How Do Linkword Mnemonics Work?

What Exactly Is a Linkword Mnemonic?

In Spanish, the word for “to sit” is “sentar”. It’s pronounced sort of like the word “centaur” (a mythical half-human, half-horse creature). Centaurs only exist in ancient Greek mythology. But imagine the difficulties they’d have if they really did exist today in modern society. Where would they sit? We have handicapped seating, but even that wouldn’t be sufficient for a poor centaur. Well, fortunately being half-horse, centaurs don’t actually need to sit.

Now, when you hear the word “sentar” or read it aloud in your head, instead of trying to remember what it means directly, you can just remember what it sounds like: “centaur”. From there, you can remember that centaurs have a difficult time sitting. And then you have your meaning “to sit”.

Are Mnemonics Worth It?

After all, isn’t it more work to try to remember the linkword and mnemonic than to just remember the translation? Not if the mnemonic is well thought-out.

These mnemonics take advantage of what we’ve observed about memory:

We naturally remember stories, especially vivid and strange ones.

Your memory is especially receptive to stories. We pass verbal history down from generation to generation through stories. We teach lessons to children with stories. And experienced public speakers know that stories are essential for getting a point across and making it stick with an audience.

Deep learning lasts longer than rote learning.

The more time you spend exploring and probing an idea from different angles, the more time your brain has to let it sink in. However, just staring at a word isn’t enough: your brain will get bored and start to think about other things. Stories keep your mind engaged while they subtly repeat and hint at what we want your brain to remember.

The 3 Steps of Linkword Activation

Step 1: Remember the Linkword

The most important property of a linkword is that it sounds similar to the foreign word you’re learning. Since it does, it should be easy to remember it. When you hear the word “sentar”, “centaur” should readily come to mind. A good linkword will be effortless to remember when you hear (or read aloud) the foreign word.

In step 1, you shouldn’t be worried about remembering the meaning of the foreign word, just the linkword.

Step 2: Remember the Story

Once you’ve recalled the linkword, it should remind you of a scene and/or story. In our example, “centaur” reminds us of the idea of centaurs living in modern society. You probably have an image of what that would look like right now.

The reason that this happens naturally is because English words, especially familiar ones, tend to have many associations in our brain. You might have seen a movie or read a book with a centaur in it. The story takes advantage of these existing associations to sort of piggy-back its way into your memory.

Step 3: Remember the Meaning

Once you remember the story, and the scene it takes place in, the story should remind you of the meaning. What were the centaurs doing in the story? They were having difficulty finding a place to sit.

That’s it! Through the 3 steps (Linkword → Story → Meaning) you’ve gone from “sentar” to “to sit”.

Aren’t These Mnemonics Going to Slow Me Down?

OK, so using linkword mnemonics makes sense for first learning words, but what about when you try to use the language? If you spent the time to remember a story for every word, you wouldn’t be able to keep up.

Fortunately, you won’t have to use the mnemonics forever. They act as a temporary scaffolding, and they’ll fall away with time. You won’t always go through all 3 steps with every word. For example, your recall might go link:

Linkword → Story → Meaning

But eventually it will be:

Linkword → Meaning

and finally, you’ll be able to directly remember the meaning:

→ Meaning

Can All Words Have Linkword Mnemonics?

After all, I could have just cherry-picked a good example.

How many words will it work for? That’s still an open question. However, we can make some inferences.

In creating mnemonics for Vocabulink, I have so far encountered very few words (2 or 3 per hundred) that do not yet have good linkwords. Michael Gruneberg has written books of linkword mnemonics containing three or four hundred mnemonics per language. I’m optimistic that the majority (if not all) of words necessary to get a basic vocabulary in a language will bend to mnemonics.

Linkwords are not always easy to come up with. Sometimes you have to get creative or use phrases. Fortunately, the English language is very rich in sounds, and linkwords will eventually present themselves.

What About Remembering in the Other Direction?

Linkword mnemonics are uni-directional by nature. They’re not designed to help you remember the foreign word given the familiar meaning you want to express.

It is important to learn to communicate in a foreign language by forming sentences of your own. However, in the beginning stages of learning a language, listening and reading play a larger role than speaking and writing.

Eventually, with enough reviews, you’ll remember the meanings of words without using the mnemonic scaffolding. And at that point, when the words are more familiar, you’ll be more prepared to make use of them in forming your own sentences.

Do Linkword Mnemonics Really Work?

Well, what does “sentar” mean? If you managed to remember, then the mnemonic has done its job. Instead of sitting and drilling the word tens of times, you’ve committed it to memory in just the time it took you to read through the example. More importantly, you’ll be more likely to remember what it means when you review it later using spaced repetition.


Is there any research/evidence that indicates whether or not it makes a difference (positive or negative) if you come up with your own linkword+story vs. using one provided to you? I could imagine something about being more involved with the process that would make it stick more if you came up with your own. But I could also imagine that other people who dedicate their time to teaching languages or creating language courses might be able to create ‘better’ linkwords and stories that are more memorable. Plus, having someone else do the heavy lifting of coming up with the linkwords and stories would save time if the goal is to learn a new language quickly.

This has been a question I’ve received a lot. I haven’t found any studies yet, but I would like to conduct some in the future.