You must surely recognise this situation. You’re at a party, you’ve been introduced to three people at once and already the names have flown out of your head. It’s both too soon and too late to ask again.
What you need is an instant notebook. The brain is supposed to be that. But you’ve an old model that freezes when too many windows are open. You may be under pressure. You may be thinking of other things. You may want to be in the moment rather than playing memorisation games (big nose to Delphine in one move, that Wordle kind of thing).
Learning a language can be like that too. Words fly by, only to be replaced by more words. If you lose focus for a moment, they evaporate before you can remember what it is you’ve forgotten.
What I needed was an instant notebook. And after more time searching than I care to admit, I’ve got one. I’ve been using it for more than a year now. It works, I like it, I’m not changing. This box has been ticked.
So here it is: my perfect notebook. It won’t be for everyone. You need to be slightly geeky – comfortable with spreadsheets. You need to pay €80 a year for a dictionary and a bit more if you want bells and whistles. But if that doesn’t put you off, maybe it will work for you too.
My perfect vocabulary notebook had to be:
- Digital Some swear by books and pencils, but I wanted to take advantage of the benefits contemporary technology brings.
- Fast I didn’t want taking notes to be an activity that took me out of the present moment.
- Monolingual Translating is an extra layer I can do without: I wanted my notes to be 100% French.
- Flashcard-compatible I use flashcards to learn things. This was a must have.
- Talking I want to be able to hear the expressions I’m looking to learn.
I found no single tool that does everything I want. The best dictionaries did not provide the best flashcard experience. The best flashcard tools don’t contain dictionaries. So my answer came by combining two best-of-class applications.
My Dictionary – Reverso Context
An excellent way to retain new vocabulary is to repeat it out loud. Our end goal is to eliminate the time between thought and articulation. By practising the link between an idea and its verbal expression we develop automatic reflexes.
But to get that practice, we need examples of correct usage and this is where Reverso Context comes in.
Reverso Context is a dictionary built on artificial intelligence: it crawls the web for translated texts and creates its knowledge base from the results. Type any word and you’ll get a list of sample uses. Star the ones you find useful and they’ll be added to your favourites. Your favourites can then easily be exported elsewhere.
This was exactly what I wanted out of my dictionary. The premium version ( €80 / year ) is needed to export the favourites. For me, it’s been well worth the investment.
My Flashcard Solution – Anki
We forget stuff all the time. Powerful emotional experiences stick. But raw data – such as foreign vocabulary – just gets lost unless we make an effort to retain it.
It’s by reminding ourselves at spaced intervals over time that we can reverse this natural forgetting mechanism. So flashcards – two-sided cards with a question and an answer – are a way of doping the mind.
Anki is the world’s most popular flashcard solution. It’s open source so it’s free but slightly clunky, as open source solutions often are. But none of the commercial alternatives are so powerful and flexible. So the clunkiness is worth putting up with.
For an optional $5 a month, HyperTTS will read out the words on the cards for you. The results are mechanical, but good enough for language learning. Iphone users may also want to buy the associated app (€30), though you can manage without it. The Android app is free.
From Reverso to Anki – via Google Sheets
I’d found my preferred dictionary and my preferred flashcard solution. Both have CSV import/export functionality, so can be linked. By going via a Google Sheet spreadsheet, I am able to transform the Reverso export into the format that I want for my Anki import.
The whole operation takes just ten to fifteen minutes. I do my import/export around once a month – a manageable investment of time.
The final result is flashcards that I can drill myself with. On one side there are sample sentences. Some words have just their initials: it’s by mentally filling the gaps that I exercise my memory. On the reverse side is the answer which I can listen to if I choose to.
If I get the question wrong, I’ll be asked again. If I get it right, I’ll be asked again but only in a few days time. With each successful recall, the time interval before I get asked again will get longer. Forget and the card will go back to the top of the deck.
This routine has now become part of my life. Through my funnel each day come fifteen expressions. It takes me 15 to 30 minutes to work on my decks. I start a new deck each quarter.
Most but not all of my new vocabulary sticks. It’s always a pleasure to re-encounter words that were previously unknown and have now been banked. It’s even better when one discovers oneself using them without thinking. It’s still not always possible to recall them at the right moment: there remains a gap between being able to answer a flashcard question correctly and being able to produce words when needed. One of the biggest benefit is shredding that drowning feeling. New expressions? Bring them on!
How do you build your vocabulary?
I’m always interested to know how others approach language learning. Do please share your experience using the form below. And if you have any questions about my routine, I’ll be happy to help.