I took four years of Spanish in high school, and until this year, the only thing I could remember was tengo un fiesta en mis pantalones.
For those who aren’t aware, that means I have a party in my pants.
I’m sure you can envision why a teenager would find that hilarious, and thus so memorable.
It’s been over 10 years and this line has stuck with me.
It saddens me that I didn’t have the tools and tricks to absorb more of this beautiful language.
I hope you take from this article strategies you can immediately start applying to your own foreign language study.
All of the examples used in this article relate to Spanish, but they can be applied to any language.
Throughout this blog, I discuss how visual memory techniques can be applied to a range of topics, but these topics, like medical terms or historical events, are much simpler than a foreign language.
A foreign language has verb tenses, conjugations, idioms, and many words don’t directly translate to English, so you need a complex system.
If you think you can simply get by using a translator, you are wrong.
Even translators as complex as Google Translate very commonly translate incorrectly.
Incorrect translations can have drastically different meanings.
Let me demonstrate.
It was very hot, and I was sweaty after walking to my hostel in Medellin, Colombia.
The hostel attendant asked como estas?
How are you?
I responded estoy caliente.
I am hot, or so I thought.
You see, the direct translation for estoy is I am and the direct translation for caliente is hot, so in my mind the sentence made perfect sense.
Unfortunately, when combined together, estoy caliente can mean I am horny.
The correct phrase I was looking for tengo calor which literally translates to I have heat, a phrase that sounds foreign in English.
Hopefully, this illustrates why it doesn’t make sense to memorize vocabulary word for word, it needs to be learned in context.
We need a system that will take every single grammar, idiomatic, and pronunciation consideration into account.
A system that creates a foundation so you can learn new vocabulary to give you the confidence to begin speaking the language with native speakers.
Using Visual Memory Techniques to Learn a Language
Visual memory techniques work by a well-documented and researched mechanism called elaborative encoding.
Elaborative encoding is a mnemonic in which information that is going to be remembered is associated to pre-existing memories and knowledge.
These connections can be made visually, spatially, semantically or acoustically.
The entire art of remembering everything is to figure out ways to take information lacking in context and to transform it in a way in which it becomes unforgettable.
With vocabulary, we do that in four ways.
1. The Stressed Syllable Technique
The stressed syllable of a word is simply the syllable that is emphasized the most.
Take the following words for instance, the stressed syllable is underlined.
Research shows us that if you focus only on the stressed syllable of a word when trying to memorize it, your brain is able to remember the unstressed syllables without much effort.
This has two huge implications.
The first is that you can greatly reduce your efforts by only focusing on the important part of the word.
The second, is that focusing on the stressed part of the word will teach you how to pronounce the word.
This is profound: by only focusing on the stressed syllable we not only remember the word but we remember how to pronounce it.
To illustrate how this is done, here’s a short list of very common Spanish words.
I’ve bolded all of the stressed syllables for you.
In the list below, I’ve modified the spelling slightly for two reasons.
The first is so you know how to pronounce the word, and the second we will find out a little later.
When we begin to develop mnemonics for each Spanish word and relate them to their English counterparts, we use the stressed syllable technique to help us.
However, it’s not enough to simply memorize the stressed syllable.
We need to determine the stressed syllable, then transform it into an unforgettable image and relate it to the English meaning.
For additional information on how stressed syllables are pronounced in Spanish, Bowdoin College came out with this incredible resource that will help.
2. Turn a Stressed Syllable into an Unforgettable Image
Turning words into images in an art unto itself.
I’ve written an entire post about how to visualize images to make them unforgettable which is a must read, but I’ll summarize everything here.
The reason this strategy works is because we take the stressed syllable and turn it into an unforgettable image.
When you picture the image, you will know the stressed syllable of the word and thus, the word itself.
Let’s use the word cuando as an example.
The stressed syllable sounds like wand, so our image is going to focus around that.
Cuando is how you say when in Spanish as in a relation to time when I was young…
Wand is easy because it is literal.
We just need to link it to the meaning when something happens.
When I wave my magic wand, I can change time itself!
When you are creating your images, there are six things you can do to ensure they are unforgettable.
- Include as Many Senses as Possible
- Include Action in Your Pictures
- Visualize Images as Unique and as Crazy as Possible
- Use Vivid Color
- Pay Close Attention to Detail
- Use Emotions
Notice I didn’t use a verb for our example.
Verbs are an entirely different story, and are discussed in detail in the next section.
Once we have identified the stressed syllable for our word and created an image to make it unforgettable, we need a way to organize it, so we know where to retrieve our image from.
3. Create an Organizational System
Instead of dumping hundreds of facts in a single location in hopes we can pull them back out when we need them, we are going to organize them in a world.
This imaginary world is going to be a mental file cabinet, so you know where to look when you need to find a word.
Our world is broken down into sections where each section is associated with a part of speech.
In our world we have six sections:
- Amusement park for storing conjunctions and prepositions (and, of, from etc.),
- A countryside for articles, and pronouns (the, a, it, myself, hers etc.)
- A shopping plaza for storing adverbs
- Streets of shops for storing verbs
- A house for storing nouns
- The yard outside of the house for storing adjectives.
As we learn new words in the language, they are placed in the appropriate section in our world and then further organized in each section based on the meaning of the word.
Verbs are the most complex to organize, so we need to drill down even further.
Let’s use the infinitive “to run” to illustrate their complexity.
|Future||He will run||Correrá|
|Conditional||He would run||Correría|
In English, when we change the pronoun the verb stays the same.
If a female was running instead of a male, we would say “She runs”.
Runs always stays the same in present tense, like ran stays the same in the past tense.
There are, of course, irregular verbs in English that don’t follow this rule (“I am”, “she is”, “we are”), but we will get to those later.
This differs quite a bit in Spanish.
Verbs in Spanish usually don’t need a pronoun at all, the ending of the verbs change based on the tense it’s being conjugated into.
Every verb ending in Spanish changes based on the sentence.
So, how are you supposed to remember all of the verb endings?
For the regular verbs, the best answer is simply by using them over and over until they are second nature.
The -ar, -er, and -ir verbs that are regular follow a very easy pattern.
For irregular verbs, however, this strategy is not effective.
As I mentioned prior when describing our world, I said that verbs are located on a street of shops.
Each shop is a different verb.
This allows us to group every verb ending into a single entity.
Each tense is represented at a different place throughout a shop.
Present tense is stored at the entrance, past tense is stored behind the cash register, future tense is stored before entering the shop, and so on.
Take a look at the graphic to see how it is organized.
By doing this, all we need to do is to associate the infinitive to run or correr to the correct shop and look in the right place in the shop according to the tense we want to use.
4. Account for Abnormalities
There are so many grammar rules when learning a new language that they can be overwhelming.
You think you learn something and then all of a sudden there’s an exception.
“I before E except after C,” oh, except for these and many more examples: species, science, sufficient, seize, vein, weird, their, foreign.
One of the biggest differences between Spanish (and many other languages) and English is that words in Spanish have a gender.
English, in fact, is one of the few languages in existence whose words don’t have a gender.
A dog in English is just a dog.
The dog itself is male or female, but the word dog itself is an it.
Gender is only introduced in English if you use a gender specific pronoun as in he barked or she pooped on the floor.
In Spanish, the word for dog, perro, is a masculine word.
Therefore, the dog ran away from home translates to el perro [ran away from home].
El is the masculine article for the while la is the feminine article.
This distinction is important because it dictates other parts of speech.
Thus, learning the gender of each noun is a necessary part of learning the language.
A lot of material exists that suggests creating an image to represent masculine and feminine words.
You would then include this image in your mnemonic when you memorize the noun.
For instance, la sounds like singing (musical note) and el sounds like ale, or a glass of beer.
To memorize perro you determine it’s stressed syllable which is perro, which sounds like pearro.
You could picture a dog shaped like a pear drinking an ale.
This is a great strategy in theory, unfortunately it doesn’t work on a large scale.
There’s a fancy scientific term called visual interference that describes the phenomenon where images become blurry and difficult to distinguish in your minds eye.
This happens when there are too many images that look similar.
You need to know about 20,000 words in Spanish to be 95% fluent.
Let’s assume that list is made up of 5,000 nouns.
That’s 5,000 nouns that will become a jumbled mess of ale and singing and it will sound way too much like October Fest in Germany.
There are just too many words to use this strategy.
The best way to remember gender is to remember nouns spatially.
Since nouns are located in the house in our world, they will be located in rooms.
Nouns that are feminine are memorized on the left hand side of the room, while nouns that are masculine are memorized on the right hand side of the room.
It’s as simple as that.
No image confusion at all, the system simply uses the idea that are brains are excellent at spacial awareness.
5 Ways to Succeed at Learning a Language
Now that you understand how to turn foreign words into images and how to organize them, you need to understand the best way to attack language learning.
Most people open up a book and start learning vocabulary by category, like food for instance.
While knowing the word for broccoli is important at some point, it’s not going to get you to fluency very fast.
There are 5 things you can do to get yourself as close to fluency as possible.
1. Only Learn the Most Common Words First
You only need to learn about 1,000 words in the Spanish language to understand about 85% of all spoken and written language.
Compare that to becoming 95% fluent, which requires 20,000 words.
The statistics are similar with other languages as well.
One of people’s biggest problems is they try to tackle specific niche topics like food, or animals and leave out the words that build the structure of the language.
It’s very easy to stray away from the most common 1,000 because when you’re trying to speak a foreign language to someone and the anxiety builds, all you want to do is learn those words the words you need.
Learning and understanding direct and indirect pronouns, articles, prepositions and conjugations are far more important than learning verbs and nouns at first.
It’s likely the most boring part of learning a language because there is a lot of grammar involved, but nothing will get you fluent faster.
You shouldn’t stray away from the core 1,000 words until you have a deep understanding of how they work and you can actually use them in sentences.
2. Learn the Sound of Words and How to Form them in Your Mouth
Spanish and English words are not created equal.
If you pronounce words like you pronounce English words Spanish speakers will have a very difficult time understanding you.
One of the best ways to learn vocabulary is to imitate people.
If you want to learn a word that someone says, you repeat it.
But, have you ever tried to repeat a word and you pronounce it completely wrong even after they have repeated it several times for you to hear?
It’s because the way Spanish speakers talk and the way English speakers talk is completely different.
Many sounds in Spanish are formed in physically different places in your mouth.
D and T are not formed at the teeth instead of at the roof of your mouth.
The Spanish R sounds like the English T in the words ladder or butter.
Check out this video to see an example.
J sounds like the English H.
B and V sound identical and are probably the most difficult for English speakers to pronounce.
The safest thing to do until you can actually speak the difference is to say BV whenever you see one of these letters.
H is silent.
The vowels in Spanish basically sound like the corresponding English vowel, but with an H added to the end.
Pronounce the letters in English and consciously pay attention to where your tongue is located.
Then, practice saying the letters as you would when speaking Spanish.
With a little practice, you won’t sound like every other gringo.
3. Learn Everything in Phrases
As I previously demonstrated, learning words is not enough, you need to learn everything in context.
Words are worthless without phrases.
Just like a single letter has no definite meaning until its part of a word, a single word has no context until it’s given context in a phrase.
This is especially important because most Spanish words don’t directly translate into English words.
If you take an English sentence and directly translate it word by word into a Spanish translator like Google Translate, often times it will not make any sense.
If we translate I am hungry in Google Translate we end up with estoy hambriento
However, the correct way to say I’m hungry is to say I have hunger or tengo hambre
Sentence structure is different in Spanish, so you need to learn how sentences are structured to truly speak fluently.
Whenever you learn a new vocabulary word make sure you know how to structure it in a sentence.
4. Nothing Replaces Speaking with a Native Speaker
No matter what system, you follow or what program you use, actually speaking with a native speaker is the most important thing you can do.
You may think that since you memorized 5,000 Spanish words in two months that you are ready to go to a foreign country and speak fluently.
Nothing is further from the truth.
Fundamentally, reading and writing a foreign language are easy, but speaking it and understanding it when spoken to you is a whole different ballgame.
Nothing replaces actually sitting down and talking to someone that is a native speaker.
Your brain needs to fire at 150% and you need to understand their accent, two things that simply don’t happen with book study.
There are many programs out there and apps that can connect you with native speakers so this can be possible even if you don’t live in a country where the native language is spoken.
My personal recommendation is an app called HelloTalk.
It has grammar correction, free calls, voice-to-text and text-to-voice and a ton of other features that make communicating with someone simple.
The users on HelloTalk genuinely want to practice and I’ve found most of them willing to hop on Skype to practice once or twice a week.
5. Don’t Blindly Learn Words, Learn with a System
To fully grasp how to learn a language, you need to understand how the language works.
The only way to understand how a language works without actually learning the language is to learn based on a system designed from someone’s many mistakes.
If you try to use very well-known programs like Rosetta Stone, Duolingo, or Memrise they start shoving vocabulary down your throat on day one.
These programs don’t offer any foundation like the system described in this article nor do they focus on the most important words to make you fluent the fastest.
The system I discussed in this article took three years to design.
It takes all of a languages grammar rules, idioms, and phrases and allows you to learn the first 1,000 words very quickly.
If you want to learn Spanish, the entire system can be found in an incredible book called Accelerated Spanish.
The author, Timothy Moser, also offers a Spanish coaching program with a money back guarantee.
It is one of the only programs on the market that guarantees Spanish fluency.
Here is his lesson breakdown.
Lesson 1: Complete comfort with 15 essential words; deep work on fundamental Spanish sentence structure with que, de, and direct objects (lo, la, and me); idioms that involve articles (lo que, el que, la que).
Lesson 2: Fluid, comfortable use of essential conjugations of Ser; related grammar (including the subjunctive).
Lesson 3: Comfort with 25 new words, including fluid use of several new idioms; indirect and reflexive objects.
If you’ve mastered the materials to this point, you’re ready for our complex lesson on Estar.
Before we learn Estar, let’s look at a few of our future landmarks for the purpose of encouragement:
Lessons 5-6: All essential Spanish grammar and 50% comprehension of the language.
Lessons 7-8: Beginning conversation entirely in Spanish.
Lessons 9-10: Verbs in bulk; 70% comprehension of Spanish.
Lessons 11-12: Conversation on a variety of subjects.
Lessons 13-14: Comfort with 80% of Spanish.
Lessons 15-16: Easy conversation on familiar topics, with strong vocabulary and perfect grammar.
Lessons 17-18: Understanding of 90% of Spanish; comfortable conversation on nearly any subject.
If you are serious about learning Spanish, I highly recommend Accelerated Spanish.
I’ve read the book from cover to cover and I’ve read no better book for Spanish fluency.
I’d love to hear your experience with any Spanish tools and your thoughts on this article?
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Leave a comment below and tell me.