download my Self-Coach Toolbox (Starter) where you will find some exercises designed to achieve a deeper concentration. The exercises will teach you also how to focus on specific parts of your body; the mind is not exempt from that.
Alternatively, you can always use the real object or concept to recall the word. Therefore, for špinavý, you can always imagine yourself covered in mud and that should do. This was just an example of how you can be creative with your own imagery and indeed, you should make up yours in the way that fits you the best.
Think of it of a tool that is going to be more handful with constant practice. Also, it is a universal one: besides language learning, you can apply it for other disciplines too. My plan is to start using it for programming languages this year, so you can also expect me revisiting this topic over time.
And beside Dual Coding, what else?
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Dual Coding is only one of the amazing mind hacks you can use to improve your learning experience!
In this short guide downloadable in PDF format you can find more hints and tips to maximize your results, such as:
- learning planning and motive tracking
- application of video-game theory
- easy-to-use checklists