We invite you to follow along with Nelson’s language learning journey on Instagram. If you want to join in on the fun and see how many words you can learn over the next 90 days, head into the app to join our #90DayswithDrops New Year’s Challenge.
What happens when you challenge a 4x USA Memory Champion to learn all of the Dutch words in Drops in 90 days? We’re about to find out.
Starting January 1st, Nelson Dellis, 4x USA Memory Champion, will be tackling a new memorization challenge: learn all of the Dutch words in Drops in 90 days (there are more than 2000!). I sat down with Dellis before the holidays to learn a bit more about how he got into memory research and competing, some of his quick memory techniques, and his motivation behind learning Dutch with Drops.
Growing up, Dellis was incredibly close with his French-Belgian grandparents on his Father’s side. An American, he grew up speaking both French and English, since he spent time each year at his grandparents’ farmhouse in the countryside of the Champagne region of France. He tells me a bit more about his grandmother, whom he describes as very serious, and a “tough love” kind of person, and you can hear a hint of laughter in his voice as if he’s reminiscing on a fond memory — which he soon shares with me. I’m transported to a tiny kitchen in France, and a young Nelson is sitting on a little bench watching her bake “the most amazing bread, and tarts — very French” with a tantalizing smell in the air, and faint voices of partygoers in the background.
Things changed when his grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and began to forget who he was.
“It was…really hard to watch,” he says, “Especially when we’d visit and I’d see my grandfather taking care of her, and she [didn’t] remember things or who I was.”
“But I was also fascinated by the whole thing,” he says. “How can that happen to someone’s mind? Especially for someone who was so vibrant and loving and interesting, and suddenly they’re not themselves?”
So he began to research, telling me, “I really just Googled it.” He soon found out memory competitions existed and started devouring content from past memory champions. He also found inspiration from “Moonwalking with Einstein”, a book by Joshua Foer, that discussed history of memory techniques and how you can do it all using an “average memory.” His research led him to believe you didn’t have to have an extraordinary brain in order to train your memory. And he was determined to do everything he could to prevent what happened to his grandmother from happening to him.
“I was so fascinated by this subculture of memory and these ancient techniques and the fact that nobody knew them or about them,” says Dellis. And it was somewhere in there he decided he was going to find a way to spread awareness of Alzheimer’s and brain health. At the time he says he didn’t really know how to start a charity or business, so eventually, in 2010, he had a CPA friend help him set up his non-profit: Climb For Memory. Did I mention he’s an avid climber, scaling Everest multiple times? So what better way to raise awareness for the disease than incorporating something he loved.
“I knew when I started the charity I wanted something that would make a bit of noise. I was just getting into climbing, and I thought, ok, I’d had this dream of climbing Everest, [and] people are fascinated by these remote, massive peaks in the world,” and he thought, “If they’re not going to pay attention to Alzheimer’s then maybe I can kind of trick them by making them watch me climb Everest.” And it worked. People latched on to this story of a kid climbing Everest, who also happened to be a memory champion, raising awareness for a disease that’s the 6th leading cause of death in the United States (Source: Alz.org).
The Charity organizes climbs all over the world and raises funds for Alzheimer’s disease research. Dellis says it’s given him numerous opportunities to connect with people who have been affected by the disease. “That is always something I really value — that people somehow related, or felt connected to my story.” Having lost my own grandfather to Alzheimer’s, I can definitely relate.
For Dellis, climbing was easily connected to his memory exercises. The beauty of climbing is that “it’s actually very mental,” says Dellis. “When I was climbing, I’d always bring some of my memory exercises and do them daily to…see how the elements affect me, and to stay focused.”
It all comes down to focus. Whether in competition or climbing, Dellis says you want to focus 1000 percent on what you’re trying to achieve, and have a strong intent to reach your goal: “When you’re slowly hiking or moving towards this peak…you just want to give up — it’s painful — so it’s all about focusing on the one thing you’re trying to do — putting one [foot] in front of the other.”
And that’s why his interest was piqued when we approached him about partnering with Drops on a language learning challenge. It’s a bit different than other memory challenges he’s had because we’re wanting lasting comprehension as well — he needs to understand the word’s translation, and retain that information (FYI, he can memorize the order of a list of about 300 words in 15 minutes).
So this brings us back to, why Dutch? Dellis never had the chance to meet his grandparents on his mother’s side, and while his mother spoke Dutch with his aunts growing up, he didn’t have the same influences as his French side of the family since his mother’s parents had already passed away when he was born. He says it’s something he always wished he would have learned, so it was the perfect language for him to select for this Challenge, and Drops was thrilled to offer a language he had a personal connection to.
“The Drops app is great — it’s a way that makes it easier for you to learn a language. The alternative is using your own kind of brute force, writing everything down, researching everything — that’s tedious, right?” says Dellis.
“Sitting on your couch, with a beautiful app, learning a language is a lot more relaxing.” And he adds, “Language learning shouldn’t be forced, and it shouldn’t be a chore, and if it is, you’re probably learning the wrong one.”
Hence why he reiterates it’s important to find a connection to a language you’re truly wanting to learn: “You might think in your head, oh it’d be cool to learn X language. But if that’s the only reason you’re doing it, that might not be enough. Find a tie in — if you love Italian food, maybe that’s your key to learning Italian. Or if you have an ancestor that’s French, and you want to feel closer to them. Make it desirable — a real goal that you want to have.”
So how is Nelson going to tackle this Drops 2K Challenge? Here are a few of his tips:
“If you think about how our brains work in a very simple way, information comes in and it either stays or it doesn’t. And on a very basic level it more likely stays if you’re paying attention to it and you’re honed in on it,” says Dellis. “A big part of learning a language is about intent, and being regimented about practicing the things you need to be learning, otherwise it’s not gonna happen.”
With Drops, you can set your study reminders every day, and you’ll get a push notification when it’s time for your Drops session, so it makes a regimen easier to implement. Dellis noted, “But what people still have to do, if they want to learn, is when you do that five-minute session on Drops or 15 minutes or whatever, that should be the only thing you’re doing.” He’s adamant there can be no distractions — no music playing in the background, and no half-hearted swiping.
“How much do you want it? If you really want to learn a language, you gotta be in it.” If you pay attention to what you’re doing, amplify that intent, and block out distractions, Dellis says you’re creating a direct line for that information to imprint on your brain.
“The next thing you want to do since we’re dealing with words — and Drops has very nice images that are illustrations for each of the words — you want to try to come up with a picture for what the word sounds like,” says Dellis.
He explained it to me using the example of the Spanish word for dog: perro. “If I’ve never spoken Spanish before, and I hear perro, I think of pear, so I would actually picture a dog shaped like a pear, and he’s got an “o” on his side.” When you first hear a foreign word, it might sound weird, and he says the easiest way is to relate it to something you already know, so when that word comes up again, you instantly have the image you’ve created for it in your mind.
Then you want to review, often. He says that’s where apps come in handy: “You guys keep track of that, and kind of shove it down our throats in a fun way. Which you gotta do — you gotta fortify those links you’re making from a dog to a pear.”
Review will be a big part of Nelson’s strategy throughout the 90 days: “I’d like to [learn the words] as if I’m training for competition, and from then on, it’s about review, and just getting familiar. Eventually, I just want to feel the word and just know it. Although I won’t be fluent in the language [yet], I want to be fluent in those words.”
Dellis says he’ll definitely be listening to as much Dutch as he can during the 90 days. He recommends listening to native recordings like TV shows, news, movies, or radio. “Have that on constantly, so maybe even if I’m not paying attention, I’m subconsciously recognizing words I’ve seen or heard, to try and put it in context.”
It’s all about exposure. With languages, he says, “It’s tough to just memorize words in a private room, you gotta really immerse yourself.”
We’re about to wrap things up and I ask him why he believes memory is a lost art. We both share a laugh over growing up analog and witnessing the switch to digital while coming of age. Now, he says, “You don’t have to remember a phone number anymore because it’s all on your phone. And while it’s helpful, I think it’s detrimental to our memory. Back in the day… you had to dial [phone] numbers — and I can still dial those numbers.”
So why is it that we can remember those numbers from 20 years ago, but not our best friend’s number today? In past civilizations, you had to remember something to be considered intelligent or keep a culture going. It’s how books, songs, histories were passed down from generation to generation before formal education became the norm. And Nelson says it’s basically our brains atrophying from non-use.
“We’re all about saving time. But at the same time, take a moment to try and memorize a number before you put it in your phone, or your grocery list before you go out. Because from where I’m coming from, especially with the reason why I started, memory is a skill that you need to use and practice with for it to be good, and if you stop using it, your memory is atrophying, and I don’t want to be in the same situation as my grandma was, so I take value in using it… and not always relying on devices… Take a step back and realize when it’s appropriate to challenge your mind.”
While you might not want to tackle the more-than-2000 words in the Drops app in just 90 days, we’re inviting each of you looking to learn a new language in 2019 to participate in our #90DayswithDrops challenge starting January 1st, 2019, along with Nelson. We’re challenging each of you to do five minutes a day with Drops. Pick a language, or continue with one you’ve already started learning.
And you won’t be alone — we’ll be sharing prompts, updates, and tips throughout the Challenge, and of course, Nelson will be sharing his tips, and progress along the way — you might even see him doing a Drops session on a climb this January in Nepal! As Dellis says, it ultimately comes down to intent — what do you intend to learn this year? We can’t wait to see how everyone can #learnwithdrops in 2019.
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