As language learners, we’re often told that we need to memorize new words followed immediately by memorizing a phrase that uses the word. There’s no disagreeing with the important of seeing new vocabulary in context, but this method does not tell the full story of context and its power.
Some of what follows may seem a bit brainy and conceptual, but stick with me for a moment because understanding context more fully can change how you study your dream language. First off, it’s important to realize that learning words out of context is technically impossible. There is always context and you cannot learn even your first word of foreign language vocabulary without it.
Why? Because whenever you learn a new word, you’re learning it in the field of your mother tongue. Your mother tongue is a very important context because it’s like a comparative software database that sits in your brain pumping out computations every time you learn. “Maintenance” in French is like “maintenance” in English, only the sounds are different.
Or there may be limited or “false cognate” associations between two words. “Attendre” in French looks like “attend” in English, but the meaning of the words are quite different (the difference between waiting for something or someone and showing up at a concert). Either way, whether you are comparing or contrasting new vocabulary words, your mother tongue is the ultimate context in which the process of learning occurs.
Why does this matter?
Because the context of your mother tongue and understanding that this primary language is a kind of “software” installed into the foundation of your mind is where the power lies when it comes to quickly learning and memorizing new vocabulary.
The language – or languages you already know – is a primary basis for association when learning foreign vocabulary. At some level your mind will always make associations, but you can hack this natural impulse by self-consciously guiding the natural capacities of your imagination using mnemonics or “memory tricks.”
A lot of people resist memory techniques for language learning because they think there’s too much work involved. Index cards and spaced-repetition software seem more concrete and direct and rote learning-based drills are deeply familiar to us from years of school.
However, what if I were to tell you that you could “download” new vocabulary words and phrases so that you can see them immediately in context quickly, reliably and even addictively?
That would be pretty cool, wouldn’t it?
Here then is an example of how you can use the context of your mother tongue to quickly learn and memorize a new word.
“Der Zug” is the German masculine noun for “train” in English. “Zug” sounds like “zoo” with a “g” at the end, so to help you memorize this, you could see a gorilla installing a “g” at the end of the word “zoo” at your local wildlife park. You would make this image large, bright, colorful and filled with zany action.
In other words, the gorilla wouldn’t just be putting the “g” at the end of “zoo” in a calm and polite manner. He’d be doing it in a frenzied manner, perhaps because the zoo police are after him (and ideally they’re about to arrive using the zoo’s train to help compound the meaning that you’re trying to associate the sound zoog/Zug with the meaning of “train”).
All of the images in this example rely upon using English, not German, as a primary context. We are playing with the foreign language word in the sandbox of my mother tongue, and if you’re playing along, you’re integrating and absorbing “der Zug” into your mind using imaginative play.
Dealing with Gender in Context
I mentioned that “der Zug” is a masculine noun. How on earth are you going to memorize this important aspect of the word with so many other images already going on?
Put a pair of boxing gloves on your gorilla. Or anything you associate with masculinity. Maybe he’s got a cigar in his mouth, a moustache or some other stereotype (I’m sorry, but memorizing foreign language vocabulary is not place to be politically correct …)
The best part is that once you’ve chosen an imaginative indicator of gender, you can stick with it and use it again and again for every masculine word you encounter and want to memorize using a mnemonic strategy.
For some people, this might seem like a lot of work and I’ll admit that what I’m suggesting certainly isn’t a magic bullet.
But with a small amount of practice, mnemonics work gangbusters for learning and memorizing foreign language vocabulary. And if you actually found yourself using your local zoo to generate the image I’ve suggested for memorizing “der Zug,” then you will experience an interesting side-effect that you can exploit whenever you are memorizing foreign language words.
Location, Location, Location
When you try to recall the meaning and sound of this word, your mind actually knows where to go to look for images you created. This is the mnemonic principle of using a familiar location. There are ways to get even more systematic with mnemonics so that it’s even easier and more effective to memorize massive amounts of vocabulary in a very short period of time based on the principle of location, so it’s well worth looking into these special methods.
Zoog/Zug in a Phrase
Now let’s look at “der Zug” in the context of a phrase. Although you’re now going to see and memorize the word in the context of German, you will still be consciously using the context of your mother tongue to “encode” the phrase into your mind.
And let’s stick with the local zoo so that we also have the “context” of a location that will allow us to visit the mnemonic imagery we’ve created, substantially increasing our chances of recalling the sound and meaning of the phrase with ease.
“Der Zug ist abgefahren” means that the train has left the station. You can use the phrase literally or your can use it to mean that someone has “missed the boat” or that an opportunity has been missed.
You’ve already memorized “der Zug,” so it’s now just a matter of memorizing “abgefahren” (to depart). I suggest that you practice the principle of “word division” here by splitting “abgefahren” into “ab” and “gefahren.” Just as you can use a figure like boxing gloves to always remember when a word is masculine, you can repeatedly use a certain figure to remember how certain words begin.
In this case, lets use Abraham Lincoln for “ab.” The first thing that comes to my mind for “gefahren” is an image of Forrest Gump running far with the letter n tucked under his arm like a football because he’s late for the train. And Abraham helps him out by throwing the train from the zoo(g) at him so that he won’t miss it (remember, zany and weird images work best because they stand out in your mind).
Abraham Lincoln + Gump + running far with an n = abgefahren.
Der Zug ist abgefahren.
In conclusion, I’m suggesting that you combine contexts: the context of the language itself by following up your memorization of a new word with the memorization of a phrase, but also the primary context of your mother tongue. Instead of thinking of new language learning as a process of “addition,” we can think of it as “embedding” new words like seeds into a field of rich dirt that already understands how to connect, differentiate and absorb. All we need to do is consciously manipulate our natural powers of association to bring a massive boost to our language goals.
As a final note, I’ve suggested to you some images in this article that are meant as a guide to making your own mnemonics. Because you serve as the best possible context (the movies you like, the places you’ve been, the specific ways you use your mother tongue), it’s important to draw upon your own inner resources. Relying on yourself will not only make new vocabulary words and phrases stick out like a sore thumb in the context of your mind, but drawing upon your own life will also make you more creative. The more creative you are, the more readily you can make images for memorizing more vocabulary words and phrases. Used well, context is a truly perfect circle.