How I Memorized German Phrases Every Day For A Year
Guest post by Richard Gilzean
Note: What follows is a deconstruction of the steps I took (and continue to take) to improve my German. But rest assured, these same steps will work for memorizing phrases in any language.
Regardless of whether you’ve been learning a second or third language for a while, or just starting out, this approach to memorizing foreign languages will help you.
In the beginning was the
You might be wondering: Why learn German phrases and not just individual words?
Good question. The answer is that we all read, write, listen and speak in sentences, or fragments thereof. The sentence is at the core of any language and learning to master the sentence should be considered. Even the most basic language guide book for travelers teach simple German phrases that follow syntax.
Don’t get me wrong. Words are beautiful in their own right. We all should invest in the time to learn what a word means and how to best use it. And this is achieved by working those words into sentences as you work on your bilingualism.
How I Built My “Internal GPS” (And You Can Too)
Before launching into memorizing my first German phrase, I designed the Memory Palace system that would store them. I’ve been interested in the art and craft of memory training and self-improvement for a couple of years. But I only really started to study it closely after coming across Anthony’s book How to Learn and Memorize German Vocabulary which, in turn, led me to the Magnetic Memory Method website.
Recommended resource: The Magnetic Memory Method Masterplan.
Anthony’s approach to teaching anyone how to learn, memorize and recall vocabulary, names, mathematical formulas and pretty much anything that can be memorized is both well-structured and comprehensive. So I’ll just highlight the essential components as they relate to learning languages and all of you who have been following Anthony’s site will be familiar.
- Have a store of real locations to house your sentences.
- Imagine real concrete / tangible objects or people that are creative, vivid, colorful and zany. Therefore, not just an elephant, but a pink pygmy elephant with Dumbo-like ears and with a runny trunk.
- Schedule time for practice so the sentence can work its way into your long-term memory.
You’ll need to draw from your own personal memory bank a real location in which to store your sentences. It can be a place you know well, like the house you live in, or the place where you grew up that holds its own strong memories. It can be a route you follow regularly, such as a park or your daily commute from home to work.
With a little practice you can come up with more than enough Memory Palaces. While there are some general guidelines about how to make your Memory Palace effective, there is a lot of divergent opinion on how to make best use of your own Memory Palaces because no two thought processes are alike.
Because I knew I would need a large location to hold my expanding sentences, I chose a route that ran from the front door of my house, along the street, through a local park and over to my son’s local primary school – some 400 meters in total.
From AA to ZZ: Where I Keep My Memorized German Phrases
But before you set off on your journey, you’ll need to figure out your memory anchors. Think of the process like mental orienteering where you go for a jog in your mind along a set trail and arrive at control points along the way.
To help, I created an excel spreadsheet with an index of initials for names of famous people, friends and cartoon characters, running all the way from AA to ZZ. This process took a little time to work through and I made some compromises along the way. In particular, I left out the letters Q – X – Y (just too hard to come up with names).
I ended up with a list of 600 names running from Andre Agassi to the bearded rockers from the band ZZ Top. Six hundred names means, in theory, I am able to memorize at least 600 foreign language sentences.
Running alongside my list of names I also have a separate list of 100 what I refer to as my memory tag words. These words use the well-established mnemonic Major Method which is a technique used to aid in memorizing numbers and has been used in memorize shopping lists, the sequence of a shuffled pack of card and memory competitions. The Major Method works by converting numbers into consonant sounds, then into words by adding vowels.
How To Choose Which Phrases To Memorize
Armed with my list of 600 names and 100 Major System tag words, I now have the memory anchors in place to hold my German sentences. I also have the memory route from my house to my son’s primary school. There is a smorgasbord of foreign language sites out there to choose from, but the question is, which phrases should I memorize in order to get the best results for building fluency in German.
I subscribe to the German Flashcards section of a website run by Learn With Oliver for collecting many German phrases. It contains an easy to navigate database of material to assist you in learning several of the most common languages.
The site produces a daily e-letter with a word and phrase of the day, an audio recording of the text plus a whole bunch of other useful resource material.
From this site I have taken almost all of my German phrases. That’s because it’s important to focus on your target language.
Once I have material to work with, my approach is to review the phrases I want to memorize and make sure that I am comfortable with the grammar and etymology. I then copy the sentences and the English translation into a spreadsheet. The spreadsheet is made up of the following columns:
- Initials running from AA to ZZ
- The English sentence
- The German sentence
- My mnemonic interpretation (this is explained below)
- The full names of my AA – ZZ group
- My 100 tag words
Here’s an example:
Here’s how I’ve adapted my practice from memorizing single words to whole German phrases.
As you can see, I’ve front-loaded three of the components into the sentence. They include the initials of a well-known/memorable name (Michelle Obama), the English translation (no problem) and the tag word (hail).
By splicing these three components into the sentence I’ve built an imaginative cross reference for whenever I need to recall the German phrase “Keine Ursache!” the rest of this mnemonic interpretation follows some established mnemonic guidelines.
German sayings like this are powerful to have in memory – just make sure to also include funny German phrases as you learn the language.
Personally, however, I suggest avoid learning German insults – you might wind up blurting them out at inopportune moments! If you’re stuck on finding any material to learn and memorize at all, one tip for finding good German phrases is to search Google for “German phrases PDF.”
Carrying on: For the word “keine” I thought of Keyser Soze, who some of you may recall as the evil dude Kevin Spacey played in the film “The Usual Suspects”.
For the word “Ursache” I broke it down into two images, one for “UR” and one for “SACHE” and came up with Keith URban (well-known country singer) + SACK.
I then imagined Keyser (rhyming with kaiser and which just happens to be an example of German vocabulary) shoving URban into a SACK. Don’t forget to take the time to imagine this scenario with crazy, vivid, memorable images. Gimpy-legged Keyser shoving guitar-wielding URban into a big smelly potato SACK works for me.
If you have troubles with creating images like these, try these 5 Sensory Memory Exercises.
If You Can Imagine A Castle, You Can
Use Memory Techniques To Boost Your German Fluency
Let’s take these ideas and incorporate them into a more challenging sentence. Is it worth visiting this castle? = Lohnt es sich diese Burg zu besuchen? Jacques Tati is king of a CASTLE in a MoVie starring Lindsay LOHAN playing the role of ESther who is throwing up SICK over DIESEL (a musician I know) after eating a BURGer served by ZUlu armed with a BAZOOKa.
In this case I’m using some mnemonic shorthand. Again, I’ve loaded three of the components at the front of the sentence Jacque Tati / Castle / Movie. Jacque Tati (famous French film actor and director) is my famous name and CASTLE is a single image I want to use represent the entire sentence. It’s a concrete image that is easy to visualize. (Is there anyone who can’t imagine a castle?)
The third component is the word “MOVIE” which is number 38 in my 100 memory tags. For the rest of the exercise you should be able to make the connection between my sentence and the similar sounding words in the German phrase.
How To Make The Most From Mnemonic Shorthand
Regardless of whatever foreign language you want to master, you’ll soon figure out the high frequency words and syllables and will want settle on some shorthand images to help you form your mnemonic sentences.
For example, I’ve settled on the following shorthand for these common German words:
es = it. For this word I use an image of a family member whose name is Esther.
ich = I. Here I just imagine “ItCHy”, the mouse from The Simpson’s cartoons.
der = multiple meanings including:
- the (masculine definite article)
- (definite article for genitive and dative singular feminine and genitive plural)
- that one, this one
I found some mnemonic shorthand harder to imagine than others. In what is probably an understatement, the German language has many words with the prefix ‘ge’. After much trial and error, I settled on an image of GoethE as my go-to guy for the ‘ge’ words.
But if GoethE doesn’t make sense to your imagination and you encounter an issue Anthony talked about in his Remember Names At Events podcast, you might think that Agent Maxwell Smart from the GEt Smart television series works better for you. Or perhaps someone more contemporary comes to mind.
The important thing is that you learn to link figures with information so that you can recall it at will. This skill comes in handy in many ways, particularly when trying to memorize German genders. For example, in all instances of “der” I use an 80’s television character DERrick from the popular German detective series.
How To Get Ikea To Optimize Your Memory Palace
Now, you may be thinking: Do I really need to be able to recall all of my mnemonic sentences? Answer: No. I’ve found that once a schedule of recall practice is established you’ll be able to rely on the processing power of your mind to summon the sentence.
The next problem I had to solve concerned mental real estate. I now had in place my daily practice of learning and memorizing new German phrases and placing them along my chosen route. But I eventually realized I was running out of stations along my route and I wanted to get more benefit out of the site of this Memory Palace.
My solution was to use a system of alphabetical modular shelving – think Ikea wall units – in which to place my mnemonic imagery.
So when it came time to assign German phrases to my prepared list of EA to EZ letters, instead of using up 23 separate places (remember letters Q, X and Y are out) along the route, I imagined a rather large E-shaped white Ikea wall unit with 23 compartments at the next station along the path.
And in each compartment I would place my mnemonic interpretation of whatever German sentence I was learning that day. Kind of like the dioramas I used to help my son make for his school projects.
Forging The Memory Chain Using Recall And Difference
The main advantage I’ve found with using what I call my double-bind memory link strategy (i.e. initials plus memory tag words) is that if I happen to forget one when practicing my recall I can usually rely on the other one to help me out. Take up this practice and you’ll see quick results too.
Memory Palaces do not have to be photographic / perfect representations – they just need to be consistent with how you recall them in your mind. Once I’ve memorized a batch of 23 sentences to the point where I can mentally recall the sentences forwards, backwards and in some random order, I use a simple spaced repetition system that involves setting a date in my Google calendar with a title like – “LA – LZ 1 week”.
I then mentally run through my recall, check my responses on the spreadsheet and, if I get them correct, will reset the next recall for two weeks, followed by 3 weeks, 4 weeks, 6 weeks, 2 months, 3 months, 6 months. If I’m not happy with my recall practice I’ll review the mnemonic sentence I’ve constructed and practice again a few days later.
I recommend you rehearse your phrases out loud because you need to hear the sounds your voice makes. Make a practice of writing them out by hand as a way of reinforcing the learning. For extra bonus points you might like to record the sentences and listen to them when you’re out and about.
That pretty well sums up what I’ve achieved in a short period of time. This method takes the key features found on Magnetic Memory Method site and tweaks them to get the best value out of your Memory Palace. Try creating warehouses in your own Memory Palaces using the alphabetical system outlined. My German phrases continues to swell and grow. So far I’ve gone from Andre Agassi to Van Halen. That’s about 500 sentences.
Sprechen, Lesen, Schreiben und Hōren
(Speak German, Read, Write & Listen)
As I mentioned at the start of this post we all write, listen, read and speak in sentences and German phrases. Learning to speak and understand any foreign language with fluency requires application to all four components in equal measure. The method of memorizing sentences I’ve described ticks all four boxes.
Of course, you’ll need to get out there and road test your German phrases (or those in the language you’re studying) in real world situations to become comfortable with your newly acquired knowledge. All good language learners say so, including polyglot Luca Lampariello when he describes language as a kind of net.
If you’ve found this training on memorizing German phrases helpful, or you’d like some clarification on the points, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Richard Gilzean is a writer and blogger specialising in creating content for small business owners, entrepreneurs and corporate clients. He has thirty years of writing, research and training experience in corporate and government sectors. Whether you want to create great content to boost traffic to your website or you’re looking for a professional writer who can tell your story in your voice, Richard can help. Check out his freelance writing website here.