For the last year or so, I've been learning Dutch and trying to study for my commercial pilot's license. When I was at school, I had the time but not the enthusiasm. Now I have enthusiasm but no time. Surely, there are some neat tricks, technology and tactics I can use. This is what I've tried so far. If you have any other suggestions, PLEASE let me know!

  • Index cards. I don't use a so-called hipster PDA but I quite like the idea of using old-fashioned index cards to capture the key points to memorize. I did this when I was at university and again for my instrument rating exam. It works for me because the information has to go into my brain before I can write it out again. The cards are also portable so easy to use when revising. Big tip: don't leave your cards behind in a bagel shop as I did in 2004.
  • Smell-coding. Taking a hint from Proust and his Madeleine, when I was at university, I used to smell code my different card decks with aromatherapy oils. Lavender for medieval history, lemon for 19th century culture and intellect and so on. When I went into each of the seven exams I took in my third year, I'd dab the appropriate smell on my sleeve and the contents of the cards came flooding back. I came across the cards in December when I was unpacking after moving house. The little oil stains were still there but the smell had gone but to this day the scent of lemons gets me thinking about Ruskin, Darwin and William Morris.
  • Reinforcement and repetition. One of my teachers at school told me that if you review material the next day, a week later and a month later it is much more likely to enter your long-term memory.
  • Flash cards. I was never so good with these. Writing one thing per card seems somewhat wasteful to me. I use cards with 10 words of Dutch vocabulary on them but I write the translation and 'het' or 'de' by each one so I can use it as reminder not a quiz. I do like The Flashcard Exchange, which has a Dutch vocab deck online but also other interesting sets of cards.
  • Linkwords and visual association. I bought a bunch of books in the 'How to improve your memory' category. Frankly, I found them all a little impenetrable. More along the lines of religious mysticism than practical handbooks. However, the link words idea, where you associate an image with a word or name, seems quite helpful. There's an online vocabulary version, which I have tried. Also, it kinda works with names at a party. My big fear is that I'm going to call someone Mrs. Albatross or something and give the link word not the real name.
  • Mind maps. These are great. Tony Buzan is the great exponent of the idea. More on Wikipedia. I find them useful for brainstorming but less so for note taking. However, when I used to go into an exam, I'd draw a very rapid, five-minute mind map for each question that would form the structure of an essay and recall all the data I had memorized on my cards. For me, at least, they are more useful as an aide to recall than an aide to memorization. I've used ConceptDraw MindMap occasionally and one of my editors does lots of work with it. Also, check out, a free online mindmapping program.
  • Chunking up big tasks. Learning Dutch is a big, long project. My CPL training will take most of the year. However, the studying can be broken down into ten-minute chunks. A few words of vocabulary every day. A module of the excellent (if chirpy) King Schools Commercial Pilot Interactive CD-ROM course every day.
  • Daily habit. I'm using Joe's Goals to track daily habits and I've added entries for 'learning 10 words of vocabulary' and 'complete one CPL module' each day. I can't recommend this program highly enough.
  • Quizzes. One of my flying instructors had the habit of asking me difficult questions from the course at odd moments during our flights together. In part, he was trying to simulate distractions as an examiner might, but it really helped me remember things. Recalling something seems to reinforce the memory in my mind. Similarly, my wife runs through her lines with me (she's an actress). She has memorized them well enough but she needs to know them so intimately that they seem like her own words. Having to recall them spontaneously seems to help.
  • Multimedia. I think that we remember things with different parts of our brain. There's a visual memory, a procedural memory, a sort of muscle memory and so on. I use books and computer-based training for flying. For Dutch, I have a tutor and I use The Rosetta Stone multimedia course. No one thing seems to be perfect, but the combination is better than any single method. A medical student at college pasted all her notes up on the walls of the loo in our staircase. I don't know if it helped but I had a pretty good idea what happened to the notes after she passed her exams!

Although not really memory sites, I have to say thanks to (a Dutch online dictionary) and Everyday Dutch (a personal site of useful words with, thank you, MP3s for pronunciation).

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Columnist Matthew Stibbe is Writer-in-chief for Articulate Marketing, a specialist copywriting agency. His clients include Microsoft, the British Government and leading magazines like Wired and Popular Science. Matthew also writes a blog called Bad Language. Click here to read more articles by Matthew Stibbe.

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Comments from our users:

Monday July 9th 2007, 5:26 AM
Comment by: Naoise G.
Your tips are sound, though I rarely find myself succeeding in sticking to but a few of your suggestions. I've tried many and failed mainly due to lack of interest (I get bored easily).

The one that works best for me is mind-mapping, I mind-map everything and have done so since 1980. I use mind-maps for:
- Brainstorming, usually on a whiteboard before recreating it in Mindjet MindManager 7 (or FreeMind if I'm using my Ubuntu Portable).
- Minutes-of-Meetings, I find I remember the meeting a lot better when looking at my mind-map and I also share my mind-maps with friends and colleagues at work (greatly appreciated).
- Study notes, whenever I'm reading a book for a new certification or training I find mind-maps increase my learning-capacity.

Mind-maps provide me with a great overview that no other tool, as of yet, provides. I read mind-maps from many years past and it all comes back to me.

Again, thanks for the excellent article. I especially like the idea of smell-coding.

Kind regards,

Naoise Gaffney
Monday July 9th 2007, 7:55 AM
Comment by: William D.
Das youngen brain est much gooder dan est olden mind.
Monday July 9th 2007, 12:05 PM
Comment by: Lia T.
I love the smell-coding idea! I took a fascinating cognitive psych class years ago, and one of the great tips I learned there was that any sensory input you get while absorbing information will be helpful in "getting it back out." This is a great example!
Monday July 9th 2007, 1:39 PM
Comment by: badari K.
thanks for sharing such good info, tools and techniques.
they are *very helpful*.
most of my learning has been on-the-job-learning.
probable analogy would be to write an article in this
new language you are learning :)

Monday July 9th 2007, 3:52 PM
Comment by: Donna B.

The flash cards has worked for me. However I think I will try mind-mapping. This article is good and I intend on sharing it with my daughter who has problems studying.

Monday July 9th 2007, 5:52 PM
Comment by: Lea L.
The 'aroma' coding idea is wonderful. And you sure would want to be careful what sort of fragrance you associate with a given subject :)
I've been studying for my real estate license (not as difficult as a commercial pilot, for sure) and find that the old repetition and review using different media really works for this kind of arcane material - a lot of state regulations and contract law requirements along with miles of financial stuff required for mortgage applications & government organizations. Reading over the manuals, llstening to CD's in my car and writing out the most complex information by hand seems to be the most effective. Typing it on a computer doesn't seem to help as much as writing by hand.
Will definitely check out the mind-mapping, it sounds fascinating.
Now I gotta figure out what fragrance is safe for real estate!
Tuesday July 10th 2007, 12:00 AM
Comment by: anna S. (South Africa)Top 10 Commenter
I'm using mind maps for brainstorming and taking notes and making notes. I like the aroma idea a lot. I'll try it, but I think it's going to be expensive for me!
Wednesday July 11th 2007, 12:47 PM
Comment by: Carissa B.
There's a program by Microsoft called One Note. I believe you can download a demo from their site. It provides space for you to manage several different projects, make notes, collect websites relevant to your topic and you can, of course, print out your project notes. It's somewhat like an electronic 3-ring binder with tabs and pieces of paper within the tabs. It even lets you draw on the pages. I've used it a couple years starting with the 2003 version and now have the 2007 version. (No I don't work for MS.)
Wednesday July 11th 2007, 3:23 PM
Comment by: Michael W.
Dr. Linda Silverman describes two basic learning styles. You should find out what yours is, but Matthew's suggestions work for both types of learners. Good article Matthew!
Friday July 13th 2007, 2:20 AM
Comment by: John V.
I never tire of learning. The near-physical sensation of making room in my mind for new ideas, for finding pathways into and out of my memory is inherently exhilarating, never mind the fun of learning nearly anything new. Additionally, we recently adopted an 11-year old girl who had NEVER been to school, so this issue of "how do you learn to learn" is very much on my mind.

For languages (some French and Italian, lots of Spanish, and now on our daughter's behalf, English), I have found two things that are extraordinarily useful. The first deals with "power verbs" like "have to...", "want to...", "able to..." that can be combined quickly with other verbs and nouns to create real thoughts --- not just isolated words to remember. The other is making an audio recording of yourself and playing it back. The spoken word is an incredibly powerful reinforcer of memory. The written word follows the spoken word in learning.

I also doodle a lot while I'm learning. That's an observation, not something I've consciously cultivated. I don't claim to know a thing about any science that may be behind this, but I think the "left-brain", if you will, is very conscious about being parsimonious. All these new words probably seem very inefficient (I already know the word for TREE why should I learn a different one?). Maybe doodling is my right-brain's way of distracting myself just enough to permit learning, or maybe it's a spatial thing like mind maps. Driving, walking, jogging, or drawing mind maps may do the same thing for others.

I also wonder, do we learn better when we are relaxed or under stress? If I had to venture a guess, I'd vote for stress. And is memorization the same as learning in that regard? Is mental learning the same as physical learning? And how much of each is speech?

One other thing that I've found extremely useful: learn it as if you were going to teach it. It creates a great mindset for organizing what you know and what you need to find out in an "output oriented" modality.

Thanks for the thought-provoking article and the great ideas.
Friday July 13th 2007, 4:13 PM
Comment by: Andy B.
I write a phrase in the target language on one side of an index card. On the other, I put put how I'd say it in my own language.

Using phrases helps me learn vocab, grammar, and idomatic expressions at the same time. When I associate new phrases with constructions in my own language -- which aren't usually word-for-word translations -- it seems to help a lot.


Monday July 16th 2007, 9:48 AM
Comment by: Don A.
At age 19 I learned to speak Malay quite fluently in less than 18 months just by speaking locally mostly at weekends. At age 29 it took me 3 years to become usefully fluent in Thai. At age 59 I began 'resurrecting' my schoolboy French and German on frequent visits to Europe - and am still far from fluent.
At age 69 I wish to learn Japanese so I've just invested in a Photo Reading course (Learning Strategies Corp )You know the idea: read your pages in 1 second "clicks" rather than serially word-after-word. Will it also enable me to reduce the mountain of "must read" books I've accumulated - but not yet read - over the years? Give me 3 or 4 months and I'll let you know how I get along... On both scores.
Fascinating article. Thank you.
Tuesday July 17th 2007, 3:32 PM
Comment by: Michael B.
When I was learning Dutch, I found the Horatio Hornblower method very helpful. (The friend who suggested it to me called it the "Miss Marple method" because he learned Italian by reading Agatha Christie.) The idea is that if you have just read a book in one language, you can absorb a lot of the target language by reading the same story in it while everything is still fresh in your mind. For this to work, the story has to be simple and fairly short.

Het zeegat uit

Alle hens aan dek

Interventie in de west

Muiterij en victorie

I could read one of these in a single sitting in English and then start right in on the Dutch. Of course you learn some fairly odd expressions, but that is part of the fun. I think "ijsberen" as a verb is much more evocative than "pacing" and Hornblower does a lot of than on deck.
Tuesday July 31st 2007, 8:35 AM
Comment by: Raju Kalampuram
Excellent topic indeed, my opinions are as follows.

Mind mapping is a geat ideat indeed! Its a great idea to cut the informations in a beefy book in to a single page.

Fast reading combined with phrase reading helps a lot to improve the recalling power.

Visual thinking helps really well.
Friday August 3rd 2007, 6:50 PM
Comment by: Terilynne G.
I lived in the Netherlands from 1982 to 1984 and left a fluent Dutch speaker. Everyday I watched "Sesaam Straat" on television and learned the fundamentals along with all the toddlers. I found picture books to be quite helpful as well. As my comprehension grew, I tried to read women's magazines, beginning with simple recipes as I could figure them out. Later, I started to read articles and the newspaper. I could read Dutch fairly fluently within six months. To speak, you have to practice with people who refuse to speak English. Ik oefen Nederlands spreken niet uit zeer vaak, zodat heb ik veel van het vergeten. Alle beste!
Saturday August 18th 2007, 8:13 PM
Comment by: Darryl H.
TO John Viviano:
I enjoyed your comments about as much as I enjoyed the article itself, as some of your questions mirror my own. In short, I find that my learning style is highly personal, even idiosyncatic. On the other hand, some of the more common learning methods - paper or digital flashcards, for instance - work well for me, too. Matter of fact, I especially love GRE vocabulary flashcards of any kind; I actually enjoy plowing through them. My secret pleasure.
Sunday August 19th 2007, 3:26 PM
Comment by: Keith S.
Ok, alright, so I am a word freak who can't spill, spell; but I know a good thing when I see it—pun intended. Regardless, visualizing a thesaurus is an awesome idea. Love it and will put it to good use.
Do ya also have a visual dictionary?
Tuesday August 28th 2007, 9:19 AM
Comment by: Tom F.
I'm late to the game but, I'm an I.T. manager over 50. Technology keeps changing, requiring me to keep up on new stuff or worse the job re-orgs you into another IT sub-field (database to telecom). I have found that reading 2 - 3 pages of really ridiculously deep stuff over breakfast (instead of the morning tv news or newspaper) works. I actually think about those pages and mull it over in mind during the morning and I retain the knowledge. However, I would much rather be reading SciFi. But all you guys keep writing - cuz I'm a reader and I thank you.

I love the visual thesaurus. Helps me in writing RFPs and appraisals.

Many thanks to all contributors on the site!
Friday August 31st 2007, 12:03 PM
Comment by: Dave H.
Just wanted to add that my best way of learning something is to find someone to teach it to. Doesn't matter how good the teaching is, but the act of trying to portray your thoughts to others helps enormously.

Also, writing about it. Second best to teaching, but still a valuable learning tool.
Saturday September 1st 2007, 12:49 PM
Comment by: Rob R.
When I was in Japan a lot of my English students used small flash cards on a binder ring. They were pocket-sized and the ring not only kept the cards together, it made it easy to flip through a lot of vocabulary. These were blank cards, so you could write anything on them you wanted. (I made a set for Japanese vocabulary.) Should be able to find them online (you might want to search on Kokuyo--a large Japanese office supply company):
Thursday September 20th 2007, 7:35 AM
Comment by: sue R.
I recently met 8 times World Memory Champion, Dominic O'Brien - he has techniques to memorize amazing amounts of information and showed my daughter a way to easily remember French/English translations of words as well as the masculine/fem of them. He's written a few books on learning techniques which I think are well worth looking at.
Thursday September 27th 2007, 6:41 AM
Comment by: Naresh K.
Very useful stuff!
Friday November 2nd 2007, 5:37 AM
Comment by: Katrin R.
Thank you very much for all those great suggestions! Following lots of links (also from other interesting "Bad Language"-articles), I've found so many fascinating ideas and other websites so that I will be busy for a while.

As a Mac user I have found a great way to archive and train my vocabulary: I use ProVoc, which is available for free at It doesn't work with Microsoft PCs, though.
Wednesday November 14th 2007, 12:40 PM
Comment by: Joseph M.
Matthew Stibbe has a depth and honesty about his profession that I like. He gives shortcuts he has developed, not to abbreviate the pedigogy, but rather to minimize the logistics.
Joe McLinden
Saturday January 14th 2012, 10:32 PM
Comment by: Lily T. (Mesilla, NM)
Great tips! Keep it up! I'd love to see more of your writing!

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