There are many ways to learn vocabulary. Often, textbooks will
give you a connection between the foreign word and the word you are
learning. You could use their suggestions — or use them in addition to
the crazy picture method. Look out for common derivations or
similarities between English words and words in your target language,
too, as these are often very helpful.
The first step in active learning is hearing or reading the word I have
to learn. If the word has no clear connection with its English equivalent I
ask myself, ‘What word or words does it sound like in my language?’
This forces me to concentrate on the foreign word. I try to think of a word
that it sounds like. Sometimes the English word I think of doesn’t sound
very much like the target language word at all, but it is as good as I can
do. Maybe only one syllable sounds like a familiar word. No problem. It
doesn’t have to sound exactly like the word, but only something like it —
enough to remind me of the word.
Then I make a mental picture of the sound-alike word and join it to
the meaning with a crazy picture. Making the mental picture forces a high
degree of concentration. You can’t picture something without thinking
about it. And, if you think of something else, the picture disappears. So,
while you are making your mental picture, your concentration is total.
That is it. I don’t have to remember the picture for the rest of my life,
so there is no stress. I only have to remember the picture for five minutes
or so until I review what I have learnt. The review reinforces the
information in my mind and makes it even easier to remember the next
The crazier the picture, the more concentration it requires, the easier
it is to remember and the more fun you have. You can entertain yourself
with the crazy pictures you make.
There is a saying in Europe among people who learn languages that
you have to learn a word and forget it seven times until you have really
learnt it. My way, you learn a word just once. Not only that; the word
goes immediately into your active vocabulary. Usually, when you learn a
language, the new words go into your passive vocabulary first. That
means you recognise the word when you hear it or see it. However, if you
can translate from your own language to the foreign language, the word
must have become part of your active vocabulary. It is much easier to
translate from the foreign language to your own than the other way
Use derivations to help you learn
There are many words in other languages that have a similar
derivation to their English equivalent, and many English words are
derived from foreign words. These target language words can be learnt by
just noting the derivation. Better still, you can combine the methods.
Identifying patterns and similarities
English is classified as a Germanic language, and if you know one it
is easy to learn the other. The German word for ‘knee’ is Knie (with the k
pronounced). German for ‘house’ is Haus, which is pronounced just like
the English word. We have already learnt that krank means ‘sick’, so it
makes sense that ‘hospital’ is Krankenhaus, literally a ‘sickhouse’ or
house for the sick. These are easy words to learn. ‘Night’ is Nacht and
‘knight’ is Knecht. Schreiben means ‘to write’ — this is the derivation of
the English word ‘scribe’. Arm means ‘arm’ (as well as ‘poor’), Hand
means ‘hand’ and Finger means finger. Fuss means ‘foot’, so Fussball,
of course, means ‘football’.
Topic: Learning vocabulary
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