Organizing and regularly going over a large amount of vocabulary when learning a foreign language can be intensely time consuming, and intensely boring. Anki is a really neat program, that helps you spread out your learning, and focus on stuff that you keep getting wrong.

Hello and welcome to our very first Language Learner Friday podcast. This is the first of what will hopefully be a series of podcasts, looking at general tips for language learning, focusing on Arabic in particular, but we’ll try and keep it as broad as possible, as often as we can.

So this first language learner Friday podcast, we’re looking at a really neat way of acquiring and retaining and revising vocabulary. So, I’m a bit of a efficiency junkie when it comes to vocabulary acquisition an vocabulary revision, because it can just take a lot of time, so if you can find a quick way of doing it, it’ll save you a lot of pain when it comes to language learning.

So to understand how this technique we need to go back to the late 19th century I think and a German psychologist by the name of Herman Ebbinghause. What Herman Ebbinghause is famous for, was a number of experiments he did on himself to test how his higher mental faculties, such as memory, were working. There are two there particularly relevant for our purpose today.

So there is something called the ‘spacing effect’. What he found was, suppose he has a list of items he is trying to memorise and he has decided he only revise this list of items on four separate occasions if he spaces those four separate occasions out over, let’s say a month and he compares that to another set of items that will be revised over a week and then he sees how well he’s able to retain them, what he found was surprising I suppose for us, he was able to retain the information he memorised over a month a lot longer than the information he memorised over a week. So I think we are familiar with this anyone who has ever crammed for an exam, if you space that information you are learning over a very short period of time, you’ll forget it very quickly as well. Whereas if you take the same information and revise it the same number of time, but space it out you will retain it a lot longer.

So this is related to something else he discovered was the forgetting curve. What he found was that if he spends some time and memorises a list until he knows it reasonably well, and them he sees how quickly is he forgetting the information that is on that list, and what he found was he as actually forgetting it quite quickly. So after 20 minutes he would have forgotten a good portion of it, after an hour another portion, and maybe after a day or a couple of day he might have forgotten the list all together. However if he comes back to it, if he came back to it, came back to that information and revised it again the next day and then plotted this forgetting curve looking at how quickly he was forgetting that information, the curve was a lot flatter, and if he came back to it again and revised it again, the curve was flatter still. So relating to the spacing effect if he just looks at the information and revises it over a consecutive number of days, he’s able to retain a lot longer and will forget it a lot slower, compared to if he just looks at it once.

So this was used by a guy called Sebastian Leitner, in the late twentieth century, 60’s or 70’s I think who used this information to come up with a really neat way of going through flashcards. So the traditional way that people usually go through flashcards is you just have a list of flashcards and you just go through them as often as you can, from beginning to end, shuffling them and do the whole pile as often as you can. Now Sebastian Leitner found a really neat way of focusing on those flashcards, which he was struggling with, so this is a slight adaptation of his method.

So what he did was, he had a series of boxes, and in box zero he’s got his full pile of flashcards, for example the capital cities of the world. And what he is going to do is everyday he is going to take a certain number, maybe no more than five and revise them and learn them until he knows them really well and they are going to go into box one. Now everything on box one has to be revised daily, so come the following day he will take another five and he’s going to learn them but he will also go through everything in box one, because that’s the daily box, once he’s comfortable with the material in box one it gets moves to box two, which will be revised once every two week, similarly when he becomes comfortable with the flashcards in box two they get moved to box 3 and so on. Box three will only be revised once a month, box four once every 2 months. Now if at any point he forgets one of the cards, he’s going to go all the way back to box one. Again it will go back into his daily revision schedule. What this forced him to do was space out the way he was going through his flashcards, so he was not going to go through all of them as often as he can because that’s quite inefficient, it’s going to take a long period of time.

What it’s going to do is easier flashcards like, London is the capital of the UK are going to get moved down quite quickly and more difficult flashcards, are going to stay here, or they are going to keep coming back his daily revision box, so that you are going to have to look over them more frequently. Taking account of both the forgetting curve, where we forget some information quite quickly, he’s focusing on the information he is forgetting quickly and that information will stay in box one, and the information that is taking longer to forget, or information he wouldn’t forget. Like London is the capital of England, that is going to get moved down and he will not revise that card except once every 2 months or 6 months or whatever. It’s also taking account of the spacing effect, by doing this, he is forcing himself to space out his revision, he’s not going to go through that entire stack of flashcards ever really, he’s only ever going to take five new cards and he is only ever going to look at some of the boxes on certain occasions. The daily one he will look at daily the weekly one he will look at on Monday and so on.

So now we come to the 21st century and we have an App for everything right? So there is this really neat App called Anki, it’s completely free to download and you can get in on your laptop, Android phone and iPhone, there is a payment I think if you get it on your iPhone, but other than that it is free, and it essentially does this for you. You create notes in Anki, there is lots of documentation on the Anki website about how you create notes, and those notes are turned into flashcards. There are lots of options, you can leave the default options, they are pretty good regarding how many new cards you want to look at today, how you want this spacing effect to work and so on. If you just leave it as it is by default it’s a good place to start and you can tweak he options once you are more familiar with the programs. Once you have created your flashcards it will take 20 new cards every day it will show them to you, and it will give you a series of options; did you get this wrong and want to review this card again or did you get it right but it was quite hard, so it may only move it down one box. Or was it good and you got it right so it might move it down a couple of boxes or was it easy and it might move that card down three boxes, if at any point you get a card wrong it will move it back to box one and start showing you that card again every single day.

So it’s a really neat program I use it a lot, you can also upload multimedia as well, so you can upload pictures and sound, so we have taken all the vocabulary and translation exercises for Basic Arabic Grammar part A and turned them into Anki cards you can download and will allow you to play around with how it works, there are sound files in there as well, so you can hear all the vocabulary and translation exercises. I really hope you use it; it’s a really neat program. I hope you let me know what you think about it and hopefully I will see you next week.

Download free Anki cards for Basic Arabic Grammar – Part A