648a71a35ce6e4a1c5cd63451a2a20df
Armchair philosopher

How to learn a new language, quickly

Simple mnemonic devices to help you learn language quickly and easily

This was a post I wrote here on Thinker's Playground a few years ago, before I relaunched the site.

The original post was a little too long, so I've broken it up into separate posts:

  • How To Develop A Super-Power Memory
  • Memory, Association, and The Link System Of Mnemonics
  • The Peg System Of Mnemonics
  • How To Memorise Pi To 30 Decimal Places
  • How To Memorise A Deck Of Cards
  • How To (Quickly) Learn A New Language

In his book How To Learn Any Language, Barry Farber dedicates a whole chapter to Harry Lorayne’s method of remembering new words. Farber writes:

“I think I actually cried in rage at all the time I’d wasted attempting rote memory of foreign words during the thirty-one years I had studied languages before I met Harry Lorayne”

At the time of writing (1993) Farber could speak twenty-five languages.

Learning new words and making them ‘stick’ doesn’t have to be difficult. As in the examples before, we can use mnemonic associations to remind us of how each word should sound as we learn them.

Here’s an example from personal experience: In Norwegian, the word for bridge is ‘bru’. In Scotland, we have a soft drink called Irn Bru (iron brew). When I first heard the word, I made an association in my mind between Irn Bru and bridges. I wont describe the association I made, just know that it was a weird one.

Using this method I was able to pick up Norwegian quite quickly and, surprisingly, I can still remember where I was and who taught me each Norwegian word I know.

Tony Buzan, educational consultant and general brain-box, claims that around 50% of conversation is made up of around one hundred words. Whilst these numbers are obviously estimates, it’s a good starting place when learning a new language. Learn these hundred words and you’re halfway there. All you have to do then is learn all of the various nouns, adjectives and verbs that go in between them. Here’s the hundred as taught by Buzan:

  1. a, an
  2. about
  3. above
  4. across
  5. after
  6. again
  7. against
  8. all
  9. and
  10. any
  11. as
  12. at
  13. before
  14. but
  15. by
  16. can
  17. to come (came; come)
  18. to do (did; done)
  19. each
  20. to find (found)
  21. first
  22. for
  23. from
  24. to get (got)
  25. to go (went; gone)
  26. to have (had)
  27. he - him - his
  28. her - hers
  29. here
  30. how
  31. I
  32. if
  33. in
  34. into
  35. it - its
  36. to know (knew; known)
  37. like
  38. me
  39. more
  40. most
  41. much
  42. my - mine
  43. new
  44. no - not
  45. now
  46. of
  47. on
  48. one
  49. only
  50. or
  51. other
  52. our - ours
  53. out
  54. over
  55. part
  56. people
  57. place
  58. same
  59. to see (saw; seen)
  60. shall
  61. she
  62. show (showed; shown)
  63. so
  64. some
  65. state
  66. still
  67. such
  68. to take (took; taken)
  69. to tell (told)
  70. than
  71. that
  72. the
  73. their - theirs
  74. them
  75. then
  76. there
  77. these
  78. they
  79. thing
  80. to think (thought)
  81. this
  82. through
  83. time
  84. to
  85. under
  86. up - upon
  87. us
  88. use
  89. very
  90. we
  91. what
  92. when
  93. where
  94. which
  95. who
  96. why
  97. will
  98. with
  99. work
  100. you - yours

I’ve seen variations of this list in a couple of places so it’s by no means a strict rule of language. If you learn these though, you’re at least making basic conversation in other languages easier.

Farber offers a few other handy tips for picking up languages, but I feel these two are the most useful.

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