Creating contexts for vocabulary

I’d like some help brainstorming the fastest way to learn a language’s vocabulary.

Personally, I’ve basically perfected memorizing vocabulary quickly using mnemonics spaced on stressed syllables. However, I’m thinking it would be even faster if I organized these words in certain contexts, or “scenes”: Not exactly loci, but imaginary landscapes or buildings that are all completely different for different types of words.

For example:

A fairground with amusement rides to store all prepositions and conjunctions.

An open-country, pastoral-type setting to store all pronouns and articles.

A marketplace to store all adverbs and interjections.

So my approach would be to start with most frequent vocabulary (of course) and just keep adding to the scenes as I build.

For Spanish, I would start by placing the most essential conjunctions and prepositions (y, de, a, en, por, que) in the fairgrounds, essential pronouns and articles (yo, me, qué, no, la, el, lo, un, una) in the open country scene, and essential adverbs (sí, aquí, ya) in the marketplace.

After those are solid, add more conjunctions and prepositions to the fairgrounds (con, para, pero, del, al, como, si), more pronouns and articles to the countryside (te, los, se, mi, yo, eso, las, su, tu, le, esto, esta), etc.

After that point, I would want my Spanish character’s home to represent nouns. I would put common words in every room, and then add less common words to the same rooms, etc.

What do you all think of this?

Two more things for this system:

(1) For conjugations of a few essential verbs, I would have a small shop for each verb. For example, there would be a “ser” apple shop, an “estar” astronomy-art store, and so forth. I only want a few conjugations for a few verbs right now, but this technique makes it easy to build: Add more conjugations by putting more words in the stores, and add more verbs by creating more shops.

(2) For adjectives, I haven’t yet decided whether I should create more scenes or just place them in the character’s house. Should adjectives be separate from nouns in this system?

Any thoughts appreciated!

Seems good.

I think Joshua Foer recommended something similar to this in his book. But he did it by placing vocabulary words where you would be most likely to use them. For example; placing food items in a grocery store, placing exercise words in a gym.



I am pretty new to Memory Techniques in General…

However, I have been learning languages for many years.

For example, I studied French growing up in a Canadian School (Canada has two official languages ).

I switched to Spanish in High School (cause i hated being forced to learn french).

I am currently living in Ukraine with my wife and studying Ukrainian and Russian Languages.

The only system I have used to this point is Rote Memorization, write down a few new words that I want to learn, they could be categorized, like food, or places, verbs, adverbs…etc… Maybe 5-10 words.

And write down the translation. And then cover the translation side with a sheet of paper and go through it, over and over…

Writing it down, reading it, and saying it out loud uses more of your senses, therefore stimulating and creating more neural pathways in your brain. Repetition, helps to reinforce it…

Also in my experience, this has nothing to do with Memory Techniques, but whatever you may know in a language, get out there and practice it! Find a Spanish speaker in your community or online on Skype, and speak speak speak!

This way you are not just learning the “Theory” of a language, but you are getting actual “Practice”.

Sometimes this also requires getting over fears of making mistakes, or sounding stupid… but its the only way to grow really quickly.

Anyways, hope this was relevant to your post.



Actually, now that I think of it…

Getting out there and just speaking with Native Speakers, is great for Memory!

Using a Language, is a lot more relevant to your mind, than sitting with books all the time and studying.

And you also create a lot of new “emotional experiences” when you use a language in interactions with other persons.

Its not necessarily a technique per say…


Correct, you can’t say you’ve truly learned a language until you’ve spoken it. The point here is to front-load the work by learning some things up-front that will make learning to speak much easier.

Does anyone else use contexts for vocabulary in a similar way, or have any suggestions?

A fairground is a cool idea, but it assumes that the learner has a strong enough fairground in mind to make it work (assuming that the person is not accustomed to language learning techniques).

This is where there is strength in your front-loading concept and a weakness. It’s the problem that mnemonics faces in general: the fact that you’ve got to take at least two large steps back before returning to the starting line. I would suggest that by asking people to create virtual Memory Palaces that they need to recall in order to use them to recall memorized material may be front-loading to much. It’s not exactly an infinite regress, but it could be too much to handle.

I think a real advancement would be in teaching people to get a sufficient vocabulary as they’re reading about grammar (not memorizing it) and then getting to a level where you can use vocabulary itself to teach grammar. Most of the clues you need to truly understand grammar and experience what Luca Lampariello calls “epiphany points” come from vocabulary acquisition and not the reverse. A sufficient enough vocabulary also allows people to intuit so much about grammar, whereas a knowledge of grammar rules allows you to intuit very little about what vocabulary words mean (though that reality will vary from language to language, sometimes in extreme ways).

With respect to contexts for vocabulary, I’m not sure it’s necessary, but during my recent trip to Athens, I wanted to test a scientific study I read about the role of Norepinephrine (or noradreniline) in memory building. I’m not a scientist (at least not that kind), nor did I draw blood samples while I was there, but the theory is that the brain produces a 'ho lot of noripiniphrine when we find ourselves in novel locations: one of the reasons that we often have such vivid memories of trips that we’ve taken to new places.

I wondered what would happen if I built some Memory Palaces in Athens and memorized vocabulary there I would experience any kind of boost. Not only was Athens a place I’d never visited before, but it’s deeply important to me given the time I’ve invested in memory skills, particularly Memory Palaces.

Again, this is only anecdotal, but I will report nonetheless that, even as an experienced Memorizer, the “Magnetism” of my mind went through the roof due to the combination of normal Memory Palace construction procedures, the “cool-factor” of using Athens itself to memorize new Greek vocabulary (in addition to the ability to use that vocabulary straight away in a native setting) and when I truly expect was a naturally-induced chemical kick.

Now, with respect to the idea that you can learn a language by not visiting the country, of course you can. But you may find ways to get this boost by studying and using memory techniques in novel locations. If it’s Greek, for example, you could go to a Greek restaurant and study/memorize there. You could go to the Greek section of a library (if you’re lucky to have one). You could go to some kind of Greek cultural event, and so on.

It’s only anecdotal, but my experience suggests (and I’ll continue experimenting), that some form of “locatedness” in a novel context does have a powerful effect.

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