How to learn vocabulary – Part 1

Anki and other methods

(comparison of different methods)

For those who don't know, Anki is an app for learning vocabulary based on the Spaced Repetition System (similarily to Duolingo). It’s kind of similar to Memrise, the difference is, here you make your own flashcards and personalise your learning much more. I know many people like or prefer Memrise but I've used both and I would argue that Anki can give much better results. The main reason people prefer Memrise is they don't want to 'waste' time making hundreds of flashcards if they can just use all the huge collections made by other users. The thing is, though it may be counterintuitive, the time spent on making flashcards in Anki isn't 'wasted'! The book I mentioned talks about it a lot. First, this time is just as important and effective as the time spent on proper learning. The time spent on learning in a wrong way can be wasted much more. I had been learning vocabulary for many months with very poor results before I started using Anki and then read that book. But I've heard about many people who spend years trying to learn a language but fail because of the wrong methods they use. Second, if you follow this method, during the process of creating flashcards you'll be learning many more words than those that land on your flashcards and also you'll greatly develop a sense for the language, similar to how you do it while translating many sentences on Duolingo or while reading in your target language. Third, you learn incomparably better with your own personalised flashcards made by yourself than with those made by other people. You should try to make as many personal connections while creating the flashcards as possible to make words easier to remember. I'll write more on how to do it in the next part. I've tried all those methods and I can confirm they are worth trying but if you want a more thorough analysis of that, I refer to the book.

How to learn vocabulary

(the most important topic, general points)

The tricky thing about Anki is that you can use it in a lot of bad ways, just as you can learn vocabulary in general in a lot of bad ways. You must know how to use it correctly to make it effective. This is the primary reason why I'm writing this. Learning vocabulary is one of the main topics of Fluent Forever and the author recommends Anki there. I had been using Anki already before I read that book but after I've read it I realised I had been using it in a lot of bad ways. I took a whole lot of hints and tips from that book and, I can say, revolutionised my learning of vocabulary. I'll try to mention the most important things to know about using Anki. I had been using Anki for a few months before that 'revolution' and the results weren't good until I've learned these things myself or read about them in the book. Seriously, I deleted about two thousand flashcards I had made because they were mostly word/translation in plain text and I realised they were pretty useless in the long run.

This method is based on a couple of rules:

  • 1. No translation — This is one of the three keys mentioned in that book and I fully agree with it. But it definitely may seem very controversial. It did to me at first, too. And it took me a while until I realised how powerful this idea really is. This is actually the most important and the most powerful idea in vocabulary learning. The point is your flashcards should contain no translations to your native language at all. I’ve been using this method for some time now and I can assure you, it works. You need to realise that you don't need to know the translation of a word. You need to know, most of the time subconsciously, just what this word means. Only this way you can understand spoken and written language fast enough. You will never be even close to fluency if you keep translating words. For example, I’m native in Polish and fluent in English. Very often I read a text in English and then my Polish friend asks me “What does this word mean?”. I usually need a few seconds to come up with the Polish translation. But sometimes I can’t find it at all or it occurs to me after a few minutes. I’ve read that text seeing an English word I know and understand and didn’t think about any Polish words at any moment. I like to imagine it like this: inside my brain, there is a cell containing an English word and all the information about it. This cell is connected to many ideas, pictures, thoughts, context I've seen it in, other English words, things that make me understand the idea behind this word and use it appropriately. There are similar cells for Polish words, French words etc. and it makes sense that the parts of my brain containing Polish and English are somehow separated. And rarely there is a connection between a cell from the Polish part with a cell from the English part. Of course, if you want to build a translating skill, you can build such connections. But it is a secondary process. And it takes much more time to transfer the data between the English and Polish parts, than inside the English part. You need more immediate connections than translations. This is basically where you should want to get with your vocabulary learning. It's important that you don't underestimate this advice. It's probably the most important one in these posts. After I read the book, it didn't seem like a very good idea to me, so I can understand what you may be thinking. I needed time to realise just how remarkable it is. While most of the tips here are more-or-less subjective and you can adjust them to your learning style, this one is crucial. So just trust me and try it.

However, if you are already fluent in the language you're learning and you are learning some specific or technical vocabulary (e.g. medical/military/legal terms), you can cheat a little and bypass this rule — read the discussion under this comment).

  • 2. Sentences and context — This is an extension of that no translation rule. How can you learn words if you can’t translate them? You put them into sentences. You take an example sentence, remove the word/phrase/grammatical form/expression you want to learn and then when you see this flashcard while learning, you try to fill this sentence fast. Why fast? Because you need to feel it's a natural word to be there, without analysing or translating the sentence. Notice that this way you also learn a lot of grammar and other vocabulary. Choose sentences with some other new words or some interesting grammar constructions. You can make flashcards specifically for more important/common words like 'sing' but still learn 'anthem' or 'choir' from the sentences you use for 'sing', without making separate flashcards for all those words. Try making several flashcards for one word in different forms, especially if this word has some irregular or commonly used different forms — to teach, you teach, he taught, depending on a language you’re learning (it's very important in languages with case inflection or conjugation). I'll write how to make flashcards with such sentences below (so if you’re not convinced by this method, you can find it at the end).

  • 3. What a flashcard should look like: pictures — In the beginning my Anki flashcards looked like those of most people. A word on one side, a translation on the other. This doesn’t work. I’ve already talked about how you replace translations with sentences in context. But you can also engage your other senses so that flashcards won’t be dull and words will be easier to remember. You can add a picture. Paste your word into Google Images and if you find an image that will help you remember this word, put it on the flashcard. If you can't, that's ok. Personally I have many flashcards without pictures. But you can experiment and find out how well this works for you. As I said earlier, the main idea is to make the flashcards personal, to make words easier to remember. Sometimes pictures are very helpful to make the context clear. You can almost always use them instead of translations. For example I have a flashcard for French: “We trusted you and you [...] us”. Without a hint I would wonder if it should be “lied to us”, "betrayed us", “disappointed us” etc. So I put a picture "The assassination of Julius Caesar" below. Pretty clear now.

  • 4. Pronunciation — Audio pronunciation on a flashcard is more important than pictures in my opinion (but it all really depends on how you learn and memorise better, remember it's all in order to engage your senses, try experimenting). Try to include audio pronunciation on all flashcards. If you know the IPA, put the phonetic transcription there, too (I'll put all the links for where to find those things below). Also I hugely recommend trying to read sentences on the flashcards aloud while learning. It helps to remember the word and can do wonderful things to your pronunciation and speaking skills in general.

March 29, 2017


Dziękuję bardzo! Learning vocabulary is the most difficult thing in language learning for me. Your post is very helpful. I think this is very good advice and I'll use it. It is what I looked for.

March 30, 2017

A program called WordDive uses pretty much that method. I liked it.

April 21, 2017
Learn a language in just 5 minutes a day. For free.