The first thing I’d like to say about mind mapping is how upset I am for not knowing about it sooner! Why wasn’t it taught to me in elementary school, junior high, high school, or even university? Why did I labor through so many classes, books and professional challenges without this amazing tool?

Mind mapping is certainly not a new idea, and many different folks have probably come to it on their own. We owe its popularity, however, to one man: British author, speaker, and memory master Tony Buzan. He is the author of countless books on using mind mapping to improve your performance at school or work, and how maximize one’s memory with both ancient and modern memory enhancement techniques (check out either The Mind Map Book or How to Mind Map).

So What is a Mind Map?

Buzan defines mind maps as follows:

“A Mind Map is a powerful graphic technique which provides a universal key to unlock the potential of the brain. It harnesses the full range of cortical skills – word, image, number, logic, rhythm, colour and spatial awareness – in a single, uniquely powerful manner. In so doing, it gives you the freedom to roam the infinite expanses of your brain. The Mind Map can be applied to every aspect of life where improved learning and clearer thinking will enhance human performance.”

While I like his definition, I think we can remove the flower pedals and whittle it down to this:

“A mind map is a non-linear outline.”

Instead of listing ideas vertically on one or more sheets of paper, you arrange your ideas on paper in a web-like structure. It is important to use only one sheet as this forces you to be brief and keep all of the ideas centered around the main idea written in the center. This is a major advantage over using traditional writing which often makes it easy to lose focus on the main idea and get lost in interesting but distracting tangents. Effective mind maps only use one word or phrase for each topic or sub-topic. This is where many people go astray, adding Twitter-like entries for each bubble. It is difficult to do in the beginning, but training yourself to choose one vivid, concise keyword has many advantages:

  • It takes less time to find the information you are looking for.
  • It takes less time to review the entire mind map.
  • The keywords will instantly jolt your memory and draw up the desired fact or concept.

In addition to keywords, a good mind map makes use of color and images to help stimulate the brain and facilitate fast recall. Don’t worry if you look childish; this is one time when doodling is actually constructive!

Mind Map Tips


How can mind maps used in language learning?

Mind maps are extremely useful for 3 main purposes in language learning:

  • Learning vocabulary.
  • Building a clear context before, during and after study sessions.
  • Organizing one’s thoughts before writing.

When listening to or reading an article, you can make a mind map that includes all previously unknown vocabulary. Put the title of the article in the center of the map, and then fan the words around the center. You can then add one-word definitions, synonyms, antonyms, parts of speech, translations, drawings, etc. depending on your learning preferences.

If you are working with your tutor via Skype, for example, you could both view the same mind map using a tool like Tony Buzan’s iMindMap 7 (which is the app I used to create the mind map above). Your mind map can act as both an agenda for the conversation and a visual tool to aid your listening comprehension. After the call, you can refer back to the mind map to quickly review any new language that came up. If meeting a private teacher or tutor face-to-face, you can accomplish the same thing on paper.

And perhaps the most powerful use of mind maps is organizing your thoughts before you begin writing. Here are some of the writing-specific benefits of mind mapping:

  • Greatly reduced writer’s block in both your native and foreign languages. An initial time investment of 10 to 20 minutes often saves hours of lost time thinking about what to write next and second guessing and changing what you have already written.
  • Keeping focused on both the big picture and relevant details without getting lost in minutiae. If you just start writing paragraphs, it is easy to forget the main idea you presented in the introduction whilst filling out the details of supporting paragraphs. But if you have a mind map to refer back to you, you can quickly and easily check the relevancy of what you are typing.