No matter how you try to learn words in a foreign language, there are always some words that get “stuck”. You just can’t memorise them. If you use flashcards, you have to keep marking them as a fail. If you’re speaking to someone, you keep struggling to remember the right word, leading to an awkward pause while you think of an alternative.
We’ve been through this a lot with the many languages we’ve learned (if you’re catching up, recently it has been Egyptian Arabic, Hebrew, and most recently Swahili). We’ve been through a lot of different techniques to try to learn all the words we need, and to use them in conversation and sometimes written form (depends on the language).
We try, and often fail, to say what we want. It is a constant struggle to get through any conversation. But we’re not trying to make our lives difficult arbitrarily; we do the difficult things because they lead to something rewarding. We either can have fun, or learn something new, or meet cool new people.
So we make an effort. And to get us through the hard words that are hard to remember we’ve learned a few tricks beyond the regular everyday ones, and want to share them with you.
The focus of this is not how to just learn any word… we really mean those difficult words, those “sticky wickets” as Australians call them.
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Why we use “fun” techniques to learn words and languages
We only use techniques that are fun.
And this isn’t because we’re lazy. We think this is a better way to learn and to build habits!
In reality there are lots of boring and un-fun ways to memorise words, but we don’t do any of them. We rarely do exercises in books, write out tables of verbs or memorise lists of nouns. Because they’re unnatural, not mentally scintillating beyond the joy of doing a small challenge, and they ultimately take the joy out of something we otherwise really enjoy.
We use fun techniques, because best ways to learn are by doing what we naturally want to do and that make us enjoy the study.
When we study in a fun and engaging way, it helps us keep studying, it helps us come back to study and I believe the feeling of happiness even helps us learn more effectively, rather than it being an episode we wished were over in our lives. Associating a word with pain or boredom would definitely create a memory we’d want to forget. Who would want to remember pain?
Think back to high school or college/university and those times you crammed all night for an exam. Besides that not being a great way to remember long term, think of the feeling you had right after the exam.
After finishing an exam you cram for, you feel. “It’s over! I can go home and sleep now!”
You never think as you walk out of an exam room “I’m going to go home and revise that content to make sure it really sinks in! And then I’m going to review it a month later.”
Now remember a time when you were having a lot of fun and learning something. Maybe it was the first time someone showed you how to drive. Or when you were being taught about foods in another language.
I can still remember like it was yesterday:
- The time my uncle taught me how to drive (I was 12… thanks, Amoo Behrooz!) and the way he told me how to use the “clutch”, and even how he pronounced it: “kelutch”. (“Who learns how to use a clutch?” everyone younger than me is thinking.)
- The time my teacher Mike was teaching me about a food called lao bing (烙饼), a greasy fried Chinese bread something like a chapati. We ate it with Vegemite. I can remember that word, and the crazy thing is I can even the word for “carbohydrate” (碳水化合物, tan shui hua he wu) which I’m pretty sure almost no Chinese learners know. I can visualise him saying those syllables like it was yesterday, though it was eight years ago.
These strong, fun associations are what make learning visceral and real. The language becomes associated with positive memories that we want to keep.
Here’s what we do. You don’t have to do all of these. You can do any single one and it’ll help. But you can also layer them on until they finally make your word sink home.
Silly rhyming mnemonics
This is our favourite technique to memorise difficult words. Because I have a silly sense of humour. And the sillier the mnemonic, the more effective it is at helping me learn.
How to use rhyming mnemonics: think of another word in the same language, or even another language (or even someone’s name), and make a phrase.
In the same language, you’re finding two words that rhyme. Like in English if I’m struggling to remember entomology (the study of insects), I think “the etymology of the study of ants”. So it’s like etymology but you kind of stick “ant” in the beginning. This mnemonic works on a few levels for me.
Some examples of mnemonics in languages we’ve been studying, Swahili and Arabic:
- Anasa means “luxury” in Swahili. It sounds like nanasi, pineapple. So I’ll remember Nanasi ni anasa, i.e. “Pineapples are luxury”.
- tha3baan (ثعبان) means “snake” in Arabic. It sounds so much like “tired”, ta3baan (تعبان)! So I’ll remember the phrase “the snake is tired” tha3baan ta3baan (ثعبان تعبان)
Outside the language, you can connect the word with a similar sounding word in another language, or a name. Like the only way I can remember the word for “wash”, which is nawa in Swahili, is to remember that my cousin Nava (which is like nawa) washes her hands. Which I trust she does. (Nava, if you’re reading this, you now have this reputation to live up to.)
Here’s a few tips on making mnemonics work for you in learning difficult words.
Tip 1: The sillier the mnemonic, the better.
They’re only for you. Even if they’re entirely in the language, I find it’s unlikely native speakers ever think of them.
Imagine if someone told an English speaker that they remember the word “shake” by thinking “the snake shakes”. You’d think huh, those rhyme I guess. But it’s probably the first time you’ve heard the words together.
Tip 2: You have to invent the mnemonics yourself.
Nobody else (like a teacher, or a book) can give them to you! The very act of creating the mnemonic is part of the learning process. It connects the neural pathways in your head and gives you an anchor for the memory.
And on the other hand if someone else gave you the mnemonic to remember… well now you have two things to remember, the word and the mnemonic. It can feel like even more work.
Tip 3: You magically stop using the mnemonic after a few times.
Because we think of 80-20 language learning, we’re only trying to learn words that actually come up in conversations we have. So if we’re living in the desert (as we were, learning Arabic) we’d say “snake” surprisingly often. The first two or three times, I needed the mnemonic to say the word. After that, I just had the word in my instant-recall vocabulary (on the tip of my tongue).
Videos of yourself speaking
This is the second thing we do. I noticed a while ago that whenever I gave a speech in another language (which I first had to do in a Chinese language school), I’d inevitably learn 5-10 new phrases to make the speech work.
So I thought: what if I just learn the sentences I need to say in their entirety, memorize them and then record them? Or what if we just record speeches? In fact i resolved to record sentences every day when learning Hebrew in just an hour a day (I had a job at the time) and it worked really, really effectively. See me giving a presentation in Hebrew at the end of the 30 days.
Here’s what I suggest. It works whether you’re living in the country or at your home base.
- Take notes during the day, inspired by your daily life, of something you want to say in another language. It could be something banal like “We’re out of milk” to the profound, like “When I read the news this morning about Israel naming a settlement after Trump I wanted to throw up”
- Translate your sentences, and check them with a teacher if you have one.
- Practise them a few times to yourself.
- Hit record on your phone!
Here’s a few tips to make recording yourself work better to learn those difficult words.
Tip 1: Try to have some kind of “theme” between sentences.
For example, talk about things in your kitchen and cooking something. Or stick to the news and politics.
When you learn the sentences, it’s easier to remember them and to make them flow if there’s an association. You’ll find yourself learning more connector words, like “even though” or “And then…”. Nobody would move naturally from a sentence about milk to a sentence about politics.
When you’re recording them, this flow becomes very apparent. If you do move between themes you’ll think “this is so silly, I hope nobody can hear me”. That can really throw you off, and it becomes a learning roadblock. If it’s something you can imagine people would be impressed to hear, it’s a much better association!
Tip 2: Share the videos with a learning partner
Nothing creates accountability like sharing videos!
On Apple phones/tablets, you can use iCloud sharing to share videos. On both Apple and Android devices you can use Google Photos, too. Or a dropbox or whatever.
You can also just message each other videos, like in a chat session (I’ve made separate chat conversations just for these videos before).
This practise of sharing the videos is hard. It means you start to worry about making it interesting or keeping it visually acceptable. None of this is bad; it just forces you to put more effort in, which makes the effect of active learning even more effective.
The last thing we do is to use pictures. But not just any pictures: we use funny pictures or memes that might only be tangentially connected with the photo.
Of course to remember “orange” you can throw in a photo of an orange. But what if you threw in a photo of an orangutan?
An easy way to find funny pictures is to google images search the word with the words “animal”, “joke” or “cartoon” at the end.
You then can just paste this photo into your flashcard.
The crazy thing is every time you use that word, that image will come to your head. I have a really weird association with the word “watermelon” in Swahili.
These associations between pictures and words help in much the same way as a funny mnemonic.
There’s no tricks to this technique really. Just pick a funny picture, and put it in your flashcard app of choice (we use Anki).
Hope these are useful. If there’s something else you use, let us know!