By Dominic O’Brien – Eight Times World Memory Champion

Experts estimate that to get by in another language, you need a good basic vocabulary of around eight or nine hundred words. 

Although I managed to scrape through Spanish and French exams at school, I found the process of learning a language very dull indeed probably as the preferred method of teaching a foreign language was by rote. 

Only by repeating the word over and over again did I eventually learn that the French for father is ‘Pere’.

However, if I had taken a moment to think of my own father eating a pear, then I’d have learned the word almost instantly. This simple technique lies at the heart of rapidly learning foreign vocab. It’s the art of finding a common link between the sound of a foreign word and its meaning in your own language.

The German for factory is ‘fabrik’, pronounced fabreek so I would think of a factory selling a type of fabric.  

The German for bone is ‘knochen’, so imagine how painful it would be knocking a bone in your leg.

The French for tablecloth is ‘nape’, pronounced nap. Imagine taking a nap on a tablecloth and that’s essentially how it works.

You are using images to link a word in your own language with a foreign word. 

There have been a number of studies that show that using this method of finding links to remember foreign words can increase vocab retention from 30% to around 85%.

When you’re memorizing a large vocabulary, you need somewhere to store everything, a place where you can access words quickly and easily. 

It’s all very well creating hundreds or even thousands of mnemonic images, but it’s essential to ‘place’ them somewhere in order to have easy access to them in the future. 

This is why the use of locations is essential in the early stages of learning vocabulary. 

Gender Zones

To make this system even more effective not only do we need a place to store all these images for instant retrieval, but we need to know, automatically, what the gender of each noun is for a language such as Spanish or French. 

I call my system for memorizing and discerning between masculine or feminine nouns, ‘Gender Zones’.

It enables you to know automatically every word’s meaning and its gender by using specific locations or ‘zones’.

So, how does it work? The Gender Zones method provides two places in your mind: in one place all the words are feminine and in the other place all the words are masculine. Easy! For example, you could place all female Spanish words in and around your home town or village with a radius of several miles. 

All masculine Spanish nouns you might position in a vacation setting that you know well such as a coastal town. Each of the two or three locations must be familiar to you to make this method work. 

‘Church’ in Spanish is feminine, ‘la iglesia’. Therefore, I’d think of a Church near to my home.  When I need to recall the word for church in Spanish, I know instantly that it’s feminine because I’ve placed it in my feminine Gender Zone.  Iglesia sounds like glazier, so I imagine a female glazier replacing a piece of stained glass at the church, La iglesia.

The Spanish word ‘Sol’ meaning sun, is masculine. Therefore, I need to fix my mind on the Sun shining down on the coastal town, where all the words are masculine. I imagine lying on the beach with the sun beating down on the Soles of my feet, el sol.

Apart from gender, further zones can be added for storing adjectives, verbs, numbers, dates, and so on.

As I mentioned previously, to get by in another language, you need a good basic vocabulary of around eight or nine hundred words.

Using this system, many of my students tell me they have been able to race through vocab by memorising a hundred or more words per day. One student found this system so effective that she told me it felt like she was cheating.

Try it yourself. It’s a very powerful tool for making those dreaded vocab tests a breeze.