Learning a language can sometimes feel boring — like an exercise in monotony.
What lends to this monotony, more often than not, is the rigor and regimen that comes with it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not dissing discipline here, I’m just questioning the misplaced investment of time and efforts most language learning regimens call for. Let me break it down for you.
We all start with a new language with a great deal of enthusiasm. We are mesmerized by the culture the chosen language represents, the sound of an alien unintelligible tongue, the idea of being able to communicate with ease where our friends probably feel lost. The adrenaline rush is undeniable. But then the rubber meets the road and we come face-to-face with less-than-exciting ground realities: grammar and vocabulary.
These are what make up any language and obviously cannot be wished away. And they ought to be memorized. No matter how much you hate the part, you just have to do it. If you’re like most learners, you’ve probably been cramming up those words and grammar rules like a broken record. That’s about to change.
Study after study has established that rote repetition is not only an inorganic way of memorizing things but also super inefficient, not to mention downright boring as well. This is what drives most rookie learners to drop out prematurely. I can personally attest to this from my own experiences as a Spanish learner.
Is there a workaround? Can memorization be accelerated and also made more efficient? Turns out, it can!
The Wrong Way to Memorize Words
When I first started out learning Spanish, I would just pick a list of related words and repeat them along with their English translations, one pair at a time. I would do this perhaps a few hundred times before moving on to the next list. This was okay at first but there was a big problem with this method.
You see, our brain has, for all practical purposes, an infinite capacity for words. But it also has a very limited capacity to process lots of words at once. That’s why it keeps everything it’s fed in something called passive memory. Only things needed more frequently are stored in active memory. Makes perfect sense, right?
You can only recall with ease what’s in your active memory, hence the name active. Rote memorization only pushes the newly acquired vocabulary back to passive memory, if at all. And it does even that at a cost: Time.
You have to repeat a word pair at least a couple of hundred times, give or take, in order to memorize it. And that’s not enough, you have to revisit that pair every now and then in order to retain it. Now do some simple maths and see how much time you invest in cramming-up just one word pair. And there are hundreds, if not thousands, of them. Add it all up and language learning quickly begins to look like an impractical endeavor meant only for geniuses or children.
So what’s the right way to memorize words? Let’s take a look at a few hacks.
Memory Hack 1: The “Thrifty Vocab” Rule: Not All Words are Made Equal
Not all words are made equal. At least when it comes to conversational abilities, most words serve no purpose in your vocabulary. Take English, for instance. There’s, by some estimates, close to a million words in its lexicon. Would you recommend all of that to a friend learning to converse in English? Or even a quarter of that? I mean, why would a person need to memorize the word scaramouch in order to be able to effectively communicate in English? What good are word like cordwainer and dandiprat to that learner?
The same rules apply to any language in the world. When you’re learning, say, Spanish, you might be tempted to devour the dictionary at first. The more words you know, the better, no? No. That’s not how it works. You need to be able to pick what’s important. Life’s too short for words like ciénega and declamar that you’re probably never going to use in your conversations.
So the Thrifty Vocab rule is: Pick only what you need. Be thrifty about your vocabulary, steer clear of words that sound exotic but serve no purpose to your communication goals. In fact, you’ll be surprised to know how few words you need to learn in order to get reasonably fluent in Spanish!
This also goes for Spanish grammar. No point wasting your precious time on vos and its verb forms if you’re never visiting South America, the only place it has any currency. Speaking of conjugations, why spend days memorizing the imperfect subjunctive conjugations when you’re never going to hear or use them at least as an intermediate speaker? And unless you’re going to Spain, why not skip the vosotros forms altogether?
Moral of the story? Time is running out, be judicious about how you use it!
Memory Hack 2: Dig a Little Deeper with Etymology
Etymology is the linguistic name for a word’s history. And history can come in mighty handy when you’re trying to memorize new words. But here’s a caveat, this trick works only if the word is from a language related to yours. So if you’re an English speaker, the closer the language is to English, the better etymology works for you. But why?
Languages are like living things, they evolve. And given long enough time, one language morphs into another. Take English, for example. Ever noticed why movies from, say, the 60s sound so different from the ones today? The words they used, their accent, their diction…everything was different. And that’s just a few decades. Try going back a few centuries and English starts to sound as alien as a foreign language to your modern ears!
English is a Germanic language, which means it shares a common ancestry with languages like Dutch and German. But over time, thanks to the Romans and the Normans, it came in contact with a lot of Latin absorbing much of its vocabulary. In fact, there was a period when Latin even became the lingua franca in England for a while! And Latin is where Romance tongues like Spanish come from.
What all of this means is that most Spanish words come from Latin, as do a lot of English words. That’s where the opportunity lies. Take the word casa, for instance. It’s Spanish for house. Did you know it shares a common etymology with the English word castle? Granted we don’t all live in castles, but can you see the essence? Castles are also places of dwelling, aren’t they? I doubt you’ll ever forget casa now. And you didn’t even have to cram it like other learners.
Alright, casa was easy, let’s take something more difficult. How about correr, “to run”? The word doesn’t seem to have anything in common with its English translation at face value. But study its history and you realize that it’s from the same family of words that also includes English words like current and courier! Current is electricity running through the wires and courier used to be the guy who literally ran to get you your mails back in the day. Now everytime you run into correr, recall this history and you’ll know someone’s running. Easy, wasn’t it?
Memory Hack 3: The Word-Bridge Trick
Not all of English comes from Latin, and not all Spanish words ought to have etymological cousins in English. And that’s where you build bridges. You take a Spanish word and its English counterpart, and think of another English word or words that sound similar to the Spanish word in pronunciation and carry a relatable meaning to the English counterpart. These intermediate words serve as memory hooks or as I call them, word bridge.
Allow me to illustrate this theory with an example. Take trabajar.
That’s Spanish for to work. The word comes from Latin but doesn’t have anything etymologically related in English. So how do you memorize it without having to go “trabajar…work, trabajar…work, trabajar…work, trabajar…” a million times? Here’s how you do it.
Think of words that sound like trabajar. One that comes to my mind is trouble. If you notice, the first part of trouble sounds like the first part of trabajar. Another that comes to my mind is hard, which sounds like the last part of trabajar. So all we now need to do is string up these two words in a way that they allude to work, the English translation of the Spanish word in question. Work is trouble, at least to most of us. We hate working, partying is so much more fun! And working hard is even more trouble. So the next time you think work, think of it being a trouble and it being hard to do. And that will lead you to trabajar without a lot of trouble! This might sound contrived at first but once you get in the habit of building bridges, you’ll start having fun doing it. Also, it’s way more efficient and lasting than the traditional rote method. Try it.
One more example; try espejo, Spanish for mirror. The word does have etymological connections in English but the metamorphosis has been too complete to have left anything useful for us. So we’ll try to bridge the two words. Espejo somewhat sounds like the first part of spectacles. The last part of espejo looks (not sounds) like the English first name, Joe. String all of them up together and you have a man named Joe wearing glasses. This bespectacled Joe will remind you of espejo every time you look yourself in the mirror.
It’s all about your imagination, really. You can bridge anything with anything as long as you’re creative enough.
Memory Hack 4: Daydreaming for Vocabulary
This one is very similar to the word-bridge method, only a whole lot more creative. The more imaginative you are, the better this works for you. No, you don’t have to literally daydream for hours, that’s not what this is all about. You just need to be able to paint mental pictures, the more vivid, the better. You still build word bridges but this time, you bolster them with some outlandish imagination for better retention.
It’s a well-established theory that human brains are way better at retaining visual information than text. No wonder they say a picture speaks a thousand words. So why not use it to our advantage and step up our vocabulary game? The only rule of the game is that the picture you imagine ought to have something to do with the word you’re trying to memorize and its meaning. Also, the more vivid it is, the better it works. Even better if it’s animated, i.e. moving as opposed to still. You can make it even more effective by making it outlandish, outrageous, wacky. The human brain is very good at remembering anything unusual or crazy. So let’s put it to practice with an example.
Rice is arroz in Spanish. But the two words have nothing in common. So let’s imagine something involving both. Picture yourself out on a hike in the jungles of Colombia and you start to feel famished and hungry. So you unzip your backpack, take out your lunch, and settle down on a rock by the river. What’s for lunch? Rice, of course! Maybe some gravy on the side but it’s primarily sice. So to recap, you’re sitting on the rock with a mug of water perched next to you and a plate of rice in your hand. But right when you’re about to take the first morsel, some Indian mistakes you for a game animal and starts shooting at you. Now you have a bunch of arrows in your rice! Imagine the situation, feel the panic, live the moment. Now everytime you think rice, you’ll recall this anecdote. And the arrows in your rice will lead you to arroz.
Similarly, take pato. That’s Spanish for duck and comes from Andalusian Arabic which means no English equivalent. So how do you remember what it means? Imagine having a pet duck who loves being petted all the time. You enjoy petting him too because, why not! Picture yourself petting this duck next to a very idyllic pond in your garden. Soak in the pleasures. In fact, let’s name your pet duckie Peter, just for fun. Now everytime you think duck, you’ll miss petting your pet pato named Peter. Think you’ll ever forget the word now?
Memory Hacks for Grammar
Think all these tricks work only for vocabulary, and grammar is still destined to be a pain in the rear? Think again. These are not vocabulary tricks, these are memory tricks. And memory tricks are as viable on grammar as they are on vocabulary. I have used them to hack my way through some extremely difficult-to-remember concepts of Spanish grammar the most notorious of all being verb conjugations.
I’m not joking! I’ve used shortcuts like mnemonics coupled with vivid imaginations to memorize complex verb-ending patterns within minutes, something that would otherwise take you days. And I stress, no rote memorization involved. Let’s see how.
How I Memorized the Preterite Tense Conjugation within Minutes
Spanish verb conjugations are notoriously difficult to memorize and the preterite tense, more so. Let’s quickly go through what this conjugation looks like before we get to the trick part. Depending on the past two letters, Spanish verbs are of three types: AR verbs, ER verbs, and IR verbs. Usually, but not always, the ER and IR verbs follow a more-or-less similar pattern when it comes to conjugations. We’re only talking regular verbs here.
So here’s how the AR verbs conjugate in the preterite tense (I’m using cantar, to sing, as an example):
- Canté (I sang)
- Cantaste (you sang)
- Cantó (he/she/it sang)
- Cantamos (we sang)
- Cantaron (they sang)
So the endings follow a pattern: -é, -aste, -ó, -amos, -aron. You memorize this pattern and you can conjugate any regular AR verb in the preterite tense. How do you memorize this pattern? Here’s the mnemonic:
Yesterday, I ate a tasty donut.
The sentence itself is in the preterite tense and is quite easy to remember. Just imagine yourself munching on your favorite snack and feel the taste fill your mouth. But how does it work?
Notice the parts in bold? They are a dead giveaway to the pattern the verb follows in the singular form:
- ate – canté
- tasty – cantaste
- donut – cantó
See that? For the we form, you just follow the present tense conjugation rule and you’re good. And for the they form, you can just add rum to your donuts to help cement the -aron ending in your memory. So yesterday you had a tasty donut with rum and memorized the preterite conjugations for AR verbs!
What about the ER and IR verbs? They go (using beber, to drink, as example):
- Bebí (I drank)
- Bebiste (you drank)
- Bebió (he, she, it drank)
- Bebimos (we drank)
- Bebieron (they drank)
The pattern here is: -í, -iste, -ió, -imos, -ieron. Try having pistachios instead of donuts this time:
Yesterday, I had pistachios.
Again, we’re only dealing with the singular forms here. The bold parts correspond to the verb endings you need to memorize:
- I – bebí
- pistachios – bebiste
- pistachios – bebió
As you can see, the plurals follow a very predictable pattern, similar to their present-tense counterparts. It took me longer to type out this section than it did to memorize the whole preterite tense conjugation for all regular Spanish verbs. Try it for yourself.
How I Memorized the Imperfect Tense Conjugation within Minutes
When it comes to past tense, the imperfect seems to be more ubiquitous than the imperfect. At least in Spanish. This is the form you use when speaking of habitual or continuous actions. Wherever you can express an action with phrases like used to or would, or wherever you express a past action with the -ing form,you’re talking imperfect tense in Spanish.
Let’s look at the imperfect tense conjugation for an AR verb:
- Cantaba (I used to sing)
- Cantabas (you used to sing)
- Cantaba (he/she/it used to sing)
- Cantabamos (we used to sing)
- Cantaban (they used to sing)
The ER and IR verbs follow this pattern (using beber for illustration):
- Bebía (I used to drink)
- Bebías (you used to drink)
- Bebía (he/she/it used to drink)
- Bebíamos (we used to drink)
- Bebían (they used to drink)
Before we proceed, let me state the caveat. You must know your present tense conjugation pattern well in order for this trick to work. Why? Because if you notice the two conjugations above, you’ll see that the entire pattern follows the conjugation pattern for the present indicative tense closely. The present indicative conjugation pattern defines the running theme here. With just one anomaly in both lists above: The I form, i.e. the first person singular form. In the present indicative conjugation, the verb in first person singular form ends in -o. That’s how we get canto (I sing) for cantar and bebo (I drink) for beber. In the case of the imperfect tense, the entire remainder of the pattern stems from this first person singular form and follows the present indicative tense conjugation pattern.
So assuming you already have your present tense conjugations down, all you need to somehow memorize in order to recall the entire imperfect tense conjugation is the two base endings, endings for the first person singular form for AR verbs and ER/IR verbs. Here’s how to do it:
When he was young, my dad lived in India and used to listen to ABBA everyday.
Right off the bat, the sentence itself is in the imperfect tense to help you remember what kind of past actions qualify. Next, pay attention to the bold bits and you’ll notice they correspond to the first person singular endings for the two conjugation patterns:
- India – bebía
- ABBA – cantaba
Believe me it’s easier to employ these mnemonics in real than it is to write about them.
Why Memorizing Alone Isn’t Enough
What good is a word you’re not going to use? What good is a grammar rule you’re not going to follow? When it comes to language learning, always remember:
USE IT if you don’t wanna LOSE IT
I just can’t stress this enough, you cannot memorize something and expect it to stay fresh in your memory forever no matter what sorcery you employed to memorize it in the first place. Put them to good use. Write down something using the words you just learned. Even if it’s utter nonsense, such as your thoughts on that magnet on your fridge. Read short texts to reinforce your comprehension. And for god’s sake, go out and talk! Okay, I don’t mean go out literally, but you can at least talk to people on the internet, right?
There’s just a thousand and one ways to use the Spanish you’ve just learned. The more you use it, the closer you’ll get to Spanish being second nature to you. This is arguably more important than all the tricks and memory hacks in the world. Start a journal on Lang-8, join a Spanish meetup group on Meetups, read Reddit in Spanish, do anything but don’t let your Spanish rust.
So before we part, let’s quickly recap what we discussed here. We discussed three fun ways to trick your brain into memorizing new words and grammar rules without any repetition. We also learned that one need not swallow the Blarney Stone in order to be proficient in conversations, you only need a fraction the entire lexicon in your vocabulary. Leave out the rest.
We also saw how the same rule of selective learning applies to grammar. A rookie learner doesn’t need to mess with the subjunctive at least in the beginning, and even an advanced learner has little use for the vos forms unless they were visiting places like Argentina, Guatemala, etc. Just learn what’s necessary. Everything should be directly applicable in day-to-day conversation. Instant gratification is key when it comes to language learning.
Moving on, we saw a few examples illustrating the three memory techniques I’ve used with my own Spanish with great success: etymology, word-bridges, and vivid imagination. We also explored a couple of mnemonic hacks to instantly internalize the verb endings in the Spanish past tense conjugations, both preterite and imperfect.
I can’t wait to see how you apply these tricks to your own language-learning exercise and learn from them. You don’t even have to be into Spanish in order to use these ideas. Russian, Japanese, German, Hindi…whichever language fascinates you is good enough.
How will you put these hacks to use? Let me know in the comments.