Scribbles in the Sand

All About My Life in Taiwan

How to Remember thousands of digits, and have perfect Chinese tone recall.


**Disclaimer**  If you have no interest in learning memory techniques for dates, statistics, NI numbers, credit card numbers etc, then it’s probably best if you don’t read on.  I’ll also discuss potential applications for learning Chinese towards the end, although only briefly as I’m still fumbling around with which techniques work best.

So after 3 days of using the memory palace technique (loci/journey method) I can tell you that it is an amazingly simple yet effective method for remembering, at the same time as being quite fun.  Any spare moment where you would normally play on your IPhone can be spent exploring your favourite holiday location or home town.

I’ve only looked at the physical lists once for my geological eras, prime ministers, presidents, European countries and capitals, African/S.American states and now rivers, but I can tell you that I can remember with about 90% accuracy despite not opening a book more than once.

I challenged my girlfriend to remember the 10 Largest countries and their capitals in 15 minutes and she was able to make a journey within 10 minutes, which she can still remember with ease.

Now, I’ll try and keep this next section as brief as I can because I fear I’ve got too involved in this memory technique business, (as is my want), and thus things that I find interesting are perhaps deeply boring to others. Feel free to slink off now, or read on to unlock the secrets of the universe…

O.K, for those that stayed for the performance, here we go…

I, and most people struggle to remember numbers. The limit to our mental capacity is 7+-2.  You can expand this by chunking information, thereby filing your 7 brain slots with 7 chunks.

However, these numbers are rapidly forgotten because they have no inherent meaning or relevance and are in no way interesting.

Elaboration is the key to Long Term Memory (LTM); Taking otherwise boring material and thinking of it in a way that sticks.

These techniques are a crutch to let you remember  long enough that they transfer into your cortical, LTM brain regions.

The Dominic System:

Back to numbers. The Dominic system has a few laws, which turn numbers into letters using the first few of the alphabet.


First, the numbers 0 through 9 are simply remembered as things that look like the number, so 1=pencil (long and thin) 2 (swan) 4 (sail boat) etc.  Now, if you want to remember item 4 on the shopping list, you stick that item on the sail boat and have it in a particular location in your memory palace. Easy enough.

For larger digits, it gets trickier, and has a massively steep learning curve but which once mastered is limitless in its application. (I’m nowhere near this yet).


Large numbers, dates and facts above 10 are remembered as double digits. The numbers 1-9 are given an appropriate alphabet letter

1A 2B 3C 4D 5E 6S** 7H 8I 9N**

**(six sounds like s and nine sounds like n.  You can pick whatever works).

Now, to remember 16 we pick the letter A.S. To make this memorable, we think of a person with those initials;  Arnold Schwarzenegger for instance.

Here is where the difficulty comes in. You have to make initials for every combination of letters from 00-99! AND their associated action (Arnie posing in trunks?).

I’m still struggling to think of people with initials, but some googling can help you build a reference list. Try finding 10 new people a day and it shouldn’t be too daunting.

I’ve yet to complete this process (Any help on B.E, C.S, and C.G?) but have used it to remember the lengths of the 10 longest rivers in England with very little effort. I can now recall these with few issues, and didn’t once have to stop and wonder what number goes with what. It just works.

For example, number 6 is the Ure at 208 km.  Ure sounds like manure. I imagine a river of shit streaming across the bridge near my house.  208 is split into the double digit 20 and 8 left over.

Find the alphabet letters 2=B 0=O which equals B.O (Barack Obama). He is swimming in this shit river. Because it’s a 3 digit number, we use one of the images from the numbers 1-9 list (1=pencil 4=sail 8=sand timer.)  So B.O swimming in manURE timing how long he can hold his breath for using the sand timer (8).

Sounds long winded, and it is somewhat, but it sticks. Then all you have to do is recall the event when you approach the bridge.

This has allowed me to remember all 10 rivers, and 30 digits without too much hassle other than walking from the pub to the park.  And it lasts. Walk this route 5 times (minutes later, 1 day, 3 days, 1 month, and 3 months and you’ll never forget it.

Mandarin Application.

Mandarin has 4/5 tones for each sound you utter. Each tone alters the meaning so saying shui4 jiao4 and shui3 jiao3 has two different meanings (sleep and water dumpling).

You can assign a colour to each tone (which helps massively), and when making a memorable image, incorporate the colour into the picture. However colour slips my memory quicker than a person and the order of the colour is hard to remember.

There is little talk of using the Dominic system on the Internet in this way, but I think it could work. So Sleep (Shui4 Jiao4) = 44 = D.D (who is this? You decide. Try picturing David Duchovny watching you while you sleep.  BOOM, perfect tone recall.

I use red as my fourth tone so I used to make the image red (blood on the sheets?), but with this I can have both, and if one fails, the other will back it up.  I’ve only tried it with a few new words so far but it could be revolutionary in terms of tone recall (a really knit picking but essential part of mandarin I’m afraid). 

If you’re prepared to master Chinese (5 years +) you should be prepared to learn a number system for a week or so, which will not only help your Chinese but also your memory for any number application.


P.s To remember a date, you convert the numbers to letters  (1918)  19= A.S  18 A.H.  Each person has an associated action for a reason.  So Arnold Schwarzenegger (A.S) is doing a goose step (A.H, Adolf Hitler).  Make sense?  It’s difficult at first but it sticks. It means you don’t have to remember two people but rather 1 person doing one thing.

Now, did I remember to turn off the gas?



Author: G.J

Neuroscience graduate from the University of Edinburgh. I have a passion for learning Chinese and finding resources to maximise efficiency.

3 thoughts on “How to Remember thousands of digits, and have perfect Chinese tone recall.

  1. BE Bernie Ecclestone, CG Christopher Guest (Spinal Tap), CS Charlie Sheen! All pretty memorable personalities i would say there 🙂

  2. Bert & Ernie. Exceptionally memorable.

  3. When I started learning Mandarin, I was using all sort of methods to associate the tones with the words – and one approach I tried wasn’t dissimilar to what you’ve described above. But over time I found that my brain created a ‘tone’ spot next to each word I learned, and somehow the tone just got remembered alongside the word – without having to use any ‘tools’. So the good news is whatever tool you use, over time that will disappear and it will become natural. At least, that’s what I found …

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