Contextual markers

People often have the best mnemonic devices ever and do not even realize this. In this article, I will address just such a case.

Happy Anna

A couple of days ago, I went home and found my wife in an unusually cheerful mood. She explained a professional linguist a thing or two about remembering languages and help with a serious learning issue. The linguist tried to learn the language of Nepal while remembering in every detail the use of the language in the local society. The crazy thing in the story: the linguist thought that the imagery is not sufficiently creative.

Contextual markers

To deal with the confusion I decided to introduce a new sort of markers, contextual markers. If the piece of information is remembered in the context of a very specific situation, it is as memorable as the situation itself.
Alternatively, if a very memorable use case describes a more generic situation, this use case is a great marker for the situation itself. For example, a red double-decker British bus is a great marker for “means of transportation”.

Why do we need a new kind of markers?

The contextual markers are relatively trivial and we treated them as self-evident, not taking the time to formally introduce them. Typically, we’ve referenced creative markers when we need to generate a story or animation, and logical markers when an equation or flow-chart is needed.

While these are certainly useful markers, contextual markers are more natural and prevalent. We’ve simply neglected to explicitly mention them. In reality, it’s difficult to even visualize abstract concepts without providing some form of context.


Usually, when we need to discuss context we address disambiguation. We can use the same double-decker visualization for means of transportation, London, and double-decker itself. Then we can understand what is meant from the context or from additional details we can add to the double-decker itself, like a large poster on its side. For example, we can add a poster of the London tube for mass transit in London.
Contextual markers are very sensitive to details. This is their strengths and weakness. We should be very careful regarding the details we add.  Informative details create memorable markers.

Thematic context

When we learn foreign languages we have several layers of thematic context:
  • The relevant location, like a shop or a transportation hub.
  • The language itself. How do we distinguish a bus stop in Spain and Portugal? The languages are damn similar. We need to add specifics, like Gaudi, tomato, or bulls for Spain and chimneys, rooster, or azulejos for Portugal.
  • The historical context for outdated words, or slang disambiguation. For example, in French, there are layers of outdated verb forms and in Russian, there is a huge dictionary of criminal slang.
  • Specific details. In a given context, specific details may change the meaning of the word. Consider bars of light on a table in a prison cell.

Anecdotal evidence

As we add details, we create a more specific context and make contextual markers more powerful. The best contextual markers often exist within a story when we first learned the new word.

For example, I first learned about the “vicious circle” when one of my professors used it in a lecture, and I thought he translated it from Russian “enchanted circle”. I asked him about it, and he said that he used to say “enchanted circle” for a while, but then was corrected by one of his students.

What is a marker?

A memory marker almost by definition is an encoded colorful experience associated with a wider context of related episodes stored in the memory.
Anna loves using the word “marker”, as she focuses on various aspects of recall. For me, the important part is addressing the relevant information associatively, so I focus on details, context, and attributes.
To which extent these are connected? I will try to explain my personal approach:
  • The marker is something outstanding
  • The attribute is a part of the visualization itself
  • The detail is something we added to the visualization
  • The context is something that appears as we place a visualization into a memory structure.

We can and should use all of these characteristics. If the context is very remarkable, sufficiently memorable to remember a foreign word, the context may serve as a marker. We will recall the context and from it the word. Why not?

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