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Never forget Portuguese vocabulary again with this Technique

There are many techniques that people use to try to burn European Portuguese vocabulary indelibly into their grey matter, but none that I know work so reliably as my tailor-made word association. Want to make sure you never forget a word again? Keep reading.

Word association, like any other mnemonic (system for improving and assisting the memory), consists of a game you play with your brain, in order to persuade it that this piece of information is really important and should not be quickly forgotten.

I should say that there are many variations of ‘word association’ out there. What follows are the main pillars of what, through the years, I’ve found to be the most efficacious version of this mnemonic for me.

I should also add that I really only use this technique when confronted with terms that I really struggle to retain. In other words, this is my last resort. The reason being, even though, when I follow the steps correctly the word sticks pretty much 100% of the time, the technique in itself is time-consuming, and given the complexity, at least in the first few tries, it will take a few seconds to recall such a word and get it ready for lip action.

Anyway, here are the pillars for what I call the Ultimate-never-forget-a-word-ever-ever-again word association technique:

The 5 simple steps to never forget a work again

Pillar 1: Same-sounding word parts

I start the process by splitting the target word into sound bites I can then associate with other similar-sounding words. It is extremely important that you pick words that sound the same, very similar or that at least give you a spelling clue as to how the target word is pronounced.

For example, when I tried to memorize Jáchymov, the name of a small village in the Czech Republic, (A very interesting place by the way, being the birthplace of both the Dollar (currency) and the atomic bomb) I divided the word into three: Já + chy + mov. I then thought of words that had a similar sound to those three. I came up with “Já” (Portuguese for ‘now’), “aqui” (Portuguese for ‘here’), and “.mov” (a video file extension name).

That worked really well. Notice though, that Jáchymov is pronounced Yachymov. Still, I know that the “J” is in many languages pronounced as a “Y” so the spelling clues me for the correct pronunciation.

But pay attention to the second pillar, for if you miss it, the whole thing will fall apart.

Pillar 2: Parts made up of easily recalled words

All of those 3 component parts (Já + aqui + .mov) are, for me, easily recalled. I use those terms often and will never forget them. As such, they are perfect for word association.

This is pillar number 2: make sure to use words or terms that you use on a daily basis or that at the very least, you are so familiar with, that you know they won’t themselves be deprecated from your memory.

Pillar 3: Visual

Roughly 30% of our brain is entirely dedicated to generating visual content and as much as 80% of it is somewhat involved in the process. All this power can also be harnessed for word association.

In practice then, when you conjure up terms and words to make up the sound bites, make sure that together, they themselves serve a visual purpose, perhaps an action or a picture in your mind.

In trying to memorize the Portuguese word for peanut (amendoim), a student used this set of words: mending + (a) wing. She imagined a worker mending, or fixing, a wing on an airplane. That was it, she will never be out of peanuts (which, btw, are a legume, not a nut) in a Portuguese-speaking land.

When I decided that I ought to remember “Hyperthymestic Syndrome”, a condition whose sufferers can recall pretty much every detail of every day of their lives…

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I actually had the pleasure of meeting one of these people. It’s an out-of-this-world experience when you give them a date and they immediately blurt out: “Oh yes, that was a Wednesday, my mom took me out to the park, and there was an announcement on TV that Margaret Thatcher had won the elections…”. Amazing! Anyway, I diverge.

…I divided hyperthymestic into the following components: “hyper” + “thigh” + “mess”. I then imagined a huge human thigh with a gasping wound on it, really messy stuff. Worked a treat. Partially because it is a very visual idea.

Pillar 4: The wild idea

It is a well-known fact, that, as far as mnemonics are concerned, the more imaginative, esoteric, and out-of-the-ordinary the concept the better. It’s a little nonsensical, but as a rule of thumb, the word associations should always be more complex than the target word.


The more complicated the idea, the more connections the brain makes to that original term, and the easier it will be to retrieve the word.

For example, remember “Jáchymov”? The reason I picked “Já” + “aqui” + “.mov” was so that I then could imagine commanding a .mov video file on a computer desktop to immediately move from one of the top corners of the screen to a spot closer to me at the bottom of the screen. Get it? Now (Já), Here (aqui) .mov. I pride myself on this one. 🙂

Pillar 5: Personal

Part of the reason why this technique is so powerful is the process. In other words, the whole procedure of thinking of word parts, a visual cue, a wild idea, etc, are in themselves probably the biggest reason why you won’t forget the word.

That explains why other people’s mnemonics, regardless of how clever they are, might not work very well for you.

Make up your own, even if it takes you a few minutes, it’s those few minutes of initial brainstorming that form most of the synaptic connections necessary for memory retention.

A non-pillar: Semantic connection

Notice that in none of the examples above did the word parts actually have anything to do, as far as meaning is concerned, with the target word. It seems this is an unnecessary step to take, for this word association technique is capable, in an unconscious way, of linking the word to its meaning in the brain.

I would actually argue that trying to introduce a semantic connection would hinder your efforts. You’ve already got to think of words that sound the same, are easy to recall, and make up a visual idea, adding a meaning parallel would make things really hard and might make you just give up in frustration.

Initially, when using word association, I thought the meaning was important and always tried to implement it. But the truth is, I don’t remember those words better or more easily than my, more recent, non-semantically connected terms.

There you have it. When European Portuguese vocabulary notebooks fail you, employ this word association technique and I promise you: that stubborn word will be imprisoned in your brain for all time.

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  1. Ola Marlon! Great article. Really helpful. I tried with with the random word camisola, and now probably won’t forget it. … But how does it work for things like remembering the conjugation of verbs or remembering prepositions? faca bem, Matt

    1. Thanks Matt 🙂

      Verbs is a tough one, but we are not great apologists of making long lists/repetition drills. Try to use a verb in conversation as soon as you learn in it. If you can’t, then write a bunch of hypothetical conversations with that same verb. Hope that helps.

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