Multiple encoding in language acquisition (or why I can spell better in Spanish after a few weeks than I can in English after many decades of practice)

Posted: April 26, 2013 in Language, Learning, Mental Reboot
Tags: , , , , ,

Anyone who knows me is quite aware that I’m an atrocious speller.  The advent of the spell checker is nothing short of a miracle as far as I’m concerned.  And I’ve been writing in English in excess of four decades.  And I write quite a bit.  And I read even more.  Well, I finally figure out why this is so.  Okay, so call me slow (you won’t be the first).  The relationship between how a word is spelled and how it sounds is only marginally related at the best of times.  And it requires an expert in descriptive linguistics to even put forth a plausible theory about why we spell things in a particular way in some of the more extreme cases.

This doesn’t appear to be the case in Spanish.  I’m only six weeks into an introductory course on Spanish at this point so I’m sure as I dig deeper things will get more complicated.  But at least for now things are almost completely rational.  Hallelujah!  I may just switch permanently (sorry, non-Spanish speaking friends and family – we’ll figure out some way to communicate).  Had I known this at 13 maybe I would have taken Spanish rather than French in high school and kept it up.  Then I’d be writing this blog in Spanish (or living in Spain).

So what does this have to do with Multiple encoding?  First, multiple encoding is a term that I learned in this lecture series about memory but haven’t found a great reference for on the interwebs.   I like the term though, so I’ll use it.  Briefly, think about the different methods you use to etch information into your memory (which is generally described as coding or encoding) – these are things like repeating something verbally over and over again, trying to visualize something, embedding the information in a broader context or solving a problem related to the information so that it can be retrieved.  If you use more than one of these methods, this is what one would call multiple encoding.  Almost every memory trick or technique I’ve seen can broadly be described as multiple encoding although some rely most heavily on one method of encoding with minor support from others.

Professor Joordens uses the example of the “ROY G. BIV” acronym for remembering the colors of the rainbow — each color is associated with a letter, and the letters are encoded as a name.  Coming up with your own acronym would then add elaborative encoding to the system and make it even more effective.

And that brings me back to spelling in Spanish.  It seems like as I actually internalize the pronunciation (see, needed the spell checker for that word) rules for Spanish, I find that I can work at memorizing vocabulary from two directions, the spelling and the sound.   At least for me this has significantly improved my rate of vocabulary acquisition (this time auto correct took care of it).  And I think this counts as a form of multiple encoding as describe above.  The flip side of this is that it is probably part of the reason that I was making very little progress by doing a predominantly audio series, even one that was recommended and apparently pretty well designed.

The other aspect of multiple encoding that I’m finding to be pretty compelling is use of the link words system.  This is the idea that for each word in Spanish you find an English word or phrase that sounds like the Spanish word and then you build an image that relates the sounds like word and the definition word together.   As an example – The Spanish for RICE is ARROZ (pronounced ARROS), so imagine ARROWS landing in your plate of RICE.  As a supplement to other study, combined with the rational system that Spanish uses to spell that gives at least three, possibly four different memory systems a chance to grab onto new vocabulary and reinforce each other.  Much improved over just hearing the word, I think.  Of course once the word gets really embedded all of the learning techniques will drop away and I’ll just be able to retrieve the word, but that’s a bit in my future, at least for a broad vocabulary.

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