Language Learning Techniques

January 01, 2020

As far as we know, the human mind is one of the most complex machines in the universe, and certainly one of the most difficult to study and understand. The brain is made up of billions of interconnected neurons which constitute everything we know, think, and feel. Memories are not stored in single neurons, but in patterns of activation; a group of neurons which all light up at once.

Typically when people try to remember a new word, they create a single thread of memory between the word and its definition. However the mind discards many of these memories as unimportant. A common language learning technique, spaced repetition tries to solve this problem by reviewing a word just before it gets scrapped by our mind's junk collectors.

An analogy I particularly like is to imagine each memory as a spiderweb. The more you pay attention to each syllable, or create a story mnemonic around each word, or try to use that word in a sentence, the more connections you create. Remembering a word is like trying to get caught in a web that you have fashioned for yourself, and the bigger the web the more likely it is that you will find it again.

Part I: Existing Techniques

Spaced Repetition

Spaced repetition is based on the principle of reviewing information at exponentially increasing intervals. If you learn a new word today, then you might review the word tomorrow, and then wait a few days before reviewing it again, and then a week, a month, and so on. This is incredibly effective because in learning so much new information (for example, vocabulary in another language), our memory of arbitrary new concepts will begin to fade over time.




This technique involves associating a new word in a foreign language with a word in your own language which sounds similar. I used this technique extensively while trying to memorize long lists of bulgarian words.

This technique introduces an idea of play to language learning which is not inherently present in spaced repetition. Bringing new associations in lets you build stories and scenarios around a new word which creates much more effective mental connections.

While association helps with remembering the pronunciation and meaning of a word, it can also be confusing or misleading. One can mistake the associated word for the definition; or remember false pronunciations due to the difference in pronunciation. A method that I have found to be more effective is Syllabic Association, where instead of the one-to-one relationship of regular word association, it creates a many-to-one relationship which more accurately encodes the pronunciation and can prove easier to recall. However I will discuss this other technique further on in this document.




For thousands of years (ah, so cliché, I know), humans have passed down knowledge and memories through stories. Creating stories is one of the most effective techniques for teaching and remembering new information as they are incredibly effective at creating a web of connections in your memory.

Creating stories around new vocabulary words can create very strong connections. The best stories for memory tend to be weird, combining funny or strange imagery or ideas together. When you construct a good mnemonic story, it can become its own kind of space-repetition system; you might end up remembering the story — and hence the word associated with it — throughout the following week as you go about everyday tasks.

Story can also be combined seamlessly with other techniques. Perhaps if you associate words you know to remember a new word in a foreign language, then you can create a story around those words!

Using stories is often most effective when you create the story yourself. While it still can be incredibly effective to use a story mnemonic created by someone else, the act of creating the story and imagining imagery in your mind cements the ideas into your memory.

Part II: Personal Techniques

Syllabic Association

Similar to the association technique above, but where you are associating multiple words with a single foreign word. This can be done by breaking up the new word into syllables and associating each syllable with a word in English (or your native language) that starts with that sound, or approximately if the phonetics do not completely match up.

For example the Spanish word, "mundo" could be remembered through association with "moon" and "door." These two words can then be used to create a story mnemonic, incorporating the definition of the original word and results in remembering both the word's definition and exact or near-exact pronunciation.

The benefit of this is that it forces you to think through a word syllable by syllable and make connections. Usually when we learn a new word, we chunk the whole word as a single memory block which makes it very difficult to remember the pronunciation (what letter did that word start with again?). Thinking through each syllable makes the learner pay attention to the pronunciation and strengthen the memory.

Creating a story around the associations helps to create a web of connections around both the pronunciation and definition, improving the chances of remembering in the future. Make the story weird, our minds love out-of-the-box imagery, and this will help make the memory unique. If you build strong stories around your new words, then your mind will naturally apply techniques of spaced repetition on its own as you will keep remembering these stories (along with the word and its pronunciation) throughout the following days.