Learning an Aboriginal Language: A Quick & Dirty Guide to Learning Vocabulary

This post explains the method by which I’ve exponentially increased my Arrernte vocabulary in a matter of weeks rather than months or years.

The method I’m about to describe allowed me to go from understanding only half of what I was hearing, to knowing 70% of what was being said in very short time.

As part of my long term strategy to create real resources for Aboriginal language learners, I’ve also included some PDF files which may serve as models for other language learners.

As you might have gleaned from my first post, Arrernte is very different from English and other European languages. If you were to apply the method I’ve used to learning ‘world languages’ i.e. German, French, Spanish, you’d experience the same, if not even better, results due to many words having some similarity between European languages.

The Magnetic Memory Method

Whilst looking for other courses, I stumbled across an online course on the website, Udemy, called ‘How to Learn and Memorize the Vocabulary of Any Language’. The course shows you how to use the Magnetic Memory Method system, which is based on the ‘Method of Loci’. There’s a quote on the Wikipedia page which explains this technique eloquently:

“’The method of loci’, an imaginal technique known to the ancient Greeks and Romans and described by Yates (1966) in her book The Art of Memory as well as by Luria (1969). In this technique the subject memorizes the layout of some building, or the arrangement of shops on a street, or any geographical entity which is composed of a number of discrete loci. When desiring to remember a set of items the subject literally ‘walks’ through these loci and commits an item to each one by forming an image between the item and any distinguishing feature of that locus. Retrieval of items is achieved by ‘walking’ through the loci, allowing the latter to activate the desired items. The efficacy of this technique has been well established (Ross and Lawrence 1968, Crovitz 1969, 1971, Briggs, Hawkins and Crovitz 1970, Lea 1975), as is the minimal interference seen with its use.”

 This technique has been expanded and enriched by Canadian academic, Anthony Metivier, who used it to improve his German vocabulary.

Anthony has gone on to create the course on Udemy I’ve linked to above, as well as a number of books on specific languages. He has branded his version of the system the ‘Magnetic Memory Method’.

As I was taking the course, I also read his How to Learn and Memorize German Vocabulary
book. Reading and thinking about the method actually helped me more than the online course, which I used for revision. Others may find watching the lectures helps them more than reading.

I should state here that this technique is not for lazy people or those who want a ‘quick fix’.

The Magnetic Memory Method system involves creating complex mental imagery and undertaking a series of higher-level cognitive processes to get the words and meanings to ‘stick’ in your head, which is in fact why you’re able to recall the words and their meanings as you walk through your mental journey.

The system can be summarised in these steps:

  • Identify a place that starts with a letter of the alphabet in the language you’re learning (places like shopping centres, streets and highways worked best for me) – this is the ‘palace’
  • Identify 10 (or however many) words starting with this letter that you wish to remember
  • Within your palace identify 10 ‘stations’ or locations along the way – take great care NOT to get into a dead end, though. Backing yourself into a dead end means that you won’t be able to add additional words/locations to your palace, and you’ll need to come up with another location to add more vocabulary
  • Create mnemonic images (the more outrageous the better) to help you recall your words. For example, to remember the word for Victoria Wattle in Arrernte –arlepe (pronounced ‘a leper’) I imagined lots of lepers running naked through this prickly wattle! For the word ‘arrakerte’ (which is ‘mouth’ in Arrernte, pronounced ‘aRR-ar-kurt-uh’), I imagined a big mouth holding a tennis racket.
  • Place one image at each location within the palace
  • Then take the trip from beginning to end through your imaginary palace, visiting each of the stations
  • Rinse and repeat for each letter of the alphabet in your target language.

There is a fair bit of work involved at the outset of this method: you need to identify a place for each letter, create stations and images; however, I found that once I’d done this several times, I could memorise a list of 10 items in about 10-15 minutes.

If you’d like to learn more about this system, I recommend that you start with Anthony Metivier’s website: http://www.magneticmemorymethod.com/

Applying the Method to Arrernte

I was able to grasp the nuts and bolts of the method quickly though watching the lectures and reading the book.

However, when I sat down to create stations for the Arrernte alphabet, I was immediately confronted with a problem: about two-thirds of the words in Arrernte start with the letter ‘A’.

This might not seem like much of a problem until you think about the implication for creating memory palaces: I would need an absolutely GINORMOUS palace for the letter ‘A’!

My immediate fix for this problem was to then use the second letter (or letters) of the Arrernte alphabet and simply create more palaces.

I ended up having something like 39 palaces, 25 of which were ‘A’. After writing to Anthony Metivier and then thinking this over, I looked at how Arrernte alphabet was organised.

The sounds of the Arrernte alphabet:

a, e, h, i, k ,kng, l, lh, m, n, ng, nh, ny, p, pm, r, rl, rn, rr, rt, rtn, t, th ,thn, tn, tny, ty, u, w, y = 31 potential palaces!

A look at the main Arrernte Dictionary didn’t really help, as two thirds of its content are in the letter ‘A’.

However, the Eastern and Central Arrernte Picture Dictionary was organised in a much more ‘memory palace’ adaptable way, and I was able to instantly adapt it, solving both the problem of the letter ‘A’ and the 31 sounds:

Ah, Ak, Al, Am, An, Ap, Ar, At, Aw, Ay, I, K, L, M, N, P, R, T, U, V, W, Y = 22 memory palaces.

Whilst Metivier recommends that you use a place starting with the same letter as the words within the palace, I had to be a little more flexible when it came to all the A’s in the Arrernte language.

For example, I used ‘Alice Hills’ for Ah (a journey along the ranges and gaps of Alice Springs), Alice Mall (Todd Mall) for ‘Am’, Alice River (the bike path alongside the Todd River), etc for to deal with the large amount of ‘A’s’.

To assist you to in learning how to do this, you can download the PDF file or the editable Word doc I created for Arrernte:

Arrernte Memory Palace Master Sheet.pdf

Arrernte Memory Palace Master Sheet.docx.

The actual creation of stations within each palace I found pretty easy. There were times when I adjusted the station, because when I tried to remember the journey before adding the words, I found that some places wouldn’t stick.

Generally, however, I found stations easy to create. I have to say that I much preferred trips along roads and streets than trips though houses I’d lived in or shopping malls.

Perhaps the most difficult part of the method for me, and the one which takes the longest, is the creation of mnemonic images.

When you’re learning a European language like German or even Indonesian, it’s fairly easy to find words that correspond to English words, (even if they have a different meaning) and sounds that are like words in English.

However in Arrernte, apart from the ever-increasing array of English loan words, there are words that sound NOTHING like any English word at all and you really have to stretch your imagination.

For example, the word ‘utnenge’ (oot-NUNG-uh) means ‘a person’s spirit’ in Arrernte. When I came to create an image for this word, I really, really had to stretch the sounds and meaning. In the end, I came up with a ghost wearing a plaster cast and the sound ‘foot numb’ to recall the Arrernte pronunciation.

Yeah, silly image, I know, but it works for me!

I will forever recall an archetypal ghost with a plaster cast on its foot when I drive across the Hugh River crossing just before the Old Owen Springs Homestead! (The Arrernte name for the range which runs through Owen Springs Reserve is ‘Urenhe’ –thus it’s the U memory palace).

So that you can see exactly how this works, I’ve attached the Urenhe/U memory palace spreadsheet .xls file.


From time to time, however, I have struggled with finding a mnemonic and this part of implementing the system has taken me much longer than I imagined it would.

The Results and Some Reflections

You can probably guess that I’ve been very happy with using this method to increase my vocab. In only ten days, I was able to add 200 new words – which is a phenomenal result!

Have I been able to recall them?

By and large, yes, I have.

You do have to take the journeys through your palace a few times, and to help me remember, I also learn the journey, then go do something else, and come back and test myself by writing down the Arrernte words and their meanings.

Once you’ve sorted the mnemonics, it’s really only a few minutes a day to walk through your memory palaces to keep them fresh. You can schedule this maintenance for each letter on one day of the month (1st = A, 2nd =B, 3rd= C).

When I haven’t remembered images/words, it’s usually because the image isn’t distinctive enough. Metivier recommends making the images as graphic (yes, in every sense of the term) as you can.

I’ve never forgotten a location, however.

When I’ve decided to add new words, I’ve simply added more stations on the end. So far, I haven’t ran out of stations, however, it is quite logical that you would run out of stations, so you would need to create a second memory palace for that letter.

My success with this method probably comes from following Metivier’s instructions exactly and using his sample docs/spreadsheets to organize myself.

However, if you’re impatient or you’re not prepared to do the preparation, then I wouldn’t recommend this method of vocab memorization.

Again, this is a long post, but one I hope you’ve found it interesting and useful. If you’ve got any experience using this method, or you’ve got your own methods for vocabulary memorization, please share in the comments below.

The next post will be about my aims and strategies for Arrernte over the next few months using language hacking and uncommon language acquisition methods.


12 thoughts on “Learning an Aboriginal Language: A Quick & Dirty Guide to Learning Vocabulary

  1. These are great results and I’m very enthused to hear about them! It’s especially fantastic that you’ve included some documents in this post because I think that will really help people a lot who want to work with the Magnetic Memory Method. If I could have your permission to use them in a video at some point, that would be fantastic.

    You make a very important point about never forgetting the locations along your journey, and this raises an issue something that I think people who struggle with Memory Palace journeys as I teach them in my books and video courses miss. We want to choose mental journeys based on real locations that are so natural and easy to use that we don’t have to think about them. The next station is simply the next place we would really go if we were to be in that location. Many people tend to make things difficult for themselves by not following this principle of the “natural journey.” The other two principles that are important are not crossing your own path and not trapping yourself in dead ends. By putting all of these “fail safe” measures into place while creating our journeys, we then eliminate the need to think about what station comes next and can simply proceed to it without expending any unnecessary energy.

    These procedures and the energy they save are especially helpful during what I call “vocabulary rehearsal.” One point that I don’t think I’ve ever made entirely clear (but am always trying) is that – although I speak against rote learning – I don’t speak against repetition. We do need to repeat what we’ve memorized in order to reinforce and retain the material, at least for a certain amount of time. What the Magnetic Memory Method suggests, however, is that you replace the index cards with your own mind and “write” associative images that trigger the sound and meaning of the words on the stations so that when you move from station to station (the internal, and superior equivalent to flipping index cards), you are using your mind nearly 100% and not relying on anything else. The only other thing I would have apart from my mind is a piece of paper and a pencil when going through my Memory Palaces so that I can decode the associative imagery and jot down the lists of words I’ve memorized. Later, I can check these against the written record in the Excel file and identify any troubleshooting or repairs that might be required. This procedure is anything but rote learning, though it does bear an intentional relationship to dedicated repetition, not unlike the practice a musician would make when learning to perform a piece of music without the sheet music to refer to.

    Thank you again for the great post and for exploring the Magnetic Memory Method!


    Anthony Metivier

  2. Nice post. I learned the Magnetic Memory Method to help my ESL students remember vocabulary. I agree with you that it’s not for lazy people, but it is a game-changing system.

    200 words in 10 days is fantastic. The 250 most frequently used words in English make up 60% of most English texts.

    Try incorporating the location in your mnemonic. It really helps me remember.

  3. yeah it’s a good method for starting to learn, but what about the pronunciation of the language & in the long run we have to deal sooner or later with the spoken language.
    So for me yeah it’s a very good method but with mixing with listening and reading real material used by native, and putting the words that you don’t know in your magnetic palace :))), why not starting whith children audio books …

    • Hi Pasa,

      When you are learning an Australian Aboriginal language, you are mostly on your own with native speakers. I work for the Aboriginal intepreter service here in Alice Springs, and am surrounded by native speakers everyday. Please read my other posts – you are reading only one post in a series – this is the middle post in the series thus far. In particular, I recommend that you read the next article in the series: http://wp.me/piYvu-fP In my own learning journey with Arrernte, which began over a decade ago, the very first thing I did was to learn the pronunciation of the language.

      Also note that there are NO ‘audiobooks, podcasts or even TV programs in most Australian Aboriginal languages, and there are very, very, very few children’s books. You are basically left with a handful of beginner’s guides, dictionaries and linguists’ published research. This is why I am creating my own resources and being creative with those that do exist. I wish dearly that there were daily newscasts, podcasts and audiobooks – hell, even kids’ books would be great!- but with a language group whose speakers number around 3000, that just isn’t going to happen in the current Australian socio-political climate.

      Thanks for commenting.

      • Hi Amanda, I used to listen to a native radio station in New Zealand via on-line, and although, I had no idea what they were saying it was pretty cool and I learned a lot.

    • In terms of the pronunciation, one certainly has to practice this and build a bit of muscle memory in the mouth. But when it comes to the mnemonic/memory technique part of the Magnetic Memory Method, the images you create should be designed with triggering both the sound and the meaning of the word. For example, “zerbrechlich” in German (breakable) could have the image of an anthropomorphized number Zero whipping the playwright Brecht with licorice as Brecht carries a highly breakable vase. Thus, Zer(o) + Brech(t) = (Licor(ice) brings back the sound of “zerbrechlich” and the meaning at the same time.

      With enough associative imagery like this cataloged in the mind in a relatively organized manner, then listening to audio books becomes much, much more powerful.

      Amanda: does your project involve collecting oral narratives on audio in any form? Although the numbers we’re talking about are small with this language, these could prove to be very valuable resources and could be used in the manner pasa suggests above in combination with a dedicated Memory Palace strategy such as the Magnetic Memory Method.

      • Hi Anthony,

        As I work with the Aboriginal Interpreter Service, I’m surrounded by fluent, native speakers everyday – I am able to practice and listen with Arrernte people, which is really, where I have gained the ability I have to speak the language, although I can actually read it much better. In the article which I wrote after this one, http://wp.me/piYvu-fP, I detail the audio sources publicly available which I use to listen. I also have my own library -audio of various subjects, particularly related to court proceedings, sacred sites, dreaming stories and vocabulary associated with meetings about the protection of cultural heritage from mining exploration /mining activities, as well as subjects which interest anthropologists – i.e. kinship and relationships to ‘country’.

        However, the big point which Pasa seems to be missing is that in learning a language like Arrernte, you just don’t have access to the ‘learn-alone’ resources which exist for ‘world’ languages. You MUST spend time talking to Arrernte people and using the language. It is my hope that Pasa will read the other posts in this series and see that the Magnetic Memory System is just one tool I’ve found useful – albeit- an amazingly successful tool for myself.

        • I think the work you are doing is brilliant and the different resources you have brought together clearly make all the differences.

          To what extent do you think that blogging about the experience has helped with language acquisition in general? I sometime recommend that people journal their experiences so that they can have an external track record that clearly displays their attempts and their progress so they can get a better idea of what is actually working and focus more on those elements.

          There is the concept, for example, of the gold coin, the silver coin and the brass coin. All of them are equally important in the sense that they can all be spent, but there’s more to spend overall when you focus on activities that get you gold coins.

          It’s not a perfect metaphor, but when you focus more on the gold coin activities (which are different from person to person and can only be fully realized through dedicated self-analysis), then when it comes time to spend, you’ll have dollars instead of pennies to trade.

  4. Pingback: Memorize German Vocabulary - Learn and Memorize German Words and Their Meanings Using a Memory Palace

  5. Hi Amanda,

    I realise that these posts are all about 3 plus years ago, but the information is proving valuable to me, someone just beginning to learn a second language for the first time. French.

    Now years plus years later, your legacy is helping me, For me, I can see enormous benefit both to learning a language and in other areas. I intend to learn all my credit card details on all my cards. This may not seem beneficial of some, but I do a lot of online purchasing. To be able to rattle those numbers off will be a savings.

    I have already created 3 Memory palaces as a result of all this. I have a palace of 17 stations with the names of ten people inside. This makes room to add more people 🙂 I have taken a French frequency dictionary and put in the first 20 most used words.

    Your explanation of being very graphic was helpful Amanda, but I will stick to wild but PG images LOL

    Thank you, Amanda. I am sure you have well and truly moved on but the effort you have made in documenting your efforts is both beyond encouraging and very helpful, even three years later, again thank you.

    I wonder if this is something you continued doing, or you have since put all of this aside?

  6. Great article! Thank you for posting this! I just started the Udemy course and your work has really helped in understanding what to expect. I am very excited!

  7. Pingback: The Great Spaced-Repetition Software Hoax

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