Mind Maps in Language Learning

Mind map

Mind-maps are the creation of Tony Buzan, the memory expert. The basic principle is that the mind dislikes traditional, linear note taking and thus anything we write should start in the centre of the page with related ideas branching out in all directions. This tool has been successfully used by managers to organise, brainstorm, and even to prepare notes for speeches. Do a search for mind-maps on the Internet and you will find plenty of good examples. I think that mind-maps can be an important and effective asset to anyone who wants to learn a language.

Why traditional note taking is ineffective

I observe my students in class writing down the new vocabulary that comes up in class. More often than not, a student will write down the new word with the translation in his own language next to it. Of course, writing things down is necessary if you want to review later. But at the end of one lesson, the student has a couple of pages of new words that are completely at random – apple, happy, gun, gloat, keyboard, violet, etc. Impossible to retain a list of words like this. Even if you tried to memorise them, the fact that they are irrelevant to each other makes it difficult to remember them.

Mind-maps – a better way

Use mind maps to make “vocabulary networks”. This involves writing a single word, your theme, in the centre of the page and linking words that go with it. Let’s take “theft” as an example. Draw a line from the word “theft” to a new bubble with a description in it – “Theft from a bank” – then write the word “robbery” next to it. Then the word for the person, “robber”, the verb, “to rob”.

You can continue to fill the page with “shoplifting”, “mugging”, “pick pocketing”, “burglary”, etc, noting all the related words you can think of. Use a dictionary to find the words in the language you are studying. Now you have a page of words that are relevant to each other, thus making them easier to recall when you are talking in your new language. Mind-maps are even more effective if you add little drawings and lots of colour – your brain likes to be entertained!

By the way, this exercise is great in your own language to improve your vocabulary. Use a good dictionary of synonyms (like Roget’s Thesaurus) to get a richer vocabulary.

Written by Jon Lewis
Jonathan Lewis is an English teacher in Provence, France. He has used mind-maps to help him learn French as well as for making presentations and problem solving activities. Read his advice about learning languages at apprendre-anglais.blogspot.com.


  1. Linda

    Good point – as all good school teachers know, this works well in every subject. American children do it all the time. However, as ESL instructors (especially with adults) we can go a step further and encourage students to reflect upon the gestalts that underlie their personal mapping. They can try to trace the “themes” in class to those basic “experience” gestalts and decide whether or not the metaphors that they would map correspond to metaphors in the target culture. The concept of “love” for example, may not elicit the same metaphors in all languages. This kind of exercise is a great discussion starter.

  2. Mary Sue

    It makes perfect sense! In fact I have had language textbooks organized in this way, around themes (family, body, the park, getting around, etc.) Words that are grouped together are easier to remember. Also, the brainstorm is a favourite memory jogger for group meetings, “unblocking” writers, etc. But this approach–where, if I’m understanding it, the students design their own grouping–goes a bit beyond. I think the developing of their own “cluster” of words should aid retention. I may try this during the summer!

  3. Ron Morrain

    Mind Mapping for ESL/EFL students is not only great it is effective. I teach my students how to create mind maps at the beginning of all my courses. This helps the students create more effective learning strategies and gives them more self-confidence in skills oriented learning. My students always thank me for showing them how to work with mind maps because they are able to use them for other areas in their career.

  4. Kari

    I have used mind maps with my ESL class this semester. They seem to enjoy it. Good article.

  5. Victoria

    I also use this method for making basic plans to different topics which students have to present.

  6. Eduarda

    I think this type of exercise is really useful. I often use them in class, though I have never tried adding colours or drawings. Thanks.

  7. Emma

    I have been using mind mapping in an ESL setting in Mexico, and it works great. It’s easy to use and the children enjoy working with them, adding pictures and colour. I let them use any type of material they wish to make them.

  8. Ludmila

    I’ve been using mind maps for over 10 years in teaching business and law. It has always worked perfectly. They help students to analyse the information in different texts, present it graphically, remember it and reproduce at a later stage. Personally I find these maps great.

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