4 Simple Mnemonics to Learn Foreign Words

In order to learn foreign words, you need to associate them to mental imagery based on the principles of exaggeration, movement, unusual association, and emotional involvement.


Stefano Lodola


Learn foreign words with mnemonics
Associate foreign words to mental imagery based on the principle of exaggeration, movement, unusual association, and emotional involvement

4 Mnemonics: and never shall we forget it!

The title of this tip is the translation of an acronym used by the Italian memory guru Gianni Golfera. I don’t know him personally but the acronym was indeed easy to remember, and I approve of all the suggestions it contains.

In order for new information to stick into your mind –  on our case, foreign words – you need to associate it to mental imagery based on the principles of exaggeration, movement, unusual association, and emotional involvement.

Mnemonic 1: learn foreign words through exaggeration

One general rule of thumb when using mnemonics is that the more exaggerated and bizarre the visualization, the more likely it will stick with you.

This is why it helps to make things really large, or add faces to inanimate objects, or have your images doing really silly things, or make your images defy the laws of physics.

Anything that would make a lasting impression on your mind if you saw it in the real world is likely a good candidate for imprinting a visualization in your memory.

Imagine things in abnormal scale. A person weighing 200kg, or 3-meter tall catches attention.

Mnemonic 2: learn foreign words through movement

Adding action or movement to your images helps to establish a flow between the things you are trying to remember.

Evolution made us more sensitive to moving objects, to perceive danger around us. In a classroom of sitting students, one who stands up will catch everybody’s attention.

Try placing things on top of each other; crashing things together; merging images together; wrapping them around each other; rotating them around each other or having them dancing together.

Mnemonic 3: learn foreign words through unusual association

An unusual or out of place item in your images enhances the recall.

Put together two things or situations that belong different contexts. A man in the rain holding a satellite dish as an umbrella. Your brain will be enthralled.

Right now, take a moment and picture the shape of Egypt in your mind. Having trouble? How about Italy? Chances are you probably did much better with Italy because at some point in time you learned that it was shaped like a boot. You had made an association with something you already knew.

Use all the senses to code information or dress up an image. Remember that your mnemonic can contain sounds, smells, tastes, touch, movements and feelings as well as pictures.

Mnemonic 4: learn foreign words through emotional involvement

This is probably the most powerful method. When we hear a news that moves us, we remember that information for a long time, if not forever.  The death of a dear friend, the song of your first date, an earthquake.

It’s possible to reproduce this emotion in real life, by using people, objects and familiar situations in our mental images.

I learn words better from people I like or in exciting situations. I even remember who taught me those words, when and where. Together with the main information, the brain stores everything that it perceives as relevant in that moment (the circumstances).

Association to mental images bases on these principles helps the brain transfer information from short-term memory to long-term memory.

When I practice conversation or write compositions, I say and write memorable sentences following these principles. For example, one of my first sentences in Korean: where is the dog? It’s in the washing machine.

Turn false friends (words similar in spelling and pronunciation between two languages but with different meaning) into real friends: the Spanish word “burro” means “donkey”, while in Italian “burro” means “butter”. Imagine a donkey carrying a huge loaf of butter.

Play with sounds and make absurd images. This works for words of your own native language too. In Italian, “portamento” means “carriage, bearing”. “Portare” means “to carry” and “mento” means “chin” (this is not the etymology). Think of is as the way you carry your chin.

Rude or sexual rhymes are very difficult to forget and also work to learn foreign words that are not rude or sexual!

The association doesn’t need to be with your own native language. The more languages you speak, the more the possibilities to associate words.

“Instead of just repeating the words, try writing sentences with them or using them in your next conversation or class”

Repetition helps to memorize foreign words

To firmly place everything, you do want to remember in long-term memory a little review is required. Try to go over the associations you formed for specific things at least once a day for the next few days. Instead of just repeating the words, try writing sentences with them or using them in your next conversation or class. Eventually you will just remember the information and the images are forgotten.

Are you wondering about all those crazy images floating around in your head and what the long-term effects on your sanity will be? Not to worry. Psychologists and memory experts agree that there is no chance of your memory filling up. Temporary things such as appointments and the associations and images you create for them will naturally be forgotten when the information is no longer needed.

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