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The Easy Ones
There’s an obvious, intuitive connection between many Spanish country names and their English counterparts. Countries like Taiwan, Tibet, Somalia, Mali (Malí) and Estonia correspond directly, with differences only in pronunciation and syllable stress.
Other country names are not identical, but still easily identified. Since word order frequently differs between English and Spanish, it should be little surprise that Faroe Islands translates to Islas Feroe. Ivory Coast translates quite literally to Costa de Marfil.
However, one can’t afford to assume that all country names translate directly. The country Turkey, for example, translates to Turquía. Yes, it sounds very much like the American country name, and that is in fact the best way to remember it. Say them both aloud a few times, one after the other, and the similarity should be clear. But if you assumed that Turkey the country is the same word in Spanish as turkey the bird, pavo, you’ll have just asked that nice man you met if he’s traveling to a bird, not to another country. Trying a new way to remember Spanish countries can help you avoid this embarrassment, as well as the inconvenience of trying to describe a country you can't name.
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Visit Nations Online and you’ll find an alphabetical listing of English and Spanish country names. Scan quickly through the list and you’ll see that the vast majority of country names fall into the “easy to remember" pile, either corresponding directly, translating directly, or sounding very much alike. Once you have the image of a Turkish man that’s very unhappy about living inside a turkey firmly in your head, you’ll never make the mistake of asking him if he’s from pavo again. Picture him standing, smiling, on top of a country outlined in the shape of Turkey, with big letters across it spelling out Turquía, and you'll remember that he likes living in Turquía a whole lot better than he likes living in that bird.
What, then, can you do about the other country names that aren’t so intuitive or easy to remember? Tying them to absurd images is one of the best ways to remember the Spanish country names. Here are a few examples to help you get the knack of it:
Cyprus / Chipre
Imagine a songbird in a pile of cyprus woodchips; it might make the sound chipre, chipre, chipre.
Falkland Islands / Islas Malvinas
Picture the Falkland Islands on the map. Now picture them covered with angry, vicious, wicked--just generally bad--vines. Perhaps they’re covered with thorns or have angry cartoon faces on them. The point is that linking the Falklands to malas vinas--literally, bad vines--makes a handy bridge for remembering their real name in Spanish, Islas Malvinas.
Norway / Noruega
Picture a Norwegian man on his knees, pleading earnestly for something. Now tell him, in Spanish, not to beg: No ruega. Noruega. That’s the Spanish name for Norway.
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Now that you understand how to create a link between English and Spanish country names by using pictures--and the more absurd they are, the easier they will be to remember--you can create your own connections. Images that have personal significance or emotion for you, whether it be humor, sadness, anger or joy, will be easier to remember than those that don’t carry any weight at all. That personalized, internal connection is part of what makes vocabulary picture cards one of the best ways to remember Spanish countries and other vocabulary. If you’re an extremely visual person or a kinesthetic learner, you may even want to draw the pictures out instead of just imagining them; both learning types will benefit from the act of drawing the pictures, then seeing them complete. Once you've created vocabulary picture cards--see here for an example--you can put them to regular use.
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Useful Vocabulary for this exercise
Teaching Spanish: Vocabulary Practice with European Countries Vocabulary with Spanish names for many countries.
Teaching Spanish: Vocabulary Practice with Country Names Vocabulary with Spanish names for countries in Latin America and South America
Tips for Memorizing Spanish Country Names
Tips and tricks for how to memorize country names in Spanish, including free vocabulary picture card downloads.