Angry words


“What if instead of tabbing over to the web browser in search of some nugget of gossip or news, or opening up a mindless game such as Angry Birds, we could instead scratch the itch by engaging in a meaningful activity, such as learning a foreign language?”

A man named Harry walks into a café. Eliza Doolittle, who is working in the restaurant as a waitress, greets him in her dire cockney accent, “Ari”. He orders a slice of cake with layers of sponge, cream and forest fruit: a “gateaux”. When Elisa brings over his order, Ari looks at the gateaux, and says “thank you”.

Ari-gatou – you’ve just learned how to say thank you in Japanese through mnemonics: memorisation strategies inspired by the ancient Greeks and endorsed by memory champions as the most effective way to quickly remember large amounts of information.  Memory virtuoso Joshua Foer reports on the benefits of using these techniques for  learning  vocabulary in his article “How I learned a language in 22 hours”, after setting himself the challenge of learning Lingala for his field trip to the Congo. Joshua worked on his vocabulary using memrise, a slick on-line game which draws from mnemonics to optimise memory power. It may come as no surprise that the US memory champion cruised through his vocabulary sets. But before practising these techniques, Joshua, along with many other “memory athletes”, described himself as having only an average memory. In the words of British memory champion, and co-creator of memrise Ed Cooke, “anybody can do this”. So worry not if you can’t remember where you put your keys, or your car, you can never put a name to a face and you once left your child at the supermarket: mnemonics might just work for you.

Learning vocabulary is an enormous undertaking. In their native language, college-educated English speakers are estimated to possess a whopping 60, 00 word vocabulary (Pinker 1994). Children between the ages of one and six act as “lexical vacuum cleaners”, picking up around 9 to 10 words per day (Pinker 1994; Bloom 2000). If you’ve ever set yourself this familiar target for learning a foreign language, you’ll realise what a cognitive challenge this is. Yet children do it with finesse, without dictionaries, word lists or fancy apps.  The difference between adult and child vocabulary development recalls the age-old nature vs. nurture schism which has been causing bloodthirsty brawls between meek and mild academics and sending hungover undergraduates to sleep for centuries. The nativist camp (e.g. Pinker; Markman) argue that babies are born with an innate ability to learn vocabulary which fades as the maturation process kicks in, leaving adults at a cognitive disadvantage. Alternatively, empiricists (e.g. Snow; Bates; Tomasello) emphasise social and contextual differences: adults often receive less (and different) exposure to the second language, cognition may be biased towards first language settings and adult inhibitions may hinder vocabulary development. Putting aside linguistic fisticuffs about how our brains are wired, all approaches agree that learning vocabulary is a formidable challenge: any techniques which assist in memorisation are a welcome addition to the language learner’s tool box.

The site memrise takes advantage of mnemonics by linking new vocabulary items to images, rhymes or anything memorable about the word. Learners are encouraged to visualise the details: “the stranger the imagery, the more markedly memorable it is” – think Eliza Doolittle with a blackforest gateaux in hand. To help adults overcome their fear of vocabulary lists, creators Ed Cooke and Princeton neuroscience PhD Greg Detr drew from principles of social gaming to make studying “so fun, so secure, so well directed and so mischievously effortless that it’s more like a game – something you’d want to do instead of watching TV”. What’s more, with a smartphone these games are completely mobile: time spent stuck in traffic refining your road-rage vocab could be put towards more useful linguistic prowess. In the supermarket, instead of deliberating whether to move to a shorter queue (or take out the granny at the front with a tin of beans), you could be serenely buffing up on how to order a cocktail in Spanish.

Designed to be played in short bursts, the game is based on time-honoured principles of human cognition: studies show that the most effective way to commit something to memory is through “spaced repetition”, where information is encountered in short repeated sessions spaced out over a relatively long period of time. True to form, Joshua learned the 1000 most common words in Lingala in short 5 minute bursts, totalling 22 hours over a space of 10 weeks. Amazingly, upon arriving in the Congo, Joshua was able to converse with the natives in a simple exchange about family and friends. Not a bad result from playing the linguistic equivalent to angry birds for a few minutes a day. Admittedly, when it came to communicating more complex information, he was lost for words. So can mnemonics help you learn a language in 22 hours? Probably not. But they can do wonders for your word power.

  • Do you use any mnemonic techniques in your teaching?
  • Can you think of any activities to encourage students to use mnemonics, either in the classroom or at home?

Bates, E., Bretherton, I., Beeghly-Smith, M., McNew, S. (1982) Social bases of language development: A reassessment. In Reese, W., and Lipsitt, L. P. (Eds) Advances in Child Development and Behaviour (16) 

Bloom, P. (2000) How children learn the meaning of words, MIT Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts

Markman, E (1991) Categorization and Naming in Children, MIT Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts

Pinker, S. (1994) The language instinct Penguin Books: London

Snow, C.E. (1999) Social perspectives on the emergence of language. In B. MacWhinney (Ed.), The emergence of language (pp.257-276). Lawrence Erlbaum: Mahwah, New Jersey

Tomasello, M. (2003) Constructing a Language: A Usage-Based Theory of Language Acquisition, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Oxford, R. L., Scarcella, R. C., (1994) Second language vocabulary learning among adults: State of the art in vocabulary instruction. System 2:22 (231–243)


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21 responses to “Angry words

  1. excited to check out that website memrise!

  2. Pingback: Angry words | Longwei2china's Blog

  3. hi there

    taking the assumption that language learning is learning vocab, it has been found that mnemonic techniques that use imagery are effective for concrete words more than abstract words(Hulstjin, 1997 as cited in Nielsen, 2003), also they depend on previous L2 language level and so may not be suitable for beginners (Cohen and Aphek ,1980 as cited in Nielsen, 2003).

    Nielsen, B. (2003). A review of research into vocabulary learning and acquisition. [Online] Available:


  4. I don’t use mnemonic techniques ,as I am strongly against memorizing isolated vocabulary.
    From my perspective and involvement I would strongly support teaching conversational language, not grammar rules and at the same time, suggest resigning to correcting mistakes which obviously damages confidence.
    Telling the truth, my method is very stimulating, challenging but at the same time exhausting for all of us. There is no place and time for analyzing grammar rules or memorizing isolated vocabulary.
    But, thank you for your thoughts.

    • I’ve got the same idea against memorizing isolated vocabulary and isolated words as well. That is a way students will never be able to communicate properly. But I do explain grammar rules at the end of classes telling them they did a great job and the conversation we had was such and such grammar.

  5. Pingback: Angry words | Halina's Blog

  6. Karabo Matome

    Great post, Memrise rocks indeed! My blog

  7. Everyone’s just always looking for quick fixes these days. What ever happened to taking the time to learn something properly?! Speaking of..what do you think of the Callan Method? I had to cover some classes of it last night at the school I teach at, and all I can say is that it was hard work, but the lesson flew by! A lot of speaking and very fast, but I’m unsure as to how effective it can be when using the language outside of the classroom.. Back onto the subject – I would love an app to help me learn extra vocab on the bus for example, but I think it all depends on how motivated the students are to study the language, and the vocabulary they actually use when speaking as to how much they can remember.

  8. I saw your follow on newly-fledged blog (thanks!) and thought I’d stop by. This is a seriously interesting post, and I’ll definitely try both spaced repetition and Memrise. While I can agree with Cherri that “isolated vocabulary” isn’t all there is to learning a language, it would be great to learn Mandarin vocab more efficiently. Thanks for the tip!

  9. Pingback: Hakuna Matata in Czech + Memrise « Life of Demanders

  10. Thanks for this post. I’m adding to the list of resources on my blog.

    I’ve used mnemonics with great success in my ESL classrooms. I ask the students to draw a mnemonic cartoon, with a description, and the definition of the word in 10 minutes. Next, I take these mini-mnemonic cartoons, photocopy them, and distribute a sheet to the class. The students love the “celebrity” they get from their creations. I love that the words they draw have the highest retention rate. I also agree with halinakasia that the vocabulary must be brought up repeatedly in conversation to sink in beyond the test.

    You and your readers might be interested in similar free resources:
    Free Books:
    Free Education:
    Free English stuff:

  11. Reblogged this on Something to Ponder About and commented:
    Danish word training.
    500 Basic Danish words: How many do you know?
    Take a test here:
    A very useful article follows the basic vocabulary ( most commonly used words) listed below. Links to fun games to improve your vocabulary are detailed ar the end of this article that I have reblogged here. Great information for anyone wanting to learn Danish. Now I will ponder about how well I know these words and how practise my pronunciation with the audio added here. So much better than TV!!!!
    for – for
    to – til
    so- så
    you – dig
    have,has – har
    I – jeg
    on – på
    what – hvad
    where – hver
    Why – hvorfor
    who = hvem
    home – hjem
    School – skole
    bus – bus ( pronounced boos)
    train – tog
    one – en
    can – kan
    will – vil
    want – vil
    was – var
    here – her
    there – der
    must – skal
    ved – by
    but – men
    of – af
    about – om

  12. I don’t know why so many people have problems with isolated vocabulary. I have used it for French, Italian and Finnish and the results were always great. The point is quantity. 20 words is nothing. Try learning 200 words at once… with one pile of flashcards… no example,no order, no context, just words. Repeat them like a machine and what sticks sticks. If you can remember 100 after a week that is more than if you know 19 out of 20 in the same time. Just throw as much as possible at you and don’t worry about the rest. Throw that again. There is no way you can learn 1500 words in a considerable amount of time if you are wasting time with examples or clicking buttons like in memrise… it is just too much clicking and distraction. The old fashioned pen and paper works the best for me.

  13. I’m an ESOL teacher, also learning Swedish, Spanish, and ancient Greek. Cheers for the info!

  14. I’m not certain the place you’re getting your information, but great topic.
    I must spend some time learning much more or working out more.

    Thanks for great info I was in search of this info for my mission.

  15. Sounds good for learning vocabulary, which is the base of any language, but making sentences and putting words together takes a deeper level of understanding of grammar and word construction.

  16. Just come across your site as you kindly chose to follow my blog. As someone who is trying to learn European Portuguese your links are fantastic. Thank you!

  17. I cannot claim to know a lot about anything related to learning a language, but I don’t really like the sound of this memorising technique. I feel it is better to learn in a conventional way, then add to it, by visiting the country, meeting people, and looking at their literature and cinema. Call me old fashioned, I won’t mind! regards from England, Pete.

  18. Pingback: Learning a second language just got fun! | Learning to teach according to me

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