greenkrokodilla (greenkrokodilla) wrote in linguaphiles,

Is mnemonics useful for language study?

Learning a language one has to commit a lot of information to his memory, and there is no way around it. One can choose the long way and take his time reading thousands of pages over the years, slowly accumulating new words and patterns. Or one might opt for a faster approach and start reading monolingual dictionaries (of the kind specifically produced for foreign learners and teeming with examples of actual usage, among other things), thus beating what I call "the frequency conspiracy" against a foreign learner which a human language naturally puts up in his way.

Memorizing words should never be done in pairs consisting of the target word and its translation, never. Correct learning implies knowing the meaning, the pattern the target word imposes around itself, and the group or groups of words it can combine with in a given sense.
E.g. "when you fire a gun, you (meaning; examples)", but "when you fire questions, you (....)"

So here comes the QUESTION: can mnemonics help us do it? Is it possible to acquire 50-100-even more senses and patterns in one session?

(1) The usual application of mnemonic techniques to language learning looks like this:
    (a) take your target word (e.g. "sueur" in French, meaning "sweat")
    (b) think of something that sounds in a similar way in your native tongue (e.g. "sir" in English, especially if you do not drop your R's)
    (c) Connect them in a mental image - something like "Sir XXX in front of King sweating profusely". A grosses gouttes ;))
    Even better if you can make that image funny or "dirty" ("all sweaty in the process of siring" kind of comes to mind, but unfortunately does not sound right - however that explains the idea).
    (d) remember it as a picture, a cartoon picture or a scene from a mental movie, because visual memory is so much stronger than any other, for virtually all people

There are whole books covering something like "the first 2000 of most frequent words" for many languages, with imagery and mnemonics worked out in full detail.

In my view this technique is inapplicable to studying many senses and patterns frequent words tend to form (up to something like 80-100 for verbs like "get" or nouns like "hand" in English, or even more), therefore being usable probably only to raw beginners.

Secondly, it beats its own purpose because memorizing occurs when the learner is involved in the effort of thinking up the associations and images in his head: having the dish served to you fully cooked may lead to quick digestion and as quick discharge of the matter that seemed so good and felt so solid from your mental system for good.

(2) So there is another approach I am considering.
After reading a dictionary entry, we need pretty much to remember examples only (which cover all senses and sub-senses and almost all patterns of usage).

I am trying to do it by substituting the boring process of "learning" or "dictionary reading" with a more entertaining exercise in "writing a novel" (or - a movie script, if you prefer those) in my head. This is how it might look for a (partial) entry for GET, one of the most used and most versatile English verbs.
    (Scene 1. Stream of consciousness of the main hero): The boys were getting bored. A pane of glass got broken. (something else got dirtied) I don't know if I can get it clean. How did we get into this mess? (on the other hand, if the situation is such a mess, than ..) From here on, it can only get better.
    (next thinking about his wife, who's trying to write books, possibly) Does she ever get asked for her autograph? Perhaps, I shouldn't say that - I might get into trouble.
    It's getting late. It was dark when she got home (yesterday). (The doorbell rang) I got off the bed and opened the door. (We all leave early in the morning, too) Generally I get to work at 9.30 a.m.

    (another scene, in a bar or cafe) Mack got his wallet out. "Go and get your coat on" (TV in the background blaring) "The UN is getting aid to the affected countries"

    (Scene 3: in the office. Morning. Still a sort of stream of consciousness of the man from Scene 1) (a secretary from another room) "Tom's on the phone. Can I get him call you back?" -- I have to get my car repaired. -- (the secretary chatting on the phone) "Do you get to see him often?.. They get to stay in nice hotels" -- (How come she never stops this idle talk -- the man yells) "Get working!" -- Patrick has got as far as as finding (us) some clients -- What gets me is the attitude of so many of these people


My additions to link example sentences into a sort of plot or storyline are parenthesized, the rest are direct dictionary examples illustrating the first group of senses for GET.

The second bunch of meanings for GET conveniently starts with something about travel, so I might continue to think of a twist in the plot, the life of this man so oppressed by his drab existence in the beginning of my mental movie.

Sometimes dictionary examples should be reshuffled (not that often, actually) for the storyline to make more sense and become less jumpy, sometimes minor adjustments are needed (like changing "he" to "she" or a name, or adjusting a verb tense). The good part is that whatever I mentally add to the sentences from my dictionary does not need to be in the target language (in case I am not good enough to compose those), it does not need to be in any language, as a matter of fact, because I remember it all very much LIKE A MOVIE, visually, and those explanatory linking additions become just part of the scene, not words per ce.

I never write this "novel" down - it already is, in the dictionary, if one omits all but examples, and can easily be reviewed.
I need to keep on paper only the 'titles' of my stories/chapters/scenes, to remind me what that story was about and start it all rolling again.

(3) SO HERE ARE MY QUESTIONS TO THE READERS of this blog:
    (a) have you heard of this or similar technique(s)? Tried it or something similar? Did you find it useful? How much, how big a chunk of vocabulary did you manage to remember? I.e. what would be rough estimates as to the number of words/senses one could expect to acquire in one sitting?

    (b) are there other mnemonic techniques you found useful for foreign language study?
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