In my last post, I talked about how much I like using Anki for learning languages and how I’m currently using it to learn European Portuguese. Today I’m gonna go through my top tips to get the most out of this wonderful app.
This guide assumes you have a pretty basic grasp of using Anki already. Truth be told, there is a large-ish learning curve involved with using it – it’s not as easy as other tools like Memrise or Quora. But that’s the price you pay for having an app with no subscription and better functionality. I feel that Anki is best used as a way to learn base vocabulary – up to around 1000 words. Beyond this it can still be useful but the motivation to continue reviewing cards everyday drops (at least for me) after this point to where I can’t feel bothered.
Here are my 10 Tips:
- Download shared decks. Chances are, if you’re studying a major language like Spanish, German or Mandarin then there will be decks that other people have made already. I downloaded a deck with 1000 cards from English → Portuguese, all the way from the basics to full sentences. This is what I usually do when starting a language learning journey. But be careful – these are made by other users so they can have errors. Get them checked by a language teacher or native speaker if you can.
- Have 3 types of cards for every new word you want to learn:
- English→Target language,
- Target language→English
The first two ensure that you learn the word thoroughly so that you can both understand and speak it in conversation. The third type deepens your knowledge of the word and saves you from being illiterate.
- Use pictures instead of the English word (and bury the English under a Hint). This tip comes from the Fluent Forever method, which I loosely follow in my own language learning efforts. What you want to do is train your brain to think in your target language. When you speak a language fluently, you don’t think to yourself “how do I say x in Portuguese?”, you just go ahead and say the word. So if you have a flashcard for the word “minuto”, on the reverse side you should NOT put the word “minute” but instead a picture of a stopwatch with minute readings. Bonus points if it looks like a typical Portuguese stopwatch. Here’s an example of this card:
- Make sure flashcards have audio recording in your target language. When the card comes up, you want to be able to hear it being spoken so you repeat after it. Try to be in a quiet place when you study so you can practice saying it out loud at a normal volume (not a whisper). This helps you improve your pronunciation and gets you closer to a native accent.
- Use it to pick up words when you’re out and about – out with the pocket notebook! When I lived in Cambodia, I used to carry around a little physical notebook with me, as is common among foreigners learning a new language. When somebody told me a new word I didn’t know, I would write it in the the notebook. But I would have to pull out the notebook, fish around for a pen, find the page I was up to and begin scribbling down the word and translations as fast as I could so that I could return to the conversation. It was also a pain to have to carry around in the first place. So as you can imagine, this only lasted a week or two before I decided to use to notes app on my phone to do the same thing. The problem with both of these methods is that I never went back and studied the words properly – I just gave them a glance over every now and then. With Anki, I’ve been able to take this a step further and directly make a flashcard when I learned a new word. I can kindly ask my friend/teacher/stranger to say the word for me so that I have the correct pronunciation recorded too. And as long as I keep up my study habit of doing flashcards every day, I can be confident that these words will get committed into my long-term memory instead of just staying in my notebook.
- Zoom in and out on desktop. I often find that on the desktop version, the text and images don’t scale very well, so it gets a bit difficult to read the cards. Maybe I’m just getting old. Either way, this is a handy tool that can let you zoom in and out for easier reading: https://ankiweb.net/shared/info/1846592880
- Use CSV import. I do online 1-on-1 lessons. Over the course of a lesson, I’ll pick up a bunch of new words that I’ll write into a list as I go. I’ve found a much easier way of getting them in to my flashcard deck: the CSV import. This way, I can enter all the words I learn into an Excel spreadsheet and then import the whole thing as a bunch of new cards after the end of the lesson. Bonus tip: you can also send this list to your teacher and ask them to spend a couple of minutes making a voice recording (using their phone will do) of all the words, so that you can add them to your new flashcards too.
- Set a goal for how long you want to spend studying on a daily basis. Consistency is the key here. Pick a goal that you know you can achieve almost every day, even if it’s just 1 minute. This will determine how many new words per day you can learn, which is the next step.
- 10 new words = 30mins per day (give or take). At the start, 10 new words will only take a few minutes, but every day you’ll be adding more reviews from previous days, so it will start taking longer. Eventually, the time it takes usually stabilises for me at 30-45minutes if I’m learning 10 new words per day. Remember that each new word makes 3 flashcards, from tip 2. Set your goal and schedule your time accordingly.
- If you miss a day or a week, don’t be intimidated by the reviews, even if it’s telling you that you have thousands left. Focus on getting back to doing it consistently, even if that means starting again in a tiny way. Tell yourself that you only have to review ONE card. Chances are, you’ll get on and do more than one. Then get on the next day and chip away at it again. Before you know it, you’ll be back into the swing of it. But only if you allow yourself the space to not have to review hundreds (or thousands) or cards again. This is great for when you want to go on holiday or just need to take a break for a bit.
Very often, language learning can be a very ambiguous undertaking. It’s difficult to know how far you’ve come and how far you’ve got left to go. You can be feeling on top of the world after your lesson one day and totally disparaged the next as you try to have a conversation with the lady who works at the local cafe. If you’re making measurable progress toward a goal everyday then it’s a lot easier to keep that motivation rolling. That’s what I love about learning with Anki: it turns your language learning journey into a SMART goal.
So here’s a pretty concrete example: let’s say I’m beginning to learn a new language, and I know that the most common 1000 words in a language will give me a great foundation and let me know 85% of the words spoken in day-to-day conversations. Using the tips above, I know that I can learn and memorise 10 new words per day if I commit to study 30-45mins every single day. Which means I can get through this first 1000 words in 100 days, or just over three months. Three months! I don’t know about you, but that sure beats French class in school which left me barely able to introduce myself after years of study.
Of course, learning a language isn’t just about learning new words. But learning new words is the most memory-intensive part of the journey that needs to be slogged through. I would totally recommend trying to get out and speak to other people as early as you can, even if you’re just pointing at something on a menu and asking for “uno”. Speaking to real people if the only method that I’d recommend learning grammar as well, after all that’s how we learned out mother tongue. But that’s a story for another post.