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Remembering foreign vocabulary

We have all been through them, those dreaded vocab tests. When I was in school we had to do both Spanish and French up until our third year. Two languages provided me with a lot of vocabulary.

I used to hate doing those vocab tests. I had a book with the foreign words down one half of the page and a line down the middle of the whole page.

I would then keep repeating the foreign words over and over until they finally stuck in my head. I would then try and recall them again by looking at the English words at random.

This method got me through the tests, but I never did as well as I did the night before when I was testing myself.

How is it that I forgot 30-40% of the vocab I had just learnt less than 24 hours previous?


Learning Languages

Well the method I am about to show you is a method I learnt from Dominic O'Brien, a Grand Master of Memory and 8 times winner of the World Memory Championships.


I stumbled across this book nine years ago. It was the best ten pounds I have ever spent. The book is called "How to Develop a Perfect Memory". Unfortunately the book is now out of print and getting a second hand copy proves to be quite difficult as the book really is so invaluable! But I hope to show you how to remember foreign vocab with the minimum of effort and maximum results!!!

As I have stated before, the key to great memory recall is Imagination and Association. So, as you can guess, this is what you will have to use to remember your vocab. It really is a simple but very powerful tool.



Really familiarise yourself with your home town. Look at your library, local park, fire station, hospital, bookshop, café, supermarket etc everywhere where you would find common day items. This will provide you with the basis of recalling your new foreign vocabulary. I find that using the same town for more than one language will cause you problems, so keep your eyes open when you visit other places. When on holidays, take pictures to help you remember locations, try to get into the habit of creating journeys in your head wherever you go. The more locations, the more you will be able to remember.


Verbs are action words like running, walking, jumping etc so I tend to use a local, familiar park as my location for verbs. Wherever you decide, try and keep them all together. That way, when you want to know the French for Fall, you will know that Fall is a verb and will be located in your chosen action place, e.g. a park.

So, lets begin. I am going to use Spanish as my example. I am familiar with it and have much vocab located around my local town.

To remember your foreign word requires two pieces of information from you. 

1. The foreign word is what you are going to get your object from. You do this not by what the word means, but by what is sounds like and reminds you of. 

So for example, the Spanish for "Pencil" is "Stilo" 

What does "Stilo" remind me of? What comes to mind when I think of the word "Stilo"? Well, firstly it sounds like steel. So maybe an image of a steel rod comes to mind for the word "Stilo". Now comes the second part.

2. What does the foreign word mean? "Stilo" means "Pencil" in English. Where would I find a pencil? In the stationary shop in my local town, that's where!

So, linking the two words goes something like this:

When I hear the word "Stilo" it will trigger me to think if "Steel". I will immediately think of a steel rod sticking out of the pencil holders in my local stationary shop. I recall picking one up and feeling how heavy it is, and cold too. I remember thinking "Does it have an eraser on the top of it?" This aids in concreting the scene in my memory.

This example is the basis of how to remember foreign vocab using your town as your association.

What about verbs then?

As I mentioned above, I am going to use my local park to demonstrate how to remember action words.

Take the Spanish word "trabajando" which means "working".

"trabajando" seems a really daunting word to remember. this word comes from "Trabajar" which means "to work".

 "Trabajando" sounds to me like "Trap a hen, Doh!"

I would imagine a mouse trap in my park with a hen pecking at the ground around it, with someone setting the trap saying "Doh" as they want to catch mice, not hens!!

The English word for "Trabajando" is "Working". This makes me think of builders digging a hole in the ground. So to go over the scene when I would hear "Trabajando" I would think if the mouse trap in the park with a hen pecking beside it and someone saying "Doh!" in Homer Simpson's voice. Then People "Working" by digging a hole in the ground.

"Working" to you may mean an engine turning over. Whatever comes to mind first will be the first thing that will come to mind the next time you hear the foreign word!

To learn more about these techniques from the Grand Master of Memory himself, including memorizing a deck of cards, preparing for a job interview, develop laser sharp concentration and a whole lot more check out these two books: