Ultimate memory tricks to boost your foreign language vocabulary – part 2

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!

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7 Responses to “Ultimate memory tricks to boost your foreign language vocabulary – part 2”

  1. Gareth Davies gareth.davies says:

    Great advice there Simon! I think the judicious use of mnemonics is an invaluable aid to learning tricky vocab. For me, I find it works best when I reserve mnemonics for those words that just don’t seem to ever go in, no matter how much I try. In those cases, mnemonics seem to do the trick every time.

    A word of caution though: pay double attention to pronunciation when using mnemonics as the mnemonic itself is likely to distort the way you pronounce the words – sometimes to the point where a native won’t understand what you’re saying! Use them, but be ready to let them go as soon as they’ve done their job.

    Gareth

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  2. Simon Simon says:

    @Gareth: Good point you’ve pre-empted my next post! I’ll go into detail about he things to be careful about with all of these memory tricks.

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  3. Kosumo says:

    I agree with your idea. Sometimes I also use this trick for memorizing important concepts during my study. The only difficulty is to find the association itself.
    Glad to hear you’ve been to Indonesia before. How long did you live in Indonesia?
    I’m Indonesian. I subscribe to this website for about one year when I still lived in Kaiserslautern. To be honest, recently I rarely check this website cause I don’t have time to continue improving my German.
    Terima kasih :)

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  4. geetanjali says:

    sometimes I make up funny meanings from the split up words which are not at all related to the original word but still because of that I can very well remeber the word…e.g. when remebering stein means a stone in german,i realized that einstein can literally mean ‘a stone’,that was weird but helped me.when I was small I couldn’t remember the spelling of ‘together’,so I split it as ‘to get her’,&that did the job…

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  5. Simon Simon says:

    @Kosumo kembali! Yes it’s a great mechanism for all sorts of memory requirements, I know medical friends often use mnemonics when they need to remember Latin names for things (obviously a foreign language but some how it seems different!) I have lived in Indonesia a for a couple of years and visited other times. I’m originally from Australia, Indonesian is taught there quite commonly as it’s much more practical than French or German for students there. Keep an eye out for Bitesized Indonesian, it is definitely on the cards. Thanks for your comment :)

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  6. Simon Simon says:

    @geetanjali great idea, anything that allows you to form a pattern in the language will work, it’s all about making it mean something to you and all of a sudden it seems memorable.

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