Memorization exercise: how to memorize definitions in English

Memorization exercise: how to memorize definitions in English

A girl studying linguistics wrote to me last week for advice on how to memorize definitions in english.

This is a rather difficult type of memorization, as it has to be done almost word for word. A bit like we saw in the article on how to memorize a theatrical script.

Instead of limiting ourselves to theory, I thought it useful to show you an example of memorization of this type "in real time". That is, as I did it, on the spot, while answering the student's question.

In doing so, we will also talk about flashcards, acronym, keyword method, and "deliberate practice". All useful tools for any student, university or not.

Let's start with Stefania's question.

How can I memorize definitions in English?

Hi Anthony,

as mentioned in the comments of the last post I leave you two very short examples of definitions of English linguistics that I have to memorize, to understand, in your opinion, how I should proceed.

Also, would you use the memory palace or the flashcards?

These are concepts, definitions, examples, with obviously technical words and moreover in English.

And remembering everything almost word for word is a problem ... I hope you can help me with your advice and thanks for your availability :)

Here are the definitions in English:

1) One of the features of middle English is the reduction of the case system in particular in nouns and adjectives because of the disappearance of vowels in unstressed final syllables.

2) A diphthong is an oral, voiced, egressive glide from one vowel to another vowel uttered with the same emission of sound.

Thank you!

Hi Stefania

Memorization exercise

Below, we retrace together, step by step, how I answered Stefania's question and how I did this memorization exercise.

I have tried to summarize all the answer and procedure in 7 steps, indicating rules and tricks that are valid not only for memorizing definitions in English, but also for other fields of the study.

1 Why build flashcards

To memorize definitions of this type, of course I would choose the flashcards instead of the memory palace.

Remember that the palace of memory it is very useful when you need to store information in order. But if there is no need, I can also save time and not do it.

Furthermore, being the English definitions of the information packets all in all small and very well divided, having them on the flashcards allows me a quick, effective review, and very similar to what will happen during the interrogation, the exam.

In this specific case then, I wouldn't build typical flashcards, that is, with the question on one side and the answer on the other.

But I'd put the literal beginning of the English definition to one side.

So for example I would have, on side A:

  • Per la prima definizione: One of the features of middle English is…
  • For the second definition: A diphtong is an ...

The reason is simple: having to remember word for word, it is useful in my opinion to have the beginning of the definition written in full.

2 Which storage media to use

To memorize definitions in English, your greatest ally will be, in addition to flashcards, the keyword method.

The keyword method is ideal for turning foreign or difficult words into simpler words, and especially then into ideal images for memorization.

As for the other mnemonics to be used, both by type and by quantity, it depends:

  • How long can you keep your mind flexible while studying (we will see shortly an example of what I mean)
  • How long do you already know the subject

Let us pause for a moment on the second point:

For example, I, who know English but not linguistics, have to identify many more keywords to remember than you have to identify yourself.

And this always happens and in any matter: the more one knows the context, the stronger his memory.

Chess champions know something about this, as we saw in the article on how to develop eidetic memory.

3 Let's start by memorizing the English definition of diphthong

Now let's get into the specifics of this exercise to memorize definitions starting from the second one, which is shorter:

” A diphthong is an oral, voiced, egressive glide from one vowel to another vowel uttered with the same emission of sound”

First of all, I create an image that represents the concept of diphthong, that is, the definition that I have to memorize.

In fact, we remember much better through pictures.

Because the images are concrete, and they are what guides us more than anything else in the interpretation of reality. (To learn more about the power of images, you can read my articles on eidetic memory and visual memory)

I will then link the next ones to the image of "diphthong", that is, those with which I memorize the definition.

To decide which will be the first image to be linked to that of diphthong, you do not have to use memory, but logic.

4 The importance of identifying the main concept

Memory techniques are quite another thing than studying by heart like a parrot.

In fact, they do not apply to random words, but to specific words that you have to learn to identify and select.

In this definition in English I therefore first identify what I think is the heart of diphthong concept, that is, “glide”.

Therefore, the diphthong is first of all a "glide".

That is, roughly translated, a "transition" (It is here that, if you already know a little about the subject, you begin to make a difference compared to those who do not know it at all).

So on the spot, while I do the exercise, I do not get any good word that through the keyword method can represent "glide".

Of course, I have a few options in mind. For instance:

  • "Guide": it is a minimal pair, that is a word that differs from "glide" only for one letter.
  • "The gods": it is a phrase that contains "glide", but has one more letter and the group "gl" differs in pronunciation

But neither of them satisfies me very much, so for the moment I go ahead without choosing a definitive image.

(Note: if you haven't read my article on how to memorize foreign words with the keyword method, not everything I have just written will seem very clear to you)

5 Continue mixing logic and memory techniques

Well, I wonder then ... Having established that "glide", that is the key concept of diphthong, means transition ... I wonder: a transition between what?

“From one vowel to another vowel”

This seems to me unnecessary to remember with mnemonics, because it is taken for granted for me too.

This "glide" also has specific characteristics, which must be remembered by heart: oral, voiced, egressive.

It immediately strikes me that they can be remembered, by changing their order, with theacronym  EVO. Evo will therefore be the second image to be associated (eg middle EVO).

Continuing, I see the word "uttered", which corresponds to the Spanish participle "enunciate, pronounce".

Note that not only is it a rather unusual word, and therefore difficult to remember, but it is also the verb that supports the next part.

So I decide to remember "uttered" with a classic use of the keyword method.

While the next part, "with the same emission of sound" also seems obvious to me, because anyone who has ever uttered a diphthong knows that it is so.

So I find myself having selected 3 images to link to that of the diphthong: glide, evo, utero

And looking at them I have a thunderbolt!

6 Keep your mind alert and receptive

I went off to look for keywords and tie them together, and I end up with something better: another potential acronym!

And it is so clear that it would be a shame not to take advantage of it.

So forgive me the thing, which sounds a little crude; but if you can create an association between the image of diphthong that you made, and the phrase "I owe him the uterus " (the acronym I identified), you will always remember the backbone of the English definition of diphthong!

All you have to do is find an imaginative reason to justify the fact that, to the diphthong, you owe it to the uterus.

I leave to you, for decency, the construction of the thing.

So, on your flashcard you can put:

  • On the A side, the beginning of the definition: A diphtong is
  • On side B: the acronym "I owe him the uterus"

7 Recall to memory

Now let's try to remember the definition by looking at the acronym "glid EVO uterus"

A dipthong is a….

  • glide (fra cosa? ovvio! “from a vowel to another one”),
  • Egressed, Voiced, ORal
  • Uttered (come? “with the same emission of sound”)

And so you have already learned the definition quite well, without having to repeat it 1000 times, and with a mnemonic hook ("I owe him the uterus") able to help you even in situations of greater exam anxiety.

Summary: how I memorized the English definition of diphthong

The great thing about giving an example is that you can see the relationship between the general rules (ie, the "method") and the specificity of the individual case.

So to understand how apply theory to practice.

If you think about it, the memorization I made of the definition of diphthong, which is a very specific exercise, contains general rules that are always valid:

  • I identified what I wanted to remember in order of importance (glide -> evo -> uttered). Always do it too, whatever you study.
  • I have released logical things from memory techniques. This is to reiterate that the more you know a subject, the less you will have to use your memory. If absurdly you didn't speak a word of English, you would have had to transform every element of the definition with keyword method! Do not forget, therefore, that definitions, as well as any text that needs to be studied, always have a logic. Is that studying does not mean memorizing random words, but to discover logical connections, meanings, patterns.
  • I have maintained mental flexibility: for example, I started with the idea of ​​making associations between keywords, and instead I made an acronym. It jumped at me right away, when I wrote the words one after the other, so it would have been absurd not to take advantage of it. It sounds like a coincidence, but if you study while maintaining mental focus and flexibility, you will continually find easy ways to memorize. And when you don't find any, don't get stuck, but make the usual and always effective chains of images. For example, on the first definition, the one that begins with “one of the feautures of middle English is ..”, I would remember “reduction” “disappearance” “unstressed”, all words for which images are found in a very simple way.

How long to store?

It takes much longer to write and describe the process than to do it.

But anyway, each definition will take you, especially in the beginning, enough time.

This is due to the fact that you are not used to working like this.

But, as in the example of the article on how to memorize a script, this is not a waste of time.

You are in fact forced to analyze the sentence in detail, understand the key concepts, and identify its intrinsic logic.

Even if it takes you 5 minutes to do this, you will get a much better result, especially in the long term, than spending 5 minutes repeating it like a parrot.

Even more beautiful then is that as the number of phrases you learn increases, the memorization performance does not decrease.

While with the mere mechanical repetition it would decrease a lot.

That is, if you only have to learn a sentence, probably if you repeat it 5 times in a minute you just have to go and remember it, at least until the next day. And memory techniques are useless.

But if you have to study several, mere repetition will be far less effective than memory techniques.

One final consideration on storage time:

It took me about two minutes per sentence, and I don't know anything about linguistics. And I am sure that tomorrow, and even in a week, I will remember both sentences with good accuracy, even without repeating them ever again.

If I then do a couple of repetitions over 15 days with the flashcards system, I will probably remember them for months or years.

It took me so little because I am used to and exercised. And you too can take so little.

How to increase the storage speed

The temptation of those who discover memorization techniques is to spend twenty minutes on a sentence looking for the perfect connections and images.

This way you will remember very well but you will never get faster at creating images and associations.

Instead, you have to work on time:

  • You take a sentence and give yourself 3 minutes to do your analysis and identify the mnemonics with which you will remember it.
  • Then repeat the mnemonics and sentence in the next minute.
  • And finally you move on to the next sentence, whatever the result of the previous memorization.

Maybe using the tomato technique to better calibrate the effort

It will be a bit of a psychological strain, because for some sentences at the beginning you will find yourself after 3 minutes not having found anything valid.

But in no time you will begin to be faster and more precise.

Introduction to deliberate practice

The pattern I just described to you is an example of deliberate practice.

I don't know how to correctly translate "deliberate practice", perhaps "conscious and oriented exercise".

The fundamental fact is that it is very different from how you usually practice.

There are two fundamental elements in deliberate practice:

  • The high intensity training: in the example, the 3 minutes to find the mnemonics
  • The feedback: in the example, the minute you repeat the mnemonics and understand what went wrong with the memorization

Thanks to deliberate best practices quickly.


  • If you take all the time in the world
  • If you always do the same things without giving yourself feedback to figure out what's wrong

Not better. Neither in memory techniques, nor in anything else.

Typical example of the difference between the generic exercise and the deliberate practice he is the pianist who spends years and years playing always and only “For Elisa” and little else.

He may have ended up playing the piano for thousands of hours, but that didn't improve him that much!

To improve it must instead tackle more difficult pieces of his skills and analyze mistakes at the end of each run.

As I made Stefania do in this exercise of memorizing English definitions


Memorize definitions in English, beyond some specific elements, it has the same rules as when you study anything else.

Analyze the material, prioritize, discover logical connections, keep your mind focused and open, work out of your comfort zone, don't settle and don't do random things, but critically review your performance and give yourself feedback!

I'll come back to the deliberate practice I introduced today, because it's very interesting.

If you want to deepen it, do it on a very cool book (apart from the title, which is a bad and misleading translation of the English "Peak"): "Number 1 you become" by Robert Pool.

A greeting. Anthony.

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