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Using the keyword method to learn vocabulary

The keyword mnemonic is undoubtedly an effective means of learning the words of a foreign language.

How well you remember depends on how well you learned them, not on whether you have learned the words using a keyword mnemonic or rote repetition or some other method.

Even using a keyword mnemonic, you still need to rehearse the information to be learned.

The keyword mnemonic is not always the best method of learning particular words.

Skilled learners may be best to use the keyword mnemonic selectively, for particularly difficult words.

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The keyword mnemonic requires individual instruction and practice, to use effectively.

Using a verbal (sentence) link is at least as effective as an image, and is easier for many people.

Whether using a sentence or an image, the critical factor is that the keyword interacts with the definition or own-language word.

A large number of studies have demonstrated an advantage in using the keyword mnemonic to learn vocabulary.

Some researchers have become huge fans of the strategy. Others have suggested a number of limitations. Let’s look at these.

Remembering for the long term

The keyword method is undeniably an effective method for accelerating learning of suitable material. Nor is there any doubt that it improves immediate recall. Which can be useful in itself. 

However, what people want is long-term recall, and it is there that the advantages of the keyword method are most contentious.

While many studies have found good remembering a week or two after learning using the keyword mnemonic, others have found that remembering is no better one or two weeks later whether people have used the keyword mnemonic or another strategy. Some have found it worse.

It has been suggested that, although the keyword may be a good retrieval cue initially, over time earlier associations may regain their strength and make it harder to retrieve the keyword image. 

This seems very reasonable to me — any keyword is, by its nature, an easily retrieved, familiar word; therefore, it will already have a host of associations. When you’re tested immediately after learning the keyword, this new link will of course be fresh in your mind, and easily retrieved. 

But as time goes on, and the advantage of recency is lost, what is there to make the new link stronger than the other, existing, links? Absolutely nothing — unless you strengthen it. How? By repetition.

Note that it is not the keyword itself that fails to be remembered. It is the image. The weakness then, is in the link between keyword and image. (For example, the Tagalog word “araw”, meaning sun, is given the keyword arrow; when tested, araw easily recalls the keyword arrow, but the image connecting the arrow with sun is gone). 

This is the link you must strengthen.

The question of the relative forgetting curves of the keyword mnemonic and other learning strategies is chiefly a matter of theoretical interest — I don’t think any researcher would deny that repetition is always necessary. 

But the “magic” of the keyword mnemonic, as espoused by some mnemonic enthusiasts, downplays this necessity. 

For practical purposes, it is merely sufficient to remember that, for long-term learning, you must strengthen this link between keyword and image (or sentence) through repeated retrieval (but probably not nearly as often as the repetition needed to “fix” meaningless information that has no such mnemonic aid).

One final point should be made. If the material to be learned is mastered to the same standard, the durability of the memory — how long it is remembered for — will, it appears, be the same, regardless of the method used to learn it.

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