How to learn vocabulary – Part 2

How to start with Anki

(a technical guide to Anki, if you don’t want to use it, you can skip this paragraph)

  1. Create a deck, e.g. "Spanish", with Create Deck button.
  2. Go to Tools, on the bar at the top. Choose Manage note types.
  3. Click Add. Then Add: Cloze. Choose a name for the type of flashcards, e.g. "Standard for Spanish".
  4. Click on the newly created type. Choose Fields... on the right. Delete the field "Extra" and add two new fields: "Pronunciation" and "Picture". Now there should be three fields: "Text", "Pronunciation" and "Picture".
  5. Choose "Cards..." on the right. Add to the upper and lower field the same two lines of code: < br > (without spaces) and "{{Picture}}", like on this picture: .
    Your upper and lower fields should look like mine on this picture. Here it's in better quality if you can't see it. Ignore the middle field.
  6. Now close those option windows. You're ready to make new flashcards.
  7. To add a flashcard, click on your deck and then Add at the top. Make sure to choose Type as the one you've created so "Standard for Spanish" or whatever you named it.

Now when you are adding a flashcard you should see this:

How to make good flashcards

(also some general points but with details and resources for making flashcards)

I’ll use the Spanish word as an example but it’s a general guide. I'm not learning Spanish myself so don’t worry if you aren't either. So, suppose you want to learn the Spanish word for to trustconfiar. It goes with a preposition after it so you want to learn the whole construction. So we will look for "confiar en (alguien)" = “trust (somebody)”.

  1. First, check if the expression you want to learn is correct and natural. The best way to do it is looking up several phrases in both languages on Reverso. For example, we'll look for "trust", "to trust", "trust him", "trusted you", "trust your instincts" to see if confiar really is the right word and if it really is used with en after it. Then we'll look for "confiar en", "confió en" ("he/she trusted") to see if it's really a natural way to say this, judging by the number of results. We'll also look at other translations that show up in our searches and examine the example sentences below. Maybe there is a more common word for "trust" than "confiar"? Maybe "confiar" also means something else? Maybe one word is used in one context, but another in some other context? Maybe there are some fixed expression with this/another translation?
  2. Choose a sentence. You can use Reverso (available for a variety of languages), google in the news, use a dictionary that provides good example sentences, use Wiktionary etc. Choose a sentence that makes it relatively easy to guess what word is missing after you remove the word you want to learn. Choose a sentence with other words you don't know or with interesting constructions. Try not to ignore very long and complex ones, especially on Reverso. Let's choose "Pero si lo haces el tiempo suficiente, aprendes a **confiar en** tus instintos." (But if you do it long enough, you learn to trust your instincts). Paste it into the "Text" field.
  3. If you think the context is not entirely clear, you can add a hint (in your target language) below — a wordy explanation, another way to say this or a synonym. For example: “to slow down = not accelerate”, “I can’t stand it = it’s enough, it’s too much”, “feed your dog = give food” etc. Here we’ll choose e.g. “ tener fe” (have faith), a sort of synonym.
  4. Mark the part you want to learn, here "confiar en" and click the [...] button (fourth from the right). If you want to add multiple clozes on one flashcard, you can choose the words and click on the [...] button again. But you need to make sure that each cloze on the card starts with "{{c1::" (without quotes)!!! Just change the numbers: e.g. "{{c3::WORD}}" to "{{c1::WORD}}". Those c1, c2, c3 are for making different clozes covered at different times the card is shown. You can experiment with this feature, but I don't recommend it — it's pretty complicated and can get messy. I suggest changing each cloze so that it begins with "{{c1::")*. It's acually very useful. For example: {{c1::Has}} he {{c1::told}} you {{c1::about}} his new idea?
  5. Find a pronunciation audio. Go to Forvo (available for pretty much every language you can think about). Make sure you have an account and download the audio file (with the arrow next to "Share").
  6. Click on the "Pronunciation” field and then click the clip button (third from the right). Find the audio file you've downloaded and choose it.
  7. You can also add the IPA transcription to the "Pronunciation" field. For Spanish it's not necessary because it is an extremely phonetic language (the letters almost always represent the same sounds) and dictionaries usually don't have the IPA. But for other languages you can usually find it on English Wiktionary or the Wiktionary in your target language, e.g. in French. Also for English I use the transcriptions from Oxford Dictionaries.
  8. You can add a picture. Use Google Images for that and choose one, if you think it will help you remember the word. Try to download the thumbnail without clicking on the full photo, otherwise it can be too big. Click again on the clip and choose the picture you've downloaded.

Now your flashcard should look like this: .

Of course you don't have to include pictures for some flashcards. When there is no pronunciation on Forvo, don't add it either. Making those flashcards becomes very fast and easy after a few days. Remember that you are still learning and you don't waste your time while making them. You learn even more when you browse through example sentences while looking for the right one, because for each word you read a dozen different sentences, you learn a lot of new words and constructions, become more fluent in reading and writing.

When you want to learn using your flashcard collection, click on the deck and then Study now. Flashcards you've created will look like this (it will also play the audio you've added after you turn it over):


Now you can let the app teach you the words you've added.
You can also use Anki for simple word/translation flashcards, if you want to learn different things in a different way. If you're not sure how to do it, check my explanation under this comment.

Where to find words to learn

(general points, mostly on resources)

Don't start learning with Anki until you have at least 100 words in the deck. If I use some vocabulary base, I first spend a couple of months creating flashcards from that base and only after I've finished it, I start with Anki. You can adjust your daily limit of words. I've used 30 new + 30 revisions for regular learning (~45-60 minutes for one session). Before that, you can continue with your normal learning. If you read newspapers, put new words to Anki. If you watch videos, put new words to Anki. Note that it’s much more convenient to put the words on a list first and then spend some time making flashcards for a few dozen words from that list at once. This way you don’t need to stop watching or reading every time you want to add a new word.

You can also take time and focus specifically on vocabulary. I chose this option myself and definitely recommend it. Probably the best thing to use are frequency dictionaries. These are lists of a few thousand most common words in a language. I went through the first about 2000-3000 for French and German and it gave me an enormous boost. Then I could start working on listening comprehension with YouTube videos. Note that this really takes a lot of time. Going through these 2000 words and putting into Anki those you don’t already know can take months. But if you read statistics on how much percent you should understand once you’ve learned a certain number of the most common words, you will see it’s worth it. If you choose learning with frequency lists, I recommend starting with going through the list as fast as you can. You should really focus your language learning on this for a while to eventually get through these words and see the effects. Tell yourself to get through, for example, 100 words every day. Put into Anki words you don’t know. After some time, when you finish that first 2000 (or any number you choose), you can start learning regularly with Anki the words you’ve added. This is what I did when I was learning myself and I was very satisfied with the effects. but you can of course find a method that is better for you.

I've used Frequency Dictionaries by Routledge. They're just perfect and they are enough for a few months or maybe a year of intensive vocabulary learning. Highly recommend, this is one of the best resources I’ve ever used for language learning. But you can also use free lists from the Internet. Look for "frequency list for ..." and choose some decent list if you want (there are some on Wikipedia for example but I haven’t used any lists from the internet so I can’t recommend anything).

I don’t think many people will get through that to this point, I’m really impressed if you did :D I hope you have found any things or ideas you will use in your learning. Let me know if you had tried before any of the methods I've mentioned. Do you have any tips for me from your own experience? What should I change in this guide? Please tell me about the parts that are not clear, could have been written better, made easier to read/understand etc. Also if you have any questions or problems with Anki, write in the comments and I'll try to answer. Thank you very much for reading and good luck :)

March 29, 2017


This is an amazingly comprehensive guide! Take a few lingots as a reward for your dedication and hard work. Keep it up! These are the kind of meaningful posts for which these forums are searching! =D

March 29, 2017

Thank you! :)

March 29, 2017

3 lingots for your 3 posts

March 30, 2017

Really wonderful and super helpful post. I have to truly thank you for taking the time to do this. I will follow your advice and use this with the Anki deck I'm building. Prior to reading this, I was really struggling with adding the sound recordings and didn't know how to do the fill-in blanks. You have saved me a TON of time with this. If you are ever in the Washington DC area, look me up. I owe you a drink! :)

For those of you that have not tried making Anki flashcards before, I really do recommend it. Using Google image search for the words (in the native language) makes it really fun. You have NO idea what comes up. I have found some pretty amazing connections that I never would have made in the language without doing this exercise. The information I have put into Anki is stickier than what I have experienced with other platforms, the images, lack of translation, and personal connection really do seem to make it three or four times more effective than other tools I've tried.

A few thoughts: 1. I have found that using pictures that have a lot of emotion/ connection seems to work well for me. I seem to be remembering vocabulary faster by selecting photos that look like people I know, or that elicit strong emotions. Have you had more success trying to make these really personal? 2. Have you used the App? I have an iPhone and they charge a fair amount for the App. Curious to see if you think it is worth it?

Notes on the English:

Just a few things to improve the grammar in this, since you asked! I just want to help you since you helped me. :) If my Spanish ever gets even CLOSE to your English I will be happy!!

  1. (Part 1) "give much better effects." Change to: give much better results.
  2. (Part 2) " I don’t learn Spanish myself so don’t worry if you don’t either. "
    Change to: "I am not learning Spanish.... if you aren't either." Or you can go past tense, but I think it sounds better in the present progressive tense.
  3. (Part 2) "So, suppose you want to learn the Spanish word for to decide — decidirse. It goes with some preposition after it, so you want to learn the whole construction."
    Change to: It goes with a preposition...
  4. (Part 2) " Choose such a sentence that it will be easy to guess what word is missing when you remove the word you want to learn. "
    Change to: Choose a sentence that makes it easy....
    or Choose a sentence which will make it easy...
  5. Overall, at least in the US, we use a lot of commas. Sprinkle them around like candy. :)
March 31, 2017

Thanks for the corrections :) Is it true about the commas? I must say I'm surprised. Commas are used much more frequently in Polish than in English so I always thought I overused them.

Also thanks for your thoughts on making personal connections. I forgot to emphasize this in the posts and I've just added two sentences about it. As I said in the posts only a few percent of my flashcards have pictures on them. It's because when I was rushing through those frequency dictionaries I found looking for right pictures too time-consuming. I think it's very subjective and the effect with pictures is not as strong for me. But I found including IPA transcriptions and audio extremely helpful. When I make flashcards for French, I'm almost always sure how to pronounce the word and can write the IPA transcription myself but I add these two things anyway because they makes the word easier to remember for me and learning can be very boring sometimes without the audio.

As to the app, I don't use iOS so I can't say anything about this version. But I use the one for Android and it's actually brilliant. It works really well, the synchronization works surprisingly well and fast too. But I don't think I would pay for it if I used iOS. I don't use the mobile app very often. If you are often not at home or have little time to use Anki on your computer, it's a great option. Anyway, you shouldn't be disappointed by its quality (though, again, I've only used the Android app).

March 31, 2017

Thanks again for this extra help, I have made a number of flash cards now and I'm trying to add the audio as you suggested. Mostly due to lack of time, I have not ventured yet into IPA. Spanish is similar enough to English that I am just leaving it out for now, but I can see how it would be very useful for what you are doing, since you are learning so many languages!!

I have no concept of how much commas are used in Polish, but I find that in English, the tendency has been to move towards shorter sentence structure. Of course, that means less need for commas, but they are still quite common. Here's an article about comma usage in English, you want to nerd it up:

It is not clear how to use them even for native speakers. So don't feel bad. :)

April 3, 2017

You're right with the IPA, especially since Spanish is a very phonetical language. Still, you don't need to learn phonetics in-depth. And the basic knowledge of it is really critical. I don't know if you know the Youtube channel of the author of Fluent Forever. He makes fantastic phonetic introductions there. I just love them. In fact I found him through this channel when I was looking for phonetics resources.

Each one has three parts — consonants, vowels and spelling. Here's the link to the first part for Latin American Spanish (click on Video 2 and Video 3 after this one). And here's for European Spanish (don't know which one you prefer).

The best thing about those videos is that they're very brief and concise (and I think simple for someone who is new to this) and cover roughly all you need to know about Spanish phonetics. If you are learning Spanish you don't need to learn the whole IPA and all those crazy sounds, just differentiate between those used for Spanish, the ones mentioned in those videos. Also the Wikipedia's IPA for... article can be helpful when you want to recap on those sounds and symbols. I love them because you can learn everything about basic phonetics of a language in about half and hour. So it's a perfect option for me when I'm starting a new language on Duolingo to get to know the basics but also for people who don't want to or don't have the time to delve into phonetics and learn it in-depth. After all it's not too much of an effort to watch 3 Youtube videos :)

April 3, 2017

I watched the videos, they are very good!! You were right- they are super useful for understanding, especially the mechanics behind the sounds. I'm now quite a ways through my minimal pairs training. Some of them are very easy for me... others.... not so much. The worst is bil/ beal and bivi/ B. V.

So help me God I cannot hear the difference! This really makes me wonder about my accent. I must sound really awful with these sounds, since I can't hear the difference after a solid week of working on it.

The cool part is that some of the sounds, at least a few of them, seem to be easier for me to hear. I'm doing better with the separation between words too- which in Spanish at least, is tricky.

Thank you again for your great advice!

April 10, 2017

Somehow I've never really tried working on phonetics using minimal pairs. I know they were recommended a lot in the book but I never knew how to do it effectively and ended up using other methods. Did you use those decks from Fluent Forever or some other sources? I don't really feel like buying those decks and I couldn't find any good free resources for that.

April 12, 2017

Really wonderful, these posts about learning vocabulary! Thank you!

March 30, 2017

I read your guide and unfortunately realised that I have been using Anki in wrong way for a few years. I have created 8000 translation flashcards, and daily I spend about half an hour reviewing them. Since this is not the first time I hear about no translation principle and learning with clozes, I will try this method. If it is successful, I will have to abandon all my all cards.

Regarding the frequency lists, I think that they are not suitable for me. My primary goal is to read military-historical texts and to use them in my research. Specific terminology surely is far away behind most frequently used words.

April 13, 2017

Don't worry about the flashcards you'd created. I had been using Anki in a similar way for months too and had created about as many flashcards as you. I abandonded all of my flashcards, but because I started using the frequency dictionaries and realised that my previous decks were full of useless vocabulary. If you still think that the vocabulary you've gathered in your decks is relevant and this is the vocabulary you want to learn, you can use those decks like I used the dictionaries. You can spend some time going through them and making new better flashcards with the words from the old ones.

Also I don't think the no translation principle is perfect for learning specific vocabulary you've mentioned. For technical terms you can make an exception and add the translation and/or the definition. But it's still important to keep the other elements of the flaschard (like example sentence, picture, audio) and not have white dull word/translation flashcards. If you are learning a language in such a way, you can also make two separate decks: one for normal vocabulary (with flashcards made using all those principles) and one for specific/technical terms (with translations added).

The no translation principle is great for learning a language in general but in some situations, it's OK to cheat a little. For example, my French and German decks don't have any translations at all. I'm planning to start learning Russian and I won't add any translations in the new deck as well. But I also have an English deck for learning (not very frequently but still regularly) new vocabulary that I come across and don't know. These are very often specific words (like nouns) so my English flashcards look more like this:



(These are made, unlike the ones I've mentioned in the posts, using a modified flashcards type to make them look better and easier to read with so many fields. I can send you the code for them if you want.)

When you're already fluent in a language, this specific rule is, in my opinion, not necessary because you don't have to learn to 'feel' the language. Also knowing the common translations is useful at this level and the meanings of the words I'm learning are usually too subtle to be learned well in a traditional way. But again, it's important to keep the other features and the overall character of the flashcards: with sentences, context, audio, pictures etc.

April 13, 2017

Nice! But to write such a definition, you need to have some knowledge of the language. Otherwise, it is not of much use. I think that in some specific terms I may add a translation as a hidden field. I am experimenting with Russian flashcards now, since there literally a few of them in my stack ;)

Using old flashcards as a dictionary looks like a great idea. I will check it out!

April 13, 2017

You don't have to write your own definitions. You can simply use definitions from the internet. For English I use Oxford Dictionaries. Check various web dictionaries, find one that has good, precise and brief defitinions, and you can use them on your flashcards. A great thing about this is that you learn several new words when you copy-paste the definition (just like you learn from the context sentences).

April 13, 2017

I started even inserting drills from Foreign Language Course into Anki. Like expansion drills, switching from one conjugation to another. I use clozes with "normal" cards which I try to read out loud and to shadow. I noticed that my speaking abilities had improved very quickly and very significantly.

May 28, 2017

That's nice to hear! I also use Anki for such drilling and even for cramming random things when I need to. I like to read sentences aloud too, and it improves my speaking abilities as well. I think I should have mentioned it in the posts. Thanks for another thought I can add there.

May 28, 2017

What a great set of posts! Thank you ever so much for going to so much trouble. The "no translation principle" is something I will certainly implement!

Just a couple of questions. Firstly, have you found a way of making Anki accept more than one possible answer?

Secondly, do you know how to include more than one "note type" in a single set? So that, for example, a set includes cards of the more traditional translation type, as well as the cloze, no-translation type?

April 30, 2017

I'm not sure what you mean with your first question. You can put everything you know on the flashcard. I've added a note about making multiple clozes on one flashcard just now, thanks for reminding me. You can read it under point 3. of "How to make good flashcards". Use ctrl+F and paste "add multiple clozes".

Go to "Manage note types" like before and do everything like before, but this time choose "Add:Basic" instead of "Add:Cloze". Choose the name of the new note type. Then you can try adjusting the fields if you feel confident with Anki, or simply keep the two "Front" and "Back". Now when you're adding a flashcard to the deck, there are two fields on the top: "Type" and "Deck". You can click on them to change the note type or the deck. If you click the one on the left you should see a list "Choose note type". There you can choose from the types of cards you've made.

Be careful while adding cards to the decks because the last-used note type is remembered by default and it's easy to confuse the types and, for example, add a cloze on a simple translation card.

Let me know if this has helped, or tell me which part of that explanation is not clear enough.

April 30, 2017

Your explanation about adding different note types is clear, thank you.

In my first question I meant to ask whether it's possible, to take a Polish example, to have either "auto" or "samochód" as the correct answer in a cloze (so that either one or the other is accepted as correct). That is, assuming that it would be possible in a particular sentence. Polish is maybe not the best example, since it is so inflected, but I hope you now see what I mean.

April 30, 2017

When I have a situation like this, I do one of these two things:

  1. If I think I should know well both words, because they're both commonly used and one isn't much better or much more common than the other, I would make two separate flashcards (or more — I often make a few flashcards for one word, in different context or infelcted differently). Take to prefer in German. I'd search on Reverso, using keywords like these: 1, 2, 3, to get the general idea. I've found that there are two more or less equal ways to say to prefer in German — bevorzugen and vorziehen. Looking at the sentences, I'd make flashcards with these words used in some useful contexts: different flashcards for "bevorzugen", "vorziehen", "ich bevorzuge,", "ich ziehe es vor,". Maybe even two for each if the word is important like here. On each flashcard I would include the second translation as a hint: on the one with "ich ziese es vor," I'd add "(bevorzuge)", on the one with "vorziehen" I'd add "bevorzugen" etc. I do this very very often and I like how it works.

  2. However, if there is a second possible translation, but it's not as common as the other (again, take a look at sentences on Reverso to get the idea) or if I already know it, I wouldn't make separate flashcards for it. I'd still think it's good to be familiar with this word and I'd put it as a hint on the flashcard with the more common word. This is the case with your example. "Samochód" is much more common than "auto", so I'd make a flashcard with "samochód" and add "(auto)" in brackets under the sentences with the cloze. I like to do it with some more rare words, to include a few rarely used synonyms as hints. It makes you familiar with new words, even if they aren't as important as those common words.

April 30, 2017

I had anki and hated it. Now I'm going to try again with this method!!

May 28, 2017

Sound on Anki doesn't work (got words from Forvo) HOW TO FIX????

May 29, 2017

You need to install the audio player that the app uses. You should see a prompt if you haven't. I don't think I can help you much this way. Better try to google it.

May 29, 2017
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