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How to Learn Foreign Words
Last Month I promised that I would tell you all about the Number System that I used for the 1998 World Memory Championships. However, I have been getting many questions about the application of Mnemonic techniques for learning a foreign language so this month I shall focus on that.
Now the best way to learn a language is to immerse yourself totally both in the culture and the language itself with native speakers who do not speak your own language. It is the quickest way to learn because that is how we learned our mother tongue. But that is not always possible so we either take a class at school or college, or we buy one of the many home study courses available.
Whichever way we choose, the foundation of our success in the language of our choice will be a good solid vocabulary. Now when I cast my mind back to my school days I was never taught how to learn new foreign words other than by good old repetition. This can be effective if you are motivated enough but it does take time, is extremely boring and can be the factor that puts many people off from becoming proficient in a new language. You will be pleased to know that you can speed up the process significantly, make it fun and have more effective recall in a shorter space of time. So how do we do that?
Well before we get into any sophisticated mnemonic techniques when you learn new words, quite often their similarity to the equivalent word in your mother tongue will immediately give you the translation. For example if you are English and you are learning German, the word for Boat is Boot. If you are French and you are learning English, the English for lettre is letter. (For the remainder of this article I shall assume that your native tongue is English). Now the similarity may be in the way the word is pronounced (as in the Boat/Boot example), or it may be in the way the word is spelt (as in the lettre/letter example). It does not really matter as long as you identify the similarity and then use it to help you translate.
Jonathan Hancock, a former World Memory Champion, always remembers that in German, Hafen means harbour as his teacher told him to associate Hafen with haven because in rough weather, a harbour is a safe haven for ships. (Jonathan's book "Boost Your Mindpower" is reviewed this month in the book review section). Therefore, another way to remember a foreign word is to find some sort of relationship to the English word. Another example that Jonathan uses is the French translation of carpet which is tapir. He uses the link with tapestry to remember that translation.
With most words, there is no obvious link to the English translation, so we have to use our imagination and create one using mnemonics. As I have said before, the secrets of a super power memory are very important when using mnemonic techniques so just to remind you again here they are:
Let us pick a word that we want to remember - I am going to choose Seife which in German means soap. Now when I hear the word Seife, the German pronunciation is very similar to the word siphon (a plastic tube that opens out at one end into V or U shape). In my imagination, I now need to associate an image of a siphon with an image of soap using the principles of a super power memory listed above.
I imagine an enormous siphon made of clear red plastic rolling around the rim of a bright blue bucket (I hear the sound of plastic rubbing on plastic) into which it has been placed. Another bucket hovers above the siphon and is pouring tonnes and tonnes of white soap powder into it (I hear the hiss of the powder as it falls into the rim of the siphon and see the tumbling stream of white particles). It is important to make the siphon and the soap the dominant images of the picture that I create otherwise I could confuse myself and translate Seife into bucket. A hose pipe is pouring gallons of water into the siphon so that loads and loads of soft white soap suds start overflowing from the siphon, engulfing the bucket and everything in the soap's path. I can even taste the soap as it covers everything. Eventually, all that I can see is the white soap suds and the large red siphon.
As I have discussed before, it is important to create strong, vivid images when I form these pictures. Equally important is that I practice the translation in my mind several times so that the link is strong. So when I hear the word Seife I think of siphon and immediately the image comes back to me and I see and taste the soap.
So to build up a strong vocabulary in your new language, you just create images using the technique I have described above. This process can be applied to nouns, adjectives and verbs. Why don't you try the following examples for yourself:
Leiter in German means Ladder (tip - you could feel lighter as you climb the ladder)
Livre in French means Book (tip - open your book and see pieces of liver on each page)
People in Spanish is Gente - pronounced hen'tay (tip - see a crowd of people dipping hens into large cups of tea)
Once you have created these images, a good idea to help build up and maintain your expanding vocabulary is to link each image at a location on a journey dedicated to learning your particular language. Jonathan Hancock advocates this method. Dominic O'Brien suggests that you pick a particular town that you know well and then link the images at appropriate places around that town. For example the image that you create for the French translation of book could be located at the library or in a book shop. You may want to pick specific parts of the town for different types of words for example all verbs could be located in the park. It does not really matter which technique you use, or whether you try combinations of each, just experiment with the options, find what works best for you and then use that method.
As you will discover when you learn other languages, you will have to consider the gender of the word. In German, nouns can be feminine, masculine or neuter. There are several ways of learning gender. For example, if you are male, you could involve yourself somehow in the image of all masculine words by taking part in the scene that you create. For feminine words you could imagine yourself as a spectator watching someone else (a female friend perhaps) taking part in the image. In my image I would see a woman holding the siphon because it is a feminine noun. You may wish to include an animal such as a pet dog in every image of a neuter noun. If you use Dominic O'Brien's technique of using a town to store your vocabulary, you may want to partition it so that every image south of the river is feminine or west of the High Street is for masculine words only. You will of course have to know your mental map of the town quite well.
To summarise the techniques for translation:
1. Is the translation obvious? If it is you don't need to use a mnemonic technique.
2. Can you find some logical relationship between the word and its translation? If so use that to help your translation.
3. Create a vivid picture relating an image of the English word with an image created by manipulating the foreign word using the principles of a super power memory.
4. Locate the image at a location on a dedicated journey or at an appropriate place in your town.
5. Manipulate the image to account for the gender of word by adding specific imagery or by locating it at an appropriate place on your journey or in your town.
6. Repeat the above for every word you wish to learn.
More examples can be found in Dominic O'Brien's book "How to Develop a Perfect Memory" reviewed in May 1998, or in Jonathan Hancock's book "Boost Your Mindpower", reviewed this month.
The process I have described does sound rather long winded but you will find that you will only have to spend 30 seconds at most to create and strengthen your images so that in an hour you could learn as many as 120 words! If you compare that to the time it takes to learn the same amount of words by repetition you will see how effective it is. It will only work if you try it and put in a bit of short term effort to get long term rewards. An important point to note is that the mnemonic is only a temporary crutch for you to rely on in the short term because as you become more proficient in the language (which will only come through continued use), you will "just know" that Seife means soap.
Good luck with your learning and please send me examples of how you have translated your foreign vocabulary into vivid images.
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4th March 1998: