Not Your Bubbe’s Flashcards

Alright, I’m back from studying Russian. Now let me tell you about a new tool I’ve discovered (if reading about on someone else’s blog counts as discovering) that has almost singlehandedly rescued my Russian from the abyss of desuetude. It’s called Anki. Sometimes I affectionately call it Ankele.

 So what’s the deal? Well, let’s start with the question, What’s the problem with flashcards in the first place? I’ve made light use of flashcards in the past, but the problem was that I’d keep looking at the same ones over and over again, and then if I decided I’d remembered something and got rid of the flashcard, or just got bored of the same set, I’d stop looking at them, and then subsequently forget the words. Now a system was devised by a German dude named Sebastian Leitner to overcome these failings. In this system (according to Wikipedia),

flashcards are sorted into groups according to how well you know each one. This is how it works: you try to recall the solution written on a flashcard. If you succeed, you send the card to the next group. But if you fail, you send it back to the first group. Each succeeding group has a longer period of time before you are required to revisit the cards.

For example, suppose you have 3 groups called Group 1, Group 2 and Group 3. The cards in Group 1 are the ones that you often make mistakes with, and Group 3 contains the cards that you know very well. You might choose to study the Group 1 cards once a day, Group 2 every 3 days, and the Group 3 cards every 5 days. If you look at a Group 1 card and get the correct answer, you “promote” it to Group 2. A correct answer with a Group 2 card “promotes” that card to Group 3. If you make a mistake with a Group 2 or Group 3 card, it gets “demoted” to Group 1, which forces you to study that card more often.

The advantage of this method is that you can focus on the most difficult flashcards, which remain in the first few groups. The result is, ideally, a reduction in the amount of study time needed.

Of course, if I wanted to implement this on my own, I’d have to carry around a bunch of boxes full of flashcards, and keep track of when to look at the cards in each box. Sounds like more trouble than it’s worth!

The genius of Anki (and, presumably, similar flashcard programs) is that all this is automated, with the computer deciding when to show you which cards. Furthermore, Anki allows you to store all your cards for free on their website, so you can access them from anywhere you have an Internet connection. Also, they show you cool graphs where you can see your progress charted in various ways. All this adds up to making learning vocabulary feel a bit like playing a computer game! It’s like I’m able to create my own personalized Pimsleur program.

It immediately occurred to me to first apply this to my Russian. Far more than for my other languages, the bottleneck for Russian has been in absorbing all the vocabulary, much of which doesn’t sound like anything I already know, and all the inflection (conjugating verbs, declining nouns, etc.) which is highly irregular. Furthermore, I haven’t been able to practice speaking Russian to let all this stuff sink in, so that I never quite got to the point where I could feel comfortable having even a simple conversation.

Now, one important tool I’d found earlier was a Russian frequency list. What’s a frequency list? Just what it sounds like: a list of words in a language in the order of the frequency with which they appear (usually along with this frequency). Of course no one can count all the instances of all words used in a language, so part of compiling a good frequency list is choosing a good sample of your language. This is known as a corpus. But more on that another time.

So I had my frequency list, and proceeded to go down and find all the words I didn’t know yet. I wrote these in a little notebook along with their meanings and took this around with me, peeking in it and going down the list every once in a while. But this proved ineffective. It was too inefficient, and too boring to just look at the same list all the time, hoping I was memorizing everything. I tried making flashcards a couple times, but I didn’t get much further, and so my Russian was a held hostage for a time, frozen in an unfriendly languid state I like to call a plateau. Learning should ideally work like a chain reaction, where positive feedback allows each bit of information to connect to other bits and help them to fall into place. A plateau is where that chain reaction breaks down due to some obstacle (or several). The level of your knowledge stays where it is, and can even decline if the stagnation discourages you from even using what you already know. Getting through these plateaus always requires some new thinking, some new method to get the learning juices flowing again. Enter Anki.

I started inputting all my frequency list words into Anki a little over a week ago, along with different inflections of those words and examples of their use culled from resources (books such as “5000 Russian Words”, “Roots of the Russian Language”, “Modern Russian: An Advanced Grammar Course”, and more). Everything I put into Anki. And don’t think it doesn’t take time! I’ve spent hours and hours each day doing this, inputting (that’s most of the work), and actually using the program. But the results have been astounding. Now, I haven’t had much chance to actually speak much Russian since then, but I have been reading news articles in Russian (from BBC Russian, Google News Russian, and so on). Immediately before Anki, I felt like I understood maybe 30% of what was in an average article, not enough to connect the pieces. Now I feel like it’s more like 80%, enough to figure most of the rest out from context. Keep in mind these results are far from scientific, but who cares? The point is I’ve been launched to a place where I can now use reading and further Anki use to propel myself forward. The chain reaction has been reignited.


7 Responses to “Not Your Bubbe’s Flashcards”

  1. julie Says:

    Ya neezniyoo siem ruskikh slof! (Maybe Anki could help with that….)

    Sounds good. I should definitely try this with my Hungarian….

  2. bekkster Says:

    Hmm, this is cool. I think I need this for my German, since my vocabulary currently exists of like 5 words even though I know how to conjugate both present and past tense verbs (which is of no use to me since I don’t know what any of the verbs actually mean)!

    I’m really interested in corpus linguistics– I think I’m going to do my Master’s Report on it. Have you heard of Collocation dictionaries? I’ve been researching those, too– they connect words with all the phrases they’re used in, i.e., “ride– a bike, in a car, a horse” etc. They’re pretty cool.

    Also, one note for your flashcards– and you probably already know this from your linguistics studies– but they say that studying words in context is always the best, so maybe you could group your words according to theme, i.e., house words, writing transition words, whatever. This would definitely complicated your system of already-grouped flashcards, but it’s an idea.

    By the way this is Rebecca again. I made a WordPress account (I shall soon attempt to lure you into reading my blog, but as of now I have no entries).

  3. boredstrakhirstatistiker Says:

    Collocation dictionaries probably would be very useful. Unfortunately, I don’t have any. Instead I do have a few books of idioms (Hungarian, Russian, Yiddish), which to varying degrees (the Hungarian far more than the others), includes collocations. (See below for what these are.)

    I hear what you’re saying about learning words by theme. And that is often how you learn words in textbooks. This definitely has its place, but there are a couple problems. One is that you miss out on a lot of very common (often abstract) words that don’t easily fit into categories. Like “situation”, “possibility”, etc. The other is that many of the words you do learn are not very common, and in a sense you’ve wasted your energy learning a word like “armchair” with your house words or “eyelash” with your body words when you could have learned much more frequently encountered words. (Of course, these are important words to learn later on, but that’s when you’re speaking and reading a lot more and will encounter those words enough to make it worth your while.) For more on this read this very very interesting article: Vocabulary Coverage in Spanish Textbooks: How Representative is It?

    But I do believe in learning words in context, and to that end about half of my flashcards (or more) are actually full sentences instead of single words. That way I’m right away using the words in their proper context (I get the sentences from my books) and probably pick up many collocations on the way.

    [For the rest of you: A collocation is a combination of words that tend go with each other, like “make a decision” or “set the table”. There’s no particular reason these words have to go together; they just do. (Proof: In England the corresponding phrases are “take a decision” and “lay the table”.)

    An idiom, meanwhile, is a collocation whose meaning can’t be understood by analyzing the individual words, like “kick the bucket”. However usually when people say ‘collocation’ they mean a collocation that’s not an idiom. Got it? For more info see: ]

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  7. Yelena Says:

    Yankl, oyb du darfst emetsn mit vemen tsu redn Rusish, mir kenen gefinen a sho do un dortn tsu shmuesn!

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