If you’ve been trying to follow any form of “traditional” language study routine, chances are your time spent drawing is slim to none. A real shame for those of you a bit more artistically inclined. An even bigger shame for language learners who struggle with conventional learning for long periods of time.
Doodles are something that all of us have done at some point in our lives. Maybe you prefer filling up the margins of worksheets with your vibrant creations. Maybe you simply use them to kill time and maintain your sanity.
But did you know that your doodles could be the key to maximum language memory retention? That mental images are a sworn by method for many memory experts and polyglots?
‘Cause I know I sure didn’t. But get this; the images you create are only as effective as you make them to be. You can’t just create any old image.
You can’t construct some basic elementary-level visual and expect it to actually help with memorizing vocabulary.
There are essential steps you have to take in order for your visuals to be efficient. Because not all visuals are created equal. As a novice to the process of visual learning, you can expect to go about it wrong the first few times.
That’s totally fine and it’ll help you naturally improve at creating both mental and physical images that work the first time. And by “work,” I mean that you’re actually able to remember.
Plus if you have a language journal, then you can totally draw in cute visuals for constant reminders of vocabulary terms/phrases. But the beauty of visuals is that you don’t literally have to draw them out. So if you feel like you simply can’t force anything artistic on a sheet of paper, then you can still get the same benefits.
Don’t get me wrong– physically drawing out an image will be naturally more memorable than imagining one, but drawings can’t always capture the essence, emotions, and actions that mental visualizations can.
So…. what is the right way to use visuals and doodles for learning a language?
Images need to simultaneously remind you of pronunciation and meaning
Out of everything I’m going to share on this list, this one is no doubt the hardest. Thinking up words in your mother tongue that have similar/same sounds in your target language is a real challenge in itself.
Take for example “lo siento [lo-see-in-tow; literally /loˈsjento/]”– the Spanish phrase for “I’m sorry.” English sound equivalents would be “low,” “sea,” “in,” and “toe.” Making for a rather odd image of a low (tide) sea in your toe.
This sounds odd, but It could definitely work depending on how vivid your imagination is. Here’s a photo of how it could look as a doodle in your language journal.
Notice how vivid the colors are and the fact that the toe isn’t a traditional skin color–yet resembles the toe of what someone could assume to be a full-body emoji (now that’s a memorable image.) Also that of a sunset, to really drive home the “sea” aspect of the image.
Remembering the pronunciation isn’t enough though– you’ll also have to figure out how to include the meaning of the term in the visual. Arguably, even harder than the previous step.
For this “lo siento” visual– again meaning “I’m sorry” in English– you could visualize that someone just stepped on the toe in the image. And that’s why the toe is darker around the edges; turning orange to imply a rush of blood to the skin.
And you could possibly choose to use J-lo or Ceelo Green in your visualization as the perpetrators. That could be useful if the “low” aspect of the sea just isn’t quite resonating in your mind. Then reasonably, the perpetrator would apologize, thus representing the meaning of “lo siento.”
This whole process is going to be especially difficult at the beginning. In many languages, there are sounds that literally don’t exist in English or your mother tongue. For those, your visualizations will have to be even more creative, and you’ll likely have to combine words to replicate the sound.
As you keep creating these images, coming up with ideas will get easier. Once you’ve settled on words in your mother tongue that sound close enough to sounds in your target language, you’ll be able to reuse certain parts of the image when the sound comes up again.
Just give yourself time, and try to make sure you’re in a calm state of mind before creating these visuals.
Images need to be unique
It kind of goes without saying that unique sights will forever be more memorable than common ones. There’s a reason you’d remember what the Grand Canyon looks like for the rest of your life, but have already forgotten what that gas station you stopped at a week ago looks like.
There are some pretty fail-proof elements you could add to any image to make it instantly more unique including:
- Famous Cartoon Characters (Bugs Bunny > A random rabbit)
- Movie characters
- Anything that’s improperly colored (A pink ocean, yellow elephant, rainbow human, iridescent dog, etc.)
- Anything that’s extremely resized (A 20-foot mouse, 3-inch Blue whale, a basketball as big as a convention center, etc.)
So if you can’t tell already, images need to be scenes you would probably never see in real life. Justin Bieber riding a 40-foot Simba is something you not only would never forget but something you would never actually see.
Scooby-Doo downing a shot of tequila is a scene you’ll remember much more quickly than your friend Skylar Dew downing one. But don’t worry if you can’t figure out an efficient way to include one of the unique elements listed above.
Just make sure to always develop your visuals with the goal of making them more and more unique.
Images need to be extreme
Take a look at these following images. Which out of these two is more memorable?
And these two?
If you didn’t say the first in each pair, then I literally don’t know how to respond to that. The first image in both pairs is more memorable based on a couple of different factors.
Particularly because images that come across as life-threatening or dangerously crazy naturally grab our brains’ attention. They’re images that you definitely wouldn’t see every day.
They’re images you most likely couldn’t imagine yourself doing. The second images in both pairs are nice and all– but they’re boring. They’re easily forgettable.
Not only are they not as clear as the formers, but they’re more dull with rather drab backgrounds that don’t draw your eyes to them. All these aspects come to play when creating your own images as well.
The more extreme your visual is, the more likely you’ll be to remember it. Adding any kind of life-threatening action or (nongruesome) violence to the scene turns it into something out of the ordinary.
That should be your aim with all the visualizations you create. And remember that “extreme” applies to all 5 of your senses; taste, sight, smell, touch, and hearing.
Add in elements that appeal to as many senses as possible to create a truly well-rounded visual. Go for adding in that pungent smell, psychedelic colors, crashing noises, burnt taste, or uncomfortably rough texture.
Images shouldn’t take longer than 1-2 minutes to draw
This one just comes down to time efficiency when learning a language. The time we put it into a learning a foreign language is extremely precious. It should correlate with our proficiency in the language.
But if you spend too much time focused on crafting up the perfect visuals, you’ll be wasting valuable time. Visuals should be relatively quick both to think up and draw out (if you’re drawing them, that is.)
Like I said earlier, thinking of the visuals in the early stages of your image creation journey will definitely take longer than you’ll probably want. But at around the 3 week mark or so, thinking of a visual and then drawing it out shouldn’t exceed 2 minutes.
That’s the key to making sure you’re using visuals efficiently and effectively. They should be used as tools to speed up the acquisition process, not slow you down.
1 to 2 minutes is a reasonable amount of time to really let a term or phrase marinate in your mind. If you take that much time focused on just that one term or phrase, memorizing it will be that much easier– with or without a visual.
So allow yourself that time to ponder over the term or phrase and attempt to construct an image. Even the image creation thought process is a memory tool in itself. If that 2 minute mark hits, and you haven’t secured a quality image, then just move on.
Some language learners are able to review 20 words in 2 minutes so don’t let trying to be artistic slow down your potential.
Store your images in Memory Palaces
The method of loci is a strategy of memory enhancement which uses visualizations of familiar spatial environments in order to enhance the recall of information. The method of loci is also known as the memory journey, memory palace, or mind palace technique. (Wikipedia)
A Memory Palace is a real or imaginary location that you know extremely well where you can mentally store mnemonic* images.
*mne·mon·ic: a device such as a pattern of letters, ideas, or associations that assists in remembering something.
The most common type of memory palace involves making a journey through a place you know well, like a building or town. Along that journey, there are specific locations that you always visit in the same order. (Art of Memory)
Memory palaces allow you to completely erase any fear of mentally “losing” your images. A bigger concern of those who don’t physically draw them out. There are only so many images you can successfully store in the bottomless abyss that is your mind.
Hopefully you’ll be able to memorize the words and meanings of older images before reaching the limit of total visuals you can store randomly. But there’s a good chance that once you realize how effective visuals are in memory retention, you’ll be trying to create mental images for as many words possible.
Don’t let the term “palace” confuse you though– this location in no means has to be an actual palace. Like I mentioned briefly before, it’ll most likely be your house, with you eventually including your neighborhood, school, workplace, or church.
There’s no limit to how many memory palaces you can have. The key to using these palaces efficiently though is choosing locations that remind of the initial sound of the term/phrase. Like one specific location for terms that start with a “sh” sound– possibly your favorite shoe store or your friend Sharon’s house.
I’m always super excited to meet others who are passionate about learning languages. It can be a tough– yet thoroughly enjoyable process depending on how you approach its acquisition.
Before you’re off on your creative journey
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Before you head off on your language journey– I want us to stay in contact with one another. No one ever said language learning has to be a solo journey.
My love of languages expands to multiple platforms so you can also find me cranking out polyglot inspiration on Instagram and Pinterest. Don’t hesitate to direct message me or comment on one of my posts! I’d love to get to know you beyond this blog.
Oh, and be sure to grab your free language tracking printables before you go!
Keep learning languages my friend! And I look forward to seeing you again real soon.