Remembering words

When learning a language one challenge is to memorise the vocabulary, and to be able to use it when you need it. I’ve tried a number methods to do this: repetition, flash cards, SRS, associations and so on. A method for learning individual words that works quite well for me involves making associations between the sounds of the new words and familiar words, especially if I build mental pictures to illustrate the words and their meanings. For example, a Welsh word for field is maes, which sounds like mice, so I picture a field full of mice.

Another way to remember things that I came across the other day involves giving inanimate objects character and life. The example I found discusses using this method to remember where your keys are:

[…] imbue your keys with character and life: this is my preferred gambit. Think of your keys as a living, breathing creature, and you’ll automatically know where they are.

Our brains like living things, it seems, they have more time for them.

Specifically, I deliberately experience my keys as a needy brood of motherless koala-bears on a hoop. When I drop them somewhere, my mind quickly wonders if they’re warm and comfortable, away from predators, in need of some amusing noises from their owner.

The location they’re in thus immediately gains my interest and attention, so I remember it automatically.

After reading this I started wondering whether you could do the same for words – endowing words for inanimate objects and abstract concepts with life and character might make them more memorable. You could also give masculine or feminine characteristics to nouns as appropriate. For verbs maybe you could picture conjugations as accessories – hats, scarves, gloves, bags, etc.

Snídanĕ - Czech word for breakfast

I haven’t actually tried this yet, but will give it a go and let you know if it helps.

The image on the right is a possible way to remember the Czech word for breakfast (snídanĕ) with the breve over the e filled with breakfast cereal and milk.

Have you tried this memory trick, or similar ones?

This entry was posted in Czech, Language, Language learning, Memory, Welsh.

12 Responses to Remembering words

  1. When I was learning Japanese, I initially used a lot of visual mnemonic devices to remember the Hiragana and Katakana writing systems, and then later Kanji. After a while, however, I realized that Kanji (or Chinese characters) have their own pretty damn reliable mnemonic devices built right in (radicals), but it takes a while before you get used to interpreting them.

    For me, in terms of remembering new words, I find that THINKING in the target language as often as possible is more effective than active physical (written) or oral repetition. Of course, when you first learn a word, it’s important to both hear it, say it, and write it at the same time. But in order to really internalize the word, I highly suggest that you use the target language to talk to yourself in your head.

    It may sound crazy, but a good 15-minute conversation with yourself before bed (during which you don’t write ANYTHING down or speak, just think) is a good way to: reiterate and more deeply acquire new words and identify words that you don’t know yet. After the 15 minutes, jot down the few words that you didn’t know, and ask a native speaker how to say them the next day.

    I can’t stress enough the importance of thinking in another language. All too often, language learners think in their own language, then translate in their head, then speak, and by doing so they’re more likely than not constructing unnatural sentences in the target language. Not only that, but they’re solidifying the connection between their mother tongue and the target language, and therefore making their acquisition of the target language dependent on their mother tongue, which can be problematic. Each language is syntactically and culturally unique, and should therefore be approached in its own context.

    If that makes any sense at all… Hah.

  2. Rauli says:

    Zachary’s comment makes sense, indeed. I’m a 27-year-old Finnish guy and started to think in English every now and then while in fifth grade or so. I tend to have conversations with myself, to the extent that a psychiatrist would probably want to give me all kinds of medications 😀 Anyway, I believe it helped me learn English better.

    At the moment, I’m learning Japanese by myself, but am not yet far enough to start thinking in Japanese. I hope that day will come.

    About memorizing things, I have never been of the type that uses mental images or associations, I just go down the hard way. A lot of the memorization just happens naturally to me.

    By the way, I have to say that Zachary Overline is one of the most awesome names I have ever heard 😀 Is that your real name? I really like the sound of it.

  3. Andrew says:

    Yup, this is basic, old-school memory tricks a la Harry Lorayne, if you haven’t read his book The Memory Book, you really need to. The premise is to make something as memorable as possible by (I’m going to try to remember all 4 points here, we’ll see if I can):

    1. Animated – make it move around. Your keys are running and squealing like small children.

    2. Strange, different, you forget mundane everyday things, so make it abnormal, make your keys grow legs, Vulcan ears, 3 arms, and 4 eyes or something.

    3. Proportion: make it abnormally large or small (make it weird!)

    4. Number: make far TOO many or far TOO few (again: make it weird!).

    Hope that helps, you really ought to check out his book instead of (ironically) relying on my memory of it 😉


  4. @Rauli Hahah. Yup, that’s my real name. Comes from Zacchaeus in the Bible… as for Overline, not sure where that’s from. But thanks! 🙂 Hahah.

    As for learning Japanese, I think you’ve probably got enough to have a conversation with yourself. Even a rote “I woke up at 7 AM this morning. I ate breakfast. Then I washed my face and brushed my teeth. Later, I went to work. Work is boring,” etc., is more than enough to solidify new words, better familiarize yourself with grammatical structures, and I identify concepts that you’d like to know how to express but don’t have the vocabulary for.

    Give it a try 🙂 We self-talker-to-ers gotta’ unite!

    (Simon, you don’t happen to know the proper word for self-talker-to-er, do ya’? I’m sure there’s gotta’ be one.)

  5. Simon says:

    I also talk to myself to practise my languages, commenting on what I’m doing, what I’ve done and what I’m going to do, and also on other people and events.

    You could call this self-directed monologues or dialogues, intra-personal communication, or autolalia, the medical term, [source], from the Greek αὐτο (auto) “self”, and λαλιά (laliá) “babbling, meaningless talk”, of onomatopoeic origin from the verb λαλέω (laléo) “to talk” [source].

    So someone who talks to themselves would be a autolalialist, a self-directed monologuist/dialoguist, a self-talker, or a intra-personal communicator.

  6. Rauli says:

    @Zachary: Yeah, I could give it a try. It just seems a bit boring to try to speak when my vocabulary isn’t that big yet. Although I probably know more words than I realize. It’s also quite interesting that I know some names for plants and animals, because I’m making a list of them for fun. And I know the word for “culture medium” as used in cellular biology. And a lot of other words that I have no use for in an everyday conversation. In addition to being an autolalist, I’m also a pathological dictionary reader 😀

  7. @Simon – Bwahahah. Only you, my friend. Only you would know that. Best addition to my vocabulary ever.

    @Rauli – Language learning can be pretty boring sometimes, honestly. But the whole point of autolalialism is to use those random words that, subconsciously, you DO know, but might not be immediately aware of. And forming those synaptic channels in the target language itself so you’re not as reliant on your mother tongue.

    Also, if you’ll forgive me the self-promotion, if you’re interested in building a personal English-Japanese glossary with those less everyday words that you know, you can try out for free. It supports over 100 languages, and it’s pretty cool. (But then again, I’m biased — I was part of the development team.)

  8. Yenlit says:

    Simon – Does the Czech alphabet use the breve diacritic on vowels? I thought they had the caron (háček) ‘ě’ ie. snídaně.

  9. Simon says:

    Yenlit – I think you’re right – it should be a caron over the e, not a breve.

  10. Drabkikker says:

    In Dutch we call such a mnemonic device an ezelsbruggetje ‘donkey’s bridge’. The more ridiculous they are, the better they tend to work.

  11. Austin says:

    Association is definitely the best way to drill in vocabulary. One time, in Russia, I used a word pronounced “goalie” to mean a goalkeeper in soccer, which was a rather embarrassing moment. Now, I will never forget that word because I just envision myself playing keeper naked, as odd as that may sound. Another one I use association with is the word for “church,” which is pronounced “tsirkov,” which sounds a lot like circus to me in my own head. Needless to say, I imagine a circus taking place in my church building.

  12. b_jonas says:

    Donkey’s bridge? As in pons asinorum?

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