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How do I learn foreign words?
How do I retain an especially difficult word?
How do I remember the gender of foreign words?
How do I retain abstract information about a word?
How do I distinguish mistakable words? (e.g. false cognates, synonyms, polysemy)
How do I learn verb conjugation?
How do I learn noun declension?
Which case is governed by a preposition / a verb?
How do I learn sentence patterns?



        If you are serious about learning a language, you can acquire the know-how in two ways: by instruction in strategies and procedures, and by way of your own questions.

This page tries to answer some of the questions an exigent language learner might pose. (By the way, the solutions offered on this page are crosslinked with the
activities and memory aids pages.)

You will find many more language learning tips in the Help file of
VTrain (Vocabulary Trainer).
  How do I learn foreign words?

        In the long term, foreign vocabulary is learnt most effectively by way of massive exposure to and genuine production in the language. But if you need to accelerate your learning, which may be the case if you are preparing for an examination, you need to engage in explicit memorization activities. In this case, you can try flashcards or substitution tables.

By the way, a powerful alternative to paper flashcards is vocabulary learning software, e.g.
VTrain (Vocabulary Trainer). Read about its advantages over paper flashcards.

Now, what should a good vocabulary flashcard look like?

The typical language learning flashcard follows the
English word / Foreign cognate pattern, but drilling vocabulary in context (sentences) is more effective than attempting to learn isolated words. Try to use sentences alluding to your personal experiences or interests, or sentences with humorous contents.

Consider your sensory style when devising new flashcards. You can attach
sound files to your flashcards in some vocabulary training softwares. Your teacher or a native speaker will surely be glad to record your word list. It will take only a minute of their time, but it can mean a huge step forward for you! You can also clip sound tracks from your music CDs and films and use them in your program. Image files inserted into the text body of flashcards are also useful, especially for children.
  How do I retain an especially difficult foreign word?

        If a conventional English word / Foreign cognate flashcard does not help, you can try the following.

mental imagery to associate the foreign word with a keyword in your own language that sounds similar.
For example, suppose you want to learn the German word "Ei" (= egg, pronounced "eye"). You imagine a quite normal egg. Suddendly, an eye opens on the egg shell! (In case the foreign word is long or a compound, simply use several keywords in your own language.)

Make sure to respect the right order: first, the English word, determined by the question "How do you say egg in German?", and last, the answer in German.
  How do I remember the gender of foreign words?

        In many languages, even words for inanimate beings have a gender (e.g. French, German). Although sometimes you can tell the gender by the word endings (etc.), there are exceptions to the rule, and in some languages there is no conclusive rule at all.

You can relate new words with old-known ones in a scene or story by way of
mental imagery. For instance, you can imagine objects of the same gender in the same place.

Sometimes you can also use an
acronym as a verbal memory aid. Some endings have a definite gender, e.g. the Spanish "-ción" and "-dad" are always feminine. You can build a short sentence using words with different endings, or create an artificial word from all the endings.
  How do I retain abstract information about a word?


If it is about semantical or grammatical information that is not too abstract, or if the problem can be solved by grouping words (e.g. into genders, see above), mental imagery may be useful. But more abstract information is better handled with Acronyms, rhymes, and songs.

Let us consider, for example, the difference between the Spanish verbs "
ser" and "estar" (which can both be translated as "to be").
You use "
estar" to express current feelings, location, or condition, while "ser" is used in all other meanings of "to be". Some examples:

  estar   ser
  I am fine (right now)
She is there
The book is worn-out
  I am happy (with my life)
She is my sister
The book is old

You can create an acronym with the initials: estar --->

On the other hand, here is a little verse composed for the same purpose:

How you feel or where you are
That is when you use "estar"..

  How do I distinguish mistakable words?

        A "false friend" or false cognate is a word that is formally similar to a word in your native language, but bears a different meaning.

We should learn each one of the words
in its own context, separately. (Note: some word pairs are false friends only as for one of their meanings.)

  E n g l i s h   S p a n i s h
  This smell is disgusting
He's very upset
It was a
diversion maneuver
I did it for fun
It was a
terrible experience
That was a terrible film
Yours is a very
common problem
Alice is a mutual friend of ours
  Este olor es asqueroso
Tiene un tremendo
Era una maniobra de distracción
Lo hice por
Fue una experiencia terrible
Esa fue una película
El tuyo es un problema muy común
Alice es una amiga
común nuestra

This strategy is also useful for learning usage differences between similar words within the same language, near-synonyms and several senses of a word (polysemy):

  E n g l i s h   G e r m a n
  The boss oversees their work
overlooked my contribution
came across an unsolvable problem
bumped into Claudia
took off our coats
The plane
took off slowly
  Der Chef beaufsichtigt ihre Arbeit
übersah meinen Beitrag
Ich stieß auf ein unlösbares Problem
Ich traf plötzlich Claudia
Wir zogen unsere Mäntel aus
Die Maschine hob langsam ab

Nevertheless, if you have no choice but to memorize Question / Answer pairs of similar items, it may help to set different fonts for the question and answer panes (Deck menu > Deck font, Edit menu > Font, or right mouse button) to diminish the effect of so-called 'interferences'.
Thus, if you want to learn variants in a language, e.g. British words as opposed to their American counterparts, the flashcard list might look like this:

  A m e r i c a n E n g l i s h   B r i t i s h E n g l i s h
beating up on him
potato chips
French fries
garbage truck
beating him up
potato crisps
potato chips
dustbin lorry

(Regardless of this example, we want to reiterate that, in practice, flashcards should contain sentences rather than single words when your target is to learn vocabulary.)
  How do I learn verb conjugation?

        In order to be able to speak a language, we need a mental association between a communicative need and the appropriate solution, i.e. connecting a verbal tense and a grammatical person to the matching verbal form.

If you content yourself with memorizing the conjugation tables, you will be building mental associations between the verbal forms of a given tense, but that will not give you the feeling for how to use them. You had better practice each verbal form in context by using sentences.

One way to do this is by way of
substitution tables. Another useful tool are flashcards you can use with a vocabulary program to memorize sentences complying with the following three schemes.

First of all, practice each tense
varying the person, as implied by the good old conjugation table:

  Present Simple   (Spanish verb "comer")
  1st person singular:
2nd person singular:
2nd p. sing. (River Pl.):
2nd p. sing. (polite):
3nd person singular:

me como una manzana.
te comes una manzana.
te comés una manzana.
se come una manzana.
se come una manzana.
  1nd person plural:
2nd person plural:
2nd p. pl. (Spain):
3nd person plural:
nos comemos una manzana.
se comen una manzana.
os coméis una manzana.
se comen una manzana.

But this is not enough. You also need to practice for each person,
varying the tense:

  Forms for 1st p. sing.    
  Present Simple:
Past Imperfect (!):
como una manzana cada día.
comí una manzana ayer.
comía una manzana cada día.
comeré una manzana mañana.
  Present Perfect:
Past Perfect:
Future Perfect:
he comido una manzana.
(ya) había comido una manzana.
habré comido una manzana para mañana.

Last, do not forget to practice
varying the verb, i.e. with tense and person fixed:

  Past, 3rd p. sing.        
una manzana ayer.
una ventana la semana pasada.
compró   ese libro hace poco   

Use paper flashcards or a
vocabulary training software to create flashcards for each one of these three practice schemes, writing the English sentence as a question, and the translation into the foreign language (e.g. Spanish) as an answer. Since many verbs are keyed to a pattern verb, you will need to do this only with a limited number of verbs. (You can associate all verbs belonging to a pattern by way of mental imagery.)

NB: Find out the actual time scope of each verbal tense of your target language, to see whether they
match the tenses in your native language. For example, in German, expressions like "I have done it yesterday" are quite common.
Draw a
sketch displaying the range of each verbal tense, and focus on the diverging tenses during your training.
  How do I learn noun declension?

        In certain languages (e.g. in German and in Russian), nouns and adjectives change depending on their function within a sentence. For instance, the word "cat" is not the same in "Dogs chase cats" and in "Cats chase mice". In the first case, "cats" is a direct object, while in the latter case it is the subject of the clause.
This phenomenon is called '
declension', and the different forms of a word are called 'cases' or 'declension classes'.

One way to learn the declension of a noun is by way of
substitution tables. Another useful tool are flashcards you can use to memorize sentences, in a similar way as described at 'How do I learn verb conjugation?' above: create flashcards (of paper or in a vocabulary program) for practice by varying the case and, with a case fixed, by varying the noun.

For this purpose, it is advisable to use
mental imagery as an aid. Create one mental image for each case. Choose images that stand out, to differentiate the cases well. They must also be abstract enough to be integrated into more complex mental images (e.g. for model sentences). Some of the cases suggest a substantial kinesthetic component:

Nominative (who?)
Genitive (whose?)
Dative (to whom?)
Accusative (whom?)
Instrumental (with what?)
Prepositive (where?, etc.)
Clinging to something
A side kick, a dig into the ribs
Locking up, choking, throttling
Using as a container
Dropping to the ground

(This example shows the cases of Russian. In German there are only N, G, D, A, and Finnish has twice as many cases as Russian.)
  Which case is governed by a preposition / a verb?

        In certain languages, one and the same verb or preposition can take different declension cases, and this makes a difference in meaning. You will encounter this problem in German and Russian, for example.

For instance, we can use
acronyms or rhymes. The following example shows some of the German prepositions governing the dative case. These verses are alternative lyrics to the well-known children's song "Frère Jacques":

  New lyrics Original lyrics  
  Aus bei mit nach,
Aus bei mit nach,
seit von zu
seit von zu
regieren doch den Dativ
regieren doch den Dativ
dumme Kuh!
dumme Kuh!
Are you sleeping,
Are you sleeping,
brother John?
brother John?
All the bells are ringing,
All the bells are ringing,
ding, dang, dong.
ding, dang, dong.

You can also write model sentences to characterize the rection of the verb or preposition, and associate a complex mental image to each one of them. That image should contain a simple mental image you set as a standard for each of the cases of the declension.
  How do I learn sentence patterns?

        Syntactical structures are learnt best by way of pattern drills. For this purpose, you can create flashcards in a vocabulary training software, based on the very pattern you want to assimilate, as follows.

Write an example sentence or explain the pattern on the first flashcard.

Sample question
: I studied hard. I have passed the exam.
Sample answer: If I had studied hard, I would have passed the exam.

For subsequent flashcards, the Front side should contain a question or some words that have to be used in the answer, and the Back side of each flashcard should contain the answer sentence, which complies with the sentence pattern.

: cousin come tickets
Answer: If my cousin had come, I would have bought some tickets.

Making the flashcard Deck consistent as per one single sentence pattern will allow you to concentrate on it and get a lasting impression.
    Updated: 2017 January 17
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