Is ‘mind mapping’ the fast track to learning?


A new language learning system promotes learning like a baby would, by graphically organising thoughts. One woman and her son Luke try it to learn Italian

Karen Sullivan and her son Luke practicing their Italian at La Gastronomia II, South London

“This time you’ll remember” reads the strap-line on the booklet accompanying my Italian language book and CDs set, and I’m intrigued. Some people have an affinity for languages, and find learning them uncomplicated. I don’t fall into that category. I speak French somewhere below adequately, but only because I grew up in Canada, where bilingual packaging and media produce a sort of osmosis effect, and because prerequisites demanded that I study French literature to acquire my degree. It was painful. So when my publisher, Collins, asked me to give its new language learning system – using “mind maps” to promote memory (see more about mind maps below) – a trial run, I was of two minds. I’m a busy writer with three children and the prospect of learning a language in a short space of time was not just daunting but verging on the impossible. Equally, however, I have had my pride stung on several occasions when visiting Italy, and I am determined to return there and hold my own; well, at least manage to buy a travel pass without attracting stares of silent contempt. Secretly imagining the amazed expressions on the faces of my not-so linguistically challenged partner and teenagers, I agreed to try to learn Italian in only eight weeks.

Week 1

The “system” arrives without the accompanying CDs, which are still in production. I therefore whiz through Unit 1 and cheerily address my partner in Italian when he returns home from work. I’ve learnt basic courtesy: saying hello and goodbye, ordering some drinks and snacks, and asking for the bill. There is a good system for this: words printed in green are those that are similar to their English equivalents; amber words have some similarities; and red words are different enough to require some memory work. I’m encouraged to learn these words by drawing an imaginary picture. For example, orange juice is un succo d’arancia. So I am to visualise Sue and her friends (Sue & Co) drinking orange juice on a ranch. So far, so good. At the end of the unit I am instructed to produce a “mind map” of the vocabulary I have learnt. Out come the felt-tips and a spot of illustration. I spend a lot of time on my map, and I can see that the process of deciding how to differentiate illustratively between a cup of coffee, a cappuccino and a cup of tea cements things in my mind.

Week 2

No CDs yet, but I’m on a roll. I’m told to install information into my long-term memory by repeating it at fixed points: an hour after I learnt it, then a day, then a week later, a month later, and six months later. With only an hour to spend, four days a week, I can see that this may well take longer than I thought. Nevertheless, I easily learn to count to ten, hire a taxi, book a hotel and get to key city landmarks. I find that I do remember most of the first unit. When I’m stuck for a word, I can imagine both its colour and where it appears on my map.

Week 3

The CDs arrive and make it clear that Italians emphasise syllables completely differently from how I’d imagined. I go back to units 1 and 2 and do the oral exercises. First time round, I’m struggling to retrieve words from my foggy memory. On my next attempt I master it instantly, and the words do seem to have nestled somewhere in my mind. I find it’s useful to pin up my mind maps on the wall of my study, I remember what I drew and why, and sometimes just a glance at them refreshes the vocabulary that I’ve learnt.

Week 4

A case of chickenpox and overseas visitors put paid to language learning. I do, however, make use of the second CD, which can be played independently of the book to familiarise myself with the sound of Italian and for revision. I don’t have an iPod, or a CD player in my car. I make use of my toddler’s CD player in the kitchen and find that I understand what I’m hearing.

Weeks 5 and 6

The bar is raised a little and I pale when I learn that I’m expected to understand whole sentences and answer in kind. Yet, to my delight, I can recognise most of the words I hear and have an inkling of how to respond. I’ve learnt how to express preferences, ask questions in a restaurant, such as “What is the dish of the day?” and to conjugate some verbs. I read a brochure in Italian about the Amalfi coast and am amazed to find that I actually understand the gist of it.

Weeks 7 and 8

I am panicking. I have four units to learn before my deadline and I’m finding it increasingly hard to keep up with the “revision” work required. I’ve never learnt a language so quickly, nor remembered words so easily since secondary school vocabulary tests. But the time pressures mean that this isn’t quite as much fun as it was to start with, and my mind maps are less detailed, and therefore less easily remembered. What’s more, I now have competition. My 14-year-old son Luke has decided to join me in the course, and he has done four units in two weeks – with spectacular mind maps and more convincing pronunciation.

The end

I have finished all of the units and I am astonished and proud to say that while I do not remember every word – making conversation somewhat stilted and full of pauses – I do feel that I have a good grasp of basic Italian and can speak comfortably on everyday subjects. Although I haven’t put my newly acquired skills to the test over a long period of time, already I find that the vocabulary I’m looking for seems to pop into my head rather than deliberately absenting itself, as it has in the past. I can exchange pleasantries, discuss the weather, tell the time, book seats and hotel rooms, and make some sense of an Italian newspaper. I test my skills at our local Italian restaurant and manage the entire lunch without speaking a word of English. In a bored sort of way, they look rather impressed (or so I think).

Collins Language Revolution (Beginners French, Italian or Spanish) is published by Collins on Monday, £19.99. A book and two CDs is available from Times BooksFirst for £17.99, p&p free: 0870 1608080 or visit For more information visit

‘This is a great, fun way to learn’

Karen Sullivan’s son Luke, 14, is a Year 9 student, and he studies French and Latin “I like languages, and I learn two of them at school, but traditional ways of teaching can sometimes be boring so I decided to join my mum doing the course in Italian. “I thought that the course was a great, fun way to learn, and it was relatively easy. Making the ‘mind maps’, and the help with the green, orange and red words, helped to make it easier. “The CD really helped to pick up new words and to make it easier to recognise the sounds. One area in which they could improve, though, is to put the answers to the exercises in the back of the book, which is quicker and easier than checking on the website. “I think the course would have been a better way for me to learn French and Latin, so I hope that they introduce this method to schools. What makes this different is the interactive side; there is more to do and more of an opportunity to use creativity. You use visual, audio and physical skills, for example, sticking Postits with the name of a piece of clothing on all your clothes, and the colourful mind maps are challenging and fun. “I’ll definitely go for a GCSE in Italian now. And I’ll definitely use mind maps in future for learning any other languages I decide to study.”

Mind mapping: how it works Tony Buzan’s Language Revolution is about learning a language the way a baby would, by absorption and association. SIMON CROMPTON investigates

Tony Buzan, a 65-year-old pop psychologist whose name is invariably associated with the words “mind guru”, has “revolutionised the way people think and remember, in the workplace, classroom and at home,” according to his publicity. At the heart of all his works is Mind Maps, a way of graphically organising and developing thoughts. Mind Maps helps you to remember by linking words and images in an intuitive way. For example, in his Language Revolution course Buzan enourages learners to draw a mind map of words they can remember associated with a trip to the bar. They are represented not as a list, but as one suggests the other, with colours and pictures as prompts. Buzan says this reflects the organic and free-flowing way the brain works naturally, meaning we remember better by association. Lists have no associations, so are much harder work. He developed the idea of “mind maps” as a “super pneumonic tool” for note-taking when he was a student in the 1960s and went on to use them to help children with learning difficulties when he was a special teacher in Inner London in the 1970s. Since then he has written 95 books, hosted television programmes and taught his principles to everyone from government departments to the British Olympic rowing team.

Baby connections

Remembering by association, as a child does, permeates Buzan’s learning technique. “Babies are the best language learners in the world, but they don’t learn grammar,” Buzan tells me. “The first word they learn is ‘Mama’, and then radiating off that universal word comes ‘love’ and ‘food’, and then words with more detailed meaning such as ‘transport’, ‘learn’ and ‘clean’. Then there’s ‘Daddy’, and a child will build on that word with ‘Daddy work’ and ’Daddy go work’ and ’Daddy go car’. And that’s a mind map in a baby’s head.”

Seeing the green light

He says one of the “epiphanies” that shaped Language Revolution was the realisation that about 40 per cent of the words in European languages are the same in English. This led to the simple “traffic light” system in his Language Revolution books, of associating words that are the same in English with the colour green, ones that are similar with amber, and ones that are different with red. The colour association makes it easier to remember which rule applies to which word. Buzan claims that his techniques reflect the workings of the brain, but the science is vague. In the past he has explained it in terms of engaging the parts of the brain that make us creative in memory tasks, as well as the systematic parts that traditionally dominate. But he prefers to talk to me about natural learning styles. And what he says certainly tunes in with what child development experts know about the importance of learning by association. Using his own technique, Buzan says he learnt conversational Spanish in 40 hours. His lack of linguistic expertise is what makes his approach so different. It revolves around his skills as a psychologist and as a communicator. There is nothing miraculous or complex about his techniques; his great knack is to take things that we suspect are true from personal experience and incorporate them into learning regimens. In Language Revolution this is combined with the principle of having fun, in particular enjoying the benefits of making mistakes when practising your language. Making mistakes is a great way to memorise and to meet people, he says.

Source: Times Online