Plasma ball

How starting over can boost your language confidence

It’s important to recognise the brain’s need for pause now and again. But it might help our guilt-ridden, study-obsessed selves to note how effectively a rest can restart our engines.

I’ve experienced this effect recently, after picking up Modern Hebrew again. Like a few languages, I’ve had an on-off relationship with Hebrew since I was very young. Just like my other ‘side’ projects, though, I’ve never run with it consistently for very long.

Not that it hasn’t been useful; a trip to Israel in 1999 and a random conservation with Israelis in a Paris bar rank amongst the great opportunities I’ve had to use it! At around the A2 level, it was certainly a working, useful knowledge of the language.

That said, I never really had great confidence in my abilities to speak Hebrew well. I drifted off into other languages and other hobbies. Then, something remarkable happened: I picked it up again after a long break.

Starting from scratch – with an advantage

What I did was to reset my Anki decks. In particular, I removed all previous scheduling information from my Hebrew cards, and moved them back into an active deck. In essence, I set up Anki to start all over again with the language.

Note that I hadn’t touched these cards in over a year and a half. Back then, my last Hebrew adventure, I’d had a course of Hebrew lessons through iTalki. During that period, I amassed around 1000 vocabulary cards. But I’d long since ‘rested’ these by moving the whole set into a dormant Anki deck.

zzzRestedLanguages - where my dormant languages go to sleep for a while!

zzzRestedLanguages (bottom) – where my dormant languages go to sleep for a while!

Something wonderful happened in the first few days of reinstated Hebrew. I amazed myself at how much I could remember. Not just words like ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’, either, but more complex vocabulary nouns like ‘driver’, ‘newspaper’ and phrases like ‘I work in London’. It was still there. I could still speak Hebrew!

Confidence lost – then refound

It might seem crazy that I sounded so amazed. After all, I’d actively learnt Hebrew on and off for a while. But I’d not spoken it in so long, I had written it off. I’d lost my confidence. And that happens so easily with languages you don’t use.

The lesson to take from it, of course, is that our brains are much more robust than we realise. We should have confidence in our abilities; we often underestimate them when we’re in the thick of learning, and it isn’t until much later that we realise how solid our first passes were.

This also serves to remind ourselves of the hard work we spent in the first place. All that work – surely it’s worth revisiting those ‘rested’ tongues now and again? You earned the right to be confident through hard work. Starting over can bring that confidence back.

Where next?

So, where next? As a perennial dabbler, I have a few to choose from. An earnest fresh attack on Greek and Russian would be a good place to start. I’ve not used either properly in a while, and definitely feel that confidence deficit with both.

If you choose to resurrect any of your former language adventures, I’m certain it can also remind you that you have everything to feel proud and confident about as a learner!

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!