Memory enhancement through imagination

Mayan Sounds on Lago Atitlán: Memory Enhancement Through Imagination

If I travel to England or Ireland and look at the signs and names around, I can often remember something without giving it much thought as these are the same names or labels I grew up with in Massachusetts. However, a person who didn’t grow up in an English speaking environment isn’t going to have the same easy memory experience with English.

Now, here on Lago Atitlán, I cannot help but hear indigenous Mayan tongues being spoken. When locals speak to me, they switch to Spanish. Their Spanish, like mine, is clearly not their first language. Their different, slower version of Spanish makes them easier for me to understand.

Here, we analyze alternatively effective ways to remember the names of the three ancient Mayan languages spoken in the towns and villages surrounding Lago Atitlán, Guatemala.

Impressively, these linguistic structures are still passed on from one tightly-knit generation to the next. They are used as primary languages among the people who live in the idyllic villages and towns around the volcano and mountain-strewn lake.

Spanish is the second language. Children start to learn it when they enter elementary school.

These local languages (maybe dialects) are discernibly different from anything European, like English or Spanish. These ancient linguistic entities seem to resemble a non-tonal Asian family of speaking.

As each day has passed on the tranquilly eternal-spring-like lake, I’ve become more intrigued by these indigenous, Mayan tongues.

With this native language awareness coming to fruition, I asked a woman about the name of the language she and her daughter were speaking. She answered:


Because these sounds are so foreign to outsiders, they are typically tough to remember without a bit of study, or at least some moments of critical thought connection.

Writing kaqchikel down and studying it in the form of rote learning, functions fine. I’ve employed this outdated and yawn-inducing technique plenty of times.

Be that as it may, we can grasp some gratitude at that fact that there are healthier and more dynamic ways to boost memory and learning.

A decade and a half ago I had the fortune of helping author and self-made mnemonics guru Matteo Salvo with his English. I was mostly helping him discuss his trade: memory techniques, in the best English we could muster up, since his mind was programmed to think in his native Italian.

We spent hours analyzing Italian mother tongue influences on English, while he practiced explaining his niched occupation in English, his second lingua. Fortunately for me, this is one of the better tutoring situations I’ve been in, because I may have learned as much from Matteo as he did from me. To this day, this knowledge sharing has served me well.

Make Learning as Fun and Crazy as Possible

The ancient Mayan tongue of Kaqchikel can be a daunting name to try to remember. But it doesn’t have to be. We all have the ability to trigger innate imaginative powers that make things easy to remember and hard to forget. This inner artistry that all of us has, exercises and strengthens the brain.

First, we break the word into syllables or individual elements.


Then we turn each foreign element into something familiar.

Kaq – I think of a cake

Chik – I think of a young woman or chick (not to be sexist but it is what colloquially came to mind).

El = He in Spanish. A boy or man.

These three associations should be connected. The best option is to draw what you imagine, or you can think of it in your mind, like I just did.

A cake kaq in the hands of a chick chik (slang for young woman) while (el) (he in Spanish) her partner, is looking at her and smiling. Imagine this in a bubble above you. Visualize it.

The young woman and her partner are speaking Kaqchikel. Kaq is being enjoyed by the chik and el.

This may seem illogical at first. But if you focus on this method, you’ll see that it works. And like anything, the more you practice, the better you get. Also, it can help the mind grow exponentially, compared to engaging in rote learning, which can still be effective. Still, monotonous, robot-like, rote learning can not sharpen the mind the way our gift of imagination can.

There are endless associations that can be made. This example is the first that came to mind. One person creates something totally different from another. Each individual creates their memory associations differently based on their entire life experience until the moment of the imaginative endeavor.

Let’s try another technique for this ancient three-syllable language name of Kaqchikel or Kaqchikel

Kaq (the former soccer great Kaka) – Chic (he’s wearing chic or fashionable clothing) – El (the Letter L for like).

The Brazilian football legend Kaka wears chic clothing, because his fans Like that. Kaqchikel

These examples might seem silly and superficial, but by making the associations, we tend to remember things more swiftly. The loonier, madder, sillier and crazier the associations are, the easier they are to remember. We naturally recall strange, odd things, whereas we don’t tend to remember that which feels mundane. Yawning is best saved for bed time.

These are the two examples that I imagined. This method of remembrance can be used with anything you’re learning. These examples are what I am going through in my current situation.

The Second ancient Mayan Language From Lago Atitlán

After taking la lancha across the beautiful body of water from Panajachel to San Pedro la Laguna, I asked someone the name of the tongue they were speaking:


First we break it into syllables. Writing them in a notebook is better than on a phone or tablet, at least for me. I encourage people to find out what is best for them, and engage in that method.


The j is pronounced like an English ‘h’, exactly like in Spanish.

Then we turn each foreign element into something that is not foreign.

Tzu – I think of Lao Tzu who said: ‘A journey of 1,000 miles begins with the first step

Tu – It’s not just Lao there are (two) Tu people, a woman, Jill, is with him.

Jil = Jill is Lao Tzu’s girlfriend. When we speak the J will be an English ‘H’ but this association still helps us to remember this syllable faster.

These three elements need to be connected. The best option is to draw what you imagine; or you can think of it and visualize it in your mind.

It’s not just one person Lao Tzu, it’s Tu people. Jill is with him. Tzu tu jil

While brainstorming ideas you can try closing your eyes. Also, standing up, keeping your head and eyes erect and forward can aid in clarifying creativity. Good breathing techniques can pay dividends, too.
Tzutujil graffiti in San Pedro la Laguna, Lake Atitlán, Guatemala.  Blog Post: Mayan Sounds on Lago Atitlán: Memory Enhancement Through Imagination
Tzutujil graffiti, San Pedro la Laguna, Guatemala.

Let’s try another association to help remember the name of the ancient Mayan language Tzutujil.

My friend Sue tzu is from Massachusetts, too tu. We skied together at the small Blue Hills resort in Canton, just south of Boston. Tzu tu jil

Your imagination will be different from mine. There are no rules. We mold our own unique mnemonic creations.

The Third Ancient Mayan Language From Lago Atitlán

I’ve been in Panajachel where they speak Kakchiqel, and San Pedro de Laguna where Tzutujil is the tongue. I haven’t visited a K’iche speaking village, but that’s the third of the three ancient Mayan languages spoken on collectively charming Lago Atitlán.

Imagine two smiling Mayan people. One is a handyman with a big key chain K’iche. Just remove the n. The English pronunciation almost perfectly mimics the K’iche (without the ‘n’). He is speaking K’iche to his friend with a key chain in his hand. Picture it and it becomes hard to forget.


Imagine Ki (qi) which means energy. Two coffee plantation workers are expending a lot of Ki (energy) while picking beans on unforgiving jungle terrain under a blazing afternoon sun. In my imagination, I feel like I have a lot of Ki (energy) because I just drank that energy enhancing Chai (almost like Chay). K’iche.

The foreign K’iche becomes Engery Ki – Tea che.

Remember, you can try these memory associations with anything. This can help pull a person out of a rote-learning rut. That’s what happened to me.

Final Note

One of the family members in the local posada where I’m staying in San Pedro la Laguna was talking to me about her native Tzutujil language. She taught me how to say thank you:


I thought of Matteo drinking a Malta and slurping loudly. Then I say: Sh don’t slurp so loudly Matteo, you’re not in Japan eating ramen. This crazy association enabled me to remember the word for thank you or malteosh in an instant. Anyway, thanks or malteosh to Matteo Salvo for turning me on to this fun and dynamic method of acquiring knowledge.

Do you have an interesting technique that helps you remember new names or words? Leave a comment below.

Collection of photos from Panajachel, the Gateway to Lago Atitlán.

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