Some techniques to quickly enrich your vocabulary in a foreign language

By Dr Jacques VIGNE
MD, former psychiatrist
Researcher in transpersonal psychology
Maison des Sciences de l’Homme (Paris)
Gurukul Kangeri University, Hardwar (Inde)
Dr. Jacques Vigne received his training as a physician, psychiatrist and psychotherapist in Paris. For the past 15 years, he has been living in India, where he has experienced a practice in spirituality and writing. In addition to Latin, Greek and German, all of which he learned during his childhood, he is now practicing and reading them regularly, and he has a good basic knowledge of Sanskrit. It has taken him only a few weeks to learn how to read papers in Nepali as well as to improve his reading skills in Spanish. Here he explains the principal methods he has developed to memorize quickly and permanently a considerable amount of vocabulary. Each field has his own type of memory; the one necessary to learn medicine, for example, is completely different from the one used to learn new vocabulary.

The originality of this method is that you have to remember how to ‘open’ the words you wish to associate and consequently, create intermediary words, half-English and half-French, if you are learning the French language, for instance. Here is an example: in order to learn ‘chétif’ which means ‘puny’, you create hybrid words like *pu-tif and *che-ny and you repeat them ten or twenty times in quick succession, thereby creating a reliable link between the two words. The efficiency of this method can be illustrated by a comparison: if you want to stick together two billiard balls (representing the two words) and you just glue together one to the other, they will not hold because there is only one point of contact. Instead, if you cut them in two pieces, and stick the two half-hemispheres to each other, the adhesion will be maximum. This is a basic principle. You might object that we are saturating our memory with non- existing words and thus creating confusion with the new words being learned, but this is not the case at all. Our unconscious mind understands perfectly that a half-French word cannot be the final word.

In practice, the words we can cross on ONE common or similar letter, will be remembered more easily: for example ‘locust’, which means ‘criquet’, has the sound K in common right in the middle of the two words, and so it will become an efficient crossing from the mnemonic point of view : *cri-cust and *lo-quet.

Moreover, you can use the structure of the similar word by inverting prefixes and suffixes from one language to the other: ‘overwhelmed’ (with emotions) is said ‘submergé’, so you get *sub-whelmed and *over-mergé. ‘Harmful’ is said ‘nuisible’: hence the hybrid words *nuis-ful and *harm-ible. Even with compound words, the crossing will be efficient, though obviously still devoid of sense. ‘Pine cone’ is said ‘pomme de pin’, from which comes: *pomme de cone and *pine pin. This will be sufficient for the mnemonic areas of the two words to cover each other, their rhythms interpenetrating each other, inducing a strong link between them.

For short words, we can switch from one word to the other while changing one into the other, letter by letter, continuously, like the colours of a rainbow.

But (in French)

*gut *bul
*goat *boal

We can also include a short word in a long one by using possibly similar letters: this can be ‘hubbub’ said ‘tohu-bohu’, so that you have a hybrid word ‘to-hubbub-hu’ using the common ‘hu’.

If the common or similar letter is at the beginning of one of the two words, we can also use it as a hinge-letter: ‘matraque’ means ‘truncheon’, the common letter T can be used in *ma-truncheon.

If there is no common or similar letter, we can find a synonym in French with a sound possibly similar to the word we are to learn.

Making jokes or puns in the language we are learning is also extremely helpful. For example, if you want to learn how to distinguish quickly short words in ‘one’, we can use the following pun : “Les poules couvent sous le couvert du couvent’, which does not mean much (The hens hatch under the shelter of the convent). But that is not the point. The pun is used only to create a quick succession of words which are similar in sound and then to learn to differentiate them.

These techniques of “open words” can also be used inside the language we are learning, to closely mix an unusual new synonym with the simplest word that comes to mind when we try to speak. This allows us to integrate in our active vocabulary some words that we understand when we read them, but that we cannot manage to use in practice since they are ‘covered’ by easier words we know better.

These mixtures of words can also help to memorize poems. If we mix one of the last words of a verse, or a stanza, with one of the first ones of the final verse or stanza, we prevent our mind from going blank when we resume reading our text. This can be particularly treacherous and drive us to despair, especially after we have made such a big effort to memorize the poem. Here then, associating two words having common or similar letters, will stimulate fast memorization. For more examples we can refer to the following more complete and detailed explanations of the article, in which a series of examples is given, particularly to learn quickly the vocabulary of an inherently difficult language such as TIBETAN.

The idea of writing this article came from my interest for the mind, as a former psychiatrist and now as a meditator following the traditional path of Yoga and Vedanta, and from my personal interest for languages. After studying Greek and Latin as well as German, for the last twelve years I am in India I use daily English. I learnt Hindi, or for several years I used to read the daily news in Hindi, and I have a basis of Sanskrit. In India itself, I got the opportunity to learn a workable Spanish in a short time as well. I could realize that the memory of languages is quite different from that which is needed for instance for a medical student, or in other branches of knowledge, hence this article on the former.


I have always been interested by the phenomenon of memory, not only because it is one of the main foundation of the working mind in daily life, but because it is also much linked to the wisdom and the sensitiveness of the spirit: from Plato to Proust via Saint Augustin, Raymond Lulle and Nerval, reminiscence and inner life have been closely associated. On the other hand, understanding the phenomena of memory has an utilitarian side: from the beginning to the end of the studies, students have to memorize a lot. Every branch of knowledge has its particular type of memory, we will focus here on that type of memory necessary to learn a foreign language.

Those who are used to learn languages develop their own methods, recipes. Pedagogues have also developed well known means to awaken and sustain the attention of the pupils, an essential factor for memorization. Practical means that I propose here does not come to take the place of these methods, but they are a complement or a confirmation of some of their aspects. One of the basis of language teaching is to stimulate the active use of new words and the method of 'open words' goes far in that direction. Another factor is to create and maintain an emotional participation in the group of students. Speaking of this, there is an interesting experience: words in a foreign language are told to a first group of students with a neutral voice, with their translation; they must try to memorize the maximum number of them. The results of this control group are noted. In the second group, the same words are told, but the voice is no more neutral, it expresses all kind of emotions ranging from joy to grief. The second group memorizes better than the first one. Methods such as Dr Lozanov suggestopedy combine relaxation, the exposure to a lot of new vocabulary every time and some kind of short theatrical play. These ones favors the emotional involvement and the active participation of the children. A simple means to extend the impact of a new word to several registers of memory at the same time is writing it several times and telling its meaning in a loud voice; thus, seeing, gesture and sound are stimulating the memory together.

I tried many methods to learn quickly vocabulary. Sometimes, they had only a theoretic interest. I studied the history of the techniques of memory through the centuries, especially through a well documented book 'L'Art de la mémoire' (2). It was fascinating from the historical and psychological point of view, but it gave only few practical means to learn languages. In the same way, scientific books on memory speaks about experiences which brought a better understanding of the mechanisms of memory, but does not give much help as far as practice is concerned. As for mnemonics, they are mostly based on the fundamental mechanism of memory, which is association, hence their utility. However, in the field of languages where remembrance needs to be very quick, the relative complexity of the means becomes itself an obstacle.

I was also much interested in therapeutic relaxation which I used quite often with my patients, and in the possibilities of mental imagery. Visualization is a must in the field of psychotherapy, but its use in the field of language is not so important, at least this is my experience. Even if one knows well how to visualize, seeing an object on the screen of the mind and repeating at the same time its noun in the foreign language that you are learning is not so effective, at least I felt so. Visualizing a book and repeating 'livre' helps a little, but not so much. This may be due to the fact that visualization corresponds to the right hemisphere of the brain while language is located in the left one, so the two areas are quite separated from the neurophysiological point of view. Images are definitely a pedagogical aid - for instance reading comics in a foreign language helps to fix the vocabulary better, but I do not see how to develop a knowledge of literary words with the help of images every time. The best is to associate directly the word to the word, to remain in the same mental mechanisms. Indeed, one cannot separate the association image-foreign word from the association native word- foreign word.

We are not new born babes: true, this is fascinating to hope to learn with the intellectual and emotional freshness of small child, but not very realistic. Of course, one can relax, learn as if playing, be as a child, i.e., not afraid to make mistakes and to look ridiculous, but still we are obliged to take into account the strong conditioning of one's own native language. One method to memorize better is to use etymologies, but this is possible only within the European languages, and often the etymology is not clear or without correspondence in one's own language.

Hence the use of the techniques of 'open words' I describe below. Although they are simple, they clarified in my mind only after a long time, so I felt it could be useful to write about them in a systematic way. I have been helped in their discovery by the observation of what happened with the associations of words in the twilight state of deep relaxation and conscious dreaming, and what was the underlying logic explaining why words were mixing to each other, why some were easily remembered while others could not enter the mind.


1) Crossing technique

a) To start

The principle is to create intermediary words between the 'departure' and 'arrival' language. We will take as first example a tongue which is close to English, French, and afterwards we will consider a language which is completely different, the Tibetan (part IV).

Suppose we want to learn the word 'criquet' which means locust. We cut the word into two parts and we create hybrid words with the first part of the French word and the second part of the English one, and vice-versa.

Criquet *cri-cust

Locust *lo-quet

Intermediary words have an ephemeral existence: they are quickly forgotten, since the subconscious mind obviously understands that the word which is half English is the hybrid one and should not be memorized. But the association will be anchored in memory. To take a simile, suppose we want to stick together two billboard balls: if we try as they are, there will be only a point of contact in between, and it will never hold. But if we cut both and stick the two halves, we will get a strong adherence. This is, in an image, this method of 'open words'; the following tec hniques consist mainly in the specific applications of this idea. As the mind is active, memory is much better, while when we just repeat 'criquet-locust' 'criquet-locust', this very repetition dulls the attention.

If we find a way to cross the words on common or similar letters, and if moreover these letters are at the same place about in the words, memorization will be easier. For instance:

Tapis *Ta-pet

Carpet *Car-pis

If a consonant is the hinge, the association will be stronger that if it is a vovel. Consonants are more clearly differentiated than vowel, they form the sqeleton of the word; for instance in old Hebrew, vowels are just not written, consonants are considered sufficient for the understanding.

b) Looking for synonyms

If the main translation of a new word has no common or similar letters, is completely different, the best is to look for a synonyms which has about the same meaning and resembles more the foreign word. For instance bredouiller means stammer, but splutter is nearer as far as the sound, is concerned, due to the similarity of b and p at the beginning of the words, and of d and t in the middle; so the following crossing will be easily remembered :

Bredouiller *bred-ter

Splutter *splut-ouiller

Fourmiller means to teem, but to swarm will be closer due to the common m in the middle of the French word, making possible the crossing '*swarmiller'

c) Case of two words with prefix

The natural separation between prefix and root indicates how to operate the crossing:

Submerge (by an emotion) *sub-whelmed

Overwhelmed *over-merge

These possibilities of crossing are frequent.

d) Case of words with obvious etymology

It is easy to understand that 'pomme de pin' means pinecone (literally 'apple of pine'), but this does not mean that it will come automatically when one will have to tell it in French; so the following crossing will help:

Pomme de pin *cone de pin

Pinecone *pine pomme

e) Direct crossings

In the frequent cases where there is almost no common or similar letters, crossing is still useful:

Chetif *pu-tif

puny *che-ny

2) Rainbow technique

The system is to find a path going from one word to the other in which every step consists in changing a letter. There will be thus a continuous change from the beginning to the end, as there is in a rainbow. It gives a very intimate association between the two words, and is particularly useful to link two short words which may be often difficult to memorize, because the memory somehow has no grasp on them.


*gut *bul

*goat *boal


To memorize longer words which have about the same length, the rainbow technique may be used as well, but the basic change at every step will be the syllable:

*con-formatique *informa-science

*comput-matique *infor-ter science

*computer-tique *in-puter science

computer science

The fact that 'computer science' is made of two separate words does not prevent the use of the rainbow technique.

Usually, the words to be associated are of different length, but this does not hinders the application of the rainbow method, given that the last syllable of the word is often a common, non-specific suffix or termination:



*shat *bap

*shit *bip


3) Inclusion technique

When the length of the two words are very different, the short one can be included in the long one :




The best place for inclusion is, as for crossing, where there is a common and similar letter: sqash 'ecraser' will give *e-squash-er, keen 'aiguisé' will give ai-keen-é.

If there is a very short word to associate to a very long one, scanning is adviced: to clean 'nettoyer' will produce *clean-toyer, net-clean-er, nettoy-clean.

Rainbow and inclusion technique may of course be added :






4) Technique of the hinge-letter

The difficulty in learning vocabulary is that often words have very little in common. Sometimes there is only one or two common letter, and moreover they are not at the same place in the word; anyhow, it is sufficient to create a link:




5) Condensation and dilatation

Sometimes, one has to drop letters or syllables to enlighten the common parts; it is like condensing one word to reach the other:






Once the common parts have been seen, the path in between the two words is understood, and the association will be engraved in memory; so, what was before a fastidious exercise of memorization becomes a play of understanding.

Dilatation is the reverse process.

6) Inversion

If inversions of letters when going from a word to another are clearly seen, this may save many mistakes. In the spontaneous confusions, there is usually an inversion which has been omitted; this is akin to the phenomenon of dyslexia. For instance, bretelle means strap; we can see that the t and the p/b are inverted, which provides the following path from one to the other:






7) Technique of rotating words

In fact, this represents a particular case of the preceding techniques, when there is the first letter of one word corresponds to the last of the other and vice-versa:




This is a rare case, but which deserves to be searched for, because memory likes rotating processes. For instance, the nursery rhymes which ends as they start provokes a repetition which helps memorization. These rhymes are indeed difficult to get out of the mind.

8) Techniques of puns, plays on words and non-sense sentences

We are going somehow out of the basic method of 'open words', but I have added this technique because I am sure that many students use it in a way or another already. The system is to gather many similar words in the same sentence to learn to differentiate between them as quickly as possible; for instance:

"Un pou qui joue sous le cou et la joue me fait faire la moue tout d'un coup comme un fou" which does not make much sense, but is fun anyhow: "A louse which plays under the neck and the cheek makes me makes faces suddenly, as if I was crazy". This method is especially useful if one wants to learn a series of following words in the dictionary; they will sound alike, and to make pun with them will be the best method to learn to differentiate between them quickly.

9) Broadening one's active vocabulary

All the above techniques may be used to enlarge one's active vocabulary. A common problem when one learns to speak a foreign language is that the words we know well act as a screen and prevent the use of the other word we know less; they act as a rut from where we have difficulty to get out. This is because the well known words come first, while in the sense of version we know many more precise synonyms. For instance, 'to take' is 'prendre', but take money from the bank is 'retirer de l'argent de la banque'. The system then will be to link the French words, for instance in this case by using the common r and making linked words such as *pretirer or prendretirer.

In my experience, this is not advisable to link two new words. A well known word, either in the native language or the language you are learning is needed as an anchor for memory.


Until now, we have given a somewhat detailed idea of the manner to pass from one word to another by exploiting the smallest similarities which become as many anchors for memory. Nevertheless, all the techniques need not be used to associate two given words. It may be interesting, at the end of this paper, to summarize the most frequently used techniques:

1) Association of rainbow and inclusion technique

    Tressaillement means thrill:






2) Crossing of long words on a hinge-letter

a) When there is only a common letter between the two words, it is used as a hinge:

coup de foudre * cou-derbolt

thunderbolt *thun de foudre

b) When there is a similar structure with prefix-root or root-suffix, one uses this semantic separation as a hinge:

nuisible *nui-ful explosion *ex-burst

harmful *harm-ible outburst *out-plosion

When the reader has assimilated the basic rules, finding a path between two words becomes a game, and he develops gradually a 'mnemonic intuition' enabling him to find the best route quickly.


Tibetan is a difficult language because it is completely different of the indo-european languages, and it has many monosyllabic words which sound like. It seems that memory has no grasp on them. I summarized here the methods which seemed to me the most fitted to memorize Tibetan vocabulary. This time, I take the presence or absence of common or similar letters as the main criterion to classify the different methods. I imply by 'similar letters' those of the same group: dental, labial, liquids, but also voiced or voiceless consonants.

1) Presence of common or similar letters

10) Presence of several letters

100) Presence of several letters in the same order

1000) Techniques of condensation

mental wandering





l"phro ba

with the usual termination in -ba for a noun. The part -and which was superfluous has been dropped by condensation.







1001) technique of dilatation

Impure corresponds to ma dag pa.'i; m and p are common:


*ima dag pur

ma dag pa'i

101) Presence of several similar letters in a different order

One should make inversions which, if not consciously done at the time of learning will lead to confusions at the time of use:

secret corresponds to gsang: s and c/g are similar:









11) Words who have only one common or similar letter

These are frequent cases, which seem to offer little hold for memory. The following techniques may however be useful:

110) Crossing on hinge-letter

sutra (sanskrit hymn) corresponds to mdo

sutra *su-do

mdo *m-tra

111) Inclusion which is built from the similar letter

transference corresponds to pho ba





2) Words who have no common or similar letters

These words are those which are spontaneously the most difficult to memorize; the following methods may however be of some use :

20) Synonyms in the 'departure language'

Enjoymemt corresponds to 'longs'; if one simply thinks of the similarity of meaning with longing, even if it not equivalent, it will help. The system consists in looking for synonyms which have more common letters with the Tibetan word. Rather than associating bdeba to bliss, better to link it with beatitude which has more common letters.

21) Rainbow technique

It is instrumental to associate short words which have nothing in common:


*chuth *trus

*choth *tros



*gzorm *fors

*gzurm *fogs

*gzugm *fugs


22) Scanning-inclusion is less effective but may be used to associate a short word to a long one: sa means 'territory', the following hybrids may be created: *sa-ritory, *ter-sa-tory, *terri-sa

3) Association by family of sound and meaning

These techniques are quite useful when we learn many words at the same time, not to mix them together or with the ones learned before:

30) Family of sounds

It comes to make a pun in Tibetan, for instance: "After the dzin (prise) du zhing (country) has come its zhig (destruction)"

31) Family of meaning

The synonyms or opposite are put together. This system is well known in the learning of languages, it is used quite systematically in the sanskrit schools in India for instance.

Better to do this kind of associations between an old word and a new one, if not there may be some confusion.


I presented the method of 'open words' in quite a systematic way. Nevertheless, one should not have the impression for that that this is a complicated process. After some training, two words can be associated in 5 to 20 seconds only. Some pedagogical tests have been made with encouraging results, but they should be conducted in a more systematic way. I will be glad if readers who are language teachers can perform such tests.

These techniques of 'open words' may be used for other kind of memory as well. For instance, when we learn a poem, we usually have a stoppage of memory while changing verse or stanza; if we mix one of the last word of the preceding verse to one of the first word of the following one with the help of a common or similar letter, it will greatly help the start of the new part. In every branch of study, learning a subject is usually equivalent to thinking to a list of keywords. In practice, most of the keywords come easily in the mind, but a few are regularly forgotten. If we make a link between the word which is remembered every time and the one which is forgotten every time, it will help to remember the latter.

From the psychological point of view, one should know that mixing word may elicit some resistance at the beginning: the child has been educated just for speaking clearly and not spluttering like a baby.

Not stammering, not mixing word is indeed quite a strong taboo. In extreme emotional states only, like intense anger, intense joy, words may be mixed unwillingly. In schizophrenia as well, a 'jargonophasia' appears, i.e., the patient speaks with his own jargon.

We have already mentioned that there was no risk to remember the hybrid words instead of the final one: the subconscious makes automatically the selection.

These techniques seems to be more aural than visual. What about those people who have a more visual memory? In fact, language is basically concerned with sound, so everyone willing to learn a new language has to develop his aural memory, there is no way out of this. I nevertheless acknowledge that these methods does not help much to get the right accent: this one depends more of being much corrected at the beginning to take good habits.

Language is only a tool. If we find ways to learn it quickly, we can devote the spare time to other nobler purposes. Certainly, there is an 'art of memory' which everyone develops for his studies or his profession; but as a therapist, I would like to emphasize the 'art of oblivion' as well.

It can be trained with the right means, and is one of the most useful art to keep an healthy mind: everyone has the experience to have been caught by a useless past which is no more, and to have be betrayed by the shadow of the cloud of memories on the lake of the mind. For all of us who are not Marcel Proust, how much time is lost 'in search of the lost time'!

Basically, the usual memory has something frantic, seeking to accumulate the greatest amount of knowledge as quickly as possible. It wants to posses, and fretters indefinitely in the close pond of acquisitions; it is a memory of having. There is however another memory, a mostly pacific, ancient one, which is at the same time a constant call of the origin and of the present moment. Speaking of this, Plato was rightly evoking the 'reminiscence', be it of the Beautiful, the Good or the True. This is the remembrance of our real nature, the memory of Being.

Jacques Vigne, Banaras, 1991 for the French version, Kankhal, Hardwar (Uttar Pradesh, India), 2004 for the English revised one.

Redactor: Nathalie MASIA