How To Use Feelings And Senses To Learn Foreign Languages More Effectively

  • Donovan Nagel
    Written byDonovan Nagel
    Donovan NagelTeacher, translator, polyglot
    🎓 B.A., Theology, Australian College of Theology, NSW
    🎓 M.A., Applied Linguistics, University of New England, NSW

    Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator. Founder of The Mezzofanti Guild and Talk In Arabic.
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How To Use Feelings And Senses To Learn Foreign Languages More Effectively

This is a bit of a follow-on from what I previously wrote on Mastering Foreign Vocabulary.

Did you know that the most common and erroneous way that a lot of us try to learn foreign language vocabulary, phrases and expressions is by repetition of the foreign language word/s and the translation in our native language?

If somebody reads a vocabulary list in French and wants to learn the word livre for example, they’ll say or think “book…. livre…. book….” and hope it sticks.

Likewise, if you were trying to learn “where is the hotel?” in Turkish, you’d probably try to remember it by repeating “where is the hotel? otel nerede?” and then hope that between that and actually using the expression you remember how to say it.

This is how most people generally use flashcards – by flipping back and forth between words.

I’ve done this so many times before in a lot of languages and it’s always been a very inefficient method and waste of time.

Why this common approach is a mistake

First of all, it’s highly unlikely to anchor in your mind.

You’ll forget it quickly and need to go over it again…. and again…. and again.

Ultimately, it’ll take a long time depending on the extent of your immediate use of the word for it to stick permanently.

The second and biggest problem is that you end up associating the words with other words.

When you hear or read livre spoken by a French speaker, you’re going to naturally want to translate it to book in your mind. You’ll hear livre and picture the English word book, instead of an actual book.

Now this might help you in some ways but in a conversation with a native speaker it’s too slow and unnatural. I touched on this before.

It’s better to associate words and expressions with ‘meaning’ or ‘images’ rather than lexical equivalents

Any lexicographer (person who makes dictionaries) or semanticist (person who studies meaning in language) will tell you how difficult or even impossible it is to fully articulate the meaning of many terms in a definition.

This is why dictionary definitions are so contentious.

A word as simple as book is easy enough to directly translate but most things aren’t.

For example, in the Arrernte Aboriginal language of Central Australia, the choice of the prefix’ petye- (come) or lhe- (go) depend on whether or not the person or object traveling are moving in a direction which passes by the speaker.

It’s difficult to explain but this illustrates why memorizing words and expressions by anchoring them with words in your own language is problematic (come and go aren’t adequate), and why it’s best to associate them with meanings and images.

If you were learning the Arrernte language, you’d acquire petye- and lhe- a lot faster and more accurately by seeing a picture or a demonstration illustrating the difference then by trying to connect them with come and go.

This is my main concern with text-only flashcards and SRS methods (i.e. LingQ and Anki). They’re great if you want to improve your translation skills but as conversation tools they’re not very effective.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying they’re bad (I often use Flashcardlet on my iPhone), but for memorizing vocabulary and language chunks for real conversation there are better ways to do it.

Using meaning and images to learn more effectively

One of the first languages I ever studied was Koine Greek back when I was in college.

It took me a while to develop my own learning methods and systems but I eventually aced the subject and went on to take a few more years of Greek exegesis.

Now, granted this is a dead language and not used in conversation anymore (it’s quite different to Modern Greek) but the reason why I did so well and found memorization so much easier than most people was that I treated it like a conversation and learned it by associating the text with actual images and meanings, rather than English translations.

For example, I’d speak the word δενδρον to myself while looking at a tree outside the window rather than its English equivalent in the vocabulary list*.* For θανατος (death), I’d say the word or a sentence using it while conjuring up images in my mind of death and suffering.

By doing this, I attached meaning and feeling to the words rather than attaching other words to it.

Another bit of advice I can give you is to use all of your senses.

Don’t just rely on sound and sight to learn language – touch the objects you’re trying to learn. If it’s food, smell it or taste it. Whenever I hear the Arabic word for orange (برتقال) I always remember the smell of a particular marketplace in Egypt where I learned the word.

If it’s more difficult to articulate or an emotion that you can’t physically touch, try to conjure up images in your mind of a time when you felt like that.

Think of something that made you angry, confused, happy, upset and anchor that to the new language you’re trying to learn.

As you probably know, I started teaching myself Irish a few weeks ago.

[UPDATE: I taught myself fluent Irish in 9 months, travelled to the Gaeltacht and it was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had!]

You know how I taught myself numbers and how to tell the time? By counting my repetitions at the gym and using the clock on the wall to time my cardio – in Irish.

I anchored that language to a real, sensory activity that I’ll never forget.

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Donovan Nagel
Donovan Nagel - B. Th, MA AppLing
I'm an Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator with a passion for language learning (especially Arabic).
Currently learning: Greek


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Peter Hudson

Peter Hudson

On my opinion the best way to learn any language is to have constant speaking practice. In such case the best way is to find a tutor and native speakers. All other methods you can use as aditional way to gain new knowledge and practice already completed material.



We experience and learn about this world through our senses. We connect and uses those sensory experiences to give this life meaning. Language is the exchanging of those meanings.

The take away from this article for me is, experience the vocabulary at the core, through all of my sensory avenues, as oppose to just the traditional way of connecting vocabulary with my native written symbols (i.e. script). Vocabulary is retained better when it’s connected with something emotion. Also, as Nick said, your fluency increases because you cut down the ‘translation effect’ .

There’s no language ‘alternative medicine’ here (unless ‘eat right more raw foods and less processed food’ is alternative medicine). If it works of you, go for it. If not, try something else.

Good post Donovan.



Good post, but as Tippy Top Top mentioned, a lot of people struggle to think ‘in pictures’. I myself am a very visual learner (which would likely appeal to this method), but struggle to just think of pictures (this is one area that I think Rosetta Stone really slipps up on).

It is much more effective (for me, at least) to picture the word in the foreign language, as this also helps me with pronunciation and I can anchor both the audio and visual (and spelling) to this word helping me to use the word in conversations (through which I then quickly become accustomed to it).

You do however, make a very good argument for your reasons why attaching to meaning is effective. When I was learning Japanese (and still do to a large extent), I attached new vocabulary to their Kanji (chinese characters) which themselves are attached to a meaning, so again to maximise my effectiveness of learning, Kanji became a vital component because I could visualise the word.

I think the crux of the issue is, whichever you do (pictures or written word), do it in the target language rather than your native to avoid the slower ‘translation effect’ that kills conversations dead!



What about the article suggests anything about NLP? NLP involves strange statements about things like eye movement. This article simply advocates trying to associate vocabulary with actual experiences in the physical world. I think it’s a fair statement to say that just memorizing the word for “orange” (from a dictionary) versus learning the name for an actual thing could activate different parts of the brain. I do find that if I try to associate language with real experience it helps me to remember things.

The fact is we really have no idea of how to make a memory stick for every person (if we did, language learning would be a science and not an art). If a programmatic method is working for you, Tiptop, who in their right mind would suggest you change your methodology? More power to you and good luck in your further studies.



This article is a bit meh..

Only because you seriously lack in concrete examples of how to “use you senses” not to mention while reading this I felt like this is being presented like alternative medicine version for language learning. In reality, some people actually dont think in pictures! Some people may think entirely in pictures! Some may be half and half!

I think possibly 90% of the times in words even in English! Associating a picture to that 90% would actually for me cause me to take a hit on recall. So you’re technique wouldnt work in my case. I think to learn a word without rote memorization, you have to be a situation that would allow the utilization constantly of words in a context where you can then associate it with other words or situations. Basically I mean immersion in an environment. Which is what it is. Thinking about pictures and counting pushups wont do much at all.



Thanks for the comment.

I’m not sure how it reads like alternative medicine. It’s fairly practical and down to earth advice. It’s not like I’m selling a get-fluent-fast gimmick like other sites.

My point is - language is meaning. When you say the word dog for example, it’s not about the written representation d-o-g but rather it represents an actual, physical, living thing. This is Semantics 101.

So when you’re learning vocabulary in another language what you should be concentrating on is the meaning behind the word, not a written representation.

As for the senses I think I offered a few good examples but I’m sure other people could offer more examples from their own language learning. Let me ask you this - have you ever heard a song from ages ago that brought back some feeling you had or an experience, a food that you ate or an experience with an ex-partner? This works in the same way. It’s memory hooked on a sensory event in your past.

Anyway, if rote learning helps you then by all means keep doing it.

"The limits of my language mean the limits of my world."
- Ludwig Wittgenstein
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