Think Images Not Words

Written by Yuri Karabatov. Tell me what you think on Twitter.

Language learners of all ages use word lists to learn foreign words. Are they as effective as they seem?

Word lists, however simple they are, are deceptive. Without you noticing it, they change the way you speak and think, making your speech in foreign language slow and hesitant.

What to do? How to avoid this?

Let’s look in detail at how thoughts become words.

The image to word process

Examine how you speak in your native language. You may notice that you don’t think in words. Words come out all by themselves, while you actually think in images.

Images don’t necessarily mean visual memories. They can also be emotions, sounds or tactile memories. As people get 80% of information through the eyes, most of the images are indeed visual.

Consider the following situation.

Someone asks you: “When did you wake up?

You mentally see the image of the clock on your bedside telling 8AM, so you say: “At 8AM.

Notice that you don’t think what preposition to use, or what word to say for “8”. You see the mental image of the clock and reply without thinking.

Your brain does the thinking for you.

The word to image process

Make the task easier for your brain by remembering images, not words.

When you learn words using a word list, you don’t match the images, you match words. Your brain doesn’t think in words!

That’s why you stumble a lot when you speak using newly familiar foreign words: you have to override the automatic, unconscious image to word process and replace it with manual word translation.

Elaborating on the previous example: if you wanted to answer to the same question in Japanese, you’d have to stop the unconscious process and manually translate At 8AM into 午前八時に (“Gozen hachi-ji ni”, literally “Morning 8 o’clock at”), remembering that at would be ni, eight would be hachi, and the word order would be different. In the end, after much hesitation, you would utter the phrase in Japanese.

Instead learn the generic phrase *-ji ni (at * o’clock) and actually look at a clock or a wristwatch while learning it. Your brain associates the actual image of a clock with the Japanese words, so that next time when someone asks you what time it is or when you’ve woken up, you’ll come up with this image and your brain will automatically come up with the Japanese phrase. No manual override required!

To facilitate telling time even more, use the same trick while learning numbers: imagine clock hands in proper positions when you learn each number.

Abstract words

Obviously, you can come up with an image only for real-world things. Insubstantial abstract notions don’t exist in the real word, so there’s nothing to associate them with.

Fortunately, there is a way which may not work for everyone, but I hope it’s helpful for someone out there besides me.

Abstract notions don’t exist in the real world, but your brain associates them with something anyway.

What you need to do is to concentrate on associations your brain comes up with when you think about a certain abstract notion. It may be a sound, or a certain feeling, or a particular situation from your experience; it may be anything.

Catch and remember everything you notice and think about the same abstract notion in different contexts and situations. Compare what you feel to the patterns you’ve noticed.

If you notice something similar, congratulations: you have found the association your brain has with a particular abstract notion. “Replay” the feeling in your mind when learning the foreign word for this notion, and later you’ll have no problem in remembering it while speaking.

In short

When you speak, your brain actually doesn’t operate words, it operates images. Images are not only visual memories, but also emotions, sounds and tactile memories for things of the real world.

If you learn words as groups of foreign letters replacing other groups of letters, you stumble and hesitate when speaking, because you override the brain’s automatic image to word process.

Instead learn foreign words as images similar to those that your brain operates when you think in your native language. In this way you build upon the normal speech production process, not ruin it.

Abstract notions have less vivid images than words describing real-world items, but their associations are still trackable.

Moreover, associating words with images is a simple mnemonic, so besides making your speech less hesitant, it helps you remember words better.

Try this technique and see if it works for yourself!

Share your thoughts on this in the comments or on Twitter. See you soon!

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