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I would like to know if someone has any suggestion regarding how to remember words which are extremely similar but have totally different meanings. Any advice? Tricks?

I am thinking of words like:

  • die Schüssel and der Schlüssel
  • schinken and schicken

These are the words that I always confuse.

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If your problem is only to remember which is which, then it might help to know the origin of or related words to at least one of them. It is probably not a coincidence that none of the four words that you mention have cognates in English that I am aware of.

But as you are Italian, it should help to know that “Schüssel” is probably derived from Latin and I would therefore guess that it is cognate with “ciotola”, “scodella” (words that I just looked up via Google Translate, I know neither Latin nor Italian).

Of course you should be aware of the relationship of “Schlüssel” with the verb “schließen” so that you at least can group these together.

For “Schinken” you might want to know that it is related to “Schenkel”, but that may be another word that it difficult to remember. Interestingly, the etymology of words for the lower extremities are complicated in Germanic languages.

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Collect such examples under the heading "Similar words (I tend to mix up)". Note down the two words and try to get some good sentences from dictionaries. If you read this collection now and again it should help. If you find out that this is not enough you write down the difficult pair a second time, with new examples. I have made the experience that learning things by writing them down is more efficient than trying to learn things by heart. When writing such things down you spend more time on the matter and your mind has time enough to register the things. When you do it by learning by heart you try to stuff too many things into your mind in too short a time. This is strenuous and inefficient, your mind switches off.

As to Schlüssel in the dictionary DWDS, a big online dictionary with etymology and example material, you will see the word family. Schlüssel ist connected with the verb schließen and Schloss and Schlosser. It is the word stem schließ- changed to Schlüss+ -el, a suffix for little things. Make up some simple sentences of your own: Mit einem Schlüssel kann man eine Tür aufschließen. Eine Tür hat ein Schloß zum Zuschließen. Für Schlösser ist der Schlosser zuständig. Er kann ein Schloß reparieren oder einen Schlüssel nachmachen.

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In such situations it helps to build up a mnemonic aid.

Just as a stupid example what would come into my mind: Schlüssel has an 'l' for 'lock' because this is what it is belongs to, whereas a Schüssel has only the ü inside because that is what it is formed like. Very stupid example, but mnemonic aids work best anyway when you make them up yourself.

Having such aids help to make sure you remember the words correctly, enabling you to repeat and learn them whenever your brain is idle, until the correct allocation is fixed in your brain and you don't need the mnemonic aid anymore.

Another hint is to listen to example sentences: Having the sound of someone saying these words in a sentence helps to distuingish them better than having simply the letters in mind.

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    +1 for advise to hear them. Language is best learned when experienced, not studied. – hajef Jul 12 at 10:26
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In my experiance, the most effective way to keep similar words straight is to link one of them to a very memorable image/ thought. Our Chemestry teacher was annoyed by the ammound of times we misspelled the word "Standard" (standerd) in exams. That's why he asked one of us to stand in fromt of the class and than gave him orders how to move his limbs to assume a frolistic stance and declared: "Das ist eine 'Standart'" (This is a 'manner of standing'). I never misspelled "Standard" again.

You can use the same aproach by inventing fun scenes or chains of thought that contain one of the words and can only be applied to this one. E.g. picture ham that sinks in a sink. "Siehst du den Schinken in der Spühle sinken ..."[1] That does not work for "shicken" and thus you will know that ham is "Schinken" and "schicken" must be 'the other one' aka. "(to) send". But you have to invent these images yourself for them to work best.

[Edit: The easiest way for a language to reach your brain is for you to hear it. As suggested here, hearing the words used in their respective context repeatedly helps you distinguish and learn them. Studies suggest (thought I only have German references) that this even works when doing something else and hearing the language in the background so have some texts that contain either or both words on repeat while you do chores/gaming/exercising/...]

[1] In canse this sentence sounds odd and you have trouble understanding it: It is a referes to a (sort of) proverb: "Siehst du den Spieß im Moore winken, wink' zurück und lass ihn sinken" where "Spieß" referes to a military training supervisor and the sentence translates roughly to "If you see the supervisor wave in the marsh, just wave back and watch him sink". Don't ask me why though, I just heard it and found the stream of speech quite memorable. You can find any other rhyme or picture to memorize things so if this troubles you, just ignore it and make up something else.

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