Mnemonics: Learn Words The Smart Way

Build Your Base Vocabulary with Mnemonics. Learning words through comprehensible input is the ideal way to build vocabulary. However, herein lies the catch 22 for beginners: You need to see words in context to acquire them, but you haven’t yet acquired enough words to understand that context. 

With OCLO (Optimal Character Learning Order) life gets considerably more comfortable for you, but there is still going to be a period where you must learn words individually before you can rely on context. 

In this article, I’m going to share with you a technique you can use to learn individual words quickly and with relatively minimal effort. This method is so good that I still use it today when I see a new word while reading. 

Mnemonics and ‘Living Links’ 

Beginners acquire words by creating links from their memory banks to new vocabulary. These ‘living links’ draw their power from your life experience, much like character mnemonics do.

1. Connect the word’s characteristics to your lived experience

(the definitions, the characters, the pronunciation, etc.)

What people, places, objects, feelings, or events from your life does the definition conjure up for you? Are they personal memories, or something from a TV show, movie, book, or video game? All of those things can be used as mnemonics to help you learn Chinese.

Does the word sound like another Mandarin word or a word from another language? Go with your first instinct, and remember that any connection (however tenuous) will help.

How about the word “说明” shuōmíng – “To Explain” sounding a little like Sean Connery saying the word “Swimming”? Does that conjure up the image of Mr. Connery giving swimming lessons? 

Perhaps it reminds you of your driving instructor, who explained things in a very quirky fashion. Or maybe you think of that scene from Harry Potter when Hagrid reveals to Harry that he is a wizard. Anything goes! 

2. Reinforce this connection by finding a mnemonic image that represents it 

You may have difficulty trying to find a picture of a musclebound Arnold Schwarzenegger chicken hybrid, but that doesn’t matter. Use your Google skills to find an image that reminds you of your connection in some way. 

Searching the term “muscular chicken” should bring up something pretty close. If you can’t think of any connection or find the image that perfectly represents the connection you had, no problem. 

Type the Chinese word or the English translation into an image search engine and choose the most interesting image to be your mnemonic. You can always swap it out for another one while reviewing later on, and any image (even a boring one) is better than no image.

3. Put your mnemonics into a flashcard and move on to the next word 

Maybe the image is so specific that you are worried you will forget the connection somewhere? No problem, just write a concise note in the flashcard explaining the living link.

Our flashcards provide a field just for this purpose. They also contain native male and female audio, regardless of whether you are reviewing pinyin spellings, characters, words, sentences, or entire stories. Audio is vital. 

You can continue to use this technique even after you have surpassed the beginner stage and are learning through context, but it is most useful for beginners. Once you get used to this process, it can take seconds. If you would like more information, check out this quick video of Phil explaining the process with some more examples.

Best Way To Learn Chinese
22 June , 2020

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