Is mnemonics useful to learn languages?

I am sure this has been discussed in the past, but I could not find anything general as opposed to topics discussing the use of certain techniques and their use in language aquisition.

Language learning has been one of my main hobbies since a couple of years. Mnemonics only came to be one recently. I study about 1.5 hours of arabic every day, and try to maintain my English, Italian, Spanish, a bit of Japanese and Greek/Latin for translating philosophy. I always considered it to be the most self-evident application of natural language training, maybe besides poetry learning, and a major weapon in fighting dementia, cause your brain has to rebuild its structure in order to apply words.
However, as I have started systematic memory training of course I started to memeorize difficult words with pictures, trying to replace them as quickly as possible by a moire “natural” link.

I wanted to ask you for your experiences. From the past weeks I can tell the following for myself:

  1. It takes significantly longer to recall artificial memory vocabulary, as I have to go there and pull them out from my memory palaces. It makes them virtually useless in a conversational situation, I just seem like a very slow thinker. :smiley: This is especially the case with verbs, that all have a similar build and cannot be very well differentiated with pictures alone. An exception are words like barad (fridge) which reminds me visually of barid (cold) etc., so words which have a semantic connection.
  2. I am slower with creating them. While I can remember 35 vocabs on an average day with my natural memory, I can only remember 20 or so artificial pics, which makes it questionable for me.
  3. It is not a physical ability that naturally evolves and gets quicker. I feel that my organic language memory gets faster as I know the language better, this doesn’t seem to be the case with artificial memory. It stays at 20 objects more or less, as it just takes time to produce them in the first place.

I wanted to ask your opinion on this. Is it really much faster or faster at all to use mnemonics for language aquisition?


Yes! Noch Fragen, Kienzle? :stuck_out_tongue:

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That depends on what you mean by language acquisition exactly…

I wouldn’t use mnemonics for every single word, but if you are learning a new language, you can quickly do a couple of hundred words over a weekend and then move on to tv shows or movies from there… hitting the ground running. So YES to language acquisition in general, but NO to every single word of vocabulary you are learning.

They should always have that connection… how else are they supposed to link the two languages otherwise? Here’s an example for Wednesday in French.


The example you gave is fundamentally different from the one I gave. In mine, they are etymologically or naturally connected. Arab people call a fridge fridge cause of a overpersonal association which is deeply rooted in the nature of the object. Plus: this kind of connection saves time, cause we don’t need to make it up.

Of course there needs to be a relationship in the association, the question is, if making one up and storing it – but especially reactivating it - is fast enough to match talking speed. For me it is definitely not - but maybe I am a different learning type, that’s why I was interested in your experiences.
Probably it’s a stupid calculation, but conversational speed is about 150 - 180 words per minute. If we assume that half of those words are logical conjunctions and articles, so let’s say 70 are propositions, we have to retrieve 1.16 a second from a memory palace. Ok, I know, many will be learnt by heart, but even pulling out a meager 10, so 6.25% of my words from a memory palace converts to a hefty speed when I compare it to my cards PAO for instance. (1.7 cards per second) The complexity of creating card images is so ridiculously low compared to a natural language, that I cannot see how I’d ever make that work for me.

Again: I know it is “just” to memorize complex words that natural memory seems to fail with at first and then needs to be transferred to a natural level but creating an image + learning it + activating multiple times + converting it to natural memory through use seems so…slow when I compare it to hammering it in my brain through using it 5 times in a sentence. The hyperpolyglots I read about only use mnemonics rarely, but I know that for example Tim Donor does for word groups occasionally.

Sorry for my novel-lengh rambles. Your answers are highly appreciated!

Trial and error, through the exploration of what others have here and elsewhere, has worked wonders.

With what I have in my palace, I can start composing the sentences I see myself using in a conversation, living as much of it in as many different ways as I can imagine, having fun with it, restructure it to add idioms, pieces of common sentences, etc. It’s seems harder than it is at first, but after some practice, it just gets easier and easier and faster. Skills to be developed, countless tricks to be used to make language learning faster and fun and for some like me, at last, possible.

P.S I have 0 success with rote, so this is a real life-saver for me.

I really like your learning projects and can’t wait for some updates as you try and find what works for you.

You will only match talking speed when the ‘acquired language’ has become fluent/instinctive. That is one of the possible ‘traps’ of using mnemonics as opposed to rote. Rote takes far longer to learn a word but once its in, its already almost instinctive. I’ll give you an example. one well known mnemonist used an MP etc to learn some verses, a lot of verses, in an ancient language and he recited them in a video. He ‘recited’ them, he went through his mind palace and ‘read’ them. Which is , imo, a hell of an achievement but he didn’t have the fluency, the instinctiveness I have with some of the Old English poetry I have learnt by rote. When i recite Beowulf I just open my mouth and the words pour forth, no idea how, my mouth just seems to know the sounds it should make. I can be thinking intensively about something else at the time…I can even be rolling a cigarette at the time und ich hab’ wahrlich zwei linke Daumen.

I put that bit of German in because I could, ie I didn’t have to go into my MP palace first and find the file labelled ‘German Idiomatic sayings and Proverbs’, I just switched my brain from thinking in English to German because I can, because I have spoken German everyday of my adult life.

You will only reach ‘talking speed’ when you no longer need that Mind Palace, because you have reviewed it so often it ‘has rewritten that part of your brain’s operating system’ (to put it in the words of one Field Linguist and scholar)


I know… that’s why I used that example. Hope you read the rest of the linked post too and not just the quote here.

Originally, you were talking about visually by which I don’t know if you meant that the “look of the letters” in barad is similar to the “look of the letters” in barid; I don’t know how you’d visualize cold. Lots of false friends if you go down that road… Schafe and Schiffe looks an awful lot the same too. Etymological, to me, would look like this:

But you’ve asked for mnemonics and not for etymology, so I figured I’d give you an example in that direction. I’ve also said that I would only use it for the first couple of hundred words over a weekend with a new language before moving on to tv shows or movies to solidify that passive vocabulary.

No, of course it’s not fast enough; and again… I am against memorizing vocabulary beyond the basics via mnemonics.

That just leads to Germans that think idioms like “the yellow of the egg” and “the devil will I do” exist in English.

Almost all the ones I know use mnemonics for Japanese kanji. But again… that is to get started with the language, you learn it by speaking it.


Oh you’re refering to the ‘thumbs’ bit? Because I said ‘thumbs’ not ‘hands’?

That was just a free bonus… :wink: added your quote after I had the other two examples written. Examples I’ve actually heard people use before… no joke.

Granted even funnier when a Scouser comes up to someone who clearly speaks with a North American accent and asks, “Do you fancy a fag?” Walked into the “pub” after somebody explained to me that the guy was not actually hitting on me and asked for some chips and got some fries instead.


I was riffing on ‘10 left thumbs’ which is , according to my more ‘with it’ German friends the ‘Steigerung’ (comparative) of ‘2 left hands’. Mind you they also tell me that ‘non smoker’ is the ‘Steigerung’ of ‘Warm shower-taker’.

I personally think I have great memory, but I need to train it. For example, English is not my native language and the way I tried to learn it was that I tried to memorize as much words as I could in the beginning, but after that I somehow found a way to understand it in a better way. Its so weirs to explain. Its like in the beginning I would have to learn that Sun is Sun and Food is Food and is not to be mistaken even though it happned to me a lot of times, so I had to repeatedly tell myself its the opposite way. But after sometime, there is something like a “click” where you begin to understand that language in a whole new different way and you no longer need to repeatedly tell yourself that sun is sun and food id food. You see it once, understand it and use it…When I reached my click level in Italian language, it was very easy for me to come back to that language after a few years and begin to learn it again, because I just knew. It was much more easy, in Russian language I have never experienced click, thats why I only remember a few words and cant form a normal sentence when in English and Italian its not a problem at all. And yes, I think mnemonics helped me a lot in the beginning.


I like your way of saying that! I myself am working hard to click in so many languages. But it’s only when I finally clicked for the first time, that I stopped worrying and stressing needlessly, and started making Leaps and Bounds in my language learning endeavours. Clickity click and clack. Pora za STOL!

That click is actually the sound of your “Code-Switching switch” tripping in…or a minor brain embolism :stuck_out_tongue:
Seriously though it can get even ‘freakier’ than that ‘click’- say when you’re chatting with a hot date and suddenly you realise you’ve been speaking her native language for the last 10 minutes.

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Just en passant , a little tip from a professional language teacher (SWIM) and something that gets overlooked in language courses (mnemonic courses too). “Bread = Brot” isn’t quite accurate. You say ‘bread’ to a Brit and he’ll ‘see’ a large sliced white ‘toast’ style bread that was chemically ‘baked’ and has more plastic in it than the bag it comes in. "Brot " to a German conjures up an image of a dark sourdough rye bread. So when you come up with a mental image for ‘pain’ (French word for ‘bread’) make sure you include a baguette not a slice of Mighty White…or whatever bread looks like where you are.

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Mein Gott, so stereotypical !:joy: je suis French et Mighty Whites c’est Mon pain ! Actually, pain represents all types of bread, but perhaps using a baguette will help you remember that you’re learning French

What ? You mean you French don’t all wear berets and striped tshirts, ride bikes draped with onions and have a caporals surgically attached to your lower lip a la Serge Gainsbourg? Sacre bleu and Oh lala…


I think that mnemonics are useful for language learning. I’ve used them successfully to learn Esperanto quickly and I plan to use them again to learn another language very fast as well. I should clarify though that mnemonics probably won’t help you with listening comprehension, however, as that’s a skill that can only be trained through exposure.

I find that having a good/amateur knowledge of linguistics is conducive to learning a language faster. After all, if you understand how languages work scientifically all of the different grammar rules in various languages become much easier to memorize. For example, I’m sure you’ve noticed how Italian and Spanish share many of the same grammar rules. If you had no knowledge of these languages, but you knew a bit about linguistics you could memorize and understand their grammar rules very quickly.

I also found that the more I understood my own native language, the easier it became for me to express myself in a foreign one. When I understood English to a higher degree I could create equivalencies for phrases and grammatical structures that I would normally use in English.

As for using mnemonics to memorize words, I don’t use the memory palace technique. I find that the linking method is far more efficient and easier to recall. When I was starting out conversating, I had a similar problem like you when trying to form sentences. What helped me was just forming random sentences in my free time and not being afraid of just speaking in curt sentences when starting out.

As for you having trouble creating images with your words, you’ll just have to keep on practicing the techniques to get really good results out of them. When first starting out with mnemonics, your natural memory will always be better. But in the end, mnemonics will always beat out a natural memory.

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The advice to ‘first learn your own language’ or ‘can you identify the plusquamperfect in your own tongue?’, is probably the best advice for 2nd language learning there is. Unfortunately it is also the one bit of advice nobody ever follows! I never did and it would have made my life so much easier if i had.

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Yeah, understanding English especially helped me in learning conjugations. English speakers like to brag about how “difficult” our language is, but if they saw how a lot of languages like to conjugate their verbs, they’d shut their mouths.

I think the idea is to use the linking method when you first learn a word, and then over time with exposure and seeing the word in use (like in an article or book) the mnemonic will eventually fade away.
The mnemonic is just initial scaffolding that you use to recall the translation. The real key is exposure and using the word.

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