To learn a language, you need to memorize a lot of vocabulary, and memorizing lots of vocabulary can be tricky. You’re faced with unfamiliar spellings and unfamiliar sounds, which makes foreign words significantly more difficult to remember than words in your native language. In this article, I’ll show you how to remember words more easily with the help of mnemonics.
Tips, tutorials and resources to aid you on your path towards fluency.
Alphabets (and syllabaries) are the first barrier of entry to any new language. If you want to learn a language like Russian, you’re basically paralyzed until you’re familiar with its letters. But even if you’re learning a language with familiar characters, like Italian, you’re going to feel uncomfortable and wobbly at first; those familiar characters aren’t particularly familiar in words like “zaino” (pronounced dzaino), “gli” (pronounced ʎi) or “cena” (pronounced tʃena).
I’ve always liked learning alphabets; while I don’t know more than 10 words of Hebrew, my seven years of Hebrew school did leave me with a decent ability to read the Hebrew alphabet. Yay. I had a similar experience in Russian back in high school. For me, alphabets seem to stick in my brain when nothing else will.
But if learning a new alphabet doesn’t sound like a fun way to spend your weekend, what can you do? This article is about one simple idea: How to learn the alphabet in any language quickly, and how to remember it for good.
I’m an Anki nut. In some sense, I owe three of my languages to Anki. One of my favorite things about Anki is its flexibility; you can make flashcards in any way you choose.
Once you’ve created and memorized a lot of flashcards (I recently passed 20,000 flashcards…geesh), you’ll start to notice that not all cards are created equal. Some flashcards are easy to remember, they teach you precisely what you want to learn, and they generally make you smile when you see them. Others make you want to throw your smartphone out the window. Good flashcards can make the difference between sticking with a language until fluency or giving up after a few months, so I’m making this guide to help others learn from some of my terrible, terrible flashcard-related mistakes.
I’ve been fielding questions about my methods for Hungarian and how they might work for a less phonetic language like French, with multiple ways of spelling a single sound. Today, I made a 44-card sample deck for French, which you’re welcome to download and use as a model here.
The sample deck includes 3 chunks:
- Minimal pair practice
- Spelling rules
- Basic picture words
Using the deck I made on Dec 21, it took me 9 days at <20 minutes/day to basically learn the sounds of Hungarian and the Hungarian alphabet. Total time spent: 4 hrs of deck creation, 2.5 hours of reviews over a 10 day period. This is working very well so far (and it’s a lot of fun!), and I’m ready to move to the next stage: concrete vocabulary.
A reader who was getting a pretty good vocabulary base asked me how to start developing a base in German grammar, and I took the opportunity to write out a pretty complete reply. The principles should apply to any grammar you’re learning (and if you don’t see how, please post a comment or email me so I can make sure that I’m not missing something). Enjoy!
I keep addressing this question in various forum/comment discussions, but I should discuss it here, because it addresses a lot of issues in a lot of languages. The question is:
How do I deal with a language that uses a pictographic alphabet like Chinese?
Today I got a chance to try and answer the question - ‘How long does making new cards in Anki take?’
I’ve tested this out in English before, timing how long it took me to find pictures and add them to Anki for a bunch of color words (cardinal, violet, indigo, etc), and that came out to 12 seconds per word, and 6 seconds per card (One card with a picture on the front, word on the back, and the other card reversed). You’ll get periods like this in the beginning, when you’re filling in the base vocabulary that’s particularly easy to do in Google images.
Today I got to time how long it takes when the words are more complex. I had run out of new Russian cards earlier this week (around 2200 cards learned in a little more than 3 months), and so it was time to make some new ones. I had already skimmed through my Frequency List and marked the cards I still needed, and put extra marks next to the ones that were relatively easy to portray.