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How to Use Visual Memory Techniques to Build a Conversational Vocabulary

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Here’s something that used to frustrate me: When I travel through a country where the native language isn’t English, I miss a lot of the culture because I can’t have a conversation with the locals. All I can do is read about their customs and experience them through activities, food, and drink.

Research tells us that only about 30% percent of communication is verbal, the rest is physical or through tone of voice. This is why you can stand at in a restaurant flailing your arms indicating your food purchase to the cashier and generally you can get what you order. But, that’s a whole 30% you are missing. You can’t really understand how natives live, laugh at their jokes, or make a friend without understanding their language.

The problem, is that learning a language takes a lot of time and effort. As a digital nomad, it’s not possible for me to become fluent in the native language of every country I visit. I’d be spending my entire time learning the language of the next country I am visiting instead of enjoying the country I’m in!

And here’s something I’ve discovered that’s helped me feel a whole lot happier: You don’t have to become completely fluent in a language to get more out of your experience travelling in another country.

You only have to become partially fluent, and you can do it a lot quicker than you think.

How Fast Can I Learn a Language?

You only need to know about 2,000 words in many languages to be around 85% fluent. Say you wanted to learn as much as possible in one month – that’s 66 new words a day to be 85% fluent. If you stop and think about it, that’s quite a lot. But, there is no reason in why in 30 days you can’t gain a basic level of conversation skills.

I want to be very clear here: a very basic level of conversation is exactly how it sounds. There is a big difference between knowing the words and being able to speak them and understand them properly. They are completely different skillsets. Connor Grooms became conversationally fluent in 30 days, but he spent the entire time in Colombia while doing it. Here’s a very interesting Ted Talk he gave about his experience:

Connor also documented his entire experience learning Spanish in a month.

By learning the most foundational vocabulary first, you can pick many words out of a conversation and understand a sentence by context.

Learning vocabulary is arguably the most difficult and time consuming aspect of learning any language. You can make your life much easier by using certain techniques that have existed for millennia. By using these techniques, you will be able to learn faster and significantly improve your retention ability.

How to Remember Anything

Context is the key to planting a new piece of information in your memory. If you think about it, a foreign word in a dictionary or phrasebook is completely lacking in any context. It is just a word that represents a meaning.

The entire art of remembering anything is to figure out ways to take information lacking in context and to transform it in a way in which it becomes unforgettable. In other words, give it a context that’s meaningful to you.

Visual memory techniques are the most powerful way to do this. Combine the visual memory technique with the stressed syllable technique and you’ve got a memory match made in heaven.

Here’s how that works.

The Stressed Syllable Technique

Research has found that if you focus only on the stressed syllable of a word when trying to memorize it, your brain is able to remember the unstressed syllables without much effort. This has two huge implications. The first is that you can greatly reduce your efforts by only focusing on the important part of the word. The second, is that focusing on the stressed part of the word will teach you how to pronounce the word (note: tonal languages are an exception to this rule).

The stressed syllable of a word is simply the syllable that is emphasized the most. To illustrate how this is done, here’s a short list of very common Spanish words. I’ve bolded all of the stressed syllables for you.

In the list below, I’ve modified the spelling slightly for two reasons.

The first is so you know how to pronounce the word, and the second is how we are going to translate these seemingly unintelligible words into something unforgettable.
Once you have identified the stressed syllable of a word, the next step is to translate the syllable into an image. This is the basis for all visual memory techniques, and by using these techniques your retention of those words will be significantly better than you thought possible.

Remember Anything: How to Turn a Stressed Syllable into an Unforgettable Image

As I’ve mentioned, the entire art of remembering anything is to figure out ways to take information lacking in context and to transform it in a way in which it becomes unforgettable.

Think, for a moment, about the most unforgettable moments of your life – getting married, having your first child, or something traumatizing like a car accident. What you will find about these memories is that you can relive them in your mind’s eye and remember an awful lot of detail about them. When you relive these memories I bet you can remember random facts like the clothes your now-spouse was wearing, the smell of the cologne or perfume you had on during your first kiss, or the feeling in your hands when you touched a hot stove top for the first time.

These memories stick around because so many senses are associated with them. In other words, they’re about sensory memory.

This idea of sensory memory is how we are going to hack our minds into remembering foreign words that have no associations. We are going to give foreign words “context” by creating fake pictures and emotions to associate them with. This process takes time to learn – but once you can do it, it’s a skill you’ll be using for the rest of your life.

Here’s how to create images to associate with new words:

1. Include as Many Senses as Possible. Including sound, smells, and emotions in your images will make them much more memorable. Just think back to your most memorable moments.Each memory comprises far more than just a picture.

2. Include Action in Your Images. Images that have movement are far more memorable than images that are stationary.

3. Make your Images Unique and as Crazy as Possible. Bizarre images are much more memorable than ordinary images. If you are trying to memorize a dog, give it wings or an aliens’ head or something absolutely crazy.

4. Use Vivid Colour. Brown, black, grey, and white images are more difficult to memorize than ones with vibrant colour. If you are picturing that same dog with wings, instead of imagining it with brown fur picture it with pink fur.

5. Use Emotions. So, now we have a pink dog that is flying, but that isn’t enough. We need to associate the feeling of flying to the dog. Feel what it’s like to go skydiving, or if you have never been, the fear you feel when you take off and land in a plane and feel that as you picture the pink, flying dog.

How These Absurd Images Work in Practice

Now, I’ve already broken down our common Spanish words and re-spelled them so you can directly see an association. Let’s use cuando (cWANDo) as an example. Cuando means when in Spanish, as in, when are we going to the bank? The stressed syllable sounds like wand, so our image is going to include a wand because it’s tangible. Now, we need to link a wand to the meaning when something happens. Picture a magician waving a wand and the hour and minute hands on a clock twirling to indicate time.

When I wave my wand, time itself changes!

I specifically picked a word that can act as an adverb or conjunction to illustrate how this technique can be used on words that don’t have an obvious association. For instance, it’s very easy to remember perro is dog. Perro sounds like pear, so picture a dog shaped like a pear. To give the dog action, picture it doing something like drinking a glass of beer!

Get Your Images Organized With a Memory Palace

Dumping hundreds new words in your brain in hopes you will be able to recall them at a moment's notice is very ineffective. In other words, you don’t just need to store things in your memory. You need to be able to find them.

The most effective way to increase memory recall is to organize the things you memorize into a mental file cabinet. Another name for this mental file cabinet is a memory palace.

A memory palace is a space within your imagination that represents either a real or imaginary location. It could be your apartment or house, or it could be a completely fictional location that you build. Within your real or fictional location you place the unforgettable images you learned how to create earlier, so when you return to that location the images are remembered.

So, say you want to organize the word cuando. The easiest way to do it is to place the image we devised earlier in a location you are familiar with that already contains a clock. If there is a clock in your living room above your TV, picture the magician standing in the middle of your living room waving his wand at the clock on your wall. The next time you visit this location in your mind you will see the magician and be reminded of its meaning.

There is, however, a problem with the traditional use of memory palaces in language learning.

Traditional memory palaces are not the most efficient way to learn a language, as they take a long time to create. In fact, one of the biggest complaints about memory palaces is that they take too long to create and you can just rote memorize the material in the time it takes to learn the technique.

While I completely disagree with this complaint, there is a valid concern behind it.

Here’s what I do to deal with this concern. In a typical memory palace you sequentially go from location to location without any organizational principle in place. With the traditional technique, the words cuando and perro, both of which have no similarities (neither are the same part of speech and neither have a similar meaning), could exist in the same location, which makes no sense.

What I’m alluding to is the need for a more advanced organizational structure than in a traditional memory palace. That way, you can take advantage of your brain's ability to file information logically.

For example, you can organize your new vocabulary by:

  1. Verb conjugations
  2. Gender
  3. Words that have more than one meaning
  4. Words that can function in different parts of speech

You need a system that can handle each of these scenarios. Instead of a memory palace, you need a ‘memory world.’

Not a Memory Place, But a Memory World

This image illustrates the basis for a memory world, which is a more advanced organizational system than a traditional memory palace. Each area in a memory world is associated with a specific part of speech, so new vocabulary can easily be added. As you are trying to remember certain parts of speech, all you have to do is think of the area in the world in which that part of speech is associated with.

For the sake of simplicity we are going to classify cuando as an adverb (3 – plaza) and perro as simply a noun (5 – house). The image associated with cuando would be placed in a location in the memory palace associated with adverbs (the plaza) and the image for perro would be placed in the house. When you are actually trying to remember a word, all you have to do is move to the location associated with the part of speech you are looking for and visualize the image associated with the word.

Verbs throw another wrench in the traditional memory palace. In some languages there are over 20 common verb conjugations, each one associated with a different tense. Associating these conjugations in a linear fashion through a memory palace will confuse you more than help you. There is no way for your brain to know where in the linear progression of images each verb tense begins or ends. Instead, if you create a standard layout and apply it to every verb, then words can be associated with their proper tense. This also creates continuity between all of the verbs you learn.

Take a look at the image and study it for a second. Notice how each area of the building is associated to a verb tense. This creates a system without a linear progression, a system that is far more organized. If you want to say a word in the future tense, you find the building in your mind associated to that verb, then look in the location associated with the future tense.

The organizational structure I’ve introduced here should give you a great foundation to begin with.

Where to Find the Top 2,000 Words in Your Target Language

You might be thinking that everything so far makes sense. But where can you find the top 2,000 words in your target language?

Memrise gives you this list of words – and organizes them for you. Here they are for three popular languages:

Want the same for another language? All you have to do is Google top 2000 words in [language] memrise and find a slide deck. I’m a big fan of Memrise because they just added a feature called Mems, which allows you to upload images or write a funny sentence using the word to help associate it.

When I ran through the Spanish slide deck without creating an image for each word, it took me on average three minutes for five words (you review each word 5 times). When you first start using this strategy it’s going to take some time getting used to associating images to words, and some words will simply take more time to make memorable.

At 66 words a day, that’s about 40 minutes of study time for new words each day, but let’s double that because creating images for words will take longer, so 80 minutes. It will take about 40 minutes to review your images from the previous day, so that’s a total of 120 minutes or 2 hours of study time a day. If you’ve ever studied a language, hopefully you will realize how insanely short of an amount of time this is.

Learning vocabulary is difficult and time consuming. Learning a new strategy on top of that can be very cumbersome as well. However, if you give the techniques I mentioned a chance, I guarantee they will significantly boost the speed at which you learn a foreign language.

author headshot

Yitzhak Magoon

Founder and CEO, Spungi

Yitzhak Magoon is a programmer and digital nomad currently travelling through Latin America. He owns Spungi, a company dedicated to helping people learn faster.

Speaks: English, Spanish

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