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Cracking the code on a trip down memory lane

Cracking open your old shorthand textbooks is not only fun, it’s a way to retain and even improve your memory.

Shorthand on a page with a pencil

Carmel Taylor’s lifelong passion for shorthand sparked at the age of 12 when she received an old textbook on the system of speed writing. Speed writing symbols represent sounds, rather than words. Shorthand’s squiggly lines immediately intrigued her; it was like a code that she was desperate to crack.

‘I didn't get very far with that, but it whet my appetite. I was so keen, nothing was going to stop me from taking shorthand at school.’

A career first working as a stenographer and then teaching shorthand in high school followed. Decades on, that love of shorthand has never waned. Carmel is now the author of a book on the history of shorthand, runs a Facebook group and a U3A class in Melbourne for people wanting to revise. She is a regular contact with the Chief Stenographer of the Argentinian parliament.

In Carmel’s experience, people who learned shorthand are divided into those who hated it and those who loved it, with a few falling in between.

Those who hated it would no doubt cringe at the idea of voluntarily revising their old skills. Carmel’s Facebook group, Pitman Shorthand Writers of Australasia, is filled with people who lap up revision exercises. Many still have their dog-eared textbooks from when they first learned.

Carmel also shares titbits about shorthand’s history, which is another of her passions. In 2021, she published the book With Pencils Poised: A History of Shorthand in AustraliaExternal Link . She hopes it will dispel the myth that shorthand is all about ‘taking a letter’.

‘In the 1800s, shorthand was written by anyone who had an education. It was a literary skill so, for example, the first Australian-born Governor General of Australia, Sir Isaac Isaacs, studied law and shorthand university in Melbourne. That’s what you did.’

Carmel regularly reads books in shorthand, with her latest purchase being Treasure Island. While it is a pleasurable pastime, Carmel is also motivated by research that indicates shorthand has cognitive benefits for older people. A pilot study by a gerontologist in Germany, where there are many stenography clubs, followed a group of women aged in their 70s. They regularly practised shorthand over a period of five years. The study found the women had none of the memory decline expected over that time frame, with some even improving their memory.

Carmel was not surprised by the study’s findings, knowing first-hand how much mental stamina it requires.

‘If you are going to write shorthand, you have to concentrate extremely hard because you've got to get everything down and you have to filter out any other distractions. You have to use your short-term memory to retain the words as they are being written. You have to use your explicit memory and drag out the theory instantly to know what you are going to write, and what exception to the rule you are going to apply…and that all takes place in a split second.’

But if that sounds intense, Carmel is adamant it is also fun.

‘At U3A, we don't do speed writing, we don't do exams, we don't do tests, we don't do anything like that. My motto is, “We are here for enjoyment, not for employment”.’

Reviewed 09 November 2023