The Roman Room: Can we furnish our rooms with words?

Updated: Jun 23, 2021

This blog post is for English students at the Intermediate (B1) Level and up.

What do you remember about your childhood bedroom? A lot, I’d imagine: the position of your bed, the posters on the walls, the view from your window, the layout of the inside of the wardrobe, the monster under your bed. If you close your eyes, it’s likely that you can picture the room and even walk around it in your memory. The memories we hold of the places we know can be powerful and full of detail. For centuries these memories have been used to help remember other things, things like words from a language.

The human memory, as we all know, is often unreliable and difficult to manage, mysterious even. We often seem to remember things we don’t need to remember more easily than ones we do. But what we are talking about here are mnemonics, strategies to help us remember. The mnemonic we are referring to above, is called, among other names, the Roman Room. Apparently this method was used in ancient Rome to memorise long speeches. For those of you who are fans of the television show Sherlock, this method could also be called a Mind Palace.

Sherlock entering his Mind Palace.

The idea of the Roman Room is that we place things that we want to remember in rooms that we know well and visualize them there. Here’s one approach to trying this: take a list of words from your target language (in this case Danish), draw a simple outline of the room – it must be a room that you can picture well – and then mark a location on the drawing for each of the words. Simple, right?

I’m afraid not, unfortunately, that’s only the start of the process. Remember, the deeper our cognitive engagement with the association between place and word, the more likely we are to be able to recall what we want to remember. It helps to be creative and draw unusual and memorable connections.

Let’s take the Danish words:

· lærer – teacher

· bestil – book

· blyant – pencil

· sprog – language

Lærer is pronounced /ˈleɪə(r)/ like ‘layer’, so I place a teacher I know on the floor in the room, I lay them on the floor, in the position I have chosen, and imagine stepping over them as I walk into the room. For bestil I can break it into best and till and imagine an elaborate old cash register, or till, sitting on a table in my room, with my favourite book sitting on top. Blyant sounds like blue ant, so in my room, beside the bestil, I can put a large blue ant that’s holding a pencil. Again, using similarity to an English word, this time with a combination of visual and aural associations, I can take the ending of the Danish word for language, sprog, which is pronounced /spr- əʊ/ as in bow, something you tie in a ribbon, and associate it with the pronunciation of the English ending /-rog/, as in frog, and imagine a frog with its tongue – its language- sticking out wearing a large bow around its head and, if I want, place it sitting on top of the lærer, it is a language teacher after all. Remember the associations only need to make sense to you, in fact it is much more effective when they are your inventions; it is in the creative process that strengthens the ties between words and their associations.

This Roman Room method may seem like a lot of work, and initially it is, but these associations will pay off and enhance your memory skills. As with most things, the more you do it, the easier it becomes. What have you got to lose? Try it out. Go furnish a room with words!

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