How to Memorize New Words without Lists or Flash Cards
Most people who have learned, or tried to learn, multiple languages know the phenomenon where you try to speak one language and another comes out. This especially seems to happen with third or fourth languages – somehow your second language keeps interrupting! Whenever I don’t know the right word in a new language, I default to Spanish: “je voudrais une…. helado por favor!”
It happens to most of us and it has to do with triggering the “language” part of the brain which has had a lot of practice with one language, and not so much with the other – it defaults to what it already knows. Instead of letting this frustrate you, why not take advantage? Here are some brain games I use to memorize words in new languages (no lists or flash cards required!).
Words that Sound the Same
Sometimes words with similar meanings have similar sounds in different languages. The Punjabi word for you is tusī. Even though the pronunciation is different, it’s similar enough to the Spanish word for you, tú, so I find it easy to remember. I remember the word for come in hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ which is ʔəm̓i because it sounds like Spanish a mí, meaning to me. Even when there is no clear connection, I often remember words because of similar sounds – the hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ word for one is nəćaʔ, pronounced “natzah” which rhymes with the Hebrew word for unleavened bread, matzah!
Similar Words in Related Languages
Of course it’s really helpful if the languages are actually related and the words have similar meanings. For example, the Spanish word for computer is computadora. But often I learn a new word in Spanish that I think is a little strange, only to learn that there’s a very similar word in English. I remember learning that the word ondulado means wavy and thinking that was a pretty weird sounding word, only to discover that undulated is an English word for wavy too. Perhaps a less obvious example is the word elegir which means to choose – at first it might not look related, but the pronunciation is similar to the English word elect, a synonym for choose.
Words with No Relation
But what happens when the words aren’t related at all, and none of the regular tricks are working? That’s when it’s time to use the imagination! I invent stories in my mind that help build the connections between the words. Benny Lewis explains this excellently here with his elaborate example of imagining Garfield the cat about to miss a train in Valencia in order to remember the word gare (pronounced like the “gar” in “Garfield”) which means train station in French.
Mary has also talked about making these kinds of “strange associations” here. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a whole story, but picturing an image, a song, a place, etc. that reminds you of the word can help too.
I actually use similar tricks for remembering a lot of things in life. For example, my friend introduced me to her two friends recently and I kept forgetting which name belonged to which friend. Finally, it occurred to me that the shorter woman also had the shorter name. Didn’t forget again!
What are some tricks that you use to learn vocabulary in a new language? Do you find yourself rhyming and storytelling too?