In the last post about boosting your language memory I discussed the simplest memory trick you can use to help master new vocabulary, word associations. Word associations, just like all memory tricks, serve to provide a mental hook, something that embeds a word or concept into our short term memory so that through repetition it will work its way into our long term memory.
The next trick, again one some people will have used before, is an extension on simple associations known as mnemonics. As usual, a handy definition of a mnemonic comes from Wikipedia which defines it as :
“…a mind memory and/or learning aid. Commonly, mnemonics are verbal—such as a very short poem or a special word used to help a person remember something—but may be visual, kinesthetic or auditory. Mnemonics rely on associations between easy-to-remember constructs which can be related back to the data that is to be remembered. This is based on the principle that the human mind much more easily remembers spatial, personal, surprising, sexual or humorous or otherwise meaningful information than arbitrary sequences.”
I said it was a handy definition not a simple one! The key bits to keep in mind as far as I’m concerned are the last three words “than arbitrary sequences”. These go to the heart of the problem we often face when looking at new vocabulary. In a nutshell the problem is that without lots of background exposure (as a young child may get being around people speaking), a solid knowledge of the language’s patterns or some other specific reason why a word may stick in your mind, when we first look at a foreign word, as far as our brain is concerned, it often represents little more than an arbitrary sequence of letters. Unless we can establish a mental pattern in that sequence and relate it to something with personal meaning, it may as well be scribble on a piece of paper.
Mnemonics can help us establish this pattern and they do this by transforming the word into something you can visualise. With this definition you can see the example I used in the last post is actually a simple mnemonic rather than merely a word association. The word in Arabic for “tourism” is “seeaha”, not really much to hang my hook on there, but by breaking it down into a series of smaller patterns it instantly becomes more memorable.
The first bit “see” and the second bit “aha” are already two things that have a meaning to me: I “see” things every day and every now and then have an “aha” moment, so these are a good starting point. Next step is to work out how those words could relate to tourism: this is a very simple example for me (it need only mean something to you personally), for some reason in my mind there is a perfectly logical relationship between tourism/tourists and people saying “See, AHA!” when they see something amazing.
Another example in Indonesian the word for “that” is “itu”. I distinctly remember in my high school Indonesian class – a long time ago now, ahem – saying to myself “’Eh Tu Bruté’, now that is Shakespeare!”
From these two examples you can see the pattern your brain forms may be totally arbitrary and may not even make sense by itself. Don’t worry the more obscure, funny, personal or rude the mnemonic the better. Remember it is about creating a pattern, as long as it means something to you, use it.
In the next post we’ll look at a few more examples, some tips on using these tricks effectively and also some of the pitfalls. For now however if you’re staring at a pile of flash cards why not mnemonics a try? At first it can seem cumbersome and slow, but as with word associations the payoff is usually worth it, and you will get better/faster over time. Despite my personal faith in them as an aide-mémoire I still catch myself being lazy and just trying to memorise through repetition, but I invariably come back to mnemonics on the 50th cycle through a pile! Do a comparison with 20 random words, 10 using mnemonics and 10 not and see how it goes.
Let us know how you go, maybe even tell us some of your examples; we’d love to hear from you in the comments below.
Have a great day everyone!