Let me mnow your mnemonics!

To memorise new words in foreign languages, I use all kinds of tricks. I look for etymological relationships to more words I know, I stick Post-its to objects, I listen to songs that have the word in their chorus. But my number two favourite (etymology is number one) is the kind of mnemonic device known as ‘bridge for donkeys’ in German and Dutch: an artificial and often tenuous, but helpful connexion between the hard word and something familiar.

I’ll list some examples here, mostly in order to inspire you to remember your own mnemonics and share them with me. How have you memorised those hard words in French, Spanish, German, Russian, Mandarin or indeed English, if that’s your second language?

Most of the list is from Polish, since that’s what I’m currently learning. I used to have lots of mnemonics for French, Spanish, Vietnamese and English as well, but I no longer need them. They’re like scaffolding: once the house has been built, you no longer need it. Though in the case of my personal history with Vietnamese, a more apt metaphor would be: once the unfinished house has been abandoned, it will collapse, the scaffolding along with it.

  • Gasić means ‘to extinguish’. My mnemonic is ‘turn off the gas’. Fortunately, I had less trouble memorising ‘turn on, to ignite’, so no confusion there.
  • Badać means ‘to research, to explore’. Somehow I kept inverting the first two consonants (*dabać), until I realised that researchers and explorers can be real badasses (in the best possible meaning of the word, of course). That took care of it.
  • How to memorise marzyć, meaning ‘to dream, to wish’? In winter, I dream of March, typically the first clement month here in the Netherlands, which in Polish is called marzec. Nearly all Polish verbs end in ć, not c, so the difference between marzyć and marzec is only this one vowel, really.
  • Pielęgnować means ‘to nurse’. Piel is Spanish for ‘skin’, e.g. the skin of the leg – which is the next syllable. Nurses will care for the skin of the leg, e.g. when it’s burnt. Far-fetched? Absolutely! But if it works, it works. Can’t deny I prefer simpler ones though, such as the next.
  • Puppis is Latin for the ‘stern’ of a ship. In English, this can also be called the ship’s poop, though I can’t imagine any kid saying that without a giggle. Dutch also has the woord poop (spelled poep) in the meaning of ‘fecal matter’. And where does poep come from? From our bodies’ very own sterns. Again, problem solved! Not in the best of taste, I guess, but as a 13-year old student, I found it helpful. And truth be told, even today I sometimes use mnemonics I would blush to share, including for some personal names.

So these were some of mine. What are yours like? I’m really keen to know, so I hope you’ll share them in the comments or on social media. They may even end up in a book I’m working on. These ‘bridges for donkeys’ that you use may be visual, auditive or based on one of the other senses. They can be far-fetched or in dubious taste. I don’t care, as long as you can explain why each of them works for you.

Bring them on!

The Intimate Stranger: Why I’m learning Polish – and liking it

A Polish metaphor, made in Denmark.

This article was written for, and first published at, culture.pl, a website about Polish culture.

I love family reunions. Most of my aunts, nephews and cousins are near-strangers to me, which makes them fascinating to meet: so unlike me, yet with all these familiar facial features, speaking styles and character quirks. All of me is there, scattered across many individuals, diluted by unrelated genes and altered by different life histories.

As with relatives, so with languages. With some lonely exceptions – such as Basque – they too have siblings and cousins. Dutch, my language of daily life, has lots of relatives, but I’m on speaking terms with just a few of them. I’m conversant with German and English, two more children from the same Germanic household; and also with two of aunty Latin’s offspring, Spanish and French. But most of the other relatives feel like strangers, even though they’re members of the same Indo-European ‘clan’: the Celtic dwarfs in the Wet West, Sanskrit’s descendants in far-away India, very old uncle Greek and many more – including the Slavics.

Yes, there’s no denying it, I’m afraid: the Slavics too feel like strangers. For as long as I can remember, they seemed to be hiding: during my youth, behind an iron curtain; later on, behind a shield of sibilant sounds and śťřangě сайнз and szczpełłings. But at some point, I began to suspect that I was missing out on an attractive bunch of relatives not so far away. Therefore, I tried to get up close and personal with them. First with Russian, the great star of Slavdom. But being a celebrity, she proved remote, uninviting and capricious. Then with Czech, who was humbler, yes, but also introverted and cheerless. For a while, I’d had enough of the Slavic family, and I explored the exoticism of Vietnamese. But that was like running into a solid stone wall. Covered in bruises, I returned, looked around and fell for Polish. I’ve been wooing her for over a year now.

Is Polish easy to conquer? Far from it. There’s a peculiar spelling system to be learned (though fortunately, it’s quite regular and Latin, not Cyrillic), there are loads of irregularities to be memorised, et cetera. But many of her foibles feel like family foibles. Foibles of our common extended family, I mean: not Slavic, but Indo-European. Instead of slamming into a wall, as with Vietnamese, I now saw a door, I could rattle its handle, even peek through its keyhole. Studying Polish is like trying to pick the lock.

So what are these features that make studying Polish appear like visiting a language-family reunion? Read the answer at culture.pl.