The Linkword Story

Hello, I am Michael Gruneberg, the author of the LinkWord language courses. I thought you might be interested in how the courses came about and the thinking that went into their construction.

Michael Gruneberg
Michael Gruneberg - the author of Linkword Languages

First, I am not a linguist but an academic psychologist specialising in memory research. After publishing studies on theoretical aspects of memory and a number of books on memory, I was acutely aware that all our understanding of the way memory worked did not lead too much in the way of helping the man or woman in the street with their memory problems, so in 1978, with two colleagues, I convened the first international conference on practical aspects of memory. Over 100 people came to the conference and the proceedings were published by academic press. It is regarded by leading memory researchers as having launched the everyday memory movement. It also meant that I became aware of research on methods of vastly increasing memory for learning foreign languages. It is called the KEYWORD method. One study by Raugh and Atkinson found that Russian vocabulary learned by the keyword method was THREE times more likely to be recalled than learning by normal methods.

Based on such findings I did some of my own research and soon found that learners could remember up to 200 Spanish words over a weekend. But there was a problem – some of the people we studied reported that towards the end it was getting boring just to remember words. They wanted to use sentences to speak to people. That was what led me to construct courses that taught grammar as well as vocabulary, so that very quickly learners could use the vocabulary taught to communicate and understand sentences.

So I looked up a few standard texts and 2 things stood out in all of them. First, there was no real help for the reader in how to remember the vocabulary and secondly, the grammar had far too little redundancy. In other words, for too much grammar was taught at one time without any real attempt to consolidate the learning. So I decided on a completely different approach.

First, I constructed a 350-400 word vocabulary where I tested out the keyword (LinkWord) images on large numbers of students, discarding any that didn’t work well and replacing them with images that did work. In the beginning, I thought any old image would do, but that was not the case. In fact, in the last study I conducted, it was found that poor images lead to WORSE recall than rote learning. For me, it was trial and error to begin with as to what made a good image. But what was also really important was to provide the learner with good images rather than get the learner to make up his/her own. This may sound counterintuitive, but there are three reasons for this. First, it takes time to make up images that could be used to learn more vocabulary. Secondly, many people are not all that good at making up imagery. Thirdly, it is essential that after a maximum of 10 words, these words are systematically tested in an optimal way. Studies have shown that if this is not done then using images gives less long-term retention than rote learning. However, if vocabulary is tested immediately after a set of words is learned, keyword (LinkWord) learning gives vastly better short and long-term retention.

In many ways, much more challenging in constructing LinkWord courses was how to deal with grammar. The very first course I constructed was a German course as I had taken German at school. What I wanted to do was to make grammar much easier to understand by giving it in small doses. I also wanted to present it in such a way that learners could rapidly use it to translate sentences. So the first thing I wanted to do was as quickly as possible get learners to gain a vocabulary of about 30 words including nouns and adjectives and to be able to translate simple sentences at the end of 20 or so minutes. The general advice is that learners gain a vocabulary normally at the rate of 5-6 words an hour.

So what I did was explain how to use the word “is” as the first grammar point. This meant they could translate simple sentences really quickly.

I then used the same approach to supply the learner with 350-400 words spread over 10 sessions with a series of simple grammar points to increase the complexity of what he could communicate.

Having finished the course I tested it out on a group of my students over about 12 hours. They were all delighted and learning vocab was in the region of 90 %. Of course, this was not a course fit for publishing. It was meant for proof of concept. To publish courses, I needed to work with highly qualified linguists to make sure both grammar and vocabulary were correct. The first course I designed was Spanish where I used a lecturer in the languages department, Professor Gab Jacobs. Like the German course, the Spanish course consisted of about 400 words taught using the imagery method together with grammar points and sentence translations.

The critical point in the development of LinkWord was testing out the course with a group of managers at Thomson holidays. 6 managers were taught the Spanish LinkWord course over 12 contact hours. They were then tested by a consultant from Berlitz, brought in by Thomson holidays.

The Financial Times carried an article reporting the results of the testing by the consultant.

It took 12 hours to teach them about 400 words and basic grammar, a regime that would normally take about 40 hours using traditional techniques. The managers made no mistakes in finding the English equivalents for Spanish words In translating from English to Spanish they made four minor mistakes.

In 1988, a programme was made for the BBC called The Magic of Memory which I scripted and which illustrated the many ways in which memory strategies improved recall. It ended with a demonstration of LinkWord Spanish. The programme can be seen on YouTube.

This then led to publications in software, book and audio versions in a number of languages both in the UK and USA, and altogether over 750,000 courses have been sold.

It also led to extending courses in French, German, Spanish and Italian to 1200 words and other languages such as Portuguese to 1000+ words, as well as versions for Russian, Greek, Dutch, Welsh, Japanese, Mandarin, Hebrew and Polish to between 400-800 words, all of course with grammar.

A number of people have questioned some aspects of the courses.

Why does the course start with animal names?
Why are the sentences to translate so odd?
Which is better: text versions, i.e. ebook, software, or audiobook versions?
Do people not just remember the keyword and then confuse it with the proper word?
Why does the course start with animal names?

For further information on the research on LinkWord and on the author go to