Addicted to Learning Vocabulary

Developing your foreign language vocabulary has to be the most critical part of learning any foreign language. Without vocabulary, grammar is absolutely useless, and practice impossible. Also, very often vocabulary is the biggest hurdle when trying to understand fun authentic materials in your target language, and vocabulary is the biggest issue going from intermediate to advanced level (and beyond).

Well, I’m addicted to learning vocabulary. Yes, addicted is the right word. I can’t go a day without. It’s too much fun. How? I will tell you, but I want you to first promise that you’ll give it a try. I suggested this tip to many people, and most were skeptical at first, but those who tried it still randomly come up and thank me for it. It changed the way they learn languages.

The secret is Anki. Anki is a small, unprepossessing piece of software, open-source (though maintained and continuously improved by one Damien Elmes, who also provides awesome customer support) and available for all platforms including smartphones. Anki doesn’t look as fancy as some highly-marketed commercial software like BYKI, but in functionality it’s much better. Let me go over a few things I love about Anki.

For one, there’s the algorithm, the most important part of any SRS (= spaced-repetition software). Anki’s algorithm is well-honed, only asking me words when I’m on the verge of forgetting them, easily transferring them into my extra long-term memory. It’s also possible to tune the algorithm e. g. by giving different default intervals, or by specifying that forgotten words should be asked again right away / in 10 minutes / after 8 hours or the like. This makes Anki suitable for different styles of learners, as well as different subject materials. For example, I also study Go problems on Anki and these I don’t want to see too quickly again; while for pesky Chinese characters 10 minutes or less seems to be optimal for me to make sure I learn them.

Speaking of Chinese, one of the key features of Anki for me is the ability to have unlimited “sides” to a card. For Chinese there’s the issue of learning characters, pronunciation and translation. Using actual paper cards, I never know whether to put the pronunciation on the character side or the translation side. If I put it with the characters, I don’t learn to recognize the characters. If I put it with the translation, I don’t learn to build a link between the concept and the Chinese. This problem is not exclusive to Asian languages though. For example, for European languages I like to have another field for grammar, another field for related words, another field for a sample sentence, another field for a translation of the sample sentence… and then Anki allows me to test myself in any direction, not just word to translation but also translation to word, word to grammar, sample sentence to sample sentence translation (all automatically generated based on one-time entry)… and Anki allows me to specify what I want to see when quizzed in each of these directions, e. g. when I quiz myself on Chinese characters to translation, I also want the pronunciation of the characters to show up underneath the translation. When I quiz myself on translation to Chinese characters, I want to see the pronunciation underneath the characters, plus an example sentence or two. This flexibility is awesome.

Even more awesome is that Anki does auto-completion for Chinese, so I only enter a Chinese word and Anki will already try to fill in the translation and pronunciation for me, so entering vocabulary doesn’t take so long. There are also thousands of awesome decks (for many languages) already available for free in the “Shared Decks” section (like a marketplace, but all free).

For Japanese there is also auto-completion but for other languages there is something almost as valuable: remembering keyboard layouts. So if I use a Greek keyboard layout to enter my Modern Greek vocabulary in the “Front” field, and then a German keyboard layout to enter the translation in the “Back” field, and I switch back to the front field to enter another word, my keyboard layout will automatically be set to Greek again. Same for Arabic. You can’t believe how much time this saves me!

Anki also has extensive plugin abilities. While I was studying Chinese characters last year, I really liked a plugin that told me how many characters I knew and how they compared to a) frequency lists and b) the HSK official character lists. I could e. g. see that I covered 95% of the HSK 2 list, and then click on it to see which characters I was missing. Click on any character to come up with a dictionary entry for it… awesome. Other plugins extend the kind of data Anki can handle, e. g. there’s a plugin for importing vocabulary, or one for viewing Go games / Go problems in .sgf format as part of the card. Anki natively already supports images, sounds (I made an Esperanto deck with every word recorded), video, HTML, LateX and clozes on cards. A good use for images is studying geography, e. g. learning to recognize countries on the map, also learning their capitals. My boyfriend is addicted to a deck like that.

Ah yes, addiction. The sense of achievement that comes from watching all those words wander into your long-term memory (hitting “Show next in 6 months” etc.), the stats underlining your progress, and also the simple, satisfying way of going over lots of cards at once in the 10-30 minutes I study an Anki deck every day. On the computer I use the numeric keypad 0-4 to rate cards, making the mouse unnecessary so I can go very quickly and lean back comfortably while doing this. Even better with the iPhone version, which I’ll use in bed, on the couch or (even better) on the subway and in the elevator, turning every moment into valuable language-learning time.

Get Anki and tell me about your experience with it!