The Persistence of Memory: Using Mnemonic Devices in Language Learning

I’ve been a bit behind on…a lot of things. Namely this blog (sorry), but also on my progress with Memrise’s Arabic course. In my defense, things were happening. Scotland happened. Milan happened. A quasi-internship happened. Dissertation things happened. Things are still happening. But now that things are starting to wind down and settle into a rhythm again, I’m hoping I can devote more time to blogging and learning yet another writing system.

My decision to try Arabic has been a long time coming. I studied Hebrew (Arabic’s Semitic sibling) in a religious context from preschool up until age 13, and while I somewhat grudgingly conducted that course of study (what do you expect when you make an 11-year-old spend her Saturday mornings studying the Torah?), it piqued my interest in Semitic/Middle Eastern languages. And why not? Both Hebrew and Arabic have ancient roots, unite widely dispersed peoples through their uses as liturgical languages, and have beautiful writing systems (Hebrew’s alphabet, or Aleph Bet, even comes with a catchy alphabet song courtesy of Jewish songwriter Debbie Friedman). While I would like to learn Hebrew beyond praying, cursing (thanks, Israeli camp counselors), and singing a pop song or two, I decided that Arabic might be a bit more useful for potential employment. Ah, that good old instrumental motivation.

So far, I’m still working on the basics of reading and writing. It’s not taking as long to master as certain writing systems (I say as I glance despondently at my very Jack Nicholson in The Shining-esque notebook full of Chinese characters I’m practicing writing), but it’s still a bit unfamiliar. My first go-round at writing in Arabic looked awful, nothing like the swooping, sweeping, elegant lettering I’d seen in exhibits of Islamic art, or even just on some signs around London. Ugh, I thought to myself as I struggled to make “Oman” look presentable. Why can’t I make this look right? Remembering that my Chinese characters used to look pretty terrible was cold comfort. Now I’m starting to form letters and words that actually look like Arabic, but that’s after writing words like “Oman” and “Halal” over and over. One day, Scotland Yard or the FBI will find my practice scratch papers and assume I was pathologically fixated on religiously sanctioned meat preparation practices and small coastal monarchies that border Saudi Arabia.

However, I think the big struggle for me as a total beginner in Arabic is remembering what sound is associated with what letter. Having a background in Hebrew has helped, but Arabic gets tricky because of its tendency to have sounds that don’t exist in other languages, and sounds that sound very, very similar to each other but with slight variations. One way I’m trying to get over this hurdle is by creating mnemonic devices in English for remembering the letters and the sounds they make. I think that my method is influenced by my study of a logographic writing system; written Chinese was once pictographs, and some of that has carried over into the modern system. If you look at a Chinese character — let’s go with the character for “peace” (安) — you can discern its meaning and its sound by looking at the picture it makes. In the case of 安, we have two components: the top part is a roof, and under the roof is 女, or a woman. You can tell it’s a woman because it looks a bit like a human figure with a pregnant belly. So “peace” is a woman under a roof, safe and secure.

My Mandarin teachers often used this method to help me and other students remember the meaning or sounds of characters. When we learned the words for siblings, my high school Mandarin teacher explained that your older brother, 哥哥, is always eating lots of food, which is why he has two mouths filled with cake. Your older sister, 姐姐, likes to be the boss, which is why she has a top hat. I also remember the pronunciation of 姐姐, jiejie, with a personal mnemonic device: my nickname as a kid was JJ, and I’m the oldest sister in my family. JJ is the eldest –> jiejie. Your little brother, 弟弟, is always getting into mischief, so he has devil horns. And your younger sister, 妹妹, is a girly-girl, so she has a dress (I know, I know, let the lecture on gender roles begin). I’m using a method similar to the way I learned Chinese characters to remember letters in Arabic. Let me start with a few examples:

س is “sin” (/s/ sound). You can remember it because it looks like waves on the SEA.

ط  is “taa” (/t/ sound). I like to think that it looks like a TALL tree on an island.

و   is “waw” (/a/ + /w/). This is my favorite mnemonic device: since it looks a bit like a 9, I always say “WOW! It’s over NINE thousand!”

Another L1 mnemonic device I’ve been using applies to entire words, not just letters, in Arabic. I find a way to remember the word’s meaning by using a word that it sounds like in English. For example, the word for wine, khamer, sounds a bit like “hammer”. Wine gets you hammered. I remember the word for hi, ahlan, by thinking “hi, Alan!” I also used this technique in Chinese. For example, the word for not or no, 不, is pronounced “bu”. What do you say when you don’t like something? Boo! Boo! Another Chinese example: the word for hungry, 饿, is written in Pinyin as “e”, which is pronounced “uh”. Uuuuugh, I’m so hungry!

Linguists call this the mnemonic keyword method, or MKM. It was first developed in the 1970s, and it’s still being researched and debated forty years on. It’s used in a variety of language teaching and learning contexts; one study I read as part of writing this blog post (Siriganjanavong 2013) looked at Thai students using MKM to learn English. For instance, the students learned the word “amendment” by breaking it down into three Thai words: “ah”, “mend”, and “mend”, which, when put together, roughly mean “Ah! It stinks!” When you stink, it’s time to go get changed. Siriganjanavong (2013) found in the study that students retained more and performed better on a post-test after learning vocabulary through MKM. Still, as with any concept in linguistics, not everyone is a fan. In a 2003 study, researchers Alfredo Campos, María Angeles Gonzalez, and Angeles Amor (2003) found that MKM was not much more, and often less, effective than rote memorization for learning and recalling vocabulary, and its efficacy is especially limited in large group learning settings.

Me personally? I am a fan. Just like chunks, I think that the technique needs to be deployed carefully, with plenty of context and examples. Also keep in mind that I use MKM as an individual engaged in self-study, not as a student in a classroom with lots of other classmates. I like using MKM to learn Arabic because it draws from my previous language learning experiences and helps me retain information better by engaging multiple different kinds of information I already store in my brain. I can remember letters by processing them as images and relating the images to the sound the letter makes. I can remember words by connecting them to words that are already there in the big, weird library that is my frontal cortex. I think that MKM particularly works for me because I’m already the kind of person who needs to have multiple cylinders firing at all times. I’m always multitasking, and I learn best when I’m moving, taking lots of notes as I listen to a lecture, or listening to music or a video while I read. Using MKM harnesses this need of mine for stimulation and multiple forms of input. I don’t think I have enough of a neuroscience background to actually conduct this study, but I wonder if MKM would be a good way to teach language learners who have ADD/ADHD (in general I’m interested in language learning among people with learning or language disabilities or disorders).

Right now, time and further research will tell how well MKM helps me with Arabic, especially when I get past the basics, but so far, if I can look at ك and remember that it looks like a steaming cup of KAF-fee, that’s good enough for me.

So, my dear…whoever reads this blog anymore: do you use MKM to study a language? Have you used it in the past? Do you think you’d like to try using it?

Side note: I also used a variation of MKM to learn important Constitutional amendments for the Foreign Service Officer Test. Unlawful Search and Seizure: What are you searching my house FOUR? Right to witnesses and legal representation: You have the right to have people who have your SIX in court. Cruel and unusual punishment: I really EIGHT being tortured. Repealing Prohibition: You can drink when you’re TWENTY-ONE.


Campos, A., Gonzalez, M.A., and Amor, A. (2003). Limitations of the Mnemonic-Keyword Method. The Journal of General Psychology, 130(4), pp. 399-413.

Siriganjavong, V. (2013). The Mnemonic Keyword Method: Effects on the Vocabulary Acquisition and Retention. English Language Teaching, 6(10), pp. 1-10.


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