Accessibility links

March 4, 2004 - Lida Baker: Keyword Method as a Memory Aid - 2004-03-03

Broadcast on COAST TO COAST: March 4, 2004

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER -- a lesson we'll never forget!

RS: Like lots of people, our English teacher friend Lida Baker says she has trouble remembering names. So lately she's been trying a memory aid known as the keyword method.

AA: She’s been reading about the psychologist R.C. Atkinson, who devised this technique thirty years ago to help students learn foreign language vocabulary.

RS: Which is how Lida tested it on us.

BAKER: "I'm going to give you a word in Hungarian, because Hungarian is a language that I don't think -- probably not too many of your listeners speak Hungarian. Neither do I, but I happen to know this word. The word is kaposzta. Can you say it?"

RS: "Kaposzta."

BAKER: "Kaposzta. Good. Now, the first step in the keyword method is you listen to the word, kaposzta. And a kaposzta is a cabbage. It's the Hungarian word for a cabbage. So now the trick becomes, how are we going to remember that word? The first thing you have to do is you select something called a keyword, which is going to serve as a cue to help you remember that new word.

"There are three characteristics of a good keyword. The first one is that it should sound like the target word. So our target word is kaposzta. So, first of all, our keyword has to sound like it, OK? The second thing is that it should be a word that is easy to visualize. And so a good keyword is usually a concrete noun, because nouns are easy to visualize."

RS: "So it wouldn't be the same word as the word."

AA: "You're not supposed to visualize a cabbage."

BAKER: "No. Hold on a second and you'll see -- yes and no. The third thing about the keyword is it has to be something very familiar to you. So given those three conditions -- the most important is the very first one, which is that the keyword you pick needs to sound like the word that we're trying to learn. So if our word is kaposzta, why don't we take that first syllable, which is kap (cop), and we will use that as our keyword -- cop, meaning police officer. It's a slang word for police officer in English, OK?"

RS: "But it has nothing to do with a cabbage."

BAKER: "Ahh -- not yet! Here's where the technique really comes into play, because once you've picked your keyword, what you want to do is to imagine the definition doing something with the keyword. So the keyword is cop and the definition is cabbage. What we're going to do is create an image in our mind where the cop, the police officer, and the cabbage are somehow interacting. The more exaggerated it is, the better. So the image I came up with for this word is a cop, in uniform, whose head is a cabbage."

RS: "I was thinking exactly the same thing."

BAKER: "OK, see? And it's kind of a ridiculous image -- the more ridiculous or silly it is, the harder it's going to be to forget. So we have a police officer, a cop. He's got a cabbage for a head and he's got eyes, a nose and a mouth on that cabbage. And let's put a cop's hat on him and maybe a mustache, OK?"

"Now we could even, because our word is kaposzta, the second syllable is 'post,' we could have our cabbagehead cop standing in front of a post office, OK? Now let's just take that silly image and focus on it for a moment and see it in our mind's eye and really concentrate on it, so that the image becomes fixed in your memory."

RS: "I'll never forget it."

BAKER: "You won't ever forget it! Now let's suppose that it's a week later and you're studying for a big vocabulary test and you have your list of Hungarian words that you need to learn and remember for tomorrow's test. So you come to the word kaposzta on your list of vocabulary words. Now what happens?"

RS: "You think of a cop with a cabbage head."

BAKER: "You think of the cop and the word cop conjures up, it brings back that image of the cop with the cabbage head. You know, they're bound in your memory. You can't even separate them anymore."

AA: "And this has helped you remember your students' names, picturing them with cabbages on their head?"

BAKER: "Well, only if their name is kaposzta. But for other names, I've used other images. And I have to say, you know, for certain words, this technique has really worked for me."

RS: Lida Baker teaches in the American Language Center at the University of California at Los Angeles. And tells us she's working on some new textbooks for English learners.

AA: That's Wordmaster for this week. We hope you can remember our e-mail address,, and our Web site, With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.

MUSIC: "Cabbage Head"/Dr. John