Tell me all about it

According to an article on Science Daily, a good way to remember something you’re learnt is to tell someone else about it, or to test yourself on it.

A study got students to watch films, then asked them to describe what they’d seen afterwards. Those who told someone about the films just after watching them remembered the core and peripheral details, whereas others only remember some of the core details.

I use this technique quite often, without realising it – I like to talk about books I’ve read, films I’ve seen, and events I’ve been to, and find that if I do this not long afterwards, I tend to remember more details, and retain those memories longer.

When learning languages I sometimes test myself on what I’ve learnt, and try to put the words and structures into new sentences to make little conversations. When I try to explain things to other people I find that there are often gaps in my knowledge, maybe because I leave it too long before doing this.

Do you use these techniques at all?

Do they work for you?

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?

Names and faces

According to an study at Miami University in Ohio, we tend to associate particular names with particular face types. If a name ‘matches’ a face, we tend to find it easier to remember, while face and names that are not perceived as ‘matching’ are more difficult to remember.

In the study, 150 college students were asked to construct faces for 15 common male names using facial construction software. A second group was asked to rate how well these constructed faces seemed to fit their names. This group thought that there was a good match between many of the names and faces, with the best matches for the names Bob, Bill, Brian and Jason. The name Bob, for example, was associated with round faces. Perhaps this has something to do with sounds of the name.

To test whether names that fit faces are easier to remember, a third group of students was shown the constructed faces with their names. Later they were asked which names they could recall, and it was found that the better the match between name and face, the better they could remember the names.

Another study is planned to try to discover why there are such associations between names and faces. One possible reason is apparently that parents may name their babies to fit their general features, including the shapes of their faces.

Rhythm and Memory

Recently I’ve been experimenting with using rhymes to memorise vocabulary. To learn things like days of the weeks, months, numbers, etc, I find that repeating them rhythmically, usually in twos or threes is quite a effective way to memorise them. I also try to make up little rhymes and stories using the words to put them in context. As I say the words, I also visualise what they represent and label my mental pictures with the words.

When learning the words of songs, I learn the words in conjunction with the tune. As a result, the words and tune become strongly linked in my mind and I find that I can’t speak the words on their own easily.

Do you similar methods to learn vocabulary?


Verses or rhymes used to help you to remember things are known as mnemonics. They’re sometimes made of the the first letters of a series of words you want to memorise. For example, Richard of York gives battle in vain for the colours of the rainbow (red, orange, yellow, green blue, indigo, violet); Every good boy deserves fudge for the lines of the treble clef of a musical stave (e, g, b, d, f), and My Very Efficient Monkey Just Sorted Unused Napkins for the major planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune).

Do you have any other interesting mnemonics in other languages?

Music, memory and language learning

Combining language and music seems to be a effective way of learning. The rhythmic nature of music can apparently stimulate parts of your brain that ordinary studying cannot reach, and this makes words and phrases stick in your memory. Moreover, listening to music is something that most people enjoy, so it can make learning enjoyable and perhaps makes you more receptive to new information.

The Suggestopedia teaching method, developed by the Bulgarian doctor and psychotherapist Georgi Lozanov, uses carefully selected classical music to help make student’s feel relaxed and receptive. Has anybody experienced this?

I certainly enjoy learning songs in other languages. In fact it was partly or mainly music that sparked my interest in quite a few languages, particularly Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Spanish and Portuguese. When listening to foreign songs I find it quite difficult to understand them, but after hearing them many times I start to pick out some of the lyrics. Sometimes I’m listening to a song and suddenly realise what part of it means – it’s like a picture that’s come into focus after being a bit fuzzy. Moments like that help sustain my enthusiasm for language learning.