When learning a language, you will arrive at that stage where you know some expressions and have a grasp of the basics of the grammar, but there’s something missing for being able to move on: words, vocabulary.

You still make mistakes while speaking, but people seem to understand you, and you could say so much more if you just knew all those missing nouns, adjectives, verbs…

You’re in the “Words! I want words!” stage.

Zombie looking for ‘words’, not brains.

It’s a good place to be, because each newly acquired word will give you more language-speaking superpowers.

I’m in that phase with Russian now. I can have basic conversations, but still make countless mistakes. (Russian has case declensions, so there’s plenty of opportunity.) But I don’t care too much about speaking correctly; that can wait. I’ll learn and correct most mistakes anyway by speaking and interacting with people, as I did with Spanish.

But what does it mean to know a word?

Well, it can mean just being able to recognize it, or — and this is more useful — being able to recall it when needed.

to recognize = passive

A test for recognizing a word could be a multiple choice question, like this:

What is the Spanish for ‘a shower’?

  1. un baño
  2. una ducha
  3. una bañera
  4. una duda

This is actually made difficult because the words are related or sound alike. In many vocabulary learning apps they will just pick some random words from your list and throw them together, like this: 1

What is the Spanish for ‘a shower’?

  1. un edificio
  2. una ducha
  3. un perro
  4. una mesa

That’s probably not too hard to answer correctly.

Studying like this is called passive review. It’s not really difficult, but at least you’re doing something with the language, which is always good.

Other passive review methods would be:

  • matching up words in a game like memory
  • connecting related words by drawing lines between them
  • putting the words of a sentence in the right order
  • recognizing a word in the context of a text, or when hearing it

to recall = active

To recall a word is simply to answer the question:

What is the Spanish for ‘a shower’?

This is harder, and of course impossible the first time, when you haven’t learned yet that it’s ‘una ducha.’

Having to come up with the answer by yourself, without any hints, will have you flexing those grey cells. You might have to dig deeper, but afterwards you’ll remember it better. Every time you recall a word, you’ll be improving its retention.

This method of studying is called active recall, and it’s a lot more effective than passive review.

And it’s also more useful:

When you’re in a hotel in Spain and want to ask if the room has a shower, there’s no list that’s going to appear floating in mid-air with the possible answers. You’ll have to come up with the word ‘ducha’ by yourself. (Or have the receptionist guessing: “Bathroom? Fan? Air conditioning? Breakfast? TV? Window? Bed?”)

And of course, if you can recall a word, you can also recognize it. When you see a ‘ducha’ sign on a door you won’t be thinking, “What was that again?”

So, if you want to learn words to use in real life, use flashcards! Old school paper ones or digital, but always look at the English side first and then try to recall the foreign word. Don’t do it the other way round.

Other active review methods:

  • Having to type the answer is certainly also an active way of answering. I didn’t included it in Vocab Ninja, though, because I don’t think it’s that important to spell words correctly when you’re still learning how to speak. Writing can wait. (And typing on a phone is a pain, anyway.)
  • Speaking! Use newly learned words in conversations.

Words don’t seem to stick? Make them stickier!

Why are some foreign language words so hard to remember? It’s because they miss glue, hooks. They are not sticky enough, you can’t stick them on to something else.

Your memory works by association. You remember things because they are attached to other things, in many different ways. We don’t remember isolated facts; we remember things in context.

You might notice this when daydreaming. Your mind can jump from one memory to a completely different one, just because there’s some kind of connection. The color purple might remind you of your aunt Suzy, because she’s kind of a hippie; she always wears purple clothes. And she smells like patchouli, so that’s why you also associate that particular scent with the color purple.

Sometimes it’s just hard to associate a foreign language word to its translation in English, because it’s so different.

I’m learning Russian and, it being a Slavic language there are many difficult words. The vocabulary is just plain strange to me. It’s like the ancient Slavs realized they needed more words and organized a bingo night where they pulled Cyrillic letters out of a bag.

Take this common word:

“And now we need a word for ‘paper.’ And the letters are…. ‘G’, ‘M’, and ‘B’! Who has a suggestion?”
Russianбума́гаpronounced: boom-aaga

Good luck remembering that. 2
Another word I had trouble with is the Russian for ‘freedom.’

freedomсвобо́даpronounced: svabooda

But ‘svabooda’ became stickier by itself.

I’m currently living in Kiev, Ukraine, and there’s been a revolution going on in the city center for a few months. Because of this, the word has acquired many new meanings and associations.

For me, ‘svabooda’ is now, along with the word for ‘freedom’:

  • One of the political parties that supports the revolution: Свобода, a nationalist party whose members (probably, we don’t know for sure) toppled Kiev’s last remaining Lenin statue during one of the big Sunday rallies.
  • Their symbol: a hand; the dark blue of their flag
  • The face of the party’s leader
  • The orange torch of the U.S.-funded Радио Свобода (Radio Free Europe), one of the Internet news sources.
  • And more things related to these things.

‘Svabooda’ is now covered in glue. I will never be able to forget that word.

But how can we do this for other words, for words that you’re still learning?

1. Make the word stickier by using it in a sentence

Put the word in context: use it in a sentence. Words can have different meanings, and you can’t learn all of them at the same time. It’s best to pick just one, the most important meaning of the word, and use it in a sentence. You will pick up the other ones later on anyway.

When studying Spanish I first learned the most common meaning of the word ‘cola’:

una colaa line, a queue

I could have put just that on a flashcard, but it’s better with a sentence:

The line to the ticket office is very long.
La cola para la taquilla es muy larga.

A sentence can paint an image in you mind, an image you can relate to.

Did you ever have to wait a long time at a ticket office? Was it for a game or a concert? Do you remember that line, the experience of waiting? That mental image will help you remember the word ‘cola.’

But the word actually has more meanings; from the dictionary:

cola s.f.

  1. cola n. (beverage)
  2. glue n.
  3. paste n.
  4. line n.
  5. queue n.
  6. tail end n.
  7. tail n.
  8. penis n.
  9. prick n. Vulgar (penis)
  10. train n. (of a garment)

But it would be stupid to try to learn all of them; some are just not that common.

What I did learn afterwards is that it also means ‘ass’ in some countries. (Because of ‘tail,’ as in English.)

My friends in Buenos Aires found it funny that on poker nights I always said, “¿Me podés pasar la cola?” while loosely pointing in somebody’s direction. To them it sounds like, “Could you pass me the ass?” But I just wanted to borrow the bottle of Coca Cola next to her, so I could prepare another tasty Fernet.

In Argentina they apparently use the word ‘Coca’ for the beverage,
although some might prefer ‘Pepsi.’

So yes, you’ll pick up the other meanings of a word anyway. Hopefully in equally embarrassing ways, because then you will never forget them.

2. Make the word stickier by adding an image

An image can also provide context to the word.

For the ‘cola’ example, it could be a picture of a very long line:

A line of people that’s several hundred meters long.

Image by gadl on Flickr


Or, maybe better: a line of tails, to combine both meanings of the word: 3  

Trio of zebras all facing away from the camera

Image by wwarby on Flickr

(I couldn’t find a picture of animals queuing up to buy tickets. Would have been perfect.)


Use only an image

You can also use just an image as the question. If the word is: ‘aunt,’ then a picture of Aunt Suzy is of course as clear as the written word. (Although in this case it might also mean ‘purple’ or ‘patchouli’)

Vocab Ninja has a shortcut for this: When you hold your iPhone in landscape, the new card button will become a camera button so you can jump straight into the camera.

Hold your iPhone in landscape to quickly make a picture card.


Using just a picture is also a way to connect a foreign word directly to its meaning, without the temporary crutch of English. When you become fluent in Spanish, you will not have to think of ‘house’ every time you want to say ‘casa.’ You’ll see a house and just know that it’s ‘una casa’ ; you will be thinking in Spanish. Skipping English by using images might speed up this process.

3. Make the word stickier by adding a mem

I mean a mnemonic, or rather a mnemonic device, named after Mnemosyne, the Greek goddess of memory. But it’s such a horrible, unpronounceable word that you need a mnemonic just to remember how to spell it. 4 (I tend to say “menonic”) So I think it was a good idea of Memrise to simply call them ‘mems.’ Let’s use ‘mem.’ 5  

We more easily remember things that are visual, surprising, humorous… more emotional than abstract impersonal bits of data. By creating a mem you make an image in your mind that is easier to relate to. But a mem can also be a phrase that is easy to remember because it rhymes or has a tune. I’ll give a few examples.


A mem that’s a mental image

Do you already know the Russian word for ‘paper’?

paperбума́гаpronounced: boom-aaga

To create a mem I first see what image comes to mind when I think about ‘paper.’ Is it a stack of paper, newspapers, magazines, the paper bin?

I used to work in a printshop. So for me, that would be the huge bin next to the cutting machine in which we gathered all the paper meant for recycling. (It’s like a huge basket a few meters long and wide, no lid.)

Then I try to think of a word, or combination of words, that sounds like ‘boomaaga.’ What comes to mind is: an explosion (“boom”) + an exclamation: “Aha!

We had a colleague at the time, Jan, who loved to pull pranks, so I imagine:

Jan hiding under that big pile of paper. Somebody walks by, and he jumps out of the pile. It’s like an explosion: paper flies in all directions. And he shouts “AHA!” like a pirate; he’s also dressed like a pirate and he points a cardboard sword at our bewildered boss, who he actually didn’t expect to see there at that time.


Another one, for the Spanish ‘una cola’:

a queue, a lineuna cola
It’s hot outside. So hot that people have to wait in line for hours just to buy a cola. There’s only one shop open, so the whole city is waiting in line for this shop.
Surprisingly, a pack of koalas also joined the line. They are feverishly trying to wag their tails to get some cool air.

(Koalas don’t have a tail, only an invisible vestigial tail, like we do. So they have to try reeeally hard.)


As you see: a mem can be very personal (бума́га) or more general (una cola). The best ones are often personal. Make them about things and people you know, and try to make them emotional, even shocking or sexual. The things you remember most vividly, like childhood memories, are always situations that have strong emotions connected to them.


A mem that’s a phrase

You can also try to find a phrase. But to remember it well, you’ll need a phrase that:

  • rhymes
  • or has a melody
  • or evokes an image



An example for remembering which Spanish verb to use for ‘to be’:

Spanish has two different verbs for ‘to be’:

  • ser: for everything that (in general) doesn’t change
  • estar: for everything that’s temporary, like feelings, location…

So to not forget this rule, you could use:

“If it’s how you feel, or where you are, always use the verb ‘estar’.”



With music it’s almost impossible not to forget things. You probably know the lyrics of hundreds, maybe even thousands of songs. And when you remember the melody of a song, the lyrics follow naturally.

Think about all the songs in Sesame Street that teach things. Maybe you still can recall all those words starting with a ‘C’ in the “C is for Cookie” Song?

(None, because the just word ‘cookie’ was good enough!)

I’m not learning Greek, but if I ever had to memorize the order of its alphabet, then I would most certainly use this:

(Yes, It’s ‘Technologic’ by Daft Punk.  Sir.)

But I don’t mean that you should change the lyrics of a whole song to make a mem for just one word. That would be crazy. No, just use a short melody, like the chorus of a song, or one of those melodies a doorbell might make, or the one from Big Ben, the NBC chime, or a ringtone, maybe that annoying one.

Your mem sentence will be easier to remember if you can make it rhyme and/or use it in a melody.


Evokes an image

Look at these from Wikipedia for remembering the order of the strings on a guitar:

  • Eddy Ate Dynamite Good Bye Eddy
  • Easter Angels Don’t Give Broken Eggs
  • Every Acid Dealer Gets Busted Eventually
  • Even After Dinner Giant Boys Eat
  • Elephants Are Dark Grey Bun Eaters

They all evoke an image.

You can imagine Eddy exploding, angels bringing eggs, dealers getting busted, a giant boy eating non-stop, or an elephant devouring buns.

You need a vivid image (or rhyme, melody) or you will just forget the nice phrase you constructed to link the foreign word to the English word.


A example that probably works, for the Spanish word ‘ciudad’:

the cityla ciudad

Imagine yourself saying goodbye to your father, in the center of the city:
“See you, dad!”


But a bad example would be, for the Spanish word ‘mano’:

the handla mano

Imagine that you injured you hand and say:
Man o man my hand hurts!”

You will remember that the mem had something to do with injuring your hand… but what exactly? How was the phrase? It will be too difficult to recall the exact sentence. Don’t try to be too smart. Don’t use too difficult wordplay.


How to use mems in a flashcard app?

Don’t put the mem together with the English word on the Question side. The idea is that you try to recall the mem and not simply read it of the card. Put it on the Answer side. Or even better, if the app you’re using lets you do this, save it as a Hint that you can make visible when needed. (Vocab Ninja will support Hints in the next version)


Coming up with a good mem is fun. It’s like cracking the access code to a word, making it a lot easier to remember it afterwards.

I post mems for Spanish words every day on a Tumblr. Check them out!
(You can follow the daily updates also on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.)


Good luck with your studies!

  1. I made sure they were all nouns. A real randomly generated list might be even more… random.

  2. To be honest: Belarusian: папера, Ukrainian: папір, Czech: papír, Slovak: papier, Polish: papier, Bulgarian: хартия, Macedonian: хартија, Serbian: папир, Slovenian: papir. So Russian is the Slavic odd one out for this word. Apparently бума́га is derived from the Italian for ‘cotton.’

  3. Okay. Literally this would be ‘una fila,’ a row.

  4. Ah, somebody made one: “Memory Needs Every Method Of Nurturing Its Capacity”

  5. But they do use the word ‘mem’ for anything that serves as a hint to nudge your memory, so also an image, or video, etymology reference, etc.