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The Mnemonic Imagery Game: How to Memorize Difficult Words in a New Language

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The Mnemonic Imagery Game: How to Memorize Difficult Words in a New Language

By Gabriel Wyner · December 7, 2016
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Many languages are tricky for native English speakers to learn because of a thing called _grammatical gender. In English, you can swap most nouns for a different noun and the grammar stays intact. In other languages, you have to memorize not only the noun but also whether it's female, male, or neutral--otherwise you'll wreck the grammar. How can you memorize nonsensical bits of grammar? Try the Mnemonic Imagery Game._

The excerpt below from polyglot Gabriel Wyner's book, _Fluent Forever can help you easily and quickly memorize nouns' grammatical groups in a new language. So you'll never forget whether you need to use un or una, ein or eine, and so on before a noun. Fair warning: there's some vivid imagery ahead. ~ Ed. note_

To continue with the German genders: a tree is male, its buds are female, its leaves are neuter; horses are sexless, dogs are male, cats are female, —Tom-cats included, of course; a person’s mouth, neck, bosom, elbows, fingers, nails, feet, and body are of the male sex, and his head is male or neuter according to the word selected to signify it, and not according to the sex of the individual who wears it, —for in Germany all the women wear either male heads or sexless ones; a person’s nose, lips, shoulders, breast, hands, and toes are of the female sex; and his hair, ears, eyes, chin, legs, knees, heart, and conscience haven’t any sex at all. The inventor of the language probably got what he knew about a conscience from hearsay.

—Mark Twain, "The Awful German Language"

Welcome to the Mnemonic Imagery game. In the next few minutes, you’re going to memorize the genders of twelve troublesome nouns in German, identified in Mark Twain’s essay, "The Awful German Language". You’ll do it quickly, you’ll do it easily, and you’ll even have fun. Let’s go.

Tree—masculine, Tree bud—feminine, Leaf—neuter, Horse—neuter, Dog—masculine, Cat—feminine, Mouth—masculine, Neck—masculine, Hand—feminine, Nose—feminine, Knee—neuter, and Heart—neuter.

You might be able to memorize these by rote repetition, but not for more than a few minutes. We’ll try something a bit more interesting (and long lasting) instead. I want you to imagine all of the masculine nouns exploding. Your tree? Kaboom, splinters of wood everywhere. A branch gets embedded in the wall behind you. Dog chunks splatter all over the ceiling and floors. You wipe bits of fur and gore from your forehead. Make your images as vivid as you can stomach.

Feminine nouns should catch fire. Your nose spews fire out of it like a dragon, a flaming cat sets fire to your bedroom. Feel the heat of each image; the more senses you can involve, the better.

Neuter items should shatter like glass. Jagged, brown-red, sparkling shards of horse spread across the floor, as does your broken heart (sniff). Take a moment to imagine the remaining images yourself: an exploding mouth and neck (masculine), a burning hand and tree bud (feminine), a shattering leaf and knee (neuter).

No, really. Go back and do this. It shouldn’t take you more than a minute. I’ll wait.

See how many of these images stick. We’ll even mix up the order to be tricky: tree, leaf, horse, dog, cat, mouth, neck, hand, nose, heart, knee, tree bud.

Not so bad, eh? Depending upon how vivid your images were, you may have remembered all of them, and if you missed a few, you’d get better with practice. Mnemonic images work for reasons you might already surmise: we’re really good at remembering images, particularly when those images are violent, sexual, funny, or any combination of the three. While "gender" can conjure up some images—you can probably imagine a male dog—it falls flat on others (a neuter knee—meh). Vivid, action-packed verbs are much more memorable.

Later, when you’re making your flash cards, you can use mnemonic imagery as needed. If a man is masculine in your target language, you probably don’t need imagery for that word. But if you’re making a flash card for a maiden (neuter), then take a few seconds to shatter her into a thousand maidenly pieces. Make your images as vivid and multisensory as you can. If you do, you’ll have an easy time recalling each word’s gender whenever you review, and if you get stumped, you can create a new image then and there. After a few hundred words, you’ll begin to do this automatically with every new word, and gender will cease being a problem from then on.

As you learn more, you’ll find that this tool can come in handy everywhere. Any time you encounter some frustrating group of irregularities you "just have to memorize," you can create a mnemonic image. You can even make images for spelling—if ch is for chat (cat), then that cat can ride on top of your cheval (horse). Make a few images and try it out. It’s a fun tool, and it makes light work of one of the hardest aspects of language learning.

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.

Don't miss: two other games you can play to learn a new language, also by Gabriel Wyner.

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Gabriel Wyner

Gabriel Wyner is an author, opera singer, and polyglot in Chicago. He developed a language learning system that rapidly builds fluency in short, daily sessions, and learned 7 languages in a few years. For more info, visit

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