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New recommendations on learning vocabulary

Learning words is such a large topic that it doesn’t easily fit into one article. To help anyone interested, we have placed a good amount of useful information here.

Mnemonics are a versatile tool that turns vocabulary into easy-to-recall mental images that help you remember a word. 

They can be very useful to learn vocabulary quickly, however the word won’t be truly learned until you don’t need the mnemonic and can use and understand the word automatically. 

They are also a useful tool to improve your recall, not an easy way out of having to absorb the language.

The most common method for mnemonics is the keyword method. 

This links the word you want to learn to a similar-sounding word in your native language. 

For example: Imagine you want to learn the French word for car: “voiture”. You might note that the word “voiture” sounds like “vulture” in English. You can mentally link the two by imagining a car with a vulture on top of it, or, if you are very imaginative, that someone built a car shaped like a vulture. 

Now, when you want to talk about a car, you’ll remember the vulture on top and that the French word sounds like vulture. 

The more vivid, bizarre, or surprising your mnemonics are, the more effective they will be. You will be surprised by how well they work.


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First-letter method

First-letter mnemonics are, as their name suggests, memory strategies that use the initial letters of words as aids to remembering. 

This can be an effective technique because initial letters are helpful retrieval cues, as anyone who has endeavored to remember something by mentally running through the letters of the alphabet can attest to.

There are two types of first-letter mnemonic:

1. Acronyms: initial letters form a meaningful word

2. Acrostics: initial letters are used as the initial letters of other words to make a meaningful phrase

As an example, “ROY G. BIV” is an acronym (for the colors of the rainbow), and “Richard Of York Gives Battle In Vain” is an acrostic for the same information.

Similarly, the acronym FACE is used to remember the notes in the spaces of the treble staff, and the acrostic Every Good Boy Deserves Fruit for the notes on the lines of the treble staff.

Below you can find some more well-known acronyms:

MRS GREN — the characteristics of living things: Movement, Respiration, Sensitivity, Growth, Reproduction, Excretion, Nutrition.

BEDMAS — the order of mathematical operations: Brackets, Exponent, Division, Multiplication, Addition, Subtraction.

HOMES — the Great Lakes in the U.S.A.: Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior.

And some acrostics:

My Very Eager Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas — the order of the planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto.

Father Charles Goes Down And Ends Battle — the order of sharps in music

King Phillip Came Over From Great Spain — the order of categories in the naming of living things: Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species

It’s likely that you’ll know very different acrostics for these same items. That’s one difference between acronyms and acrostics — the same acronyms are likely to be known to everyone, but acrostics are much more varied. 

The reason’s not hard to seek — clearly there are infinite possibilities for acrostics, but very limited possibilities for acronyms.

This means, of course, that opportunities to use acronyms are also very limited. It is only rarely that the initial letters of a group of items you wish to learn will form a word or series of words or at least a pseudo-word (a series of letters that do not form a word but are pronounceable as one — like “BEDMAS”).

Nothing is going to make “MVEMJSUNP” (the order of planets) memorable in itself, even if you break it up into vaguely intelligible bits, like this: “M.V. Em J. Sun P.” (although that does help — say it and you’ll see why).

Acrostics, on the other hand, are easy to create, and any string of items can be expressed in that form. For example (for the planet order):

My Very Earnest Mother Jumped Seven Umbrellas Near Paris

Men View Enemies Mildly Juiced Since United Nations Party

Michael Voted Every May Judiciously Since Union Newsletters Plunged

Understanding limitations of first-letter mnemonics

Medical students are probably the group who use first-letter mnemonics the most (apart from language learners), so here’s a medical example that demonstrates a common problem with first-letter mnemonics:

On Old Olympia’s Towering Top A Finn And German Vault And Hop

This is a mnemonic for remembering the cranial nerves: olfactory, optic, oculomotor, trochlear, trigeminal, abducens, facial, auditory, glossopharyngeal, vagus, accessory, and hypoglossal. 

Of course, the mnemonic wouldn’t help most of us remember this information, because we don’t know these names. 

But there’s another problem with this acrostic: three Os, two Ts and three As. This is a particular problem when the purpose of the acrostic is to remind you of the precise order of items, for obvious reasons. In such a case, you need to use words that distinguish between similar items. 

Thus, a better acrostic for our medical students might be (using the first two letters, instead of just one):

Oliver Operates Occasional Tropical Tricks Absurdly For Australian Gymnasts Vaulting Actual Helicopters

Except that the traditional acrostic does have two big advantages that make it a much more memorable sentence: rhythm and rhyme. 

Say them both aloud, and you’ll see what we mean. Let’s try for an acrostic that contains the vital information and is memorable.

Oliver Opens Oceans; Tropical Trips Abet; Fabulous Authors Gushing; Violent Acts Hinted

Okay, this isn’t very good either, and it took a little while to come up with. 

We’ve tried to distinguish the same-initial terms by including the second letter. The problem is, this additional constraint makes a big difference in limiting the possibilities.

Also, of course, creating an acrostic with rhyme and rhythm requires a great deal more work than simply creating a meaningful sentence. Rhyme and rhythm do, however, make the acrostic considerably more memorable.

And the need to remember some rather strange words while learning languages and associate this information with proper meaning suggests another useful mnemonic: the keyword mnemonic, discussed at the beginning of this post.

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