Sometimes learning and teaching Spanish seems like all fun and games… until it comes around to actually speaking it.
We all want language learning to be fun and engaging. The Spanish words for colors, foods, and animals are entertaining. It’s fun to be able to rattle off the days of the week and count to 20 in your “new language”.
But then what happens when you have to say something as practical and basic as
“I want you to do it before 2:00”?
Suddenly, everything you’ve learned goes out the window. Colors aren’t going to help you here, and neither will the Spanish word for “horse”. This sentence is so abstract and intuitive to English speakers that we don’t even think about it. And as a consequence, we don’t teach it, or at least we think that it’s really hard to teach.
But the fact is that MOST of a language is abstract words: Little tidbits like “is”, “other”, “all”, “their”, and “if he were able”. Serious language-learning requires the memorization and accurate use of hundreds of these words. And unless you’re just playing with the language for fun, you’ll have to get around to these sooner or later.
Contrary to the way most people teach, it is actually much better to learn the essential abstract concepts as soon as possible. If you want to speak correctly, you’ll actually want to learn things like colors, animals, and days of the week last rather than first.
If that sounds discouraging, boring, or intimidating, don’t lose hope. There is a way to take the most boring concepts and turn them into something rewarding, entertaining, and engaging.
It is possible to teach the language in a way that even young children will find wildly entertaining, without even knowing they’re supposed to be bored by past tense subjunctives and third person preterites.
What’s the key to making serious language-learning fun?
One word: Mnemonics.
What are Mnemonics?
If mnemonic sounds like a technical term, that’s the OPPOSITE of what mnemonics are about.
Put simply, mnemonics are taking the boring things that are hard to remember (like numbers, names, vocabulary words, and grammar rules), but turning them into things that are fun and interesting.
So a vocabulary word is no longer a vocabulary word. Instead, it is a funny story that’s interesting and sticks in your mind. A number turns into a joke. A name becomes a bizarre image.
It’s all about using your brain the way it wants to be used.
We all know that there are things that are simply hard to remember, but if we acknowledge that, we can instead spend our time remembering things that ARE memorable… and learn all the boring stuff along with that, without boring ourselves.
For a general example, let’s think about the first 11 digits of the number pi:
That's inherently boring and uninteresting. It’s just a string of digits. Life doesn’t get much duller than that.
But now look at this:
“May I have a large container of coffee, cream and sugar? “
If you can remember that sentence, you can suddenly remember the first 11 digits of pi! Simply count the number of letters in each word, and there you go. The beginning of pi is now stored in your mind.
What trickery is this? Well, quite simply, all we did was take something that’s not memorable (numbers) and turned them into something that is memorable (a question about coffee).
Mnemonic tactics can apply to any kind of learning.
How to Apply Mnemonics to Learning Spanish
1. Vocabulary: Never forget those words.
Obviously, when you’re learning Spanish, the biggest memorization task is vocabulary. So let’s look at how we can learn Spanish vocabulary, using mnemonics.
A very common Spanish is the word “algún”. That means “some”, as in “some guy”. How do we remember this?
Well, the strongest sound here is the second syllable, which sounds like “goon”. Imagine that somebody trampled the grass in your yard. If you’re angry, you might go outside, see the grass, and say, “Who would do that? Some guy trampled my grass! What a goon.” You don’t know who it is, so whoever it is, you call him a “goon”.
So next time you want to say “some guy”, you'll say “algún” guy. The story about the “goon” reminds you of the word “algún”.
As another example, let’s say that you have two cars. One’s in the front yard, and it’s beautiful. You show it off. But you don’t like your other car and you keep it in the garage, because it’s terribly ugly and colored like oatmeal. So you try to hide your “other” car, and you call it your “oat-ro” car. The strong syllable there sounds like “oat”, so whenever you say “other”, you’ll remember to say “oat-ro”, or “otro”, which is Spanish for the word “other”.
2. Grammar: Create a “search and replace” palace!
Now that you have a fun way to learn words, how do you remember the rules of Spanish grammar, which are so different from English?
Fortunately, there’s a great mnemonic tactic for learning grammar as well. All you have to do is create a “memory palace” of vocabulary, and place similar words in the same places.
A memory palace is an imaginary world where you store all of your mnemonic stories and images. You can create houses, parks, restaurants, swamps, forests, and mountains, all in your imagination. Then you can fill those scenes with the words you’re memorizing.
The trick here is to group words together that have the same grammatical function.
For example, let’s think about the two words that we just learned. The first word is “algún”, meaning “some”. The second word is “otro”, meaning “other”. If you think about it, these words are actually grammatically equivalent. They’re both adjectives that are used before a masculine noun.
So let’s put them in the same place in our memory palace. Imagine that the “otro” car is stored in your back yard, right next to the trampled grass for “algún”. Now these two words are stored in the same place.
What does that mean? Well, any time you want to describe a masculine noun, like “man”, you can confidently select a word that you KNOW will work grammatically! If “otro” works, then “algún” works as well. They’re exchangeable, because they’re in the same scene.
So once you learn some essential things about how to categorize your words and structure your sentences, you can simply use your mnemonics to learn all the grammar. Once you’ve learned some essential Spanish sentences, you can confidently switch out equivalent words, and you’re speaking with perfect grammar!
Where to Find Free Materials
All right, enough theory. How do we actually get started?
Admittedly, it’s a HUGE task to create an entire mnemonic system like this from scratch. But fortunately, the best resources are increasingly becoming more and more available for free!
For example, the free online Accelerated Spanish course includes mnemonics for all essential Spanish vocabulary. It’s a recently developed program that Master of Memory has created in the last 2 years, but it’s growing quickly in popularity among independent learners who want to learn the language in a fun and effective way.
Accelerated Spanish includes videos actually showing pictures of the mnemonics in the memory palace. Plus there's an enormous bank of native-written sentence examples that demonstrate how the words are used correctly. (No payment or signup is required for use of any of the materials.)
One drawback: The current resources in the Accelerated Spanish course are generally limited to the top 2000 words necessary for fluency. That’s great news if you want to start speaking the language effectively as soon as possible, but some homeschoolers may want to focus on more specific topics, such as animals, colors, and academic subjects.
No problem! Using Accelerated Spanish for your foundation and examples, you can build on the system from there and create your own mnemonics for your family to use based on your own interests.
I invite you to check out Accelerated Spanishfor some examples, and start making up crazy stories about your Spanish vocabulary!
Timothy Moser is an education and language coach, and a mnemonist. He hosts the #1 education podcast Master of Memory, answering daily questions about memorization and language learning. He is also the creator of Accelerated Spanish, a premier Spanish fluency training course that guarantees fluency. Timothy was homeschooled and is on a mission to create independent learning resources and share them with the global homeschooling community.
31 Days of Homeschool Spanish is sponsored by Classes By Beth.