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Simple Mnemonics For Learning Vocabulary: The Keyword Method

When I`m taking attendance on the first day of a new semester, I always take a moment to think aloud about each student`s name. For example, if the student`s name is Shingo (which sounds like the word for “traffic light” in Japanese) I might look at Shingo and explain to the class that I`m imagining Shingo ignoring a red traffic light and walking out into the street, with angry drivers yelling “Hey, look at the shingo!” Then I explain that I`m going to

remember that image of Shingo.

If the student`s name is Rika (which sounds close to the word “liquor” when used as a loanword in Japanese) then I might look at Rika and explain to the class that I`m imagining Rika trying to buy liquor at the liquor shop but getting denied because she`s underage. Then I explain that I`m going to remember that image of Rika.

I go through the whole attendance list doing this (if the class size allows it), and the students all get a good laugh about each image I create, and they probably think I`m just goofing around or being a wacky teacher. But when I`m finished taking attendance, I test myself on the students` names in front of the class, trying to recall each image I created. I often get a round of applause, and a lot of “Wow, how`d he do that?” They then learn that I have just demonstrated a mnemonic device for aiding memory, in fact it`s a variation on the keyword method – perhaps the single most useful mnemonic device for language learning.

The Keyword Method

The keyword method mnemonic is a very simple way to help you remember foreign language vocabulary. It goes like this:

  1. You encounter a foreign language word that is difficult to remember.

  2. You find a word or phrase in your language that has a similar sound.

  3. You create a visual image for the keyword (the word or phrase in your language) and then connect the image with the foreign language meaning.

Let`s look at some examples to clarify:

Indonesian coconut kelapaWhen I was learning Indonesian a few years ago, I used a mnemonic to learn the word for coconut, which is kelapa in Indonesian. I found a word in English that sounded similar to kelapa, clap as in “clap your hands”. Then I thought of an image: when you clap your hands, a coconut falls on your head. So be careful not to clap when you`re standing under a coconut tree.

Recently I started learning Tagalog, and the word for water in Tagalog is “tubig”. Finding a phrase in English that sounds like this was easy: it sounds almost exactly like “too big”. So I created an image: sitting in a restaurant and asking for water, and then the waitress bringing over this huge 5 liter tub of water with a straw. And I say “Hey, this water is too big!” Actually, this mnemonic is so intuitive that I didn`t even consciously try to create the image, it just came to me automatically.

Water it`s TUBIG

How to create an effective keyword mnemonic

You can make the best keyword mnemonics when the keyword (the word in your language) sounds close to the foreign language word, and the keyword is something concrete that you can easily create an engaging visual image and experience for. A falling coconut is something you can easily visualize, and getting hit on the head by it is something that incorporates your body and its sense of touch (your kinesthetic modality). If you visualize that and feel the coconut hitting your head and feel annoyed by it, or alternatively you watch someone else get hit on the head by a coconut and laugh your ass off at them, then you are both seeing and feeling something. Include some sound effects in your image and now you`re hearing something too. The more you bring an image – or I guess it`s becoming a “scene” by this point – into your experience, the more you will remember it.

The too-big water is similar. I could imagine trying to lift it to take a sip, and almost losing my balance trying to lift it. I could hear all the voices of bystanders laughing “Haha, damn that water is TOO BIG!”

How to handle words with no similar-sounding concrete words

Depending on the sound of the foreign language word, and whether there are any similar-sounding concrete words in your own language, it may be easy or hard to create an image. A French word that I struggled to remember was alimentation ***, which means (in one sense) diet or eating habits. Looking at this word I struggled to find anything in English that sounds similar. So I just hacked it out and did the best I could with approximations: ailment sounds similar to the first part of the word. For the last part of the word “ation”, well that suffix often means changing something from one state to another. So I could use that and create my own fake English word “ailmentation” meaning to contract an ailment. But no, that might confuse me so I`ll just use “ailment” and trust my ears to remember the final ending of the word.

So how can I create an image that connects the keyword “ailment” with the meaning of diet or eating habits? Well, BAD eating habits! I`ll imagine someone with terrible eating habits inhaling candy bars and cans of cola at lightning speed and then suddenly collapsing because his terrible eating habits resulted in an ailment. So next time I want to express the meaning of “eating habit”, I will see this image and remember the keyword “ailment” which reminds me of the word “alimentation”.

Phew. That one was hard. But, often the more effort you put into a mnemonic the more it will stick, even if the image is bizarre or unintuitive. So even if you have to wrack your brain a little bit and take a few minutes to come up with a good mnemonic, it`s worth it if it`s a word you`re going to end up looking up several times when you forget it in the future.

*** Note: I gather “alimentation” is a word in English, as I was embarrassed to discover. But I didn`t know the word in English so it wasn`t of much help to me in remembering the (very commonly used) French word.

For every word?

But that doesn`t mean that you need to make an image for every word. That would be very time intensive and in a lot of cases unnecessary. There will always be vocabulary that your brain just takes in and assimilates with little conscious effort on your part, for whatever reason. There`s no reason to create images for words you have no trouble remembering. Usually I load new vocabulary into Anki, both in isolation and in a phrase or sentence, and test myself, and when I have trouble remembering certain cards then I target those vocabulary items and create mnemonics for them.

One last example

Let`s do one more example for the fun of it, this one being not as simple as the first two, but a little simpler than the last one. This is for a Tagalog word I learned this week: Magbasa which means “read”. I had trouble remembering it, so I tried to think of a similar-sounding word in English to create an image with. I couldn`t think of a word, but the place name Mombasa – a city in Kenya popped into my mind.

Mombasa…and “read”…..hmmm. Aha! I read an article on a man named Kimani Maruge, an illiterate old man in Kenya who started going to elementary school when he was 84 years old. So my image is an image of the old man learning to read in a classroom in Mombasa, he was so inspired to read that he started school as an old man in Mombasa.

Kimani Maruge in Kenya

So when I want to express the meaning of “read” I will remember that image of the old man reading in a classroom in Mombasa. And Mombasa will remind of the word magbasa*. It`s not an amazing image, but the story was fairly moving and inspirting sothe image is memorable for me as someone who read about Maruge.

And yes I know he actually went to school in Nairobi. I don`t care, because now I remember how to say “read” in Tagalog! 🙂

*I find that the keyword doesn`t have to sound exactly the same, that your brain can associate two words that have partially similar sounds, but of course the more similar the better. In this case, just the “basa” part was enough to bring the Tagalog word to mind.


There are lots of other more advanced mnemonics, but this simple type is possibly the most useful. At least it`s the type you will probably use most often on a daily basis in your language learning. Whenever you`re struggling with a word, take a couple minutes to work out a mnemonic. The important thing is that the keyword helps you remember the foreign language word, and that the image you create is vivid enough to recall easily. The more of a reaction it gets out of you the better!