Mnemonic Stories: Learn New Vocabulary

Today, we’re going to talk about mnemonics. They are a key part of learning something initially, and though a temporary measure, they are a relatively quick and simple way to get something into your head easily. This article will show you how to create a mnemonic and what to use your  created mnemonic for.

What is a Mnemonic?

A mnemonic is a short story which encompasses all the things we need to know about the character or word we are trying to learn.
If the word has one syllable, this is reasonably easy. We need to know the meaning, the sound, and for Mandarin, the tone.
Mandarin has four tones. One makes the syllable go up in tone, one makes the syllable go down in tone, one is flat and the other makes the tone go up and then down.

We want our story to be as simple as possible, and we want all of our mnemonics to fit into a system. Therefore, what I do is have a particular setting for each tone. Here are my current ones:
1. Rising Tone. Set it in a cloud city,  a la Star Wars.
2. Falling Tone. Set it in a Dwarf Kingdom, a la Lord of the Rings.
3. Flat Tone. Set it on a Rolling Plain or Meadow.
4. Up/Down Tone. Set it on a boat in the Ocean.
That deals with the tone. The other two factors should be the narrative of the story. Say we have the word zhōng. It’s set in a meadow, so imagine a meadow. It’s pronounced, in English, similarly to “John.” I had a childhood friend called John, so that settles the pronunciation. It means ‘middle,’ and so John is in the middle of a meadow.
Zhōngwén is a word made up of two syllables. We take the story from above, and then use our system to create a mnemonic for  wén. We see the tone rises, and so we’re in the sky. The word means culture. So, in the sky city, sat on a city, is a place that means culture. I’m going to pick an art gallery. An art gallery called “1.” This is because wén sounds like one. (This isn’t sophisticated!) Our word is Zhōngwén, and so we’re going to tie Zhōng and wén together.
Which is a great reason for having an art gallery called, “1.” Inside a gallery, sitting on a cloud, is a painting of a guy called John in the middle of the meadow. John in “1” is Zhōngwén, and we have a picture of a meadow sat in an art gallery in a cloud.

What do I do with this Mnemonic now I’ve Created It?

A lot of language learners and other writers about learning suggest using mnemonics. However, one thing they all fail to mention is that a mnemonic isn’t permanent. When we read a new idea, our brain sees no need to remember it. The mind makes connections, and the more connections the mind makes, the more it values the information it is trying to process. When we created a mnemonic, what we are telling our brain is that ‘Hey, look at all these things that are connected, and the thing that connects them is this new thing that we don’t know!’

And so our brain uses the new information as an anchor.

What you need to realise is that this is temporary. The story isn’t real, it’s a crazy concoction. What it is good for is planting the seed. You use the mnemonic to initially plant the new vocabulary, or grammar rule, or general fact in your head. Think of it as an index card.

You then must make sure to keep refreshing this new knowledge in your head, and the brain will create real pathways every time you access the new information. This can be through SRS, or preferably by actually using the information. Either way, the mnemonic plays an important role in the initial stage of learning a piece of vocabulary.

Language Bug

  • […] is several fold. Firstly, we take whatever character we’re learning a build a mnemonic. I’ve written about that here. The important thing to take into account is that you get the pronunciation, tone and meaning […]

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