Memory systems work beautifully for learning foreign languages. I used them in high school and college to study 5 languages -- Latin, classical Greek, Spanish, French, and German. My peers were amazed that I aced every vocabulary test and learned new languages so quickly. What I didn’t tell them then was that I was simply utilizing my trained memory. In this article I’ll elaborate on some approaches I used for learning every foreign language I studied. More specifically, I’ll explain how to recall foreign vocabulary, leaving syntax and pronunciation for further discussion.

The key to learning foreign vocabulary is simple: find English words that sound like the foreign words you’re trying to learn. These English terms must *denote solid objects that are easy to visualize*. For example, how do you picture the word “love”? You need to concretize that abstraction before you can see it in your mind. Envisioning a human heart is one possibility (the one I would choose, in fact). Or you could picture a tennis racket. But seeing the letters “L-O-V-E” will probably not result in good recall.

As mentioned, we look for English words that sound like the foreign terms we wish to memorize. Here are some examples from different languages:

1 2 3
Foreign Term Definition Sounds Like:

laufen to run laughin’
Spiel game peel
rouge red rude
rex king wrecks
amo I love I mow
hablar to speak hop bar

Notice that the English words and phrases I’ve chosen in column 3 do indeed sound at least a little like the foreign words in column 1. Also note that this technique works best if you choose your own sound-alikes. Mine and the associations described below will not necessarily work as well as the sound-alikes and associations you devise for yourself.

Now that we have sound alike words and phrases, we must associate them with the definitions of the foreign words (column 2). For example, to connect “laughin’” with “to run,” I could envision myself running while I’m laughing so hard that I can barely stand up. Mental pictures that are absurd and bizarre are the easiest to remember. Further, the pictures should be visualized in your mind, not merely verbalized aloud. We tend to remember better what we see rather than what we only hear.

Another example involves the word “rouge,” which in French means “red.” This word sounds enough like “rude” to me in English for me to choose “rude” as my sound alike word. Now I must associate my sound alike with the definition of the foreign term (here, “rouge”). I might imagine myself turning bright red as someone is ridiculously rude to me. Or I could see someone else turning red as I make rude remarks to him. Seeing that absurd picture in my mind will lock in the association. The more vivid, hilarious, and crazy the images are in your mind, the more easily you will recall the information.

To remember that “amo” means “I love” in Latin, I decided that “I mow” sounds like “amo.” So I would picture myself mowing my lawn. While I’m doing so, I’m saying to myself, “I mow!” Then I see the lawnmower run over a giant human heart in the middle of my yard. The heart symbolizes love, which is the definition of the foreign term. Natural memory tells you that “amo” means “I love,” not just “love.”

This system for memorizing foreign vocabulary works extremely well; you’ll experience fantastic results if you visualize the wacky pictures in your mind. Learning becomes more fun that way, too! Just don’t tell others about the mental pictures you make. They may think you’re insane as well as brilliant.

Author's Bio: 

Richard Rubin is a memory expert and certified Neuro-Linguistic
Programming Practitioner. He gives keynote speeches and seminars and can be found at