Using Mnemonics For Learning And Memorizing Vocabulary

by | Mar 26, 2014

Memorizing is one of the activities you’ll be doing plenty of when learning a new language. And that goes whether you like memorizing or not. It’s the first step to building a rich vocabulary — one word at a time.
Traditionally, memorizing is done by simple repetition. Read a word, say it aloud and repeat until it sticks. While effective, it’s highly inefficient, especially when you’re trying to acquire a working vocabulary in as short a time as possible.
Using tried and tested memory techniques could make your memorizing tasks go much smoother. We look at some of them.
The concept of mnemonics is to, basically, link a word in your language to its equivalent word in a foreign language using an easy-to-remember image or phrase. For instance, using mnemonics on the Spanish word “zorro” (which means “fox” in English), you can imagine a fox in a zorro mask. With the Spanish word “camarera” (which means “waitress”), you can imagine a waitress with a DLSR hanging off her neck. The exact same technique can be used to memorize most any word in any language — just use your imagination to come up with a fitting image to create the relationship between the words.
It’s a process formalized by Dr. Michael Gruneberg as the “Linkword Technique” in his many language books that teach vocabulary through mnemonics. You can use his titles, among many others that utilize the same technique, if you want to use mnemonics but don’t want to bother coming up with your own pairs (which, let’s be honest, is going to be very time-consuming). Gruneberg once claimed that using this technique should allow you to learn the basic survival vocabulary for any language in just 10 hours.
Using Your Locale
Often called the “town mnemonic,” this technique involves relating foreign vocabulary items to things and places in any town or city that you know by heart. For instance, you can assign the Spanish word “el pan” (bread) to the neighborhood bakery; “la mesa” (table) to the furniture store a couple blocks away; and “dormir” (sleep) to the drunk neighbor always sleeping on the bench by the corner store.
If you’re having some trouble coming up with mnemonics to assign to words, try going by the prescribed guidelines. That is, assign nouns to places, modifiers to things in a recreational spot (local park, amusement park or museum), and verbs to a sports center (like the high school gym or a fitness center).
Nouns examples: dog (the house in the corner with the large dog that scares you); tree (the tall tree growing next to your house); and trousers (the large sign in front of the tailor)
Modifiers examples: hot (the park at noontime); colorful (the mural at the park wall); and sweet (the cotton candy vendor)
Verbs examples: run (a treadmill); drink (the drinking fountain); and punch (the punching bag)
Important: make sure you choose a town that you know like the back of your hand. That way, you can recall an image of the different places in your mind without much effort, so you can focus your energies on assigning and remembering relationships.
Making Your Mnemonics Memorable
The secret to good mnemonics is creating an image that’s easy to remember. And the more striking the image, the more it will stick out. As such, it’s important to make the images you associate meaningful and memorable to you — that makes it easy and natural for your mind to pick up
Here are some tips for just that:
• Use images that are pleasant and positive — your mind is least likely to resist them.
• Use familiar images. Don’t even try to imagine something that you’re not well-versed with, as bringing up that picture alone can lead to a struggle. The more familiar the images you use, the easier time you’ll have.
• Use colorful, vivid images. They’re a lot easier to remember than drab and lifeless scenes.
• Engage the senses in your images. Dress them up with sounds, smells, tastes, touch and movements if you can manage it. The more senses you can bring into a picture, the more vivid it’s going to be.
• Use symbols, like road signs, statues, and shop signage. They’re excellent for coding longer and complex phrases.
• Use humor. Funny things always stick out in our heads — they’re just plain difficult to forget.
Focusing On Important Words
When building up vocabulary, you can randomly choose which words (or group of words) to use. Like rote memorizing, though, going this route doesn’t really help make your study any more efficient. In fact, you’d likely have to go over each of the items multiple times to properly learn them.
If you want to memorize new vocabulary more efficiently, focus your study on core words and phrases. Most trainers recommend looking at the 100 most common words in the target language and restricting your early memorizing sessions on them. The challenge, of course, is finding those 100 words — information is available out there for some languages, but it isn’t for others.
Grouping Words
Another way to make mnemonics even more efficient is to group vocabulary items when you study them. Instead of just one word pair on a scene, use it for two or more related word pairs. Test out mixing words in scenes first, though — it works well for some people, but can end up confusing others.
If you prefer one word pair to one mnemonic, you might still want to group the sequence in which you learn words. As in, study a group of words that are related at the same time (e.g. different places, different names for food). Chances are, the relationships among the words will help add to the context, making them easier to recall later on.
To cap off, we’re going to summarize the techniques we prescribed here:
1. Use a mnemonic system for memorizing vocabulary. Doesn’t matter whether you use regular mnemonic assignment, the town technique or some other method — using word-pair association will make your learning more efficient.
2. Focus on core words first. That way, you can bring yourself up to speed on a lot of materials and conversations you will encounter.
3. Group words. That way, you add extra context to each item.
4. Work on your images. Make them as memorable and vivid as you can.

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