(This is how I often feel about learning Spanish ...
I want to learn it and know it's going to be beautiful,
but right now, it's a mess ...
but right now, it's a mess ...
Anki is helping me bring order out of the chaos.)
- Study a list of 200 words ... it might take you 30 minutes, then you would be off to other endeavors.
- Make 200 memory-enhanced, spaced-repetition flashcards and it might take you several hours spread over several days.
So, what's the payoff in investing so much time in language flashcards?
Basically, there are three solid advantages to using a system such as Anki
(an app I hated until I fell in love with it):
- guaranteed retention of words (Anki repeats them until you are sure you know them.)
- studying sentences creates a deep understanding of language: word order, grammar and repetition of all the ancillary words in the sentence. Even simple sentences reinforce a complex of words and grammar. Example: He estado muy ocupada y un poco estresada. (I have been very busy and a little stressed.) It's almost like a tiny learning capsule. One example: the gender of the speaker hasn't been identified, but you automatically know that it's a female.
Passively studying a list leaves you with a handful of fog,
wondering why your memory is so poor.
It's not your memory, it's the process.
What does memory-enhanced flashcards even mean?
You can make flashcards by hand, but it’s much harder and doesn't give you access to sounds and the full memory-enhancement process. This posts assumes you are using, or going to use, Anki, a system that I tore my hair out over until Real Fast Spanish taught me how to use it. Now it’s my foundation for learning Spanish.
Flashcards are flashcards, right? No ... wrong!
Remember those long boxes of a 1000 flashcards? ... Oh ... you’re not that old?
Well, once upon a time there were these long boxes of business-card-sized white cards. “Apple" on one side; “manzana” on the other. Boring. Mind-numbing. Forgettable. A tree slain for nothing since these cards had little effect on our long-term memory.
|Old style flashcards|
We’re now in a new world where we understand more about how memory works and we can easily create flashcards that make words stick in our memories. There are a lot of flashcard systems available, however, the most popular seems to be Anki, my new best friend.
Anki is a free (almost), spaced-repetition (more later) flash card and study system. Anki is completely free except to iPhone users who pay a one-time fee of $25 for the phone app (although you could just use the computer version ... but then what would you do while waiting in line?
Apparently, we iPhone users are the only source of income for Anki, so if you use an android phone, say thanks to all of us on the other side of the electronic divide for making this app free for you.
You will need to set up an Anki account, a simple process and there are a lot of YouTube videos. to help you, if you need it.
So, what can Anki do? It gives you many ways to enhance your memory ... here’s the one that made me fall in love with it ... adding images of my choice.
|Flashcard with image|
Suddenly, your powerful visual memory is engaged. Plus you aren’t linking an abstract symbol (the word manzana) to another abstract symbol (the word apple). You are now linking a new word to something real, something that has meaning, a complex of meaning, to you.
Now, take it a step further and remember the time your mom baked you an apple pie for a special occasion and it was the best pie ever. You can even smell the cinnamon. You’ve now related the word to something from your own life. You’ve taken an abstract symbol and made it live in your own reality.
|Flashcard with image and personal memory|
You can now see and almost smell, taste and touch this real thing represented by an abstract symbol. Another brilliant aspect of computer flashcards is that you can hear them. Here’s a man in Mexico saying manzana for you ... and he will say it to you every time you review the card ... he never gets tired.
(click to hear)
Does this sound like a lot of work?
It's actually fast, fun and effective with Anki and two brilliant online friends. Plus, you won’t make flashcards of ALL words … just the ones that may slip out of your memory if you don’t anchor them there.
Two amigos: Google Images and Forvo
Here is something you may not know: There are hundreds, if not thousands, of people and companies out there figuring out ways to help you learn a new language. Sometimes they charge a fee, but often, their wisdom is free, like these two.
Google Images — go here and type in the word “manzana,” you will see pages of beautiful apples. Copy the image that appeals to you and paste it into your Anki flashcard. Words that are more abstract may be a little harder to find just the right image. Ser is about as abstract as you get … this image spoke to me about being alive and joyful.
Because you are picking the image that is meaningful to you, it builds a stronger connection ... imagine millions of little synapses in your brain building a web around the new word or phrase to keep it readily available by your brain.
Forvo.com: Knowing how a word is pronounced is key to understanding and being understood. Set up an account at this site and plan on using it a lot! All you do is enter a word you want to hear and you'll be given several options recorded by people from all over the world. If you happen to find a word that hasn't been recorded, there is a process to add it to the system and you'll be notified when someone records it.
And, what’s that spaced-repetition thing?
After a lot of studies, it has been proven that you forget almost everything you’ve ever learned within minutes of learning it. WHHHHHAAAAATTTTT???!
Relax. It also turns out that if you renew that learning within a certain space of time, it comes back … only to be mostly lost again. It’s not Alzheimer’s … it’s the way our memory works. It throws away everything that isn’t important. If you’re only exposed to something once, it will probably be thrown away unless it’s uniquely memorable and useful.
Trying to remember a new language presents you with a constant flow of mostly forgettable words. Adding images and connections help make those words memorable. Additionally, when information is repeated at specific times after the first exposure, it will gradually become part of your long-term memory. Systems such as Anki carefully return information to you again and again at the right intervals until it becomes wired into your memory.
Since there are a lot of YouTube videos about how to set up Anki, I’m going to focus on how to use it and what information you should collect about each entry.
Focus on Listening and Shadowing
Focus on listening: Everyone who learns a new language has to learn to hear the language ... even babies spend a year or so listening before they begin speaking. Anki offers a “recall + listening” card style to emphasize the sounds of the language. The front side of the card looks like this:
It looks blank, but it sounds like this:
When you click the answer, you see:
And, when you press R, the sounds are played again so you can repeat along with the recording until you can mimic it. That’s called “shadowing."
|Flash card template used for "recall + listening."|
What to put on your card?
Phrases and sentences are more important than learning unrelated words. Often phrases are idioms with no direct translation and sentences incorporate word order, verb tenses and points of grammar the way they are actually used by native speakers. A great source for real sentences is: 123TeachMe.com … great for verb conjugation and making sentences with any word or phrase you’re interested in.
Gender and nouns: When you use nouns, you will always need to know if they are masculine or feminine, so add the appropriate article after the word. (Putting it in front would mess up the alphabetization.)
Verbs: Regular and Irregular: When you enter verbs, knowing whether they are regular or irregular will help your usage. Since regular words have regular conjugations, I only enter verb forms for irregular verbs, entering 1st person conjugation in present, present perfect, preterite, imperfect, and conditional.
Sounds: Every card should have two voices ... that of a native speaker and your voice! Forvo.com allows you to quickly download a tiny sound file to with your flashcard.
Sentences are easy to find but somewhat hard to find native speaker recordings. Use this as an opportunity to record your own. You can even do that right on your Anki card ... there is a little, round, red record button on the right side of the tool bar on the flashcard. This is great practice and you can re-record the sentence as you grow in your ability to hear correct pronunciation.
An additional benefit of recording your own sentences is that it makes a bigger memory impression.
Instant feedback: At the bottom of each card, you evaluate yourself on how well you know the word or phrase. This triggers the space-repetition aspect of the system. Depending upon how you rate your understanding of the card, Anki will set the timing for the next appearance of this particular word or phrase. The goal of the system is to present it to you again just before you forget it. Once you've indicated you know the word, it may not show up again for six months or a year.
This spaced-repetition flashcard system puts the power of learning in YOUR hands. You are reviewing words YOU chose to learn and evaluating YOUR own level of understanding them.