Ultimate memory tricks to boost your foreign language vocabulary – part 3

In the first of this series on memory tricks to improve your vocab I talked about the simplest of vocab tricks, word associations. In the second we got a bit more technical with an extension on word associations known as mnemonics. In this post I want to wrap it up by discussing how best to use these very powerful tools, and just as importantly how to avoid any potential pitfalls while using them.

Both of these things can be achieved simply by really understanding the role that these memory tricks have, namely establishing a mental hook so the word is forced into your short term memory. What they are not are speaking aids you should be using in the normal flow of conversation.

Fellow Bitesizer Gareth commented on the last blog that mnemonics in particular are great for words that just “won’t go in”. I’m a bit more enthusiastic than that in that I believe at very least a memory association for most of the words you look at will speed up your recollection and can be a good default option. Perhaps I don’t have as good a natural short term memory but I find that particularly at an early stage of learning most words don’t actually sink in without one of these tricks (or loads of repetition which can often be impractical if not tedious). What I remain acutely aware of however, and with practice this just becomes second nature, is that once I have the word in my mind that the mnemonic or word association becomes a background tool only to be used if I’m struggling to recall a word.

Once you have the word held in your mind, it is vital that you work on establishing both contextual patterns (i.e. by using the word in context as often as possible) and muscle memory. While above I described repetition as tedious; what I am specifically referring to is the unconstructive, flashcard-after-flashcard repetition that seems to pass the time but not achieve all that much. Repetition in terms of speaking phrases over and over, writing stories and sentences that use as many words as possible or trying to converse with native speakers is absolutely vital, and for me personally very satisfying.

Memory aids provide a foundation, contextual repetition solidifies muscle memory and embeds the word in your long term memory, and in the times when a word just won’t come out the memory aids can provide that little kick to keep the conversation going. Gareth mentioned “letting them go” when they have done their job, for me it is more about understanding their place, and not using them as a crutch – this is pitfall number 1 to avoid.

The second potential source of problems is the possibility that by allowing tenuous links between words (because they mean something to you) that bad pronunciation may be encouraged. This can happen because your associated patterns aren’t a perfect match. In my example I used the word “itu” which is Indonesian for “that” and my mnemonic was “’Eh Tu Bruté’, now that is Shakespeare!” The problem here is obvious; “itu” is not the same as “eh tu”) and if I relied on the mnemonic literally then I would end up pronouncing something that wasn’t actually a word (or worse meant something inappropriate!) This is an important issue and one you should be conscious of, but my own experience is that as long as you stick to the process that is: mnemonic first then follow up with the contextual repetition second, the risk of dodgy pronunciation can be minimised. Remember you should start practicing with the word in context as quickly as possible to iron out any glitches, the word will become part of your natural vocabulary without needing the mnemonic any longer.

As a part of the rigorous academic testing we do as part of our daily routine here at Bitesized ;) I’ve been working on some language learning games lately, one in particular around mnemonics and flashcards. I’ll talk about those in a future post, but last week I was able to knock off about 60 new words with no more than 10 minutes review per day using mnemonics, so if you haven’t done so already I urge you to give them a go, let us know how it works out.

Have fun!


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