There's no better time to clean up your Anki! (Image from freeimages.com)

Anki Spring Cleaning : Brush up your decks!

It’s almost Spring! So doesn’t it feel like time for a refresh? A change is as good as a rest, and if that doesn’t go for our Anki decks too, I don’t know what does.

The thing with well-used tools is that, over time, the lose their sheen. Imperfections creep in, annoying niggles that we ignore for the time being. A note type out of place. An image not showing now and again. It may not interrupt our learning terribly, but after a while they can start to grate.

That’s why it’s a great idea to lay aside some time every few months to clean up your Anki decks.  If you are also a stickler for order, you will understand this declutter itch!

So what is the order of ceremonies for our Anki freshen-up blast? Our tidying spree here will focus on three areas:

  1. Bringing card images into the Anki file rather than external links
  2. Cleaning up unwanted media (without deleting your card images)
  3. Identifying and eliminating rogue note types

Before we start, remember to exercise caution when tinkering around in Anki’s underbelly. Preferably, make a full backup via the Export feature before you start. Better safe than sorry!

1. All-inclusive media

If you know a bit of HTML, it’s easy to spruce up your cards with colour and images. When I customise Anki cards, I often use flags, for instance. For the visual polyglot learner in you, flags can really help keep multiple languages separate in memory.

A customised Norwegian card in Anki

A Norwegian card in Anki

Now, for speed and ease, I often just search for a flag image online and use the URL directly in the card, like this:

<img src="https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/thumb/0/03/Flag_of_Italy.svg/1500px-Flag_of_Italy.svg.png" width="50" height="40" style="margin-bottom: 20px; border: 2px solid black" />

The problem here is not only that the code looks bloated and long-winded. More seriously, when using the decks without internet, the flags are simply absent, since they are downloaded every time.

Bring them home

The trick is to download and place your images inside Anki so they ‘live’ inside your data. Anki has a media folder just for this. Usually, the program places items there automatically when you add sound or images to a card, for example. But you can place them there yourself, too, and refer to them in your card code.

To open the media folder, open your Anki Preferences. Then, select the Backups tab. You should see a link titled Open backup folder – click it.

Anki Preferences

Anki Preferences

Now, the folder it opens isn’t the one we want. We need to go up one directory level, then into the folder called collection.media. This is where your Anki account keeps all of its MP3, PNG and similar files. With this folder open, it’s a good idea to close the Anki program in the background while we work.

Download and add the flag images and otherwise to this folder. You might want to resize them first. And, if you have lots of them, use a file naming system that keeps things tidy. For example, I prefix flag image files with fl_.

Close the folder once you are done, then reopen Anki. Head to the browser, select a card for customising, and you are set to use simply the file name on its own to link the image:

<img src="flag_it.png" width="50" height="40" style="margin-bottom: 20px; border: 2px solid black" />

Isn’t that so much better?

One note: you can nest files in subfolders and refer to them in your code, like flags/flag_it.png. However, while the desktop app recognises these paths, it seems that the iPhone app doesn’t. As with all these things, it’s worth playing around to see what you can and can’t do (while taking copious backups along the way, of course).

2. Media hangover

While we hang around in Anki’s media emporium, we may as well take the opportunity to keep on cleaning!

For a long time, I wondered why my Anki syncs were so large. It turned out that the media from old, since removed, shared decks were still hanging around. Inexplicably, deleting the deck hadn’t deleted the associated media. Carefully checking and deleting that wodge of unwanted files took multiple megabytes off my sync.

Of course, Anki has a tool for this already, in Tools > Check Media. In theory, it lists unused / unliked media for deletion. But sometimes a hands-on approach is just a bit more reliable. For one thing, your card images, like the flags above, will be listed as unused. They are not attached to cards, but rather your card templates, meaning they fall through Anki’s net. We don’t want the program to delete those!

A nice tidy Anki media folder

A nice and tidy Anki media folder

3. Rogue note types, begone!

Similarly, as with the media clutter, I’d accumulated some note types that meant nothing to me over prolonged use. Some of them seemed to be versions of standard cards but with odd suffixes, like Basic and Reversed Card-accfe. This seems to happen when cards are imported from shared decks, and there is some conflict with existing card types.

Fortunately, it is an easy problem to fix. Head to Tools > Manage Note Types on the home screen of the desktop app. Then, hit Add to create a new note type based on the same template as the strangely named notes.

Adding a new note type in Anki

Adding a new note type in Anki

After the new note type is ready, you can head to the Browse section of Anki. In the left-hand list, you should find an entry for the rogue note type. Click it to view cards assigned to that type, and highlight the notes you want to correct. Then go to Edit > Change Note Type, and change the selected cards to the new, corrected note type you set up above.

After you have done this to all the cards assigned to the strangely-named rogue types, you can go back to Tools > Manage Note Types on the main screen and delete them. Check that it reads 0 notes next to the type before you do – if not, you still need to change the type of some cards unless you no longer want to keep them.

Changing the note type in Anki

Changing the note type in Anki

As you get used to the internal machinery of the Anki app, you can do a regular sweep to keep on top of these foibles. It’s quite satisfying – a little akin to doing regular weeding to keep your garden in order – and will increase that sense of ownership you have over your vocabulary.

So roll up your sleeves, make plentiful backups, and get to Spring cleaning! Your Anki decks will positively shine for it.

Keep your language learning colourful - change things up from time to time.

Managing Anki decks with options groups

Well, the football didn’t go England’s way this week. Commiserations, fellow polyglot fans who were also hoping. But when anticlimactic gloom ensues, sometimes you’re motivated to very productive distractions. I’ve spent a useful chunk of time this week optimising my Anki flash card decks.

With Anki, as with all things, it’s easy to get stuck in your ways. When something works straight out the box and does the job, it’s tempting not to tinker. How many people, for example, never touch the advanced settings on a new phone, console or TV?

Change things up a little

That said, sometimes you just need to be brave and change things up a little. The experimenter’s ethos is key: it might work; it might not. But it’s worth trying!

Yes, Anki works straight out of the box. And it does a fantastic job like that. But, with some tweaking, you can fit it around your goals and lifestyle much more neatly. Here’s how I’ve tweaked it to fit my goals and lifestyle more neatly lately.

The problem

The problem is that I rotate a lot of languages in my learning routine. Some I’m actively learning right now. Others I’ve learnt in the past, and want to ‘rest’ them for a while before returning to them in the future. And some of those I want to bring out of their rest phase, and work on maintaining, rather than growing them.

The way I was doing this before was quite efficient, on the whole. I normally nest all my language decks in a superdeck called ‘Languages’. When I was ready to rest a language for a while, I’d simply rename its deck into ‘Rested Languages’. This deck had a learn / review limit of zero in its settings, effectively turning it off. When I was ready to restart that language, I’d move it back. I talk about this cycle in a previous post.

The trouble is, it could feel like a clunky kludge at times. Removing a whole deck from your stack renders the language invisible. It’s almost like you’ve given up on it – it’s no longer in your Anki hall of fame, it no longer feels like yours. I love seeing the long list of languages I’ve worked on in Anki, and removing one smarts a little. It’s like parking you classic, but disused car, in a dark, dusty garage. Or shutting away your pet in a kennel. Or lots of other slightly sad metaphors… In any case, it felt wrong.

If only there were some way of keeping decks where they are, but adjusting the new card / review settings separately from the rest…

Anki Options Groups

Roll on Anki options groups. By default, all the decks in a superdeck have the same settings. If you have a limit of ten new cards a day on the superdeck, all the subdecks share that limit.

However, you can set up separate ‘options groups’, and apply them to individual decks in a stack. This gives you control over the settings for that deck alone, and allows you to keep the deck where it is, but make it behave differently.

Getting started

It’s easiest to do this in the desktop program. Next to each deck, you’ll see a little cog symbol, which you can pull down to access a deck’s options.

Changing the options on a deck in Anki

Changing the options on a deck in Anki

Your decks will be set to the default options to start with. Pull down the cog menu in the top-right corner of the options form to add a new batch of settings.

Adding a new set of options in Anki

Adding a new set of options in Anki

The key setting here is ‘New cards/day’. In this example, I’m setting that to just two, as these are rested languages that I’ve reset all the scheduling on, and am drip-feeding as new vocab at a slow pace each day.

Adjusting options in Anki

Adjusting options in Anki

When you press OK, you’ve created an options group that you can use on your other decks, too. For instance, I’m currently sharing that ‘Minor languages’ group above with my Greek and Hebrew.

Grades of activity

It’s a great way to manage your study if you have lots of languages. It also pays to spend some time deciding what your levels of activity will be before creating options groups. Mine, for example, include:

I can’t underestimate how satisfying – and motivating! – it is to see all the languages I’ve worked on in the same list again. No more dusty attic of lost languages – they’re all in one place again. Give it a go, and get a little bit more tailor-made learning from this amazing, free tool!

Anki - with lots of language decks!

Anki – with lots of language decks!

Geoglot Verb Blitz Apps

A dictionary won't always help you learn words in their natural habitat: the sentence.

Taming Anki’s ‘new card’ quota to pace your vocab learning

Anki is an amazing beast of a language-learning tool. But, like all beasts, it can be a bit intimidating. I’ve been using it for over a year now, and still learn new things about it all the time. I’ve recently discovered a simple trick to avoid being overwhelmed by its relentless rate of daily card testing.

On Anki, you organise your flashcard learning into decks. These could be different subjects, like Sociology and Psychology; for linguaphiles, they’re more likely to be different languages.

How Anki schedules new cards

Now, Anki schedules a certain number of new cards to present you with every day. The default is 25. However, those are spread out across all your decks. When you hit the tally of 25 new cards, then you won’t come across any more new ones that day – in any deck.

The Anki dashboard (Mac desktop version)

My Anki dashboard (Mac desktop version) – new cards scheduled are in blue.

I’ve only recently noticed how useful this can be for paced learning. For instance, if you’re working on several languages at once, you’ll probably have one you find a bit easier – a ‘maintenance’ language as opposed to a full-blown, totally new one. In my case, I’ve been adding lots of words in Norwegian that are either already familiar, or quite easy to learn. On the other hand, I’ve been adding a lot of words in Polish that are really, really hard to remember.

Rest your difficult languages when you need a break

When testing daily, I can give myself an ‘easy’ day by hitting Norwegian first. That way, the ‘new card’ tally is used up on my maintenance language, and I have a day off new Polish words! Note that it doesn’t let me off my Polish completely – but I’ll only be retesting words I’ve already learnt in that language.

This works best when you’re regularly adding vocabulary cards to all your Anki language decks. It highlights the fact that language learning is never ‘done’. You should be actively reading even in your ‘easy’ languages, and adding to your vocab bank all the time. The upshot is the availability of ‘easier’ cards when you need them. And we all need an easier ride from time to time!

A ribbon on a gift.

Gift ideas for language lovers

OK, Christmas is gone. But I bet you’ve got a whole raft of birthdays coming up in the coming months. And some of those birthdays will be for language lovers, right? And we’re pretty hard to buy for, right? Well, here are some tips from a typically fickle linguist to help you choose the perfect polyglot pressie (and avoid the obvious, like ‘a dictionary‘).

Films with foreign language soundtracks

For a cosy immersion evening with your favourite language, there’s a film to suit every taste. Check on the back of the DVD or Blu-ray, or in the online specs, to see what languages are available. This Blu-ray edition of Disney’s Frozen, for example, includes the Spanish and Portuguese soundtracks as well as the original English. An ideal gift if you’ve caught your linguist secretly singing along to this rather brill Spotify playlist, which contains every language version of the torch song “Let It Go”!

Animated films are great for linguaphiles, as the stories can be familiar and predictable, full of clues for getting the gist if you’re watching in another language. There’s also less of an issue with mouths not matching dubbed soundtracks, which can be off-putting for some. They’re not everyone’s cup of tea, though, so if you want something a bit more serious, check out these lists, curated by IMDB, of the top films originating in each country.

Mini flashcard sets

Several companies create flashcard sets for language learners, which, neatly boxed and colourfully presented, make great little gifts. Physical cards make self-testing a bit more fun, and lend themselves well to group learning games too. Don’t be put off by the big, bold packaging – they’re as useful for adults as they are for kids! Doing a quick search for “[your language] flashcards” will do the trick, but here are a couple of favourites for starters:

A Readly Subscription

Reading magazines on your favourite topics in the target language is a superb way to connect language-learning to your real-life interests. eMagazine service Readly curates hundreds of magazines across a range of languages, including French, German and Swedish. You can browse their full range of titles by country here to check whether you’ll make your favourite linguist happy with a gift card!

You can read the magazines on a range of devices, including smartphones and tablets, and also download magazines to view offline. Perfect for a bit of light reading as you jet off on a language-learning hol.

iTunes or Google Play credit

Many popular language learning resources now come in mobile app format. A few are completely free, like Duolingo, but others cost hard cash, being full-on pay-up-front apps like Anki flashcards, or following a freemium model (pay for extra features or subscriptions) like Memrise.

Not only that, but there’s a wealth of foreign language material on mobile stores, like books, music and films. The costs can add up for a enthusiastic language hacker, so mobile credit is always a very well-received gift.

Gift cards – for free!

If you’re on a super-tight budget, you might even consider using a survey site like Swagbucks to work up some iTunes, Amazon, or other store credit. One thing that’s better than a lovingly given gift card is one that cost you nothing (except a bit of time)!

Give yourself

Finally, you could give the ultimate gift – yourself. Interested in finding out why we love this language-hacking lark so much? Then commit to help us learn, or learn along with us. Give us half an hour a week when we can teach you what we’ve been learning, as teaching others is an excellent way to consolidate what we know. Or, if you have a language that we don’t know, offer us that half an hour a week to teach us something new. We all have valuable skills, and they often make the very best presents.

If that little lot didn’t quite hit the spot, then take a look at the wonderful Emmafull blog, which is packed with original gifting and crafting ideas. She’s also behind the idea of subscription gifts, which seem perfectly suited to this digital, decluttering age.

The Globe

Tips from a language junkie

I admit it – I’m a language junkie. I’m perennially curious, always looking for something new to learn. New languages are pretty, shiny objects and I’m a restless polyglot magpie.

Not surprisingly, a question I’m asked a lot is “Don’t you get mixed up learning all those languages?”. It’s an understandable question, to which I’d reply, first off: have faith in your brain! It’s more adept than you realise at keeping things separated. Children brought up bilingually manage it neatly, so why shouldn’t your mature, adult brain?

There are a number of things you can do to help keep things compartmentalised, though. For instance, users of Anki might want to take advantage of custom cards, so you can colour-code those belonging to your different languages. There’s a good beginners’ guide on doing this on YouTube at this link. Here are a couple of mine; the key is to make your different language cards as distinctive as possible (I like to use flags):

A customised Icelandic card in Anki

A customised Norwegian card in Anki

If you prefer to keep your lists the offline way, you might think about colour-coding your vocab notes by language, too.

Secondly, there are several reasons why learning more than one language can be more effective and beneficial than just learning one.

I try to pick just one language within a major group to focus on (for instance, Norwegian from North Germanic, and Spanish from the Italic languages). That’s not to preclude others from that group completely – it’s just that the main focus language will become the ‘anchor’ for that group. Instead of learning Icelandic (another North Germanic language) from scratch, for example, I’ll relate it to Norwegian as my base language.

Take the Norwegian word dør (door), for example – in Icelandic, this is dyr. Contrasting and comparing cognates like this gives you a real feel for the language group as a whole. This way, you can build up an instinct for the regular patterns of change and difference between languages, which deepens your understanding of each one.

Be a bluffer!

What’s more, learning patterns like this can give you some productive rules for ‘guessing’ or ‘bluffing’ in other languages. To take Spanish as an example, with a little learning you can learn how to ‘Portuguesify’ your Castilian, and fake enough Portuguese to get by in simple situations. You’ll spot that Spanish initial ll-, for instance, is often ch- in Portuguese, so you can guess that llegar (to arrive) in Spanish is chegar in Portuguese. You might also see that Spanish diphthongises a vowel (sticks two or more vowel sounds together) where Portuguese doesn’t, so huevo (egg) in Spanish is ovo in Portuguese. It doesn’t always work, but pattern-spotting is definitely a good way to get a working version of a new language up and running, based on something you already know.

Cross-reference your vocab

I also like to use my stronger languages to check for gaps in my nascent ones. If I learn a new word in, say, Norwegian, I’ll check whether I know that word in my other languages too. My OCD streak dictates that I hate gaps and imbalances in my knowledge, but it’s not hard to look up the missing words and make a note of them (in Anki, in my case). At the simplest level, you could do this in a vocab notebook or Excel spreadsheet:

English German Spanish Norwegian Polish
dog der Hund el perro en hund pies
cat die Katze el gato en katt kot

It’s also a great way to start spotting similarities and relationships between the languages you’re learning.

The underlying message of this post is: you don’t have to settle for just one foreign language if you have the time and motivation! Have faith that your mind is more than equipped to deal with multiple tracks, and enjoy the extra benefits that learning more than one can give you.

Coins

Anki for iOS – on the cheap

Like all the best language hackers, I’m a long-time convert to the Anki flashcards system. It’s one of the power tools of language learning, combining science-smart learning methodology with a simple, no-nonsense interface and complete customisability. I use it to build my own personal word lists as I browse and read in my target languages; I come across a new word, look it up, and pop it in.

I generally administer my vocab lists on the free desktop client (available for Windows, OS and Linux), and test myself in my spare moment during the day on the mobile app. However, after switching back to iOS from Android recently, I was, admittedly, discouraged to learn that the iOS version of the app is a not insignificant £18.99 / US $24.99. After using the free Android version, having to pay rankled a bit (being a thrifty Midlander at heart!).

However, with a bit of rational processing, it’s easy to see why the price is more than fair for such a brilliant app. The author does a good job of justifying the cost at this link, and as a fellow independent app developer, I more than get it. The Android version, it turns out, is developed and maintained by a separate group of people. From the official channel, you’re still getting the very powerful desktop software for nothing at all, and £18.99 for adding mobile capabilities doesn’t seem like much compared to other language learning tools, or subscription-based services.

So far, so good – I’d justified why the app was worth £18.99. But the thrifty Midlander in me still seethed silently at the thought of spending that much on an app.

Enter Swagbucks. On the face of it, Swagbucks is a run-of-the-mill survey / pay-per-click site, where bored Internetsters with some spare time go to earn rewards. The site has been fêted a lot on thrift-seeking sites, particularly MoneySavingExpert.com, in recent years. But wait – Swagbucks can pay out in iTunes gift cards!

I signed up, and set myself a goal – no more than 30 minutes of Swagbucking a day, until I’d earnt enough to cover the app. I won’t lie – surveys and pay-per-clicks aren’t particularly riveting to plough through, so setting yourself a max goal is a good idea. In fact, Swagbucks helps you with this by setting you a daily goal to hit for a bonus. In less than a month, I’d got my two £10 gift cards – that app was mine! *cue maniacal laughter*

So, summing up, this is an age-old tale of a slightly stingy language learner at Christmas time. But if you’re also keen to get the power of Anki on your iOS device, and feel the sting is a bit too sharp, then sites like Swagbucks are definitely worth considering. Happy Swagbucking / Anki-ing! #hohoho