Proto-Indo-European language

  • Proto-Indo-European (PIE) is the ultimate ancestor of many European and Indian languages.
  • Recognizing the relatedness of words in different languages can give you a boost in memorizing them.
  • My Indo-European Cognate Dictionary gathers words from 32 languages into cognate clusters that show related words.

The Proto-Indo-European language (PIE) is the ultimate ancestor of many European and Indian languages. The word "proto" indicates it was spoken thousands of years in the past and we have no direct record of it. What we do have is the clear evidence in its descendant languages, from the consistent patterns in the way their words vary,  that there was such an ancestor. Following these patterns, scholars have deduced a quite extensive vocabulary — but they are still reconstructed, not ‘real’ words. We can never know exactly how these words were pronounced, or precisely how they were used. Conventionally, therefore, such words are written with a preceding asterisk.

Here is a list of the living branches of the Indo-European language tree (the languages covered in my Indo-European Cognate Dictionary are given in bold print):

Celtic: Breton, Welsh, Irish, Scottish Gaelic (in order of number of speakers)


West Germanic: English, Old English, Frisian, Dutch, German

North Germanic: Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Icelandic, Norse (in order of number of speakers)

Italic: Latin and its descendants: French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian

Greek (Ancient, Modern)


Baltic: Lithuanian, Latvian


Western: Polish, Czech, Slovak, Sorbian / Lusatian

Southern: Serbo-Croatian, Macedonian, Slovene, Bulgarian

Eastern: Russian, Ukrainian, Byelorussian



Iranian: Persian, Tajik, Pashto, Baluchi, Kurdish, Ossete

Indic / Indo-Aryan: Sanskrit, Hindi, Punjabi, Gujarati, Marathi, Bengali, Nepali, Sinhala, Urdu, Romani

Linguistic laws

Here are some of the patterns that scholars have observed. These have become complicated over the years as linguists explain variations, but the initial discovery was very simple and easy to describe. So, bearing in mind that these ‘rules’ don’t apply all the time, and there are a number of principles that describe variations to these rules, and other patterns, here are the main linguistic patterns relating to Germanic languages. These were first realized by Jacob Grimm (yes, one of the Grimm brothers, of fairy tale fame) in 1822. Grimm spotted that a p at the beginning of a word in Sanskrit, Latin, or Greek, consistently becomes f in Germanic languages. He went on to observe nine such patterns, which collectively are known as Grimm’s law:

p → fbook cover

d → t

k → h

t → th

b → p

g → k

bh → b

dh → d

gh → g

Here are examples of these in action:

Latin pater is English father  (p → f; t → th)

French pied is English foot (p → f; d → t)

Latin caput is Old English hafud (k → h; p → f), meaning head

Latin tres is English three (t → th)

Lithuanian dubus (from PIE *dʰewb-) is English deep (b → p)

Latin genus (race) and English kin are cognate (g → k), as is Latin ager (field) and English acre

PIE *bʰeh2go- becomes beech in English, but that same bh sound becomes f in Latin and Greek, hence fāgus and  φηγός ‎(phēgós)

similarly, PIE *bʰréh2tēr is brother in English, but frater in Latin and φράτηρ ‎(phrátēr) in Greek

PIE *dʰugh2tḗr becomes daughter; PIE *dʰwer- becomes door

PIE *ǵʰer- becomes garden and garth in English, but hortus and χόρτος ‎(khórtos) in Latin and Greek

It’s also worth noting that there’s a fundamental distinction between the ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’ branches of the Indo-European tree, that’s expressed as the kentum-satem divide. This reflects the fact that most of the Western languages have a word for hundred that begins with a hard k sound, like Latin centum (in the Germanic languages, as Grimm’s law describes, this k becomes h, hence our hundred). In the Eastern languages, the word for hundred begins with a soft s sound, as in the Sanskrit word satem. This distinction between a hard k and a soft s sound is thought to reflect a very early split in the Proto-Indo-European tribes, as some headed west and others east. Note how that Western-Eastern divide plays out in the branches:

Western (kentum): Celtic, Germanic, Italic, Greek, Anatolian

Eastern (satem): Balto-Slavic, Armenian, Albanian, Indo-Iranian

Having talked about changes, I should note that, notwithstanding the thousands of years that have passed, the occasional PIE word has been retained almost unchanged to the present day (and personally, I find that quite exciting to see!). Daughter (*dʰugh2tḗr) and *new (new) are excellent examples of this.

Relevance to language learning

It's said that you need around 2000 words to be usefully fluent in a language (this is a ballpark figure, and obviously depends on the language and what you need it for). Learning this number of words is the reason why most people fail at learning another language. But here's the thing — people often think it's all about memorization, and it isn't. Even though vocab learning would seem to be a prime example of information that just needs to be hammered into your brain using brute force, rather than building understanding, there is in fact a role for understanding, for natural connections with information you already know well.

How easy a language is to learn is partly down to the number of shared cognates — Spanish, for example, is one of the easiest languages for English speakers to learn, because there's a huge number of words that are very very similar. But not all cognates are obvious to the untutored eye. Some need a bit more knowledge before they become clear. If you can learn to see those natural connections, you won't need to apply more difficult strategies.

In my cognate dictionary, I have collected 40,000 words from 32 Indo-European languages into 430 cognate clusters, in order to help you increase the number of words you can learn through natural connections.

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Building Cognitive Reserve

  • Both age-related cognitive decline and brain damage like Alzheimer's can be countered by high levels of cognitive reserve.
  • Cognitive reserve is built throughout your life, but it's never too late to make a difference.
  • You can build cognitive reserve through active learning, intellectual work, being actively bi- or multi-lingual, or regularly engaging in mentally stimulating activities.
  • To maintain (or grow) cognitive abilities, it's important both to resist the brain's tendency to shrink (brain atrophy) , and to keep it flexible (neuroplasticity).
  • Brains shrink with disuse, and grow with use.
  • Brains stay plastic through change — in activities, in strategies, in perspective.

Brain autopsies have revealed that a significant number of people die with Alzheimer’s disease evident in their brain, although in life their cognition wasn’t obviously impaired. From this, the idea of a “cognitive reserve” has arisen — the idea that brains with a higher level of neuroplasticity can continue to work apparently normally in the presence of (sometimes quite extensive) brain damage.

A comprehensive review of the research into cognitive reserve, involving 29,000 individuals across 22 studies, concluded that complex mental activity across people’s lives almost halves the risk of dementia. Encouragingly, all the studies also agreed that it was never too late to build cognitive reserve.

As you might expect, the more years of education, the greater the cognitive reserve. But education isn’t the only means of building cognitive reserve. Basically, anything that’s mentally challenging is likely to build reserve. Research supports the following as builders of cognitive reserve:

  • Education
  • Occupational complexity
  • Bilingualism
  • Social engagement
  • Regular cognitive activities, such as reading, writing, attending lectures, doing word games or puzzles, playing games such as bridge or chess.

Will cognitive reserve stop me getting Alzheimer's?

This is not to say that the highly educated will never get Alzheimer’s! Obviously they do. In fact, once those with a high level of cognitive reserve begin to show signs of the disease, they are likely to decline faster. This isn’t surprising when you consider it, because the physical damage is so much greater by the time it becomes observable in behavior.

The point of having cognitive reserve is not to prevent Alzheimer’s, in the sense of “it’ll never happen”. When we talk about “preventing” Alzheimer’s, we're really talking about delaying it. The trick is to delay it so much that you're dead before it happens!

So, cognitive reserve is desirable because it protects you against the damage that may be occurring in your brain. If you’re lucky, it’ll protect you long enough to see you through your life.

Brains are plastic, all through life

Cognitive reserve is weighted toward the past — how much you’ve built up over your lifetime — but you shouldn’t ever forget that it’s an ongoing issue. If you stop all activities that reinforce neuroplasticity, your brain is likely to enter a downward spiral, with physical deterioration resulting from and feeding into a deterioration in your motor,sensory, and cognitive systems.

As the popular mantra has it: Use it or lose it.

It’s the opposite face of expertise. You know how top musicians continue to practice everyday. Although they have tens of thousands of hours of practice under their belt, although they have reached the highest level of performance, they cannot afford to stop. This isn’t simply about improving; this is about maintaining their level of expertise. As soon as you stop, your performance starts to deteriorate.

Of course, if an expert stops working in her area of expertise, she will still maintain abilities that are far and above ‘normal’. But the point is that you can’t maintain the same level of performance without working at it.

This is true at every level. If you haven’t ridden a bike for twenty years, you’re not going to leap on it and be as good as you were thirty years ago. If you haven’t spoken your native language in twenty years, you’re not going to suddenly get into a conversation in it with all the fluency you once had.

If you stop paying attention to taste, your appreciation of taste will dull (you’re not interested, why should your brain bother putting energy into it?). If you stop trying to distinguish what people are saying, you’ll become less able to distinguish words. If you stop walking outside the house, you’ll become less capable of movement. If you stop thinking, you’ll become less able to think.

If you just do the same things over and over again, giving your brain no reason to make or reinforce or prune connections, then it won’t bother doing any of that. Why should it? Brains are energy-hounds. If you don’t want to expend the energy making it work, it’s going to sit back and let itself shrink.

Maintaining cognitive abilities as you age begins with attitude

Recent evidence suggests that being cognitively active in middle and old age may help you develop new networks when existing networks start to fail. This is consistent with evidence that older adults who maintain their cognitive abilities do so by developing new strategies that involve different regions.

In other words, if you start to have difficulties with anything, your best strategy is not to give up, but to actively explore new ways of doing it.

So, we should be aiming for two things in preventing cognitive decline. The first is in ‘growing’ brain tissue: making new neurons, and new connections. This is to counteract the shrinkage (brain atrophy) that tends to occur with age.

The second concerns flexibility. Retaining the brain’s plasticity is a vital part of fighting cognitive decline, even more vital, perhaps, than retaining brain tissue. To keep this plasticity, we need to keep the brain changing.

Here’s a question we don’t yet know the answer to: how much age-related cognitive decline is down to people steadily experiencing fewer and fewer novel events, learning less, thinking fewer new thoughts?

But we do know it matters.

What activities help build cognitive reserve?

Research hasn't systematically compared different activities to find out which are better, but the general message is that any activity that engages your mind is good. But the degree of challenge does make a difference.

One small study involving older adults found that those who randomly put in a "high-challenge" group showed significantly more cognitive improvement and more efficient brain activity, compared to those assigned to the "low-challenge" group. Moreover, even among the high-challenge group, those who spent more time on the activities showed the greatest improvements.

The high-challenge spent at least 15 hours a week for 14 weeks learning progressively more difficult skills in digital photography, quilting, or a combination of both. The low-challenge group met to socialize and engage in activities related to subjects such as travel and cooking. A control group engaged in low-demand cognitive tasks such as listening to music, playing simple games, or watching classic movies.

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Basic principles of learning

When considering what will be the most effective strategies for you, don't forget the basic principles of memory:

(1) Repetition repetition repetition

The trick is to find a way of repeating that is interesting to you. This is partly governed by level of difficulty (too easy is boring; too difficult is discouraging). The point is to find an activity (more than one, in fact), which enable you to hold on to your motivation through sufficient repetitions to drive them into your head. Bear in mind, too, the importance of:

(2) Changing context

Simple repetition (cat - el gato; cat - el gato; cat - el gato ...) is not only boring, but also the least effective way of experiencing the needed repetition. Not only do you want to see/hear words presented in a variety of different sentences; you also want to experience them in different ways - listening, reading, speaking, writing.

(3) Space your practice

(4) Seek the link

The basis for the keyword mnemonic, and the reason some words are "easy" and others not. Looking for the similarities between words, and being inventive when necessary, is crucial to easing the learning burden, and reducing the number of repetitions you need to fix the word in your memory. It can be as simple as observing that "gato" is very like "cat", or that "el borrego" means "sheep" because sheep are boring.

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Effect of working memory capacity on new language learning

  • Vocabulary acquisition in children is significantly affected by the child's ability to repeat back words.
  • This limitation becomes less as the individual gains a large vocabulary, and thus develops a greater ability to make semantic (meaningful) associations.
  • When learning a new language, your ability to repeat back unfamiliar words is only a factor where you are unable to form a meaningful association to a familiar word.
  • In such cases, the keyword mnemonic can be especially useful to those with limited ability to repeat back words.

Research with children has demonstrated that the ability to learn new words is greatly affected by working memory span - specifically, by how much information they can hold in that part of working memory called "phonological short-term memory". The constraining effect of working memory capacity on the ability to learn new words appears to continue into adolescence.

But, as you grow in experience, building a vocabulary, this constraint becomes less important. Because working memory capacity is measured in "chunks" - and the amount of information contained in a chunk is extremely malleable. To a large extent, developing chunking strategies is what memory improvement is all about.

In terms of learning another language, there are essentially four possible classes of word:

  • words that are already familiar because they are the same in your native language (or another known language)
  • words that are already familiar because they involve words that you already know in that language (e.g., learning a related verb form, or learning a word made up of two words you already know, such as sweat-shirt)
  • words that resemble a known word with similar or related meaning (e.g., Russian garlo means throat, and the word garlo resembles the word gargle)
  • words that have no ready association to known words

It appears that in these first three cases, the size of your phonological short-term memory is of no significant relevance. It is only in the last case - where the word cannot utilize any meaningful associations - that your phonological short-term memory capacity becomes important.

Fairly obviously, as your knowledge of language (your own and others) grows, the more meaningful associations you will be able to make, and the fewer new words will fall into this last, difficult, category.

This suggests, of course, the usefulness of a mnemonic strategy (specifically, the keyword strategy) in the last, difficult case.

The importance of phonological short-term memory is also greater for productive learning (learning to produce a language, i.e., speak or write it) than in receptive learning (learning to read or understand a language). For productive learning, the pronounceability of the new words is very important. The more easily pronounced, the more easily learnt.


  • Nation, I.S.P. 2001. Learning vocabulary in another language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Ellis, N.C. & Beaton, A. 1993. Factors affecting foreign language vocabulary: imagery keyword mediators and phonological short-term memory. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 46A, 533-58.
  • Papagno, C., Valentine, T. & Baddeley, A. 1991. Phonological short-term memory and foreign-language vocabulary learning. Journal of Memory and Language, 30, 331-47.

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Are children really so much better at learning a second language?

Most people believe that an adult learner can't hope to replicate the fluency of someone who learned another language in childhood. And certainly there is research to support this. However, people tend to confuse these findings - that the age of acquisition affects your representation of grammar - with the idea that children can learn words vastly quicker than adults. This is not true. Adults have a number of advantages over children:

  • they usually have more and practiced strategies available to them,
  • they have a wider vocabulary in their native language (which makes it easier to find similarities between languages),
  • they have (for a while) a greater working memory capacity,
  • they are more likely to have experience of other languages, and of language learning.

For all these reasons, adults can usually learn more words faster than children.

Part of the reason for the belief is that children seem to learn their native language "by magic". While there is certainly something magical about the way they pick up grammar, their learning of new words doesn't come under the same category. In fact, children are quite slow at learning new words, learning on average:

12 - 16 months: 0.3 words/day

16 - 23 months: 0.8 words/day

23 - 30 months: 1.6 words/day

30 mths - 6 yrs: 3.6 words/day

6 yrs - 8 yrs: 6.6 words/day

8 yrs - 10 yrs: 12.1 words/day

(from Paul Bloom's (2000) "How Children Learn the Meanings of Words")

Original language can be completely forgotten

The following research is also interesting, since it exposes another cherished myth. A study1 of adults who were born in Korea but adopted by French families in childhood, found not only that they had no conscious memory of Korean, but that imaging showed no difference in brain activation when they heard Korean compared to any other unknown foreign language (activation patterns were different when they heard French).

I don't, however, know the age of the children when they were adopted. It would also be interesting to know whether such children would learn their original language with greater facility - this would imply that present imaging techniques are insufficiently subtle to pick up some differences.


Pallier, C., Dehaene, S., Poline, J.-B., LeBihan, D., Argenti, A.-M., Dupoux, E. & Mehler, J. 2003. Brain Imaging of Language Plasticity in Adopted Adults: Can a Second Language Replace the First? Cerebral Cortex, 13 (2), 155-161.

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Mnemonics for learning languages

Keyword mnemonic

The one mnemonic strategy that has been investigated quite extensively by researchers is the keyword mnemonic. This has been used successfully in a variety of learning areas, but its chief use has been in the area of learning vocabulary.

The keyword mnemonic is certainly an effective technique, particularly for learning to read in another language, as opposed to writing or talking (where you have to actively remember the words you want, rather than simply recognize them when you see them). But I wouldn't advocate using the keyword mnemonic on 1000 words, or even most of them. I would keep it for the hard words. (Read more on the usefulness of the keyword mnemonic for learning vocabulary. Find out what the keyword method is here)


This is essentially the keyword technique, but simplified by fact that someone else has done all the hard work. Dr Michael Gruneberg, a British academic who has done a lot of work in the area of practical mnemonics (a rare concern among academic researchers) formalized the Linkword technique for learning foreign languages, and has produced Linkword books for learning French, German, Spanish, and Italian.

The books aim to quickly teach you a few hundred words of your chosen language (my own count of words taught in the German book was 355), by giving you a linking image to use. Thus, for Raupe (German for caterpillar), you are told to imagine a caterpillar with a rope attached to its middle.

As you would expect (Dr Gruneberg does know his stuff), the books are designed with an eye to fundamental memory principles. Words are grouped according to category; only ten words are given at a time; words are reviewed, etc. Simple grammar points are also included. It's well organized, and I do think it's an excellent way for a beginner to get a quick introduction to the language.

Apart from my general criticisms and warnings about the keyword technique (for which, see my article), my principle caveat is the difficulty in forming the visual images. For example, for Hummer (German for lobster), we are told to imagine a lobster with a sense of humor. Similarly, for Motte (German for moth), we are told to imagine that our personal motto is "I like moths". Personally, I don't find it particularly easy to visualize these "images". Now, I mean no criticism of Dr Gruneberg, the difficulty is experienced by anyone trying to find images to express verbal connections; some words just don't lend themselves to being images. But of course, verbal mnemonics are just as memorable as visual mnemonics, and infinitely more flexible. I assume, although he doesn't say it, that Dr Gruneberg means by "image" something more movie-like, with a sound track.

There are also Linkword courses available, in a wider variety of languages, and for some languages, at more advanced levels (this link is for a British site; here's a U.S. site).

Linkword books available from Amazon

List-learning mnemonics

The various list-learning mnemonics - the method of loci, the pegword method, the link method, the story method - can all be adapted to help you learn lists of words. In general, learning lists is not a particularly useful technique for learning a language, however, there are some circumstances in which it can be helpful.

If you do need to remember a list, my own recommendation is the story mnemonic, unless you are already expert at one of the other techniques. The advantage of the story mnemonic is that it is very simple to master.

Here's an example of its use. I'm brushing up my Latin, and like to run through the various conjugations and declensions in my head before going to sleep (it's wonderfully soothing!). To ensure I cover them all, I've devised the following mnemonics:

I love to advise those who rule that sums are fooey. [1st conjugation: amo, I love; 2nd conjugation: moneo, I advise; 3rd conjugation: rego, I rule; irregular verb to be: sum, I am; fui, I have been]

At the table the daughter awaits the master; the son awaits the god in the field where the boys go to war. The king tells the legion his name is a burden. The citizen lies on his couch in the city. [1st to 3rd declensions, with variants]

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Flashcards are cards with a word (or phrase) on one side and its translation on the other. You can buy ready-made flashcards, and these can certainly be helpful, particularly if you're inexperienced at learning another language. However, it is more effective if you make them yourself. Not only will the cards be customized to your own use, but the activity of selecting words and writing them down help you learn them.

A standard way of using flashcards is simply to go through a set number each day, separating out those you have trouble with, so you can review them more often. Keep these ones handy so that you can go through them at odd moments during the day when you're waiting for something.

Use the flashcards as a handy way to group words in different ways. Deal out the cards and move them around, looking for connections.

If you have word-family flashcards (recommended) - e.g., cards with various related forms of a word - you can make different sentences with your cards. You could also play cards with them, if you have others to play with. You could play a version of rummy, for example, where the sets are infinitive, present tense, future tense, past perfect. Use your imagination!

A bingo game with flashcards is another fun way to practice. Construct bingo cards (large cards divided into a certain number of spaces the same size as your flashcards) with the native language words on it. While this is better played with others, you can at a pinch play with yourself, simply picking out a flashcard from the pile and seeing how quickly you can match it with its counterpart.

Learning words in isolation will not help you much in dealing with words in context. You do need to practice reading/writing/speaking/listening sentences. But flashcards are a useful means of memorizing vocabulary.

Flashcard software

VTrain (Vocabulary Trainer): is flashcard software apparently used in the language labs of 40 Universities and hundreds of high schools; it's free for educational establishments. It's shareware.

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Bilingual-Dichotic Method

This is a somewhat specialized technique. Dichotic listening refers to a technique used in the psychology laboratory, whereby a person wearing headphones hears different messages in the left and right ear. The technique has been used with some success in teaching foreign language words - the foreign word is heard in the right ear while simultaneously the native translation is heard in the left ear (most people process speech better in the right ear). The student is instructed to attend to the foreign language word. The student also has a list of the words to read while listening.

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Using the keyword method to learn vocabulary

  • The keyword mnemonic is undoubtedly an effective means of learning the words of a foreign language.
  • How well you remember depends on how well you learned them, not on whether you have learned the words using a keyword mnemonic or rote repetition or some other method.
  • Even using a keyword mnemonic, you still need to rehearse the information to be learned.
  • The keyword mnemonic is not always the best method of learning particular words.
  • Skilled learners may be best to use the keyword mnemonic selectively, for particularly difficult words.
  • The keyword mnemonic requires individual instruction and practice, to use effectively.
  • Using a verbal (sentence) link is at least as effective as an image, and is easier for many people.
  • Whether using a sentence or an image, the critical factor is that the keyword interact with the definition or own-language word.

In the mid-seventies, Raugh and Atkinson had remarkable results using the keyword method to teach Russian vocabulary to college students. While later studies have not tended to find such dramatic results, nevertheless, a large number of studies have demonstrated an advantage in using the keyword mnemonic to learn vocabulary.

Some researchers have become huge fans of the strategy. Others have suggested a number of limitations. Let’s look at these.

Remembering for the long term

The keyword method is undeniably an effective method for accelerating learning of suitable material. Nor is there any doubt that it improves immediate recall. Which can be useful in itself. However, what people want is long-term recall, and it is there that the advantages of the keyword method are most contentious1.

While many studies have found good remembering a week or two after learning using the keyword mnemonic, others have found that remembering is no better one or two weeks later whether people have used the keyword mnemonic or another strategy. Some have found it worse.

It has been suggested that, although the keyword may be a good retrieval cue initially, over time earlier associations may regain their strength and make it harder to retrieve the keyword image. This seems very reasonable to me — any keyword is, by its nature, an easily retrieved, familiar word; therefore, it will already have a host of associations. When you’re tested immediately after learning the keyword, this new link will of course be fresh in your mind, and easily retrieved. But as time goes on, and the advantage of recency is lost, what is there to make the new link stronger than the other, existing, links? Absolutely nothing — unless you strengthen it. How? By repetition.

Note that it is not the keyword itself that fails to be remembered. It is the image. The weakness then, is in the link between keyword and image. (For example, the Tagalog word araw, meaning sun, is given the keyword arrow; when tested, araw easily recalls the keyword arrow, but the image connecting arrow with sun is gone). This is the link you must strengthen.

The question of the relative forgetting curves of the keyword mnemonic and other learning strategies is chiefly a matter of theoretical interest — I don’t think any researcher would deny that repetition is always necessary. But the “magic” of the keyword mnemonic, as espoused by some mnemonic enthusiasts, downplays this necessity. For practical purposes, it is merely sufficient to remember that, for long-term learning, you must strengthen this link between keyword and image (or sentence) through repeated retrieval (but probably not nearly as often as the repetition needed to “fix” meaningless information that has no such mnemonic aid).

One final point should be made. If the material to be learned is mastered to the same standard, the durability of the memory — how long it is remembered for — will, it appears, be the same, regardless of the method used to learn it2.

Are some keyword mnemonics easier to remember than others?

A number of factors may affect the strength of a keyword mnemonic. One that’s often suggested is whether or not the mnemonic is supplied to the student, or thought up by them. Intuitively, we feel that a mnemonic you’ve thought up yourself will be stronger than one that is given to you.

One study that compared the effectiveness of keywords provided versus keywords that are self-generated, found that participants who were required to make up their own keywords performed much worse than those who were given keywords3. This doesn’t answer the question of the relative durability, but it does point to how much more difficult the task of generating keywords is. This has been confirmed in other studies.

The quality of the keyword mnemonic may affect its durability. Mnemonics that emphasize distinctiveness, that increase the vividness and concreteness of the word to be learned, are remembered less well over time than mnemonics that emphasize relational and semantic information (which is why the emphasis in recent times is on making interactive images or sentences, in which the keyword and definition interact in some way). Having bizarre images seems to help remembering immediately after learning (when there is a mix of bizarre and less unusual images), but doesn’t seem to help particularly over the long term.

The advantage of a semantic connection may be seen in the following example, taken from an experimental study3. Students in a free control condition (those told to use their own methods to remember), almost all used a keyword-type technique to learn some items. Unlike those in the keyword group, the keywords chosen by these subjects typically had some semantic connection as well. (The use of somewhat arbitrary keywords is characteristic of the strategy as originally conceived by Atkinson). Thus, for the Spanish word pestana, meaning eyelash, several people used the phrase paste on as a link, reflecting an existing association (pasting on false eyelashes). The keyword supplied to the keyword group, on the other hand, was pest, which has no obvious connection to eyelash. (It is also worth noting that verbal links were more commonly used by control subjects, rather than mental images.)

It has been suggested that keywords that are semantically as well as acoustically related to the word to be learned might prove more durable.

Controlled presentation

For experimental reasons, the information to be learned is usually presented at a fixed rate, item by item. There is some suggestion that an unpaced situation, where people are simply presented with all the information to be learned and given a set time to study it, allows better learning, most particularly for the repetition strategy. The performance of rote repetition may have been made poorer by constraining it in this way in some experimental studies.

An unpaced study time is of course the more normal situation.

The importance of one-to-one instruction and the need for practice

What is clear from the research is that instruction in the technique is vitally important. Most particularly, the superiority of the keyword mnemonic tends to be found only when the students have been treated individually, not when they have been instructed as a group. At least, this is true for adults and adolescents, but not, interestingly, for children. Children can benefit from group instruction in the technique. Why this is, is not clear. However, I would speculate that it may have something to do with older students having already developed their own strategies and ideas. More individually-oriented instruction might be needed to counteract this depository of knowledge.

It might also be that children are given more direction in the using of the technique. That is, they are given the keywords; the images may be described to them, and even drawn. Clearly this is much simpler than being required to think up your own keywords, create your own links.

It does seem clear that durable keyword images require quite a lot of practice to create. It has been suggested that initially people tend to simply focus on creating distinctive images. It may only be with extensive practice that you become able to reliably create images that effectively integrate the relational qualities of the bits of information.

Some words benefit more from the keyword mnemonic

It has been suggested that the keyword mnemonic works effectively only on concrete words. For the most part, researchers only use concrete words (which are easily imageable). Studies which have compared the two are rare. The weight of the evidence is probably against the view that the mnemonic should be restricted to concrete words, but it may well be more difficult to come up with good, concrete images for abstract words. However, verbal mnemonics (a sentence can link the keyword with the definition) don’t suffer the same drawback.

In experimental studies, the words are usually vetted to make sure they’re not “easy” to learn because of obvious acoustic or graphic similarities with familiar words. The implication of this for real world learning, is that there is no reason to think that such words require a keyword mnemonic.

How important is the image?

Most research has focused on using an image to link the keyword with the definition. One study which compared the using of an image with the use of a sentence (in a study of children’s learning of Spanish words) found no difference (the sentence mnemonic in fact scored higher, but the difference was not significant)4.

Is the keyword mnemonic of greater benefit to less able students?

Several researchers have suggested that the keyword mnemonic might be of greater benefit to less able students, that the keyword mnemonic may be a means by which differences in learning ability might be equalised. One study that failed to find any superiority in the keyword mnemonic among college students, pointed to the high SAT scores of their students. They suggested that those studies which have found a keyword superiority using college students, have used students who were less verbally able5.

What seems likely, is that teaching the keyword mnemonic to more able students has less impact than teaching it to less able students, because the more able students already have a variety of effective strategies that they use. It is worth noting that, just because students are instructed to use a particular strategy, that doesn’t mean that they will. In one experimental study, for example, when subjects were asked about the strategies they used, 17 out of the 40 control subjects (instructed to use their own methods) used the keyword method for at least some items, while every keyword subject used the keyword method for at least seven items (implying they didn’t always). In that study, it was found that, for the control subjects, the probability of recalling keyword-elaborated items was .81 vs .45 for other items; while for the keyword group, the probability of recall for keyword-elaborated items was .80 vs .16 for those items for which they didn’t use a keyword mnemonic6.

Comparing the keyword mnemonic to other strategies

As a general rule, experimental studies into the effectiveness of the keyword mnemonic have compared it to, most often, rote repetition, or, less often, “trying your hardest to remember” (i.e., your own methods). It is not overwhelmingly surprising that the keyword mnemonic should be superior to rote repetition, and the study quoted just above reveals why comparisons with “free” controls might show inconsistent (and uninformative) results.

Studies which have directly compared the keyword method to other elaborative strategies are more helpful.

A number of studies have compared the keyword strategy against the context method of learning vocabulary (much loved by teachers; students experience the word to be learned in several different meaningful contexts). Theory suggests that the context method should encourage multiple connections to the target word, and is thus expected to be a highly effective strategy. However, the studies have found that the keyword method produces better learning than the context method.

It has been suggested that students might benefit more from the context method if they had to work out the meaning of the word themselves, from the context. However, a study which explored this possibility, found that participants using the context method performed significantly worse than those using the keyword mnemonic5. This was true even when subjects were given a test that would be thought to give an advantage to the context method — namely, subjects being required to produce meaningful sentences with the target words.

The same researchers later pursued the possibility that the context method might, nevertheless, prove superior in long-term recall — benefiting from the multiple connections / retrieval paths to the target word. In an experiment where both keyword and context groups learned the words until they had mastered them, recall was no better for the context group than it was for the keyword group, when tested one week later (on the other hand, it was no worse either)2.

Two more recent studies have confirmed the superiority of the keyword mnemonic over the context method7.

Another study looked at the question of whether a combined keyword – repetition strategy (in which subjects were told to use repetition as well as imagery when linking the keyword to the English translation of the word to be learned) was better than the keyword strategy on its own. They failed to find any benefit to using repetition on top of the imagery8.

Given the procedures used, I can see why this might occur. Imagine you’re trying to learn that carta is Spanish for letter. The obvious keyword is cart. Accordingly, you form an image of a cart full of letters. However, having constructed this image, you are now told to repeat the salient words “carta - letter” over and over to yourself. It’s not hard to see that many people might completely lose track of the image while they are doing this. Thus the repetition component of the strategy would not be so much augmenting the imagery link, as replacing it. Repetition of the link you are supposed to be augmenting (a cart full of letters) might be more useful (in fact, I personally would repeat to myself: “cartaletter; a cart full of letters”).

Backward recall

The value of the keyword mnemonic is of course, in forward recall — that is, in the above example, you learned that carta meant letter. When you see the word carta, the keyword mnemonic will help you remember that it means letter. But if you are asked for the Spanish for letter, how helpful will the keyword mnemonic be then?

A study that looked at this question found that the keyword mnemonic was no worse for backward recall than the other strategies they employed8. On the other hand, it was no better, either — and this despite being superior for forward recall (remembering the English when given the Spanish). The failure of the method was not due to any difficulty in recalling the keyword itself. Remember, the English meaning and the keyword are tied together in the mnemonic image, so it is not surprising that remembering the keyword given the English was as high as remembering the English given the keyword. But the problem is, of course, that generating the (unfamiliar) Spanish word from the keyword is much harder than remembering the (familiar) keyword from the Spanish.

Using the keyword mnemonic to remember gender

One other aspect of vocabulary learning for many languages is that of gender. The keyword mnemonic has successfully been used to remember the gender of nouns, by incorporating a gender tag in the image9. This may be as simple as including a man or a woman (or some particular object, when the language also contains a neutral gender), or you could use some other code — for example, if learning German, you could use the image of a deer for the masculine gender.

Why should the keyword mnemonic be an effective strategy?

Let’s think about the basic principles of how memory works.

The strength of memory codes, and thus the ease with which they can be found, is a function largely of repetition. Quite simply, the more often you experience something (a word, an event, a person, whatever), the stronger and more easily recalled your memory for that thing will be.

This is why the most basic memory strategy — the simplest, and the first learned — is rote repetition.

Repetition is how we hold items in working memory, that is, “in mind”. When we are told a phone number and have to remember it long enough to either dial it or write it down, most of us repeat it frantically.

Spaced repetition — repetition at intervals of time — is how we cement most of our memory codes in our long-term memory store. If you make no deliberate attempt to learn a phone number, yet use it often, you will inevitably come to know it (how many repetitions that will take is a matter of individual variability).

But most of us come to realize that repetition is not, on its own, the most effective strategy, and when we deliberately wish to learn something, we generally incorporate other, more elaborative, strategies.

Why do we do that? If memory codes are strengthened by repetition, why isn’t it enough to simply repeat?

Well, it is. Repetition IS enough. But it’s boring. That’s point one.

Point two is that making memory codes more easily found (which is after all the point of the exercise) is not solely achieved by making the memory codes stronger. Also important is making lots of connections. Memory codes are held in a network. We find a particular one by following a trail of linked codes. Clearly, the more trails lead to the code you’re looking for, the more likely you are to find it.

Elaborative strategies — mnemonic strategies, organizational strategies — work on this aspect. They are designed to increase the number of links (connections) a memory code has. Thus, when we note that lamprey is an “eel-like aquatic vertebrate with sucker mouth”, we will probably make links with eels, with fish, with the sea. If we recall that Henry I was said to have died from a surfeit of lampreys, we have made another link. Which in turn might bring in yet another link, that Ngaio Marsh once wrote a mystery entitled “A surfeit of lampreys”. And if you’ve read the book, this will be a good link, being itself rich in links. (As the earlier link would be if you happen to be knowledgeable about Henry I).

On the other hand, in the absence of any knowledge about lampreys, you could have made a mnemonic link with the word “lamp”, and imagined an eel-like fish with lamps in its eyes, or balanced on its head.

So, both types of elaborative strategy have the same goal — to increase the number of connections. But mnemonic links are weaker in the sense that they are arbitrary. Their value comes in those circumstances when either you lack the knowledge to make meaningful connections, or there is in fact no meaningful connection to be made (this is why mnemonics are so popular for vocabulary learning, and for the learning of lists and other ordered information).

Where does that leave us?

  • Memory codes are made stronger by repetition
  • Repetition is enough on it’s own to make a strong memory code
  • Achieving enough repetitions, however, is a lengthy and often boring process
  • Memory codes are also made easier to find by increasing the number of links they have to other memory codes
  • Elaborative strategies work on this principle of making connections with existing codes
  • Some elaborative strategies make meaningful connections between memory codes — these are stronger
  • Mnemonic strategies make connections that are not meaningful
  • Mnemonic strategies are most useful in situations where there are no meaningful connections to be made, or you lack the knowledge to make meaningful connections

Mnemonic strategies have therefore had particular success in the learning of other languages. However, if you can make a meaningful connection, that will be more effective. For example, in Spanish the word surgir means to appear, spout, arise. If you connect this to the word surge, from the Latin surgere, to rise, then you have a meaningful connection, and you won’t, it is clear, have much trouble when you come across the word. However, if your English vocabulary does not include the word surge, you might make instead a mnemonic connection, such as surgir sounds like sugar, so you make a mental image involving spouting sugar. Now, imagine each of these situations. Imagine you don’t come across the word again for a month. When you do, which of these connections is more likely to bring forth the correct meaning?

But of course, it is not always possible to make meaningful connections.

The thing to remember however, is that you haven’t overcome the need for repetition. These strategies are adjuncts. The basic principle must always be remembered: Memory codes are made stronger by repetition. Links are made stronger by repetition. If you don’t practice the mnemonic, it won’t be remembered. The same is true for any connection, but meaningful connections are inherently stronger, so they don’t need as many repetitions.

I would also note that the experimental research invariably involves very limited numbers of words to be learned. While this is entirely understandable, it does raise the question of the extent to which these findings are applicable to real world learning situations. If you are learning a new language, you are going to have to learn at least 2000 new words. Does the keyword mnemonic hold up in those circumstances? The keyword mnemonic has been used in real world situations (intensive language courses), but these are not experimental situations, and we must be wary of the conclusions we draw from them. The keyword strategy does take time and effort to implement, and may well have disadvantages if used to excess. Some words lend themselves to other techniques. At least for more experienced students (who will have a number of effective strategies, and are capable of applying them appropriately) the keyword strategy is probably best used selectively, perhaps for particularly difficult items.


1. Wang, A.Y. & Thomas, M.H. 1992. The Effect of Imagery-Based Mnemonics on the Long-Term Retention of Chinese Characters.

Wang, A.Y. et al. 1989. Do Mnemonic Devices Lessen Forgetting? Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Psychological Association (97th, New Orleans, LA, August 11-15, 1989).

Wang, A.Y. et al. 1992. Keyword Mnemonic and Retention of Second-Language Vocabulary Words.

Wang, A.Y. & Thomas, M.H. 1995. Effect of keywords on long-term retention: help or hindrance? Journal of Educational Psychology, 87, 468-75.

Gruneberg, M.M.1998. A commentary on criticism of the keyword method of learning foreign languages. Applied Cognitive Psychology , 12, 529-532.

Wang, A.Y. & Thomas, M.H. 1999. In defence of keyword experiments: a reply to Gruneberg's commentary

2. McDaniel, M.A., Pressley, M. & Dunay, P.K. 1987. Long-term retention of vocabulary after keyword and context learning. Journal of Educational Psychology, 79, 87-9.

3. Hall, J.W., Wilson, K.P. & Patterson, R.J. 1981. Mnemotechnics: Some limitations of the mnemonic keyword method for the study of foreign language vocabulary. Journal of Educational Psychology, 73, 345-57.

4. Pressley, M., Levin, J.R. & Miller, G.E. 1981. The keyword method and children’s learning of foreign vocabulary with abstract meanings. Canadian Journal of Psychology, 34, 283-87.

5. McDaniel, M.A. & Pressley, M. 1984. Putting the keyword method in context. Journal of Educational Psychology, 76, 598-609.

6. Pressley, M., Levin, J.R., Digdon, N., Bryant, S.L. & Ray, K. 1983. Does method of item presentation affect keyword method effectiveness? Journal of Educational Psychology, 75, 686-91.

7. Jones, M.S., Levin, M.E., Levin, J.R. & Beitzel, B.D. 2000. Can vocabulary-learning strategies and pair-learning formats be profitably combined? Journal of Educational Psychology, 92, 256-62.

Shing, Y.S. & Heyworth, R.M. 1992. Teaching English Vocabulary to Cantonese-speaking Students with the Keyword Method. Education Journal, 20, 113-129.

8. Pressley, M., Levin, J.R., Hall, J.W., Miller, G.E. & Berry, J.K. 1980. The keyword method and foreign word acquisition. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Learning and Memory, 6, 163-73.

9. Desrochers, A., Gelinas & Wieland, L.D. 1989. An application of the mnemonic keyword method to the acquisition of German nouns and their grammatical gender. Journal of Educational Psychology, 81, 25-32.

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