How to... Learn a Foreign Language

How to... Learn a Foreign Language Systems Needed
  • Link Method
  • Roman Room Mnemonic
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 theRoman 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)

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.