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An effective and simple memorization method for foreign vocabulary

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Posted

One of my good friends has been in China studying Mandarin. He shared with me a technique he has used to remember vocabulary and hanzi.

It's simple, whatever character or word or phrase you're trying to remember, close your eyes, and picture yourself writing it out. You must concentrate and picture every stroke being written, one at a time, until you're holding an image of the character/word/phrase in your head and seeing every detail. While you're doing this, move your pencil over a piece of paper (eyes closed the whole time) as if you're writing it, but you don't have to actually write anything on the paper. Mimic the writing while you're picturing the characters being written in your head.

It's scary how effective this is for memorizing Chinese characters in particular.

There's some variations on this, and you can combine this with the classic association method. I'm going to use an example from Japanese but I don't see why you can't use this for anything, even memorizing English vocabulary.

Say you want to memorize... 写真。 This is read shashin [shaw-sheeng], and it means photograph/picture.

We're going to take the above method further and combine it with a classic mnemonic technique where you attach a vivid association to the word. The weirder, funnier, more violent, more sexual, more disturbing, the better.

There are many ways to do this, but this is what came to my head immediately. Shashin sounds like Shaw and shin (as in the body part). With my eyes closed, I'm imagining a nude George Bernard Shaw taking pictures of his shins from one of those cameras that produces a small photograph instantly. He smiles, poses shyly and says in a cute voice, “chotto hazukashii desu kedo, goshujin-sama no tame nara, motto SHASHIN wo totte ganbaru yo” (This is a little embarrassing but as long as it's for my master, I'll do my best to take pictures.) He takes one of the photos, gets out a pen, and starts writing 写真 on one of the pictures, and while he writes, I write with him (eyes still closed, really concentrating on each stroke of the characters), pencil hovering over a piece of paper. He hands the photo to me, “kono SHASHIN wo oboete kudasai” (please remember this photo). I look at it, his repulsive nude body on it featuring his shins, with the word 写真。

When I'm done imagining, I actually write down 写真 now, preferably within a meaningful sentence relating to the image you created if you're far enough in your studies. Well, even a very simple sentence is better than nothing. And while writing, say everything outloud, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z7FztiCcvl0.

I've been doing association for vocabulary for a long time, but I haven't tried mimicking with my eyes closed. It's unbelievable how well it works. The biggest benefit to all this, association and mimicking, is that it forces you to concentrate. Rote memorization makes you lazy, it's boring, your mind starts to wander to other things instead of the language you're trying to learn.

The only real setback to this is that I think a lot of people don't give this a fighting chance. It takes a lot of effort just to come up with vivid associations in your head as is (however, you quickly get good at it, and it's a fun creative exercise), and doing the mimicking and picturing the words being written out stroke by stroke takes even more time and energy. The payoff is huge however. This is far more effective than trying to bash words into your head. I can't stress enough, it's scary how well doing mimicking + association works together. It's hard to find an association sometimes, but mimicking alone makes it much easier to remember vocabulary.

Another fun idea I tried: use your arms to mimic the word. Draw the word in the air by slashing with your hands and arms. Aim upward a little. Imagine the strokes flying out of your hands, flying into the sky, displacing portions of clouds. And there, it is written in the heavens !!! 写真 !!! For good measure, take a photo of it.

It's going to look and feel weird (make sure no one is around...), and take a lot of mental effort, but so worth it. That is the point though, the emotional response and getting involved physically makes the word concrete, rather than arbitrarily abstract. Even if you're not learning Japanese and know nothing about it, I'll be very surprised if you sincerely tried the above and used my images, and forgot what 写真 means and how to read it soon after.

One more example:

考える kangaeru (kawn gaw eh roo) to think/consider

kangaeru sounds similar to kangaroo. I'm imagining a kangaroo posing like the statue The Thinker. When I mimick the character , I'm imagining myself as a giant, and I have a magical pen that shoots out kangaroos posing like The Thinker into a field. As I move my pen, a bunch of kangaroo thinkers get lined up, and from my POV far above them, they spell out .

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Posted

This sounds similar to the technique that Foer explains in his TED Talk. I've found that I can use it in examinations by remembering myself writing notes and then "reading" the notes again when I close my eyes and think about watching myself working. This doesn't give perfect recall but it's certainly enough to pass exams...

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