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The Mnemonic Keyword Method – My Wildcard for Foreign Language Learning

Keyword-Method-RememberEverythingThe keyword method, also known as the keyword mnemonic, is among the most widely researched mnemonic strategies. It is one of the most powerful methods for learning the meaning of foreign language vocabulary; you can also use it to remember how to pronounce a foreign language word when given a word in your native language. Other uses include learning of new terminology and facts.

The keyword method is an important tool in my personal language learning toolbox, so I want to share it with you.

How does the keyword method work?

Let’s go step-by-step through an example where a native English speaker wants to learn a German word. The German word for parachute is Fallschirm.

  1. Pronounce the foreign language word “Fallschirm”. Click here to hear the pronunciation on Leo.org.
  2. Find a similar sounding keyword or phrase in your own language: Fallschirm sounds a bit like “fall chimp” (a falling chimpanzee). So “falling chimp” becomes my keyword.
  3. Create an image in your mind, in which you visually connect the keyword (which represents the foreign language word) with its meaning: Imagine a falling chimp who just fell off a cliff. Luckily, he opened his parachute, and is now safely sailing to the ground.

How to recall the meaning when being presented with the foreign language word?

  1. When you see or hear the word “Fallschirm”, you are likely able to recall the keyword “falling chimp”.
  2. This in turn should trigger the scene where the chimp fell off a cliff, but was able to open its parachute, and safely sailed to the ground. 🙂 Ah – Fallschirm means parachute.

What is a good keyword?

  • A good keyword should have as much sound overlap with the foreign word as possible. So “fall chimp” is better than “fall” or “chimp” alone.
  • The keyword should easily lend itself to an image. Compare “fall chimp” with the keyword “false”. “False” is more difficult to visualize, so it is a worse keyword.
  • The best keywords have an acoustic and a semantic relationship with the word you want to learn. Again, a “falling chimp” can be easily related to a parachute because parachutes help to slow down falling objects. However, in many cases, it is difficult to come up with a keyword with a related meaning, so don’t get too caught up with this point! It is more important that a keyword is acoustically similar and easily visualized.

How to create a good image?

Make sure that you form an interactive mental image to create a strong visual link between the key word and its meaning. The keyword and its meaning should do something with each other, and not just stand next to each other. In the example above, the chimp opens the parachute and uses it to sail to the ground. The chimp and the parachute interact with each other.

The History of the Keyword Method

Richard C. Atkinson and Michael R. Raugh, who in 1975 published several articles on using the method to learn foreign language vocabulary, coined the term keyword method.

In particular, they conducted experiments in which they had native English speaking subjects learn Spanish and Russian vocabulary using the keyword method. Subjects heard Spanish/Russian words and had to write down their English meaning. The keyword group remembered the meanings for a lot more words compared to the control group. This kind of vocabulary knowledge is called receptive knowledge, that is, you see/hear a word in a foreign language (FL) and are able to recall the meaning in your native language (NL). They also did one experiment where subjects had to produce the Spanish word, given the English equivalent (native language to foreign language) and found the keyword method outperformed rote memorization.

Atkinson and Raugh’s initial experiments with the keyword mnemonic sparked a frenzy of research, which has lasted to this day. For receptive vocabulary learning, the keyword mnemonic has almost always been found to be superior to most control strategies. For productive vocabulary learning, the results are more mixed. Some experiments found the keyword method worked better than other methods, while others suggested that for example retrieval practice is a better method for productive vocabulary learning (i.e. FL- to-NL learning). Some researchers pointed out that the effectiveness of the method for FL-to-NL learning depends a lot on the acoustic overlap between the keyword and the foreign language word.

Personally, I have found the method very helpful for both, productive and receptive vocabulary learning, when used together with pronunciation practice. If you know how to pronounce a foreign language word, the keyword is likely going to be enough to produce the correct pronunciation (given the meaning in your own language). However, if you have never practiced a word before, the keyword won’t be enough to correctly pronounce (or even spell a word). For receptive vocabulary learning it is clear cut to me: The keyword method is the most effective technique I know of.

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Which role does the keyword mnemonic play in my personal arsenal?

Generally, I use spaced retrieval practice with a computer flash card program as my main method to learn new vocabulary. For most words, creating flash cards and testing myself using the automatic scheduling provided by the software work fine, but there are quite a few tough nuts I keep forgetting.

For those, I use the keyword method, which in nearly all cases allows me to memorize my “tough nuts” with confidence. Why don’t I use it for all words? It takes more time and effort to come up with a good keyword and an interactive image than just creating a flash card alone.

At the end of the day, if you want to be an effective language learner, one size doesn’t fit all. For info on other techniques and flash card programs, also read my post Six Tips for More Effective Foreign Language Learning.

I recommend that you try the keyword method. Besides being effective, it is a lot of fun. Just don’t rely on it as your only method, and don’t believe anyone who tells you that with this method you don’t have to practice recalling vocabulary.

In a future post, I am going to describe how to best use the keyword mnemonic for memorizing other information.


  • Atkinson, R. C. 1975. “Mnemotechniques in Second Language Learning.” American Psychologist 30: 821–828.
  • Beaton, Alan A, Michael M Gruneberg, Christopher Hyde, Alex Shuffle, and Robert N Sykes. 2005. “Facilitation of Receptive and Productive Foreign Vocabulary Learning Using the Keyword Method: The Role of Image Quality.” Memory (Hove, England) 13 (5) (July): 458–471. doi:10.1080/09658210444000395.
  • Fritz, Catherine O., Peter E. Morris, Mandy Acton, Anna R. Voelkel, and Ruth Etkind. 2007. “Comparing and Combining Retrieval Practice and the Keyword Mnemonic for Foreign Vocabulary Learning.” Applied Cognitive Psychology 21 (4): 499–526. doi:10.1002/acp.1287.
  • Raugh, Michael R., and Richard C. Atkinson. 1975. “A Mnemonic Method for Learning a Second-Language Vocabulary.” Journal of Educational Psychology 67 (1) (February): 1–16. doi:10.1037/h0078665.
  • Van Hell, Janet G., and Andrea Candia Mahn. 1997. “Keyword Mnemonics Versus Rote Rehearsal: Learning Concrete and Abstract Foreign Words by Experienced and Inexperienced Learners.” Language Learning 47 (3) (September): 507–46.

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2 thoughts on “The Mnemonic Keyword Method – My Wildcard for Foreign Language Learning”

  1. What do you do with words like: this, that, who, what, when? I am getting the hang of the keyword method for other words but don’t know what to do with theses. Any help would be great. Thank you.

  2. Hi Lewis
    The basic idea of the keyword method is to encode the meaning of a word (or one of its meanings) and its pronunciation in a mnemonic image. While the meaning of a pronoun (e.g., this, that, who…) can usually not be expressed through a single object, it can be expressed in a scenario (which can be visualized). The same applies to prepositions, such as on, at, in, etc.

    Let’s take the pronoun “this” for example. Let’s say you are a native English speaker and trying to learn the German “this”. The German equivalent would be Dieser (male)/Diese (female)/Dieses (neuter).
    Dies (er/e/es) can mean something that is near to the speaker in space or time.
    I would imagine myself embracing a Diesel engine (my chosen keyword to represent the German Dieser/Diese/Dieses), exclaiming: “This Diesel is mine.” The act of embracing encodes the meaning of closeness.

    As I have mentioned, I would not attempt to encode every new word in a foreign language through the keyword method, but rather use it as a crutch for the words you keep forgetting to overcome the initial memorization hurdle.

    All the best.

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