Mnemomania

The second guest post from LearnWithOliver.com user Robert Dupuis about memory aids or mnemonics.

When I was a boy Donovan, a Scottish singer and musician, hit the top of the charts with the single Sunshine Superman, in which he promised to use “every trick in the book” to win a woman. At least when learning a language we linguists aren’t very interested in romantic conquests, but we too must use every mental trick to facilitate learning and retention, tricks properly known as mnemonic devices (i.e. memory aids). Wikipedia says that said devices may assist in language learning, there’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that they not only assist but are crucial to it. And here are a few devices I use:

Related words, i.e. root words, cognates and derivatives. The French verb oublier, “to forget,” is the root word for English oblivious, “unable to remember or unaware of one’s surroundings.” So if you forget oublier, remember this: “I’m oblivious to that word.” Can’t think of the French word for sky? Just look up at your ceiling, do a vowel switch of the root ceil– and you have it: ciel.

Imaginative interpretation. The German words einzig, “only,” can be remembered by “I have only one cigarette;” verscheiden,to pass away,” by imagining a horse that, upon seeing a shadow, shied then died (ver, the prefix of verscheiden, means “to see” in Spanish); sauber, “clean,” and zauber, “magic,” are very similar and remind me of the expression “Cleanliness is godliness,” i.e. “Cleanliness is magic;” unterhalten, “to entertain,” makes me think of a big hand under, i.e. holding, a TV.

Rhyming phrases or ditties. The phrase Juana la rana y el guapo sapo, for example, made it easier for me to learn the Spanish words for “frog,” “handsome,” and “toad.” I tried for days to sing those Spanish words to Let It Be and failed, but they were effective anyway.

Mapping. By mapping I mean the shapes assumed by the same or similar words on a conjugation or declination table. For example, the Spanish verb dormer, “to sleep,” undergoes a spelling change in four of the six present indicative forms, that is in all three singular forms and the final plural form. Seeing the following table may tie up loose mnemonic ends:

(yo) duermo (nosotros) dormimos
(tú) duermes
(vosotros) dormís
(él) duerme (ellos) duermen

See the red L-shape that denotes root spelling changes? Store such shapes in your cognitive memory banks for ready recall in times of need. Tables like this have helped me enormously over the years with every language I’ve studied, but especially with those that commonly do without personal pronouns that unequivocally identify the doer, such as Spanish and Italian. To the beginner learning verb forms may seem extremely difficult. Dormir has about fifty simple forms and another thirty compound forms (the latter are seldom used so don’t despair!) Remember that the longest journey begins with one step.

Words-within-words. I use this devise not so much to remember words but to remember their spellings. The first few times I wrote the German vielleicht, “possibly,” I had to consult the dictionary. Then I spotted the French pronoun elle within it: viELLEicht ― end of uncertainty.

Look at it so: Every single word you meet, in no matter what language, has a hook on top. What tool or device will you use to grab that word and reel it into your mind? Those mentioned above are merely on the tip of the mnemonic iceberg. Use your imagination, let your mind run wild. The mind is a muscle, the most important muscle we have. So keep it in shape. And have fun doing it.

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