[ Question ]

How do you learn foreign language vocabulary, beyond Anki?

by Elizabeth1 min read26th Aug 201921 comments



I am using Anki to learn German vocabulary. It is great for keeping words memorized once I have them at least 30% down, but for entirely new vocabulary I'm really struggling. Anki is especially lacking when there's more than one completely-unknown word in my deck- I memorize [the possible list of orphan English words in my deck] instead of connecting the German word with the English (my only goal is to read, so memorizing English->German isn't important). I go through 20 vocabulary words in a minute and then spend the last 5 minutes circulating through the same 10.

Things I have tried so far:

  • Look up the word in context. All of my vocab words come from books I'm reading, so there's always at least one reference sentence. This kind of works, in that I often do remember the word once I see the context, but doesn't seem to make me better at recognizing the word in Anki. With at least some of these it's clear I've just memorized the whole sentence but wouldn't recognize the word.
  • Writing novel sentences using the words. This would be a total win if I also wanted to learn to write, but I'm not otherwise building that skill, so I'm limited to simple sentences. I could add "learn to write" to my goals but that seems significantly harder to self teach, because checking my work is harder than looking up the same sentence in the English version of the book.
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I learned a significant fraction of my english vocabulary by watching all of the new Doctor Who show with subtitles (almost a decade ago). Your mileage might vary.

If all you want is be able to read, I don’t think translation flash cards are the way to go (these are useful if you want to to be able to quickly find a corresponding word in your native language). When learning to read in foreign languages, I create flash cards where the “question” is a sentence in the target language (German in your case) with one unfamiliar word, which I put in bold. I succeed if I correctly understand the word in the context of this sentence. In the answer, I put the definition in the target language (German here) for the appropriate sense.

Usually, this is enough for me to understand the word when I meet it in new sentences, assuming it’s used in the same sense. In cases where I failed to learn it, I just add a second flashcard with a new sentence containing that word.

For “encyclopaedic” words like species of animals or plants, kinds of food, towns, etc. it’s in fact more useful to put a translation in your language rather than a definition in the target language, assuming it is a familiar concept in your own language. (And not try to learn several similar animals, plants, … at once, otherwise I mix them up.)

I usually take the sentence from a dictionary targeted at learners (sometimes I use the sentence where I found the word, if it’s the only unfamiliar word in it). For English, I use The Cambridge Learner’s Dictionary. For German, Langenscheidt Großwörterbuch Deutsch als Fremdsprache might be a good one (what’s important is that there are example sentences).

1. Obviously there are many general techniques for memorization you can use, which mostly amount to moving the task into either sensory/visual or spatial memory. Visual and spatial memory are huge, fat larger than verbal memory.

2. With Anki specifically:

2.1 Include an example of use in a sentence (as a separate note from the bare word).

2.2 I find it is very very useful to bring words in initially only a few at a time e.g. 5 at a time. If I bring in 50 new words I find, as with your experience, I am cycling around and the cycle time exceeds my memory.

2.3 Do it every day. I found my progress more than doubled

With these techniques I learned 1500 Italian words pretty fast. (the vocab required for B1 level).

3. Reading really helps to build vocabulary. You get exposed to the most common words more frequently, in an automatic and natural way. Start with really simple material and build up.

18 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 10:45 AM

Can you give an example of the words that you cannot memorize and the sentence they are coming from (with a translation)?

Are those basic words or probably some rare ones? Depending on the frequency of those words appearing again I would suggest either:

  • If they are fairly common, add some related words to force some redundancy.

    I use Anki to memorize Japanese vocabulary, and in my case I pick words that share the same kanji than the hard word. For example, the word 図書館 (library) can be made redundant and easier to remember by adding 図書係 (librarian) and 図書 (books).

    Bigger words sometimes are composed of two (or more) smaller ones, which are easier to memorize and also help to remember the original one (I know it happens sometimes in German, but I'm not sure how frequent they are). I guess that you can pick some words with the same roots in German, but I'm not sure how easy is to find them in a dictionary or some other source.

  • If they are somehow obscure, it might be better to drop them for now.

    As you mentioned, you are spending much more time on those words than the others and it seems it is not helping to memorize them now. That time could be used to learn other words, and it might be a better use of it. And, if you are exposed to those hard words again in the future, with a bigger vocabulary, it may be easier to remember them by having a more solid base (for example, some words were very difficult to grasp in the past, but similar words now are much easier). Sometimes seeing a word that was hard for me in a different context make a huge difference and I can easily remember them, and it is not just the effect of being exposed to it again.

Sure. These are the first 5 that came up on Anki that I didn't know


Sie hatten das Haus erreicht/They had reached the house


Sie begeben sich auf eine gefährliche Reise/They began a dangerous journey



aber es ist weitaus düsterer und bedrohlicher als Quentin es sich je vorgestellt hatte/ but it is much darker and more threatening than Quentin had ever imagined


Aber dazu war er noch nicht bereit/But he was not yet ready.

It's chance that no nouns came up, I have just as much trouble with them.

They are not too complex nor rare, so I suggest that you use some related words to increase your exposition to them in a slightly different way. More concretely what I usually do for hard word is:

  • Pick the noun that derived the adjective/adverb, or the other one.

    For example, dangerous (gefährliche) <-> danger (gefähr ??) I rely mostly on the suffix like 'lich', because it preserve the original word. There are other ones like in the case of imagine(d) -> imagination, and as your vocabulary expands and you are able to recognize them easier the memorization gets easier.

  • Pick the antonym or some related words that strongly associated with the original word.

    For example, danger -> safety, or -> accident. As your vocabulary expands, you will probably be able to easily identify the other word to give the context you need to recall the hard word. You can also employ some kind of code to denote that it is the antonym , like 'danger <> safety', or have a specific relation.

  • Pick some longer words that are composed by the hard one and a word you already know.

    It seems counter-intuitive, but some of them are easier than the root word because each of them restrict the possible meaning of the other one. It does not have to be a single word, but one that both words usually come together, like 'finally reached' or ' ready for use'. You can also "cheat" and just pick the words that appeared in the original sentence. It feels like "over-fitting", but it is amazing how can you sometimes remember where you read the word for the first time and what it was its context.

I also noticed that most words are already formed by a prefix. I'm not sure how regular are the words in German when you remove or change their prefixes, but it might also help to get the shorter ones memorized, and then the ones built from them will be easier to learn.

For simple nouns and verbs, you could use pictures as the prompt? I find this really helpful for building memorable associations, and helps me 'taboo' English on the flashcards.

Another suggestion is to add some kind of personal connection or mnemonic device. I haven't used this myself, but it's recommended in a book called Fluent Forever, which is all about learning languages through spaced repetition.

I do like that suggestion about trying to remove the English word and just try to associate the foreign word with the concept/thing.

A little unrelated to you original question, but it seems useful.

I could add "learn to write" to my goals but that seems significantly harder to self teach, because checking my work is harder than looking up the same sentence in the English version of the book.

You can try Lang-8 where some native speakers correct your writing while you do the same for some other users. I used it in the past and the community was very good, the texts I submitted were corrected very fast (it depended on the time I have posted them, but usually less than a day, and sometimes in a few minutes), and most users also added some good comments on how to sound more natural or some suggestions of alternatives.

Lang-8 looks incredible, thank you.

What's your actual goal here (i.e. what types of things are you actually reading?)

I don't have any experience to offer, but my first guess is that if you're reading, and looking up unfamiliar words as they come, that seems like that'd be sort of a more natural distribution of what-words-to-learn as well as the context in which they appear. (i.e. unless you have a special reason to care, seems like learning words in isolation without context probably isn't that important)

(Weirder suggestion to gain "immersion": play an German MMO where you have to text at people) :P

Right now I'm reading my favorite adult novel. The goal is to read history books that haven't been translated into English.

Is the issue something like "reading your favorite novel is fun enough that you're motivated to look up words you don't know, but reading history books would be dense enough that if you had to look up words as you went you'd give up?"

It's more that I have my favorite novel half memorized and that can count as the context in the sentence "figuring it out from context", and I don't have any history book memorized the same way.

I can envision history books being as fun as The Magicians (which is why I want the ability to read them), but can't identify the interesting ones ahead of time. I think the transition step is reading the same history book in English and German, which I've identified some candidates for.

I found early on, when learning a foreign language (German and French), that it was better to read English books translated into the language at first. They tended to be lighter on the colloquial and idiomatic expressions.

There is a great book "Teach yourself a foreign language quickly" by Azzopardi tha I would recommend. It is really excellent for languages with phonetic scripts. PM me if you can't find it; I can lend you a copy.

One thing that slowed me down is my failure to 'believe' that gender of nouns is important. In German it is vital to learn the genders of nouns. Similarly in Italian (and you also need to remember the doubled consonants and where the accent lies).

You cannot learn a language in a big rush. Persistence is the key.

not sure if this would help or not. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AbvaITy3oeQ

Basically someone talking about how to use Anki effectively based on his own experiences and what he found he was doing wrong.

It might be not so great as it's about learning medical terms for med school so not quite a new language.

Not sure if you've seen Quizlet before or not. I like that tools it offers. If you have not already looked at that you might take a look. Not sure how easy it would be but Quizlet also allows sharing decks with others so if you have anyone you are learning with -- or are in any online groups for learning German that might provide some options to help.

It sounds like you've already homed in on one of the big items -- relevance and context to you personally.

One last thing, do you speak the word aloud? If not maybe try. That will engage other parts of your brain and so perhaps create more links to the meaning and a stronger memory of the word and meaning.

Last edit... Do you listen to any German language music or watch German language movies/shows?

Last edit... Do you listen to any German language music or watch German language movies/shows?

No, because my goal is reading only.

I did understand that. I find that my ability to read Korean is improving with my ability to understand the spoken language and my vocabulary improved faster than with just flash cards.

Might be me but my thinking was still along the lines of forming more connections to the meaning and so making it more efficient learning of the vocabulary.

I find my ability to speak foreign languages greatly improved by listening to music, conversations, TV shows and movies.

At least at the conversational level; this is more notably so in German where there are so many articles to learn, and many expressions such as 'doch' and 'ach so' which are so common in every day speaking. By watching and listening people converse with each other —instead of just reading and memorizing over and over the same sentence—the articles and these expressions began to appear naturally and many of my previous mistakes subdued.

So, if your end goal is to understand a language there is a case to be made for listening rather than just reading, it may very well be just how we really learn languages. Of course this is always one test away.

I'm an avid Anki user, but I don't think I would use it to learn a new language. I think the way I would go about this (I've done this before although I've not really optimized the "method") is to have TV shows or movies with the audio in the particular language you want to learn while having both your native language subtitles and the audio-language subtitles up in the screen (there are actually several programs that allow you to do just this, one is: GOMPLAYER).

This could work even better if you see a TV show or movie you have already seen previously but this time in the language you're trying to learn (this has the downside of not being the natural audio of the show, you already know everything that happens and you miss the cultural knowledge but you can also pay half of the attention you would than if it were a new show).

I do want to note that I haven't tried Anki for languages and since it works quite surprisingly well for mathematics I would be willing to give it a try (for doing this I would use many of the plugins).

EDIT: Since this has been initially down-voted, I want to add that I've done exactly this to learn various languages and very quickly so. I also think it could be a very good complement to learning foreign languages with Anki (without replacing it).