Memorizing foreign words with the keyword method

Who I am
Joe Dispenza

Author and references

In this long article you will learn the keyword method, namely the most powerful tool which is there to memorize new words in a foreign language.

The power of the keyword method depends on whether you it allows you to memorize new foreign words at a speed you can't even imagine, and then helps you never forget them again.

Many define it "The method of secret agents", because it has been widely used in language training for espionage agents since the 70s; but in reality it is nothing secret, esoteric or difficult. And perhaps this is one of the reasons for its effectiveness.

It is simply, as with other memory techniques, of to tie something unknown to something known, in such a way as to promote and strengthen their memory.

You know when, even speaking in Spanish, you don't remember something and you say "I have it on the tip of my tongue but it doesn't come"?

And then maybe even just the initial or any clue of the word is enough to make it come back to your memory?

Here, the keyword method works just like that; puts the foreign word on the tip of your tongue and gives you the right clues to remember it.

But where does the keyword method come from?

I didn't invent the keyword method, it's strong stuff, scientific stuff, with hundreds of university research behind it.

Its diffusion is mainly due to Richard Atkinson, professor of psychology at Stanford University and later dean of the University of California, who in the 70s published a series of scientific research on learning foreign languages.

Both Atkinson's and all subsequent researches have always demonstrated on a scientific basis the overwhelming superiority of the keyword method when it comes to memorizing foreign words.

So learn it with confidence, and then use it, use it and use it!

You will see that getting English, or German, or the language you want into your head, will no longer be a problem.

How the keyword method works

Let's say we have to learn how to say the word "wall" in German.

Using free tools such as Google Translate o Forvo you can at the same time

  • See it written
  • Hear the pronunciation from a native speaker

It is very important to listen to the pronunciation while you see it written because in this way you learn the phonetics of the language you are studying, and over time you will be able to predict the pronunciation of a word even without having to listen to it.

So, wall in German is written "Wall"; and listening to its pronunciation you see that it is more or less similar to how it is written: the "w" is pronounced "v", and the final "d" sounds more like a "t" than a "d".

Up to now you have not done anything new compared to the traditional method, because you have simply searched for the translation and heard the pronunciation of a word you need to learn.

Now that you know the word, if you memorize with the traditional method, you just have to repeat it until it permanently moves into your long-term memory.

This transfer process requires you to repeat the word several times in the moment, and then over and over again in the following days / months / years, until in fact you will never forget it.

In my opinion, this is what we mean when we say "studying by heart like a donkey". That is, with his head bowed, slowly and by mere repetition of the same gesture.

Let's see instead how to memorize "Wand" with the Keyword method:

  • Listen carefullyand the pronunciation of “Wand” using Forvo or Google Translate
  • Displays an image of a wall. Not in a generic way, not just any wall, but one that you know well and that is therefore engraved in your long-term memory. For example the one behind your bed in the bedroom. This image is the word / meaning, that is, it represents the meaning of the word you need to learn.
  • Now choose an image that remembers the pronunciation "Wand". This image is called word / clue (or keyword, hence the English term of "keyword method). For example, view a friend of yours named Wanda. Or maybe, if you know, use the image of Wanda Osiris. Or finally, if you don't have any Wanda in mind, visualize the image of vandals
  • Now focus on visualization of Wanda, or the vandals, or whatever word you chose as a clue for wand. Make it as real as possible.
  • Finally, tie the image of the word clue to the image of the word meaning. So, for example, he links the image of Wanda to that of the wall. Like? Maybe imagine sticking a giant poster of your friend Wanda to the wall behind the bed. Or that vandals come to your house and hammer into the aforementioned wall.

And here the game is done: if you want to remember how to say wall in German you visualize the wall behind your bed, and in a natural way you see yourself sticking the huge poster of Wanda, that is the clue that makes you remember what you say wall in German: "Wall"!

If you have listened to the pronunciation well, you have noticed how I told you that the final -d of Wand is pronounced as a -t, hence "vanT". But that's not a problem at all, because what you need is a clue. And 3 out of 4 letters is a very substantial clue.

Why does the keyword method work so well?

The fact is that you link the image that represents the meaning of the word to an image that remembers its pronunciation, creating a much stronger and more stable memory than with simple repetition.

That is, you have created a bridge between 2 different memories: one long-term and one short-term, strengthening the latter.

Are you skeptical? Then I tell you that it is scientifically proven that this method is the best in the world to memorize foreign words. But you have to practice a little to use it well, and use some precautions.

1 Building good keywords

A good keyword:

  • It must resemble the word target as closely as possible of the foreign language. For example, your friend Wanda is a much better keyword than "vandals". Because it looks more like the “Wand” target and because it is more concrete, more stable in your long-term memory. But obviously if you don't have a friend Wanda (or if you don't know a famous person who is called that), you will have to settle for "vandals"
  • It must be easy to visualize. For example, even "advantage" can recall wand, but mentally representing the image of advantage and then linking it to your bedroom wall is not easy!

2 Build good images and good links

Both images must be represented vividly; they don't have to be generic, but specific, and they have to be part of your long-term memory. So your friend Wanda is okay, while any Wanda you met yesterday doesn't work as well.

You must then create a strong interaction between them, possibly through an action.

For example, when you imagine sticking up your friend Wanda's poster, or having vandals hammer into your wall, try to make it as real as possible: add colors, sounds, sensations, like the sound of hammering, or the scotch paper for the poster that sticks to your fingers.

To understand how and why you have to view images in this way, you can read my article Remembering through images.

In words, the process of viewing and linking images seems long: but in reality there is no need to do it in half an hour per word! For the first few times, between 20 and 30 seconds are enough. After a while you can go down to 10, at least for the simplest words and images.

Some words are more complicated, and it's not always easy to find good words / clues.

You must then learn to dig into all your mental imagery, making the most of it: books, celebrities, friends, anything goes! The important thing is that the phonetics are as similar as possible and the images very concrete and known to you.

I have the great skier Bode Miller lying on my floor to remind me that floor in German is "bode", and Messer Coniglietto (that of Alice in Wonderland) stabbed by my favorite kitchen knife to remind me that, also in German, knife is called "messer".

But maybe you don't like skiing and Bode Miller doesn't tell you anything, and then you have to find another image that is meaningful to you!

3 Transform abstract words

Images such as wall or floor are very easy, and are typical of when you start studying a language: in fact this is a phase where you learn simple, concrete, everyday nouns and verbs.

Things get a little complicated when you start moving towards more abstract concepts, from the simplest such as the “blue” color to the more complex ones such as “Renaissance aesthetics”.

Here, to use the keyword method, it takes imagination and power of synthesis:

For blue for example, you can choose an image of something that represents it by definition, like the sky.

But how can you not confuse the word sky with the word blue?

Just visualize them a little differently: when you create the sky image to create a link with the word blue, you will mainly focus on the color of the sky, completely omitting other elements.

When instead you focus the image of the sky to create a link with the word sky, you will imagine it with clouds, planes, sun; in short, things that characterize it in a broader way.

For “Renaissance aesthetics”, the imaginative and synthetic effort will be even more remarkable: for example, I would use the Gioconda with lipstick.

But don't worry too much about these aspects now.

The first 800-1000 words you will see that they are, to be visualized, very simple and concrete, and you can learn them even in less than a week.

In fact, it is about things like: me, you, house, person, bread, water, eating, sleeping, going ...

The first 1000 words of any language are the essence of what surrounds us, of what we are and what we do. 

Conceptually it's beautiful, isn't it?

And after the first thousand words you will have gained enough experience to manage and memorize even the most complex words with the keyword method.

Finally, if you just can't find a decent image, there is always the possibility of memorizing that specific word with the traditional method. The keyword method is a tool, not a religion.

A question they often ask me, and which I hate.

Now, when I explain the keyword method in public, there is always someone who, without ever using it, thinks they are smarter than Richard Atkinson, professor at Stanford and first popularizer of the method; and so he raises his hand and says to me: "I'm all messy to learn Wand, can't I first learn it normally?".

Now , I am in favor of skepticism and doubt, they being the engine of knowledge.

But the observation in question is truly stupid and presumptuous.

So - it is true that to learn "Wand" you don't need to make all this mess - I answer - but there are two problems:

  • Tomorrow, or a week from now, you may have forgotten it, while with the keyword method probably not.
  • Learning is not measured by a single word for which you are focusing all your attention. For example, if I give you and your neighbor 20 words to learn in 10 minutes, and you use the traditional method and he uses the keyword method, he will know them much better than you. And the more words increase, the better he will be than you. If I give you 50 in an hour, you will not learn more than 25, he will reach at least 45. And as the words increase between you two a deeper and deeper difference in the result is made.

It is therefore clear that if I have to travel 50 meters it is better to do them on foot rather than going into the garage, pulling out the car, driving and parking.

But if I have to travel two kilometers, the efficiency of the “foot” strategy compared to that “car” is already quite in crisis. And if the kilometers are 5, or 10, or 100, it becomes increasingly evident that the "car" strategy is faster and more efficient than the "foot" strategy.

We come now to the intelligent questions

Do I have to review the words even if I use the keyword method?

Yes, but much less than with the traditional method. If you never revise, even with the keyword method you will sooner or later forget several words. It is an inevitable fact, and it depends on the brain mechanisms of memory themselves. Even a very solid house sooner or later loses its pieces if you don't do some renovations from time to time. The most efficient method of reviewing is the one I describe in my article on spaced repetition.

To remember a word, will I always need to redo the associative tour?

Fortunately no. After some repetition and use you will find the right words without having to redo the entire associative path. That is, you will know the target word regardless of the clue with which you learned it. However, the clue will always be there to give you a hand if suddenly you find it "on the tip of the tongue"But you can't remember it.

Some languages ​​have very long words; can I use more than one word to remember them?

Absolutely yes. However, you don't have to obsess over trying to reproduce the entire target word perfectly across a series of words. Remember that often a small clue is enough to remember what you have forgotten.

Finally, the nuances of using the keyword method are really many: you can combine it with acronyms, insert words in groups in memory palaces (you don't know what they are? Find out how to build one in 5 steps), give "shades of color" to the images (for example pink to identify feminine nouns and blue for male ones) ...

And if you have any questions, you can contact me as always here on the blog or at my email address.

One last thing: this article is over 2000 words, and it cost me time and work. To make me happy, or rather overjoyed, just share it on Facebook!

A greeting



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