چگونه هزاران کلمه را سریع یاد بگیریم

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چگونه هزاران کلمه را سریع یاد بگیریم

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CHAPTER 3: How to Learn Thousands of Words Quickly

If you don’t have the memory of a supercomputer, don’t worry. This chapter explains why we forget things and teaches a much more efficient—and fun—way to remember foreign words.

One of the most intimidating aspects of learning a language is the huge amount of vocabulary that lies ahead of you. Depending on how you count them, a language could have as many as a half a million words. Surely that’s too many for someone without a savant’s memory to handle.

Well, considering that over half the population of the planet speaks more than one language, this of course can’t be true. There are several shortcuts and tricks to help you absorb many words a lot more quickly than you think you’re able to, even if you’re the kind of person (like me) who still forgets where he left his keys!

In this chapter, I want to focus exclusively on making sure you have no trouble quickly accessing the many words and phrases required to speak a language, and that you never again use the excuse of having a “terrible memory.”

Rote Rehearsal: Why the Memorization We’re Taught in School Doesn’t Work

One thing that, to this day, still boggles my mind is that we learn so many facts in school, but we never really learn how to learn.

In ancient Greece, the idea of memorizing through associative techniques (like mnemonics) was actually quite normal, but this was replaced in modern times with . . . well, nothing really.

Ancient Greeks had fantastic memories, because there were no textbooks or notepads to take home with them. Most people were illiterate and, regardless, “paper” was very expensive. Lectures were oral, and people came up with clever ways of remembering poems, stories, and any long spoken passages.

Later, the widespread availability of books meant that anyone could look up something in print whenever he or she needed to, so memorizing became less common and less relevant. We have an even more pronounced version of this nowadays: many people end up not learning, or even memorizing, any facts, since they can always Google them in an instant.

This is unfortunate, as it doesn’t push our minds to their fullest potentials. We no longer seem able to efficiently hold information in our memories but instead refer to a printed or online source.

What replaced the mnemonic techniques of the ancient Greeks was basically a system of repetitive exposure to information with the presumption it will eventually “sink in.” For instance, when I was learning German in school and came across a new word, such as der Tisch (meaning “the table”), since I didn’t know what else to do, the only way I saw to assimilate this word was through rote memorization. That is to say, I repeated over and over in my head: “der Tisch, the table, der Tisch, the table, der Tisch, the table.” After saying it a few dozen times, it would kind of sink in, and I’d remember it a little. But the next day, or a few days later, it would be gone. What was “table” in German again?

I find that rote memorization is somewhat useful for recognizing words. So after a few dozen—or a few hundred—repetitions, I might (for a short period) remember what der Tisch is, if I were to read it. But it’s not symmetrical (meaning, it’s not a word I can both recognize and produce), so I’m out of luck if I want to produce words myself, and the speaking part of language acquisition is much harder for most of us than simply recognizing words spoken or read. This is another reason my “speak from day one” suggestion seems absurd to so many people.

Even for recognizing words, rote memorization doesn’t burn a word into your memory as you might think it would. What really keeps it there? We make memories by association. Sights, smells, strange and powerful images, stories, and the like are what make the most memorable events in our lives stand out. Repetition works too, but it’s only effective when you have a lot of repetition, and that can get incredibly tedious when you deal with so many words on an individual level.

So scrap rote rehearsal, and let’s have a look at two approaches that have been more effective for many language learners.

The Keyword Method for Learning Words Quickly

A much more effective, and much more fun, method of learning vocabulary is through associating very visual images with something that sounds like the word you want to remember, also known as the keyword method.

You need to create an amusing, animated, and unforgettable image, or even a short story, whenever you come across a new word or phrase you want to remember in order to stick it to something in your mind. These images or keywords are much easier to recall, both when attempting to recognize a word and when producing a word yourself.

To show you how effective this is, I’ll jump straight into giving several examples:


First, let’s look at the French word for “train station”: gare (pronounced with an ah sound). When I saw this word for the first time, I tried to think of a word similar to it in English. The closest word that came to me, which at least starts with the gar sound, was “Garfield” (the popular comic strip cat, who even has his own movie). This is a great word to use because Garfield is a very visual and funny image, as he’s a fat, lazy, sarcastic orange cat.

To be more visual with the English translation, rather than think of a generic train station (very easy to forget!), make your image one from a cartoon, a TV show, or a place you have fond memories of. When I was learning French, I got nostalgic about my time in Valencia, Spain, and visiting the city’s main train station to go on fun excursions to the countryside. So I picked that train station, visualizing it clearly in my mind.

Now combine the two in the most ridiculous way possible. Garfield couldn’t simply be sitting in the train station, as that image was far too easily forgettable. I imagined the train station on a very busy day, and then suddenly Garfield comes bursting through the doors with a suitcase, panting (since he’s so out of shape), and people turn around and look at this strange sight, but he has no time for them. He runs up to the timetable, sweating like crazy while he looks for the train to Bologna—the city he is going to for the world lasagna-eating championship. He gasps when he sees that his train is about to leave. He dashes to the right platform, only to catch sight of the train pulling out already. He runs after it, puffing frantically, throws his suitcase in one of the back compartments, jumps in after it, and makes it just in time.

This ridiculous story is one that is much harder to forget. The precise details of it are not so important, except for the fact that it’s definitely Garfield who is performing all the actions, and it’s definitely happening in a train station. This means that later, when you see the word gare in some random French text, you can go through the thought process: gare sounds like “Garfield” . . . and Garfield was in the train station.

Conversely—and something much more useful than you’ll ever get from rote memorization—when you need to say “train station” in French, you imagine your favorite train station (Valencia’s, in my case), think of what interesting thing happened there, and you suddenly can’t avoid seeing that silly orange cat running through it. If Garfield is running through a train station, then “train station” in French must be gare!

The recall process takes less than a second and barely slows down a nicely flowing conversation. The memory of the word is easily accessible and comes to you much more quickly than the digging you’d have to do with rote memorization.


Now let’s take a look at a Chinese word. One that I needed often was the word that meant “target” or “goal,” because I frequently discussed my fluency goal in Chinese when asked why I was in Taiwan. Since I wasn’t learning the writing system yet, all I needed to do was learn the sound of the word, which is mùbiāo (falling tone on mù, and first tone, which doesn’t go up or down but remains steady, on biāo).

So how do you learn this while incorporating the tone? Like anything else, it just requires a bit of imagination. Think about it for a second yourself: What would you come up with from mù (pronounced moo) and then biāo (bee-ow)? I don’t know about you, but I thought of a cow, then a bee, and then simply the ow (as in “ouch”) sound from pain.

Next, it’s a case of throwing ideas out there. It doesn’t matter how silly, nonsensical, politically incorrect, sexual, or personal your story is, as long as it stands out in your memory. This is the short story that I came up with for this word:

I’m walking through a field with a bow and arrow in the early evening as the sun is setting. I want to practice my shooting skills, but I don’t see something challenging to aim at. Suddenly a cow falls from the sky: “Mmmoooooo” (crash).

She stumbles to find her footing, and I see my opportunity. Conveniently, a bull’s-eye of concentric red and white circles has been pre-painted on her rear end, and I position myself by kneeling a little so my bow is at the same height as the poor cow’s ass.

This is no ordinary bow and arrow, though. My arrow is made entirely of bees. I pull it back and launch it to fly horizontally through the air, and since I positioned myself correctly, it flies straight into the target and goes up the cow’s bum! The poor animal forgets herself and rather than moo, she can’t resist yelling a loud “Ow!” (No cows or bees were harmed in the making of this mnemonic.)

While it’s true this story takes a few minutes to write out, our brains work much faster when verbalizing (or writing) isn’t necessary. All I need from this story are the essentials: “target” is moo (falling tone) and bee-ow (first tone, level—as in the story where the arrow is shot straight at the same height as the target). Also, when you hear mùbiāo, you know it means “target,” which is symmetrical, so I can both recognize it and produce it.

Some details are treated differently; for instance, the falling tone in Chinese doesn’t actually sound like someone falling and is more like a stern “No!” than a dramatic movie “Noooooo!” but when I was learning Chinese I made a visual aspect of my mnemonics that incorporates these movements so I could also remember the tones.

Even forgetting the tones (which I discuss in more detail in chapter 6), can you see how with a language as distant from English as Mandarin there is still hope, if you have a good imagination?

Other Examples

I could fill a whole book just with some of the craziest keyword-association stories I’ve come up with. But here are some random ones to give you further inspiration:

Playa in Spanish means “beach.” For this, I imagined a cheesy pickup artist (a “player”) strolling down a beach I know well, trying to pick up pretty Spanish girls but getting slapped in the face; to give the story a comedic effect, the slaps made it easier to remember.

The German example I began the chapter with, der Tisch—this word to me sounds like the start of the word “tissue.” So I imagine trying to sit down to dinner at a table made entirely out of tissues, which collapses as soon as I put my bowl of soup on it. The soup then spills all over the floor and a little on me . . . so then I have to mop it up with all the tissues I have!

The Czech word prvni looks and sounds nothing like any English word I can think of, but it’s an important word to learn since it means “first.” For this, I inserted a few vowels to make it easier and came up with “pro van.” I imagined a very complex scene of me winning the “professional van Olympics,” driving up into “first” place on the podium in my strange-looking white van, crying as I am handed my bouquet of flowers and the medal is placed around my neck, while I remain in the driver’s seat. “Pro van” is easy to remember from this scene and, with a little repetition, you’ll be able to instantly recall prvni.

These examples are all nouns (things). To expand on them and remember verbs (action words), adjectives (description words like “big,” “red,” “closed,” etc.), and adverbs (“quickly,” “happily”), you can still use a noun to make the connection.

For instance, to remember that verde (pronounced somewhat like bird-ay, which itself sounds like “birdie”) is “green” in Spanish, I imagined green grass. The first thing that comes to mind with the adjective “green” is, of course, grass, which suddenly transforms into millions of cute green birdies flocking into the air and leaving the field as nothing but soil, when it was so beautiful and green before.

How Can You Come Up with These Associations?

When I suggest coming up with such keyword associations, a retort I immediately hear from people is that they take far too much time and are much too complicated. It slows you down to go through the whole story every time you need to recall a word, but eventually you don’t have to go through the whole story.

When I first tried this approach, I found myself creating an association for a new word more slowly than I would have liked. After a week or so of doing this consistently, my mind and imagination expanded to come up with good images quickly.

At first, my examples were boring and far from memorable. Or, if they were good, it took me an entire minute or more to come up with it, which is a lot of time when you are dealing with a long list of words to memorize. In a very short time, though, my childlike imagination started to reawaken and I came up with more interesting images and examples, played with the process more, and expanded on the characters, colors, situations, and ridiculousness of my images. As such, they became more memorable and formed more quickly.

It’s true that, at first, it takes a minute or two to come up with a story for a new word, and when you multiply this by the many thousands of new words you may want to learn, it can seem terribly inefficient. But after doing this for a few days or a week, you get much better at it and can come up with a fantastic association in just a couple of seconds.

What about thinking through this silly story every time you want to recall a word? I’ve actually found that this approach acts more like glue, attaching the word to my memory, and it just becomes a natural part of my memory without me having to reapply the glue. Because of this, I generally only need to recall a story three or four times before I just know the word.

Now when I hear gare in French, I no longer need to go through the Garfield story. I just know this word means “train station.” It’s as much a part of me as its English equivalent. The way I got it into my memory is irrelevant; the point is that it’s there now. For inspiration on keyword associations while you get better at creating your own, visit Memrise.com.

Spaced Repetition: Another Great Way to Build Vocabulary Quickly

If, however, the keyword method doesn’t sound right for you, I’ve also had a lot of success using flash cards ordering the words or phrases by implementing what’s known as the spaced repetition system.

Consider the way we traditionally learn vocabulary: We go through a list of new words in a book in the sequence in which they appear. Often we don’t finish the list before we have to stop, and perhaps only halfway through that list. When we review the list the next time, we start again at the beginning. What’s the problem with this? You never get to the end of the list. You just keep going over the words you already know, while you rarely reach the ones you don’t know. You are effectively wasting your time on revising vocabulary that you already know well by now.

Spaced repetition uses flash cards and asks you to keep the hard words you didn’t remember at the top of the deck and push to the bottom the words you already know. Essentially, the quicker you remember a word, the deeper in the deck it ends up. With physical flash cards, this is implemented by you. You make sure any “hard” words you didn’t remember sit on the top of the deck and you slip the easy words much farther down in the stack. The quicker you remember a word, the farther down it should go.

My preference is to streamline this with technology using smartphone apps and free software, which let you order words based on their level of difficulty. By clicking a button, you can indicate how difficult that particular word is for you, and the app or software automatically reorders it. When I can, I spend a few days reviewing all my flash cards. This way I make sure important words are never forgotten, while I also come across new words.

Apps also allow you to study anywhere and at any time, even when you just have a few minutes while waiting for public transport or at any other time when you might be standing or sitting idly. Those little chunks of time throughout your day, which you are otherwise wasting, add up so quickly that you don’t even need dedicated study time.

The app/program I prefer (which works on all systems) is called Anki. See download links for that app and some of my recommendations for other spaced-repetition tools at fi3m.com/srs.

Using Music to Learn Phrases

While learning words is certainly very important, I recommend you start with phrases or full sentences, which allow you to communicate real ideas from the start. Focusing on set phrases like “Where is the bathroom?” and “How much does that cost?” lets you communicate in grammatically correct forms without having to master grammar.

First, you need to know those phrases, though. Which isn’t always easy.

To help retain a full sentence, I will often sing it out. This isn’t something I necessarily came up with out of the blue. It’s a technique used for centuries to remember passages. For instance, the Qur’an was originally taught orally, and people learned it by mimicking other people singing it. Even though it’s in written form now, Muslims continue to sing many of its passages, which helps them remember and focus on important areas of it.

I combine singing with a little of the keyword method, so the start of a phrase gets my momentum going. Let’s say I’m learning the Italian version of “Where is the bathroom?” which has one possible translation of “Dove si trova il gabinetto?”

The first part, dove (pronounced doh-vay), sounds a little like the word “duvet” (doo-vay). I imagine a duvet being used by a giant as toilet paper, or a toilet made out of bedcovers. The word itself actually means “where,” so this isn’t a useful keyword association, but I am only temporarily using it to get my phrase started. After you use a few phrases like this, you will start to just know that dove means “where” without requiring another mnemonic.

Next, let’s think of a good tune to go with the phrase so we can sing it out—a short one, such as the famous Big Ben chime, will do the trick here. To remember I need to use this chime, I could visualize the Big Ben clock tower on its side (instead of standing upright), like a toilet paper roll holder. Remember, the more ridiculous your image, the easier it will be to recall.

To really get this going, I want you to sing this along with me. Come on! “Dove si trova . . . il gabinetto?” Can you hear it? Both of the two-syllable sets -ve si and -etto land on one note each, so the song fits with the phrase.

You don’t have to actually sing it aloud every time you want to say the phrase; it’s for mnemonic purposes only. And you only need to do it once or twice before you’ll know the phrase naturally.

Memorizing Minute-Long Speeches for Smoother Intros

We’ve seen how to memorize single words and now phrases, so I want to end this chapter by going on to the next level and learning entire mini-scripts.

Mini-scripts are incredibly useful because we all tend to have similar conversations the first time we meet someone as beginning language learners: Who are you? Where are you from? What do you do for a living? Why are you learning this language? These phrases are used so frequently, in fact, you might as well just memorize the script so you can get through it more quickly and easily, as well as force yourself to move to the next stage in language learning.

The person you are speaking to will also be impressed that you can say these initial phrases so comfortably. Because of this, he or she is likely to use slightly more complex words with you, which will force you to keep up—an essential part of progressing through the different levels of fluency.

Another reason to do this is because recording a video in the language and then sharing it with your friends online can be excellent motivation and a great milestone to aim for in the early stages of your language learning project.

So I would highly recommend that you write out a script that would take perhaps one minute to recite, answering the four questions posed a few paragraphs ago, which you will likely need to answer when you first meet someone.

You can write out your script in English first, then talk to a native speaker (see the next chapter) to translate your answers for you precisely, so there are no mistakes (you should definitely not memorize phrases you get from computer-generated translations or any that you made yourself from piecing together dictionary translations), or you can use answers premade by native speakers that work for you, which you can find online or in a phrase book.

Now that you have your short script prepared, go ahead and start speaking it using a combination of everything you’ve seen in this chapter: create a flash card for each individual answer, then create a mnemonic for the first word or syllable of each phrase, and a chime pattern or song to go with that phrase, as we did previously.

Sometimes the story I have to tell about my travels and language learning can in itself be a minute-long answer. In this case, I sequence the story and attach each sequence to a mental image of something I can visualize as I’m speaking to that person. This can be a “memory palace” represented by a place you’re familiar with, such as your childhood home or school, and you go through the most important rooms in a particular sequence and “peg” the relevant image in each room sequentially so you go through it in the right order.

Another thing I’ve done is use my own body as the cue for what I need to say. I might use the tip of my head to imagine a hat associated with the very first word, and then use my brain linked with the second item, my eyes with the third, my nose with the fourth, and so on, working my way down. For instance, when someone asked me why I was in Germany, I started with my backstory before telling that person about my improved language learning method and my plans for my stay in Berlin. So I started with a story about school, imagining a teacher whacking me across my head with electric eels, because the German word for “when” is als, which to my ears sounds close enough to “eels” for me to gain some confidence and momentum before I speak. “Als ich sechzehn Jahre alt war . . .” (When I was sixteen years old . . .) Now I knew where my story should begin (I was hit on the head, starting from the top of my body, where many short stories begin), the word to start the story with (als), and what I would actually talk about (when I was sixteen years old and finishing school, I got bad grades on my final German exam).

You obviously don’t need to do this for all possible answers you could give. It’s way too much work, and you should be forming your sentences naturally as soon as possible. But at the very beginning of this process, you are likely to repeat particular sentences, and it’s perfectly fine—and perfectly efficient—to use tricks like this if they help you. Record a video of yourself going through the entire minute-long script of answers, without reading anything, and be ready to recite that script whenever asked by someone curious about why you are learning his or her language.

Starting a conversation off on the right foot can put you in a good mood and give you the momentum as a beginner to spontaneously produce other sentences much better. Learn what you need to say first and you will have that boost.

Words Are Your Arsenal

It is not important to be better than someone else, but to be better than yesterday.


Each day, you can increase your vocabulary and thus your ability to communicate ideas. Focus on learning new vocabulary, phrases, and typical things you say often, and then burn them into your memory so you can pull them out at a moment’s notice.

Now try out some of the tools you’ve just learned:

Pick one simple word in your target language that you don’t know yet and look it up or find it in a course book. Now think about a hilarious or ridiculous way to associate a similar-sounding English word with the translation of that word using the examples listed in this chapter for inspiration. Then do the same for other words. Test yourself on these words an hour later, the next day, a week later, and you will see that the keyword method makes them way more memorable.

By the way, what’s French for “train station”? What’s the first word in an Italian sentence asking where the bathroom is? And how do you say “target” in Mandarin? As long as you remembered even just one of these, you can start to see how effective the keyword method is.

If you are still stuck for ideas, check out Memrise.com for some excellent mnemonics associated with common words in many languages. Use this for inspiration to help you make up your own associations for words you come across as you learn the language.

Find translations of a handful of typical phrases like “What does that mean?” and use my music-association suggestion to help recall them.

Write a short introduction to your personal story, answering the question “Why are you learning this language?” first in English. Make it short enough that you can provide the answer in about thirty seconds. Next, find a native speaker to help you translate it or proofread your own translation. Then use a combination of all the techniques mentioned in this chapter to help you go through the entire monologue without any help.

While these techniques are great for learning specific words and phrases, the best way to make sure you assimilate the natural use of a language is to actually use it. Familiarity is not built through flash cards and fun image associations, but through consistent use and seeing the words in context.

Use the tools in this chapter to help give yourself a boost with putting as many words as possible into your arsenal, but make sure you are also practicing as much as possible in real conversations so those words and phrases become a natural part of your language use. You will then learn even more words as you use the language.

For more on the concepts raised in this chapter, as well as videos, interviews, and relevant links, check out fi3m.com/ch–3.

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