Learning a Foreign Language

Learning a foreign language can be one of the most difficult and challenging things a person can take on. Quite simply, there is so much to learn: new words, grammar, pronunciation, as well as all the cultural baggage that accompanies the language. You can spend literally years learning a new language. And sometime of course we don’t have that long.

Yet whether it’s in the corporate world, or the elementary school, learning languages is still a rudimentary struggle. Teachers hand out vocabulary lists and verb charts and students old and young spend restless evenings going over and over these lists as if literally trying to drill the words and declensions into their heads.

If any area of learning could benefit from memory systems it would be this. Learning languages, after all, is entirely about memorization. If you don’t already have the basics of a language already in your head, how can you hope to create complex thoughts and expressions?

Applying memory techniques to the learning of a language could take a whole book unto itself. The most we can hope to accomplish in this short piece is to map out a few of the basics for the beginner. With a few hints and tips your approach to a new language may just seem a little less daunting.


No matter how sophisticated or nuanced the grammar of a language may be and how well a person can learn it, no one can say that he or she knows anything about a language unless they know its basic building blocks: vocabulary. Without good vocabulary skills all other facets of a language are useless. Consequently, most of your attention and effort should be focused on the learning of vocabulary, at least when first starting out with a new language.

It becomes easier to approach foreign languages when you realize that they are usually part of much larger entities called language groups. English, for instance, is part of a group called the Indo-European languages, which includes most other European languages, such as French, German, Italian, Spanish and Latin. Consequently, each of these languages contains a number of words with similar sounds and meanings.

An example of this is the word mother. In French it is Mere, in German Muter, In Italian Madre. These similarities have much to do with the linguistic origins of modern European languages, which were predominantly Greek and Latin. Such words can be easy to remember because of their similarities to words we already know and use.

The basics for learning foreign words are very similar to the image based techniques used to memorize other forms of information. Let’s look at a few examples.

The French word for foot is pied. How can we mentally link these two words together? Try visualizing a giant bare foot squashing into a thick blueberry pie. The blueberry filling squirts out and hits you in the face. You’ve been ‘pied’!

The German word for piano is klavier. Imagine a huge piano in your front room made of CLAY, you want to sit down and play it but you FEAR it will crumble. CLAY FEAR/Klavier

The Mandarin Chinese word for hello is nee-hao. Imagine coming up to someone you’re going to say hello to. Instead of saying anything to this person, you instead deliver a swift KNEE to the groin. The person bends over, HOW-ling in pain. KNEE  HOW/Nee-hao

Now try a few examples for yourself.

The French word for ‘to eat’ is manger.

The Italian word for purchase is acquisto.

The Chinese word for Thank you is shie-shie.

The Spanish word for Dining Room is el comedor


Learning new foreign words is all well and good… until you use them on native speakers and they start laughing at you because instead of asking where you can buy a coffee, you tell them you’re wearing dirty underwear. Correct pronunciation is a crucial ingredient for affective linguistics and sometimes proper pronunciation is not all that obvious on paper. Going back to our French word for foot, although it is written as pied,  it is pronounced ‘pee-yay’.

Another one that isn’t obvious on paper is the name of the great German poet Goethe. If you had never heard the name spoken aloud before, there is no way of you ever knowing that its proper articulation is ‘ger-tuh’ with a hard ‘g’.

Memory techniques can help in this area as well. A microphone and speaker, (a personal address system) is often referred to as a P.A. system. You could imagine shoving your FOOT into a large loud speaker P.A. (pee-yay). For the poet Goethe, you can imagine coming up to the poet and grabbing or girding onto him very tightly. Girding him as if you squeeze the breath out of him and he makes a ‘tuh’ sound as he exhales. Or even the image of him reciting poetry while walking across a metal GIRDER.

So good luck, or as they say in Japan, がんばろう…but that’s a whole new chapter!



















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