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Memory techniques in Language Learning, by Alex Zagorac

In the times of the Ancient Greece and Rome, the purpose of memory techniques was to compensate for the scarcity of recording media, or even their complete absence – in which case memory techniques were supplemented with repetition techniques for permanent memorizing. That seems to be an ingredient we are missing today. The question is – are there any others?

Let us look at the basic mnemonic principles we can find in ELT textbooks and theory today.  Whatever the language input, we must help a learner to personalise it to the highest possible extent, in order to maximise both cognitive and affective depth of the learning through using visualisation, which can be enriched by a dose of humour, and which lends itself to different types of adaptations. Here is an illustration (which also engages learners’ imagination and L1 competence): the keyword technique (Thornbury, 2002), e.g. the French word nappe (=tablecloth) can be remembered by an English speaker who visualises himself (personalisation) as having a nap on a tablecloth. Here, the meaningful connection is made through exploiting phonological similarities with a known word to visualise a situational presentation which would encircle them both, thus providing a memory bridge (hook, trigger) for conveying the meaning.

Note in the above description that certain words are in bold. If we look at these words, we get a solid starting point for the successful creation of mnemonic devices.  Let us put these principles to the test and see if they are comprehensive enough.

From theory to practice

A young learner cannot remember the meaning of the word “dress”. We try to use the phonological similarity, visualisation, personalisation, and humour to build up the following: (1) “dres” in her language signifies only a football kit, so she is prompted to (2) imagine herself at her junior prom wearing a football kit. Then (3) we focus on the image, adding details (dirty, torn, belonging to a team she supports, imagine other people’s reactions etc.). We’ve now been through all the necessary stages to help her memorise the word. However, after a couple of lessons, she is yet again unable to recall the word. Why?

To begin with, the teacher thought that, once a productive association (the keyword) was found, and the memory trigger (the image) created, the target input will inherently turn into a permanent memory. But, he did not take into account the effects of the retroactive inhibition (the process which does not let newly received information form permanent ties in our memory when followed by similar impressions – in this case, more [new] lexis). Simply put – creating suggestive images and associations alone is not enough, no matter how engaging. So, what else do we need to do?

First we ought to check if being the subject of a mnemonic event actually suits a learner. If she were shy (as this learner indeed was) she might prefer to be an observer, rather than a participant (N.B. some students find it helpful to place mnemonic imagery on a computer/TV screen and “watch” it from that perspective). Second, but paramount, give the mnemonic imagery more life, more movement. Here is how it was done with the same student at second attempt, which proved to be successful:  she was lead to imagine a famous footballer wearing a girlish pink ballet dress; the dress was oversized (additional focus on the target language), so he was moving around in a clumsy, grotesque way with the entire crowd laughing at him. The spectators were also throwing hundreds of similar dresses in disgust, so everything smelled of a cotton-candy perfume her sister used to put on whenever she wore dancing dresses. The funny-looking footballer was crying, because he could not find his way out of the pile of dresses, so she (the learner) climbed down from the stands to help him. When she started touching the pilled-up pink dresses she was prompted to describe the texture (which was also out of the ordinary – e.g. similar to cotton candy, because she loved it, and it usually comes in pink, just like the multiplied dress we had begun with). All in all, we spent about five minutes on the creation of this mnemonic device, not more, and she was laughing and enjoying herself. The result was permanent; moreover, she was able to recall the “story” even ten years later. But the crucial thing was that, once she understood the underlying principles, she kept on creating mnemonic devices on her own, with ease and enjoyment.

The missing ingredients

The application of memory techniques described above sums up the core principles, often overlooked in ELT practice, which lead to permanent memorising:

  1. Always a sequence of scenes, never just a single one, let alone just a soundless, motionless image; so, even if a student forgets parts of a mnemonic story, at least a couple of “triggers” will stick permanently – and even one may prove to be sufficient in real-life communication.
  2. Whatever a student imagines must be drastically different from anything we see in everyday life; otherwise, the retroactive inhibition will most likely cause it to be forgotten.
  3. Stimulate all five senses, or as many as possible (seeing [the visualized story], smelling [cotton-candy perfume], tasting [association with cotton candy], touching [unusual texture of the dress(es)], hearing [audience laughing, footballer crying]…)
  4. Engage emotions (story ­- funny; footballer crying – feeling embarrassed; the learner climbing down to help the poor man – emotional response)
  5. 5. After the creation of the “memory clip”, i.e. mnemonic device, it is essential to repeat it backwards and forwards, and starting from different points in the story as well. Why?

In the example above we had to make only one word memorable, so this set of guidelines may seem over the top. But, what if a learner had to remember a string of words? For example, also from PET: rug, rope, spring, house (N.B. the list is shortened for illustration purposes). These are the key words of the following idioms: to sweep it under the rug; to be at the end of one’s rope; to spring for; on the house. So, after imagining a “poor housecleaner, coughing his lungs out trying to roll up a gigantic smelly rug by tying a spring around it in a way one would normally tie a rope (one of Plato’s mnemonic techniques called “substitution” – using one thing in a way you would normally use another makes you recall both), you would probably have no problem recalling all four items. But what if there were more of them? Then, due to the way our brains work, the beginning and the end of any sequence would be more easily retrievable than the middle. Therefore, repeating the story, always from a different point, gives us more “beginnings” and “endings” and thus increases the chances for every single “scene” to be easily retrievable.

Repetition techniques

No matter how effective a mnemonic device is, without repetition, the effects will eventually disappear.  But, what if we could make the repetition automatic, on reflex, subconscious even? Such a reflex repetition would be the closest thing to the effect an L2 environment has on the memory of a language learner – constant recycling of the (target) language.  How do we do that? By embedding memory triggers from learners’ immediate surroundings into mnemonic devices! Why? So she could not possibly forget to “repeat”; to facilitate the subconscious recycling of the target memory (language) every time she comes across the repetition trigger- which is bound to be quite often since we make it a place or an object she is in constant contact with!

This is how we did it with the “dress” girl. After the procedure described above she was led to imagine her own wardrobe. Every time she opened it, the hurricane of strange pink dresses, scared footballers and yelling spectators would immediately pop out with every (real, her own) dress she touches.

A Final Example

Here is another, very simple, yet effective, example from a CAE student. She used to categorise her mistakes and suggestions for improvement according to language skills (speaking, writing, listening and reading). She used rubber bracelets (bands), very fashionable at the time, in different colours. The receptive skills and the productive skills ‘were’ on different arms. Needless to say that those memory triggers were constantly in her field of vision, which kept refreshing her memory both in and out of class, and quite often, since she used to wear them all the time.  All she had to do was to “paint”, i.e. to overemphasise one of those colours in mnemonic devices she was creating to remember various language points and exam strategies.  In a similar way we can train our students to “place” their mnemonic devices around the classroom and/or the room they spend most time in.

There is much more to be said on the use of mnemonics in different areas of language learning. But the practices outlined in this text, especially those related to repetition, may provide an inquisitive and creative teacher with useful tools for even better facilitation of his learners’ progress and enhancement of their autonomy.


Morgan, J. & Rinvolucry, M.1986. Vocabulary. OUP

Fuller, G. 1987. How to Learn a Foreign Language. Storm King Press

Thornbury, S. 2002. How to Teach Vocabulary. Pearson Education Ltd.

Cicero: De Oratore


The most important principles regarding mnemonics in general (e.g. points 1 and 2 above) I have learned from a Serbian author who wrote in the 1970s under the pseudonym Art M. Semorie, and his extensive, two-volume book called “Super pamćenje”, i.e. “Super Memory”, registered in the Yugoslav Copyright Agency under the number K-2/76. Unfortunately, it is not available in English.

Author’s Bio:
Alex Zagorac, a teacher with BKC-IH Moscow, has been teaching students of different levels for over 17 years. Memory techniques are but one of his special interests – he is very keen on using the Silent Way and other approaches and techniques which help his students become as autonomous as possible, including highlighting connections between L1 and L2.

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