Tower of Babelfish
The Blog

In search of more efficient ways to learn languages.

  • Recent Posts

  • January 2014
    M T W T F S S
    « Dec    
  • Archives

  • Meta

  • Tags

  • Reader Q&A: How to learn abstract words, fixing ingrained grammar mistakes

    Posted on by

    Q: How do I learn abstract words like “to seem” and “to be”? A: Up until you have enough vocabulary to handle a monolingual dictionary, you’ll be reliant on context. My favorite source of words in context is the basic (old) version of Google Images plus Google Translate (I use the google toolbar to dump the Google images search results url directly into google translate). This will give me a bunch of pictures with translated captions underneath. Pick one that you like and turn it into a fill-in-the blank card. In Russian, my example for “seem” translates to “this house seems small“. I already know house and small and I remember enough about the meaning of the sentence that those two other words plus the associated picture from google images that the meaning stays pretty clear. Once that sentence makes sense to me then I can go in the other direction and have “to seem” on the front, and on the back my example sentence. In that card, I’m training myself to more-or-less remember in which context I’ve heard that word before.

    Basically, you use pictures to provide concrete anchor points, and you build bridges between them with connecting words (He is a boy, He is mean, the dog wants a bone). Once you’re comfy with those words then you build bridges on top of your bridges (he is drowsy = he wants to sleep a little, etc). The structure gets bigger and bigger underneath, and eventually you can handle a monolingual dictionary and things get easier. It’s a fun process, once you get used to it.

    Q: I speak German fluently, but I have a lot of ingrained mistakes.  Can I fix them? A: Write, write, write. At your level, it’s how you figure out exactly where your ‘fossils’ are. Routinely write out a 5-minute journal in German and submit it to Get your correction and put it in Anki as a fill-in-the-blank-type card wherever you make a mistake. Get a daily Anki habit going.

    The program will automatically focus on the more difficult stuff, because you’ll make more mistakes with it, and so you’ll see those cards more often, and it should pretty quickly replace your bad habits with good ones.


    5 thoughts on “Reader Q&A: How to learn abstract words, fixing ingrained grammar mistakes

    1. Briar

      When using google images do you use the U.S. version of google or your target languages? I find that if I use the target language version of google, example for Brazil, I get better results when searching. Sometimes I have to switch though and search for the word using the English translation on the U.S. version of google.

    2. gwyner Post author

      Good question. I haven’t really compared the results that much from the different Googles, although I used to switch to if I was searching for a word that existed in English AND French (and wanted more French results)

    3. joel

      I got onto your method by an article I read on Lifehacker. I have to say, it’s very impressive and thoughtful. I’m an intermidiate/advanced French speaker - I can hold a conversation, but struggle with expressing difficult ideas, and I can’t write very well.

      I’ve already opened up a Lang-8 account. It seems awesome, though I just hope that I can get people to correct my work. I’m not sure if there are a lot of French speakers on it.

      My one question to you is whether Anki is really that critical. I’m using Studyblue. It’s really easy to use and it syncs with my smartphone. The only drawback I can see is that it doesn’t space out words for you. If you get one write it goes back in the deck, and you view it the next time round.

      Also, can you really create 110 flashcards in an hour and a half. How do you possible go so fast. It takes me that long to make like 20.

      In any event, thanks for the posts - there most helpful!

      1. gwyner Post author

        Hi Joel,

        Regarding Anki: I think using some sort of spaced repetition is pretty essential; it’s just a lot more efficient than any other method I’ve found. Anki also syncs with smartphones and it’s pretty easy to use after the learning curve.

        On speed: It depends on the types of cards we’re talking about. For the initial set of cards with straightforward pictures, you should be able to make them very quickly; it’s just drag and drop, copy and paste a couple of times and you have 1-2 cards (if you do forward/reverse directions). Once you start making cards with contexts and definitions, that will slow down, but still, you should be able to bring it down to 1-2 minutes per word on average. Once I finish the manuscript for the book, I’m going to see about commissioning a web app that would help speed up the card making process for Anki, and also making a video or two of card making.

    4. Pingback: How to learn grammar and abstract words without translation | Tower of Babelfish

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

    Note: For anti-spam reasons, if you put a link in your post, it will be moderated. Post *another* comment (without any links) referring to your other comment and I will look through the moderation queue and save it from certain doom