I’ve been reflecting lately on how I go about committing new Welsh words to memory. Vocabulary acquisition has always been my biggest weakness when learning any new language, so I’m always interested in tips to help with memory retention. I searched this forum to see if anyone had already started a thread on it, and I didn’t find one - although this forum is vast, and a similar thread may well be hiding there somewhere.
I thought I’d share what works for me, as well as what doesn’t. Even if something doesn’t work for me, that’s not to say it won’t work for you.
I’m sure many people make liberal use of sticky notes - sticking bara on the bread bin, ci on the dog’s sleeping basket, and so on. Now, I have done this in the past for some languages, but it has its limitations.
For one thing, you can only do it for tangible objects. It won’t help you remember the Welsh for any of the words in “it’s a fine day today” or “I have a meeting this afternoon” because they aren’t really things you can stick a note on.
More importantly, even for tangible objects that do lend themselves to having a note stuck on them, I find the method unhelpful. When it comes to languages, I am an aural learner rather than a visual one. Looking at a written word in Welsh does nothing to help me remember it. It’s full of Ws and LLs and DDs and Rs and Ys in difficult combinations, and the minute I look away from the word, I struggle to even remember which letters were in it, let alone what order they were in.
I’m a very good speller in English, and always have been, but I’m a shockingly bad speller in Welsh. The worst speller you can imagine. My excellent visual memory for English words completely fails me when it comes to Welsh. Take the word for aeroplane - awyren. I can tell by the sound of it that it starts with “aw” or something similar, and ends with “n”, and has an “r” in it somewhere, but as for the rest of the letters, and what order they come in - aweryn? awyryn? aywren? awiren? awirin? aweren? awerwn? awyrwn? The pronunciation gives no clues. Sure, I could write awyren on a picture of an aeroplane and stick it to a wall, and look at it a hundred times today - but ask me tomorrow what the Welsh for aeroplane is, and if all I’ve done is tried to rely on my visual memory, I won’t be able to do it.
Even worse, looking at a word in Welsh encourages me to mispronounce the vowels. Even after all this time, I still look at the Welsh [u] in a word I haven’t seen before, and mentally pronounce it [oo] rather than [ee]. And that’s merely the starkest, most obvious difference that Welsh has between its vowels and English ones. There are many other more subtle differences. Written vowels are treacherous things. My advice is not to get too dependent on them. Listen to vowels rather than read them. By all means learn to read written words later, after you’ve committed the words to your aural memory, but I would suggest not leaning on the written word too heavily in the early stages.
So if reading Welsh words doesn’t help me commit them to memory, what does? The first thing I do is listen hard and try to copy as closely as I can, especially the vowel sounds. Whenever a new word is introduced, I say it aloud, over and over and over again, trying to embed the sound of it in my memory. Even if later on I forget what it means - and I often do - in fact, it’s fair to say I usually do! - I’m trying to at least make my brain say “I know I’ve heard that word before.”
Committing the sound to memory is one thing. Committing its meaning to memory can be more difficult.
If it sounds very similar to its meaning in English (or another language that I’m familiar with), then it’s not hard. Words such as trio, achos, tafarn, rygbi, beic, reis, bacwn, siocled, brecwast, trowsus, siaced, siwmper, nyrs, and a hundred others, are all easy to remember because they sound a lot like what they mean in English. Ffrog is not much of a stretch - it sounds like frock, which is close to its meaning. Meddyg is close to medic. Ffenest is easy if you speak any of the Romance languages. Similarly llaeth, which probably derives from the same root word that produced latte, lait, and the rest. Canu reminds me of cantare and cantor, and again I suspect may be derived from the same root. Ceffyl is very clearly related to cheval. Ti and tri are easy if you know Italian or Russian. Cwningen is not hard if you know that coney is an old word for rabbit.
Other words can be linked to their meanings with only a little stretching of the imagination. Caws means cheese, and cheese is made from milk which comes from cows, which sounds similar to caws. Crys means shirt, and is easy to remember because shirts get creased. And when they get creased, you have to smwddio them! How easy is that!
But what if it doesn’t sound much like its meaning in English (or any other language you know)? What I do, if at all possible, is to use my imagination to create some kind of connection in my mind, to link the word with a picture, or a situation, or a saying, or a person, or anything. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t mean anything to anyone else. Nor does it matter if the connection is a bit silly - in fact, the sillier the better, because I’m more likely to remember it if it’s absurd.
Moyn sounds a little like mine, so I imagine a miser greedily coveting a pile of coins. Mine, mine, mine. Moyn, moyn, moyn.
Esgidiau contains a syllable that sounds a little like skid, so my mental picture when I hear esgidiau is someone sliding along the floor in a pair of shoes with very slippery soles.
Gwerthu was difficult to remember, until I realised it sounds a little like wealthy - and if you sell enough merchandise, you’ll become wealthy.
Mefus was a tough one. It sounds a bit like the name Mavis, so I conjured up a mental picture of a woman called Mavis, and I pictured her making strawberry jam.
Gwregys was also tough. I was regularly forgetting that one, until I realised it sounds a little like the name Greg. I don’t know any Gregs, but I formed a mental picture of Greg Brady in his groovy 1970s clothes, including a particularly groovy-looking leather belt.
Cefynfor - another tough one. The cefyn- part sounds like Kevin. So I pictured my former colleague Kevin drowning in the ocean. (Sorry, Kevin!)
Llwyd was almost impossible, until I realised that it’s only one letter different from Lloyd. I have a relative called Lloyd, so I tried to fix in my mind an image of my Lloyd as one of those human-statue performance artists, with a stone-grey suit and complexion to match. (Sorry, Lloyd!)
Moron (carrot). Carrots are orange, so I decided to associate a carrot with a person sporting a very orange fake tan, and… no, perhaps I’ll keep that one to myself. Trying very hard not to offend anyone!
And so on, stretching my imagination as far as possible to come up with some connection between sound and meaning, no matter how slight or silly.
But that still only gets me so far. There are some words that I just cannot come up with a mental image or connection for. In those cases, I sometimes resort to memorising the word as part of a longer phrase. For some reason, I can remember the sound of long phrases better than I can remember the sound of individual words - and it’s the remainder of the long phrase that provides the “way in” to remembering the problem word.
For example, I couldn’t remember lawr on its own, but I could remember lawr y staer - and stairs are things you can fall down, so that reminded me of the meaning of lawr. I was struggling to remember menyn, but found I had more luck remembering bara a menyn - and what goes with bread? Butter!
And so on. Sanau sounds nothing like its meaning, but I was able to remember esgidiau a sanau. Clywed was impossible to remember on its own, but I committed clywed y newyddion to memory with little difficulty. I couldn’t remember cerddoriaeth on its own, until I constructed the phrase Dw i’n chwarae cerddoriaeth (which I hope is good Welsh, because I actually haven’t heard anyone else say it). I couldn’t remember gwrando on its own, but I could remember gwrando ar gerddoriaeth.
So those are my methods. They don’t help in every situation, though. I’m still having a LOT of trouble remembering short words such as bant, pwy, mas, yma, dyma, efo, dros, rhy, among many others.
And place names - Caergybi, Abergwaun, Amwythig, Abertawe, Caerfyrddin, Caergrawnt, Y Bontfaen, and the rest, are just not sticking. It’s probably not helped by the fact that I’m Australian, and some of those are place names I haven’t even heard of in English, let alone in Welsh. For those of you in the UK, those words may conjure up memories of places you’ve visited, and you can find a way to attach the Welsh word to your memories, but for me as an Australian, at least half of those place names conjure up nothing.
Enough from me. What methods do other people use to help remember Welsh vocabulary? What works for you and what doesn’t?