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Learn a New Language Faster with Google Images

By Gabriel Wyner · November 14, 2016
learn-new-language-google-imag primary img

Being able to fluently speak and write in a new language is a highly desirable skill--one that can not only increase your professional opportunities but also enhance your travels and conversations with more people. But memorizing new words and thinking in a different language usually don't come easy for most people.

The excerpt below from polyglot Gabriel Wyner's book, Fluent Forever can help. Instead of trying to memorize a new language by rote, you'll have fun playing a couple of games, making the words more memorable and meaningful. All you need are flash cards (index cards or an app like Anki will do), your web browser, and your imagination. Learning a new language is good for your brain, so let's get started.

To learn vocabulary efficiently, we’ll need to create memorable, interesting experiences with our words.

You can accomplish these goals through a series of quick games, which you’ll play whenever you learn new words. The first will show you what your words really mean and the second will connect that meaning to your own life. Here, fun is serious business. If you get bored, your mental filters will turn on, and all of your precious work will leak out of your ears. So take a moment to have fun; it’s much more efficient.

Game 1—The Spot the Differences Game: Finding Meaning through Google Images

Google Images search
Search Google Images in your target language and turn on captions for more memorable language learning

We’re going to put the music back into learning new words by playing with the greatest illustrated book ever written: Google Images.

Google Images is Google’s search engine for pictures. You may have used it already. You go to images.google.com, type in "smiling man with an iguana," and poof, you have two hundred thousand images of iguanas and men.

Hidden beneath Google Images’ colorful exterior is a treasure trove: every image comes with a caption, and those captions exist in 130 languages. You can search for some obscure word—aiguillage (French for "railroad switch")—and get 160,000 examples of the word in context, along with more pictures of railroad switches than you know what to do with. It’s an effectively unlimited source of tiny, illustrated stories about every word you need to learn.

Ed note: Google removed the "switch to basic version" option that showed captions under images, but as the online version of Fluent Forever explains, you can still access the old version by adding "&tbm=isch&sout=1" to the end of your search URL, for example: "http://images.google.com/search?q=Type+your+search+here&tbm=isch&sout=1". If you search Google in your target language, such as google.fr for French, you'll see those captions in that language, which helps you get more context for how the words are used.

These images come from websites in your target language, and so they can tell you precisely how a word is used. The Russian word devushka means "girl." Simple enough. But Google Images will tell you a much more nuanced (and weird) story. Nearly every devushka on Google Images is a close-up chest shot of an eighteen-year-old girl in a bikini. You look at this, and you think "Hm!" And this "Hm!" is exactly what we’re after. It’s the moment you realize that Russian words aren’t just funny-sounding English words; they’re Russian words, and Russian words wear less clothing than you might expect (especially given the cold climate).

These "Hm!" moments get seared into your brain because they’re interesting.

When you research a word using Google Images, you’re playing the Spot the Differences game; you’re looking for the difference between what you expect to see, and what you actually see. The game is a lot of fun; the Internet is full of weird, funny pictures in all sorts of languages. What’s a German grandmother look like? What’s a Hindi cake? Take ten to twenty seconds to play (and then move on to the next word—before you get sucked in for an hour!)

You’ll store your memories of this game into your flash cards. Every time you encounter a "Hm!" moment, you’ve gone through a rich, multi-sensory experience with a new word. You’ll want your flash cards to bring those experiences back. You’ll choose one or two images that you found particularly telling—perhaps one of the grandmothers that seemed especially German—and you’ll put them in your flash cards. If you’re drawing your pictures by hand, then you can create a reminder however you choose.

Game 2—The Memory Game: Boosting Meaning Through Personal Connection

You can make your word memories even more distinct by adding a personal connection. You’re playing the Memory game: What’s your grand-mère’s (grandmother’s) name? Which chat (cat) comes to your mind first? You’re looking for any memory that you can connect with your new word. If you can find one, you’ve just made your word 50 percent more memorable.

To play the Memory game, you’ll spend a few seconds looking for any memory about your word that comes to mind. It could be your childhood cat or your friend’s T-shirt. Try to keep the new word in mind rather than the translation. You’ll make some weird English-French hybrid sentence like "The last time I saw my grand- mère (grandmother) was last weekend." Don’t worry about the lack of French grammar; no one can hear you. As you make your flash cards, you’ll write down a little reminder of this memory—the city you were in last weekend, the name of a friend you were with, and so on.

Later, when you review your flash cards, you’ll play the same game. You’ll see a cat, scan your memory for anything that connects, and if you get stumped, you’ll find a helpful reminder on the back of your flash card. These connections aren’t your main focus—you want to see a cat and think chat—but they can make your job easier, by making your chats and grand-mères more relevant to your own life and therefore much more memorable.

Excerpted from FLUENT FOREVER: HOW TO LEARN ANY LANGUAGE FAST AND NEVER FORGET IT Copyright © 2014 by Gabriel Wyner. Published by Harmony Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

These are just two of the many quick games you can play whenever you try to memorize a new word and learn a new language so you'll never forget it. The more fun you have when you're learning, the more likely that knowledge will last.

Got any tips or tricks for us on learning a new language? Share them with us in the comments.

Further reading:

  • The Science of Memory: Top 10 Proven Techniques to Remember More and Learn Faster

  • Wordplay: Build Your Vocabulary with these 15 Tools

  • Search Smarter: 30+ Google Search Tricks You Might Not Already Know

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