How to use mnemonics to learn vocabulary in any language

mnemonics - how to learn vocabulary effectively

Image: Dan Allison

What is mnemonics and how can it help you learn vocabulary?

I was in the car with my Mum the other day, after her and my Dad picked me up from the train station on my way back from the Berlin Polyglot Gathering. I was telling them all about memory palaces and a lecture by memory expert Anthony Metivier I’d attended the day before.

The most important thing I had taken from that lecture was how powerful mnemonics can be as a technique for memorising foreign words – in any language.

Here’s a brief explanation of mnemonics, which I recorded for you to illustrate how this concept works in practice.

Using mnemonics to teach my Mum French

I hope you found my little explanation of the technique useful.

Going back to my car journey that I mentioned at the start of this article, I showed my Mum how she can learn a couple of French words without too much effort (she’d never learned any French at all). The first word I wanted to teach her was ‘gare’ (the French word for ‘train station’).

mnemonics - how to learn vocabulary effectively

Image: faungg’s photos

In Polish, the French word ‘gare’ sounds like the word ‘gar’, which in Polish means ‘a very big pan’.

I asked my Mum to imagine that she walks into the train station in the town where she lives and to really imagine what it looks like – she is familiar with it because she’s been there a number of times before so it shouldn’t be a problem to recall some details of what it looks like. Then, once she’s entered, the first thing she can see is a massive, massive pan full of soup. It’s so big that it’s impossible to see the departures board.

You get my point, right?

When we got home, had dinner and a couple of glasses of wine, I asked my Mum: ‘How do you say ‘train station’ in French?’ And she told me straight away that it was ‘gare’. The mental association worked!

Of course, as I said in my recording above, the images you will choose will depend on how your own imagination works. I can’t teach you how to use mnemonics by giving you ready-made images. You need to create them yourself – it’s the best way to ensure that they will come back to you when you need them.

Another example of using mnemonics to learn vocabulary

One of my language community members on Facebook told me the other day that he’s finding it difficult to memorise German verbs which have the same core but different prefixes. For those of you who don’t speak German, an example of this would be ‘aufgeben’ (to give up) and ‘abgeben’ (to submit).

So how can you use mnemonics to memorise these two verbs and to remember the difference between them?

‘Aufgeben’ is made up of ‘auf’ and ‘geben’. The prefix ‘auf’ sounds to me a bit like the sound ‘ouch’. I’m going to imagine that I’m running up a very steep hill so that I can give (‘geben’) a present to my friend who’s standing at the top of the hill. I’m running quite fast and getting more and more tired. At one point, I can feel the muscles in my legs stretch beyond their ability – I go ‘ouch!’. It really hurts so I need to give up (‘aufgeben’).

mnemonics - how to learn vocabulary effectively

Image: Sangudo

‘Abgeben’ is ‘ab’ plus ‘geben’. ‘Ab’ is basically an ‘ab’ – a muscle on your stomach. I’m going to imagine that I’m doing sit ups – and thus exercising my abs – because it’s part of an experiment that I’m writing a university paper on. Once I’ve done the ab experiment, I’ll be ready to submit my assignment (‘abgeben’).

But again, while these mental associations work for me, they may not necessarily work for you. You need to create your own images using your own imagination.

Mnemonics is not everything in language learning

Mnemonics is not everything. It’s a technique that you’ll be using to memorise the most difficult words and expressions, rather than the whole language you’re learning – that would be too time-consuming! Nevertheless, it works well and I encourage you to have a go at it!

Have you used mnemonics to learn vocabulary before? Do you have any tips for other language learners? Let me know in the comments below!


Agnieszka Karch, founder of 5-Minute Language

Agnieszka Karch, founder of 5-Minute Language

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