How to learn vocabs effectively using Anki

One of the most important aspects of learning a new language is to learn new vocabs and retain them for a long time.

This can be challenging and discouraging if it’s done the wrong way.

The traditional way of learning vocabs is to write them down on a notebook, then review those vocabs one day, one week or one month later. This approach has several problems, for example:

  • Day 1, I write 20 words into my notebook.
  • Day 2, I review those 20 words from yesterday and add 20 more.
  • Day 3, I review 40 words and add 20 more.
  • Day 4, I review 60 words and add 20 more.
  • Day 31, I have to review 600 words!
    • That is impossible.
    • And this is just one month into my study.

If I feel overwhelmed, I can reduce the workload. So instead of reviewing every day, I will change the frequency.

  • But what is the ideal frequency?
  • Every 2-3 days? One week? One month?
  • How do I keep track of which words have been reviewed and which hasn’t?

Another problem is: Let’s say I write down one new vocabulary in my note like this:

  • contemplate (v):
    • Definition: to spend time considering a possible future action, or to consider one particular thing for a long time in a serious and quiet way
    • Example: I’m contemplating going abroad for a year.
  • When I review this word in my notebook, I can see both the word, the definition and the example.
    • How can it help me remember the word if I can see all the answers?
    • Wouldn’t it be better if I can see only the word, then guess the definition or vice versa?
    • Or see the example first, then guess the word and the definition, etc.
  • Our brain remembers things better when it is answering a question instead of being given answers all the time.

As you can see, learning vocabs with this approach will quickly become a chaos and not effective at all.

Therefore, I need a better way to handle these problems. That’s when Anki comes to the rescue.

Anki is a free software designed to help everyone memorise everything for long term. It’s based on a science-proofed methodology called SRS, which stands for Space Repetition System.

Basically, it means that if you want to memorize A, you don’t need to review A every day, which is time-wasting. You can review A today, then review again 2 days later, then 5 days later, then 10 days, 20 days, 40 days, 2 months, 5 months, one year, etc. until A goes into your deep memory and you will never forget it for life.

This is how our brain works. It’s proven to be the best way of memorising anything.

Let’s take the example above to illustrate how Anki works and how it solves the problems:

  • Day 1, I add 20 words into Anki.
  • Day 2, I review 20 words. But when I review a word in Anki:
    • I first see the word. Then I have to guess the definition in my head. Then press “Show Answer”. front
    • The app will show everything about that word now, including the definition, pronunciation, examples, synonym, etc. back
    • Now I can verify whether my guess is correct. There are 3 options for me to choose:
      • Again:
        • the app will remind me about this word in one minute.
        • I choose this when my guess is wrong and I have completely forgotten the word.
      • Good:
        • the app will remind me about this word in 10 minutes.
        • I choose this when my guess is almost right, but I need to review it again soon.
      • Easy:
        • the app will remind me about this word 4 days later.
        • I choose this when I have no problem remembering this word so I only need to review it in the far future.
    • The great thing is that when you choose “Good” for the first time, it will remind you in 10 minutes.
      • Choose it the second time, one day later.
      • Third time, 2 days later.
      • Forth time, 5 days later.
      • And then 10 days, 20 days, one month, 1.5 months, 2 months, etc.
      • Same for “Easy”, it just has a wider time range (4 days, 10 days, 20 days, …).
      • Basically, it will remind only when you almost forget the word, not every day.
  • Still in Day 2, I add 20 more words.
  • Day 3, I have 40 words in total now but when I open Anki, I only need to review 20 new words from yesterday, and about 10 difficult old words. The app won’t show the other 10 words because I chose “Easy” option on them, which will schedule them for review 4 days later instead of today. Then, I add 20 more words. deck
  • Day 4, I have 60 words in total but only need to review around 30-40 words.
  • Day 31, I have 600 words in total but only need to review around 80-100 words.
    • Manageable, right?

Another cool thing is that I can configure Anki so that whenever I add a new word, it generates 3 versions:

  • See the word, guess the definition.
    • This helps when you’re reading, the goal is to recognise and understand the word.
  • See the definition, guess the word.
    • This helps when you’re writing or speaking, it translates your ideas into proper words.
  • See the example, guess the word and the definition.
    • This also helps reading, but with more context from the example. We also see how the word connects and fits in a sentence.

So when I study a word, I study from in all angles to make sure I can actually use it in real life.

If the number of words to review every day is still too overwhelming, I can set a limit on Anki to only show a certain number of new/old words and increase this limit gradually when I have more time.

Although Anki is just a simple software that does only one simple thing, its underlying methodology is profound and practical when it comes to memorising things.

Whenever I encounter some new words, I ask myself: “Do I need to remember this word forever?”.

If the answer is yes, I put it into my Anki.

Every day, I just need to finish the word limit that I set in Anki.

Over time, I will have a huge collection of vocabs to use in my daily life and it will just keep on growing.

Vocabs become my strength instead of weaknesses.

Today, I only gave a quick overview regarding Anki. If anyone shows interests, I can write more about how to setup and configure Anki to suite the learning needs of each individual.

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