What are mnemonics?

Mnemonics are little memory aids to help you remember some otherwise abstract piece of information. They often involve little rhymes or phrases that are easier to remember than the abstract, such as "Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain" as the order in which the colours appear in the rainbow - Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo and Violet. This particular mnemonic is widely taught to schoolchildren in the UK.

Another one from North America is widely used to help remember what way the hour changes for the start and end of summer time: "Spring Forward, Fall Back."

Or how about using this one to help remember how to turn a nut or screw: "Lefty, loosey; righty, tighty!"

Other types of mnemonics involve absurd mental images, on the basis that the brain seems to remember absurd mental images better than some abstract piece of information. You need to actually visualise these images in your mind, playing them back internally as if you were daydreaming. For instance, to remember that the French word for bread is spelled "pain" (but pronounced "pan"), you might visualise in your mind's eye a bread roll screaming with pain as you eat it. Or, if you were more interested in memorising the pronunciation: visualise that you're cooking using a frying pan made out of bread... which catches fire. Or how about: imagine that you're cooking bread in a hot pan ... you look on mercilessly as it screams in pain !

Where can mnemonics fit into the learning process?

Mnemonics are very useful when you're first learning something, where that something is quite abstract and you don't yet see how it relates to what you already know.

While you're waiting for that inner process to take place whereby the information becomes part of "what you already know",  the mnemonic is an extra valuable clue for recall, slotting into the usual learn-test-repeat cycle that you will most likely be following with these flashcards.

A suitable mnemonic can make the difference between that word or fact being stuck on the tip of your tongue, and getting just enough of a mental nudge to remember what you need. But you still need to be motivated to learn and practice the vocabulary in the first place!

How are mnemonics used in this website?

Learning foreign language vocabulary involves pairing some well-known English word with its unfamiliar foreign counterpart. We have already seen the bread example above. Each item of vocabulary includes one or more mnemonics to help you recall the foreign language counterpart. But it also works the other way: if you see the word "pain" in some French text, for instance on a menu, you will be prompted to remember a bread roll being in pain, and hence the English translation: bread.

That's all easy enough for the example above. But what do you do if you need to remember something abstract like "tomorrow" which is "jutro" (pronounced YOO-troh) in Polish. Not only is the foreign word little more than a meaningless sequence of letters to the unaccustomed eye, but the English term, "tomorrow", doesn't lend itself to being easily visualised.

In that case, we try to break down the words into chunks that remind us of easily visualisable things. We do that for the foreign word as well, we break it down and extract an image of a thing that is easily visualised. Finally, we combine the two sides in one story or mnemonic that links the two.

So, for "tomorrow", we visualise a "marrow". And for "jutro", we visualise "judo". Finally, we combine the two together in the following mental image: "Imagine a judo bout between marrows."

Mnemonic example

Our system allows you to use either the mnemonics we've come up with, or create your own. If you want to create your own, we give you access to the same tool we use to automatically come up with suggestions for mental images that might match the word or phrase. (You're free to use or ignore these suggestions, though. The tool is not infallible and you may come up with a better way, for yourself.) Then you just need to link the images together using the guidelines that follow in the next section, and you've got your own tailor-made mnemonic.

What makes a good mnemonic?

It depends on your particular style and preferences, but most people report that if the mnemonic has some or all of the following characteristics, then you've got an image that will stick in your memory:

  • Recounts some sort of a story. The verbal or rhyming mnemonics work like this. But you can also make up a mental image story by imagining some of the consequences of your mental image. Going back to the example of the bread roll being in pain because you're eating it, a consequence of that might be that the other bread rolls in the basket jump out and try to run away.
  • Is vivid, absurd, unusual, humorous, disgusting, repulsive, and/or grotesque. Let's face it, sometimes you can't get these images out of your mind!
  • Involves as many of the senses as possible. Try to involve the audible, tactile, and even smell and taste rather than just visual things in the mental image.
  • Is dynamic rather than static. Involves movement and changes of state, and the items you're visualising should interact with each other.

Where can I find more information?

Have a look at the Wikipedia page here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mnemonic