Appendix: Tips on Creating Mnemonics

Mnemonics to aid memory are personal; they vary from person to person. For example, if you have a friend whose name happens to sound like a new word you’re studying, you can associate the word with the person. If you know a language in which there’s a word or phrase that spells or sounds like the new word, even if it has no etymological connection, you may use it as a mnemonic.[1] In spite of the personal nature, however, English-speaking learners may have a lot of experience in common and a suggested mnemonic for a word may have fairly widespread applicability.

A good mnemonic for a word should not only create a scene or image to establish an association, but ideally should also make a phrase or find another word that sounds or spells like the word being studied.[2] Since we assume the reader of this book only knows English, we only search English dictionaries. There are two types of search or two directions to follow: given the meaning, search for a word; given the word, or rather, the spelling form, search for another word with a similar pronunciation and the same or similar meaning.

The first one relies on a thesaurus, or simply a Google search for synonym theword. Suppose we wish to find a good mnemonic for lourd (“heavy”). Among the synonyms given by a Google search for synonym heavy, we see loaded, which sounds close to lourd. You may also use a website dedicated to providing English synonyms, among them thesaurus.com being a good one. Once you’re on the result page such as http://www.thesaurus.com/browse/heavy, you may highlight the phonetically most critical letters of lourd e.g. lo to help you focus attention. (In most web browsers, press Control-F and type lo.)

The second type of search can be done on the websites that provide sound-like words. After testing a handful of them, I have settled down on RhymeZone’s http://itools.com/tool/rhymezone-words-that-sound-like. When using such websites, you can input either real words or word-like spellings that sound like either the correct French pronunciation or the (incorrect) English pronunciation of the word being studied; after all, you’re just looking for a mnemonic, not for logic. For example, to remember fût (“cask”, “barrel”, “keg”), a word of unhelpful etymology, we may use “a barrel to store food” or “a keg to wash feet in” as a mnemonic. Which of the two you prefer depends on whether you pronounce fût correctly as a French word or pretend it’s an English word and pronounce it accordingly. Often times, however, only one of the two options offers a good mnemonic. For example, to use duel to help remember deuil (“mourning”) (by thinking of a person that died in a duel), you have to temporarily ignore the French pronunciation of deuil. In contrast, to use blunt as a mnemonic to remember blindé (“armored”) (by thinking of a good-quality armor that blunts the tip of a sword), or to use “One of the symptoms of flu is blurry vision.” to remember flou (“blurry”), the true French pronunciation of the French word is obviously much preferred.

Instead of using an existing sound-like search website, you may do it yourself, with various degrees of quality. Common English words and many word-like spellings are on each UNIX/Linux computer in the file /usr/share/dict/words, which can be downloaded for local pattern matching. I provide this file on this web page

http://yong321.freeshell.org/lfw/
which I already converted to Windows format suitable for search with Windows findstr command. The following are some examples of using this native Windows command with so-called regular expressions, i.e., strings that represent a search pattern. For example, we want to case-insensitively find all words that begin with lass:

C:\temp>findstr /i /r "^lass" words.txt
LASS
lass
Lassa
...

That was how I quickly found English lassitude (“fatigue”) as a mnemonic for French lasser (“to make tired”). For another example, we can find a word that sounds like manque (“lack”) with a pattern that begins with man followed by c or k or g:

C:\temp>findstr /i /r "^man[ckg]" words.txt
mancala
mancando
...
mangle
...

The word mangle can be used as a mnemonic (“A mangled man lacks a limb.”). Nevertheless, most of the time the RhymeZone sound-like search offers a better candidate than the DIY findstr search, which occasionally can be used as a supplementary tool.

A mnemonic is not limited to matching a whole word with another whole word in sound or spelling. For instance, brume (“mist”) can use “bright fume”, verrou (“bolt on a door”) can use fer rouge (“red iron”) as if the bolt was a red-color iron bar, bijou can use “bead jewel” (or “bead jewel”), etc. If you don’t mind a farther separation, espadrille (a type of casual, often flat-heeled, shoes) can use “the hardened Spartans in a military drill, wearing espadrille shoes”. This kind of mnemonics, however, have to be created by a human. No website or software I know of can do a good job at it.

Sometimes a word has multiple meanings not very obviously related or it may take an effort to link them. One type of mnemonic, mnemonic link system, also known as chain method according to Wikipedia, is particularly helpful. The trick is to conjure up a logically coherent chain of events or a mini-story that can be narrated. For example, tenue means “outfit”, but also has various other meanings including “manners”, “keeping”, etc. Using this mnemonic method, you can think of a young professor wearing a different outfit today, showing different behavior, because he just got a tenured position, which means he can keep this job indefinitely.[3]

Mnemonics have been used for thousands of years, from ancient Greek poet Simonides, Roman statesman Cicero, to the current time. A good summary of general mnemonics can be found in such books as Harry Lorayne & Jerry Lucas, The Memory Book, 1974; Dominic O’Brien, How to Pass Exams, 2016. No doubt many people can learn to be proficient in using the techniques in those books, often by thinking up an out-of-the-ordinary image of an object somehow involving the word being studied. (An absurd image of an often-quoted “gigantic” object is said to strengthen memory, although this so-called Von Restorff effect is disputed by some psychologists.) For example, take “a gigantic mushroom delivers a monstrous, champion yawn” as the mnemonic for champignon (“mushroom”) (The Memory Book, p.65). These mentally stimulating mnemonics may be excellent for a very short-term memory for some people. If, however, you find it difficult to remember these mnemonics themselves, especially when required to keep the words in mind for at least a few weeks, and the number of words being studied exceeds a certain threshold, the approach of etymology supplemented by mnemonics may serve the purpose better. In the case of champignon, adult learners with some language experience may find it more logical to study this word by seeing its cognate relation with camp, campus, campaign, which are all words related to the field, and seeing the fact that mushrooms grow in the field (French champ, “field”).

As with anything, using mnemonics is a learning experience. After plenty of practice, you’ll find yourself more skilled in creating good quality mnemonics, even if some of them are only meaningful to yourself. Over time, the number of new words that have to rely on rote memory to study will decrease and, everything else being equal, your interest in the French language will grow.

_________________________
[1] For example, if you know Chinese, fāxiè (“to vent anger”) is a perfect mnemonic for fâcher(“to get angry” when used reflexively). Note that this is different from knowing a language that offers cognates, which have etymological connections. If you know a language sharing a large number of cognates with French, such as a Romance language, you are at a great advantage in vocabulary study. You don’t even need mnemonics in the first place.
[2] Thus, the word sushi is a good example to help remember souche (“tree stump”), because they pronounce alike, and a typical short and round sushi resembles a tree stump. Unfortunately, not all mnemonics meet the two requirements well, i.e. similar sounds and an associative image.
[3] There is one special use of link mnemonics when reading this book. Suppose you want to learn the words on one specific page, such as poudre (“powder”), guérir (“to cure”), péché (“sin”), piège (“trap”), paroi (“inner wall”), boucle (“loop”), envoler (“to fly away”), effrayer (“to scare”), bougie (“candle”). You can link them together by thinking of a somewhat ridiculous scenario: you thought you could cure a certain disease with some powder, but found out the disease was incurable as if it was a sin, as if you were trapped in inner walls that form complicated loops where candles emit scary light, and the only way to get out is to fly away.

To Homepage