The M in the beginning of mnemonic is silent, and it’s pronounced ne-mo-nics. Now, that I got that out of the way, how does hacking your brain and storing huge amounts of information in the shortest and simplest way sound to you?
That’s what mnemonics will help you with; a mnemonic is any technique that helps you remember abstract things better. It works by translating complex, abstract information, that you would normally struggle with to memorize, into simpler forms that you can memorize and remember more easily. In this article I’m going to show you how to use mnemonics to learn German and you’ll find a few more beautiful mnemonic devices in my Everyday German course (and to an extent also in my B2 course). But before we dive into that, let’s start by learning how mnemonics work:
Why do mnemonic techniques work?
The aim of a mnemonic technique is to make abstract facts concrete so that they stick to your brain. To achieve this, these facts are translated into a form that’s easier to grasp for your brain.
A good example of this is the mnemonic “My Very Excited Mother Just Served Us Nachos” in which the first letter of every word represents one of the 8 planets of our solar system (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune). In German that’d be: “Mein Vater erklärt mir Jeden Sonntag unsere neun Planeten” (My father explains to-me every Sunday our nine planets). That still includes Pluto though. The plantets’ names in German are: Merkur – Venus, Erde, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptun und Pluto.
Another example is what doctors use to remember the way to analyze the pain a patient is having: SOCRATES. Every letter of the word SOCRATES represents an aspect of the pain that the doctor has to report (Site, Onset, Character, Radiation, Associations, Time course, Exacerbating factors and Severity). Unfortunately I don’t know the German mnemonic for this one.
Mnemonics are not a new thing. In fact, the word mnemonic itself is derived from the name of the Greek goddess Mnemosyne, who was the goddess of memory. They were used throughout history by Aristotle and Plato, books were written about them by the likes of Cicero and Quintillian and they were used by the emperors of Rome to remember their speeches.
In German, Mnemonics are sometimes called Eselsbrücken, which literally means “donkey bridges”. The story behind this funny name is that donkeys are said to be very afraid of water, to the point where bridges were built for them to cross over the smallest bodies of water. So in a sense, if your brain is as afraid of information as a donkey is of water, you should build your brain a memory bridge.
How to use mnemonics to learn German
Your memory is a web of connections between times, places, sounds, images and everything else that makes up reality. Trying to learn an abstract fact like a complex word (e.g. Fremdschämen – feeling ashamed for someone else) or a grammar rule without associating it with anything of value to your brain will leave it floating in your memory not anchored to anything and difficult to remember later on. Mnemonics can help you create meaningful associations between these abstract facts with places, faces or sounds that are familiar to you which anchors the facts to a place in your memory that you can easily access later on.
3 Mnemonic Techniques to learn German words
If you’re having trouble remembering all the words you tried so hard to stuff into your brain, you might find it easier to convert them first into mental images. You know what they say; A picture says more than a thousand words. Your brain might find it difficult to remember all many dry, boring words, but you’d be surprised by how easily you can remember images. Just think of the many times you remembered someone’s face, but not their name. The reason for this is that vocabulary is one of the most abstract forms of information one can imagine and a word in a foreign language that also often doesn’t even ressemble any word in one’s native language is simply hard to connect with existing knowledge.
For vocabulary, the simplest mnemonic technique I use is to imagine the meaning of the word in my mind. For example, the word Regen in German means rain, and to memorize this word I simply imagined rain in my hometown while repeating the word in my head or even saying it out loud or even better have Memrise or Google translate say it out loud. This way I have created a mental connection between the word and the rain in my hometown and I could revisit this connection later to remember the word.
Another technique that I find works especially well for verbs is to imagine a famous actor doing the action. Like if I want to learn the word fahren, which means drive in German, I imagine Tom Cruise driving a car and saying the word. I sometimes add details to these visualizations like imagining him reading “Fahren.heit 451” while driving which strengthens the connection in my mind even further.
The third technique that’s most reliable is to draw similarities between different words in German and English that have the same pronunciation but different meanings. For example, the German word for table is Tisch which sounds an awful lot like “dish”. Now if you imagine your food being served to you on tiny tables instead of dishes, you’ll make a connection in your brain between the dish in English and the table (Tisch) in German. Another example for this technique is imagining a rat asking you for advice about his recent divorce, as the word rat in German means advice. This technique is also known as Linkword or keyword technique.
For these techniques to work, you need to train your imagination a little to be able to draw mental images. I used to struggle with visualizing things in my mind, but the more I put my imagination into real use, the more vivid it got and the more useful I found it.
You can use mnemonic devices to memorize more complex German words that might be super long (like compound nouns) or words that are difficult to connect to any mental image.
What you can do in this case is break down the word into smaller parts and then putting all those parts into one big mental picture. An example of this would be the German word wahrscheinlich, which means “probable”. You can break the word into three parts: Wahr, schein and lich. Now try to put those three parts into a single mental image. I tried it myself and got a war where shiny tanks were fighting while between them a cat licked himself. This all might sound too much effort for a single word to you, but if you turn this into a habit you use to learn difficult long words, it’ll become like second nature very soon and it will pay off in the near future. Always remember: your brain loves images and hates boring abstract words.
Mnemonics to learn German grammar
What I showed you above for learning words can almost all be also used to learn the infamous German grammar.
An example of this is remembering the gender of nouns, which is one of the most difficult topics for non-Germans to master. The gender system in the German language can seem so random that even native German speakers sometimes can’t agree whether a noun is male, female or neuter, as it all seems to possess no obvious system. And if you didn’t grow up in Germany having the advantage of learning the genders of the nouns as you grow up, you might find it difficult to learn it all in one go.
One way to solve this problem using mnemonics is to use clearly distinguishable symbols for each gender.
At smarterGerman I use a Superhero or a Pirate for (m)asculine gender, a Queen or Princess for (f)eminine gender and a Big Fat German Baby for (n)euter gender.
In order to memorize that Stuhl (chair) is (m) you can imagine a Superhero flying sitting comfortably on a chair (we’d call this Holzklasse in German, which means flying Economy). That’ll provide you with a solid mental image that you can always revisit to remember the chair’s gender. As an exercise, try to imagine a Queen petting a cat (Katze, f) or a big fat baby in a hospital (Krankenhaus, n). Deepen and practice this technique with my Free German Articles Course here and don’t worry about learning the meaning of those words. You’ll learn that in many different ways with SmarterGerman. And once you come across the German word for chair, cat or hospital, you’ll instantly know its gender just because you invested a few minutes in reading this article. That works fabulously as you can see in the reviews here.
Learning German with Music
One of the most powerful mnemonics to learn German is music. Music triggers so many different areas of your brain that it has the potential to enhance your learning experience significantly. But not just any music of course. While listening to your favorite German songs is certainly a lovely and useful thing to do, music that will speed up your German learning needs to be designed in a different way. At smarterGerman I’ve always used smarter music to teach grammar or things that are difficult to remember like e.g. the German dative prepositions. Take a look at our mnemonic songs for German learners that deal with precisely this topic.
How to remember the German dative prepositions
Sing along a few times and you’ll never forget the German ative prepositions again.
Credits for the music go to the very talented Harry Bum Tschak. The video I cut together myself with help of some lovely stock footage.
We have created 10 songs in total which you can all find on my Youtube Channel. Check out our Grammar Songs playlist there and make sure to subscribe to my YouTube channel so that you will get informed whenever I publish a new video.
Use mnemonics to learn German better and faster
Now that you have an understanding of what mnemonics are and how they can be used to simplify the process of memorizing, you can use what you’ve learned to create your own mental images and connections that will make German easier for you to learn.
Go over your progress, identify the difficulties you have faced in your studies and see how you can incorporate mnemonic techniques to make the information easier for you to remember. Use your imagination in the wildest and most vivid way you can think of, and the information will stick to your brain like glue. It’s incredibly fun and surprisingly helpful.
Of course the easiest way to achieve that would be to work with my online courses which you can always preview for free. Click here to find out more. They contain all relevant mnemonics that are easy to use and that will benefit you greatly in the short and long run when learning German on your own.
Now that you know the ins and outs of mnemonics to learn German, let me know in the comments what are your favorite ones.
This article was written with the assistance of Abdullah Aldabbagh from Iraq. Thank you my friend.