How to... Learn a Foreign Language

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Systems Needed

Using the Tools

Foreign languages are the ideal subject area for the use of memory techniques. Learning vocabulary is often a matter of associating a meaningless collection of syllables with a word in your own language.

Traditionally people have associated these words by repetition – by saying the word in their own language and the foreign language time and time and time and time again. You can improve on this tedious way of learning by using three good techniques:

1. Using Mnemonics to Link Words

This is a simple extension of the link method  . Here you are using images to link a word in your own language with a word in a foreign language.

For example, in learning English/French vocabulary:

  • English: rug/carpet – French: tapis – imagine an ornate oriental carpet with a tap as the central design woven in chrome thread.
  • English: grumpy – French: grognon – a grumpy man groaning with irritation.
  • English: to tease – French: taquiner – a woman teasing her husband as she takes in the washing.

This technique was formalized by Dr. Michael Gruneberg, and is known as the 'LinkWord' technique. He has produced language books (an example is German by Association) in many language pairs to help students acquire the basic vocabulary needed to get by in the language (usually about 1000 words). It is claimed that using this technique this basic vocabulary can be learned in just 10 hours.

2. The Town Language Mnemonic

This is a very elegant, effective mnemonic that fuses a sophisticated variant of the Roman Room system   with the system described above.

This depends on the fact that the basic vocabulary of a language relates to everyday things: things that you can usually find in a city, town or village. To use the technique, choose a town that you are very familiar with. Use objects within that place as the cues to recall the images that link to foreign words.

Nouns in the town

Nouns should be associated to the most relevant locations: for example, the image coding the foreign word for book could be associated with a book on a shelf in the library. You could associate the word for bread with an image of a loaf in a baker's shop. Words for vegetables could be associated with parts of a display outside a greengrocer's. Perhaps there is a farm just outside the town that allows all the animal name associations to be made.

Adjectives in the park

Adjectives can be associated with a garden or park within the town: words such as green, smelly, bright, small, cold, etc. can be easily related to objects in a park. Perhaps there is a pond there, or a small wood, or perhaps people with different characteristics are walking around.

Verbs in the sports center

Verbs can most easily be associated with a sports center or playing field. This allows us all the associations of lifting, running, walking, hitting, eating, swimming, driving, etc.

Remembering genders

In a language where gender is important, a very good method of remembering this is to divide your town into two main zones. In one zone you code information on masculine gender nouns, while in the other zone you code information on feminine nouns. Where the language has a neutral gender, then use three zones. You can separate these areas with busy roads, rivers, etc. To fix the gender of a noun, simply associate its image with a place in the correct part of town. This makes remembering genders easy!

Many languages, many towns

Another elegant spin-off of the technique comes when learning several languages: normally this can cause confusion. With the town mnemonic, all you need do is choose a different city, town or village for each language to be learned. Ideally this might be in the relevant country. Practically, however, you might just decide to use a local town with the appropriate foreign flavor.

3. The hundred most common words

Tony Buzan, in his book 'Using your Memory', points out that just 100 words comprise 50% of all words used in conversation in a language. Learning this core 100 words gets you a long way towards being able to speak in that language, albeit at a basic level. The 100 basic words used in conversation are shown below:

1. A,an 2. After 3. Again 4. All 5. Almost
6. Also 7. Always 8. And 9. Because 10. Before
11. Big 12. But 13. (I) can 14. (I) come 15. Either/or
16. (I) find 17. First 18. For 19. Friend 20. From
21. (I) go 22. Good 23. Good-bye 24. Happy 25. (I) have
26. He 27. Hello 28. Here 29. How 30. I
31. (I) am 32. If 33. In 34. (I) know 35. Last
36. (I) like 37. Little 38. (I) love 39. (I) make 40. Many
41. One 42. More 43. Most 44. Much 45. My
46. New 47. No 48. Not 49. Now 50. Of
51. Often 52. On 53. One 54. Only 55. Or
56. Other 57. Our 58. Out 59. Over 60. People
61. Place 62. Please 63. Same 64. (I) see 65. She
66. So 67. Some 68. Sometimes 69. Still 70. Such
71. (I) tell 72. Thank you 73. That 74. The 75. Their
76. Them 77. Then 78. There is 79. They 80. Thing
81. (I) think 82. This 83. Time 84. To 85. Under
86. Up 87. Us 88. (I) use 89. Very 90. We
91. What 92. When 93. Where 94. Which 95. Who
96. Why 97. With 98. Yes 99. You 100. Your

(Extract reproduced from Use Your Memory by Tony Buzan with the permission of BBC Worldwide Limited, © Tony Buzan)

Summary

The three approaches to learning foreign languages shown here can be very effective. They help to point out:

  • The most important words to learn.
  • Show how to link words in your own language to words in a foreign language.
  • Show how to structure recall of the language through use of the town mnemonic.

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