A spreadsheet containing German verb information.

Anki custom note types for complex morphology flashcards

If you use Anki, have you ever felt like the the out-of-the-box templates are a little basic?

The default card has just two fields for back and front. Of course, this is instantly relevant for simple vocabulary learning. You can begin adding your target-translation word pairs in straight away. It is intuitive and allows newcomers to get started straight away. Simplicity can be great!

However, as Anki works further and further into your language learning routine, that simple A-B card type can feel lacking. In particular, one single input box can seem a squash for all the extra information you learn alongside the dictionary form of your vocabulary.

Overloaded cards

A good example to illustrate this is the topic of irregular verbs. For example, take the French verb être (to be). It isn’t that useful to have a card that only lists the information “to be = être”. As a learner, you will surely want to add more detail, such as the present tense.

Now, using only the default card type, there are ways to include this detail. You might choose to add it in brackets after the infinitive, like “to be = être (je suis, tu es, il/elle est, nous sommes, vous êtes, ils/elles sont)”. But the problem is becoming obvious – your cards begin to look overloaded and messy.

Adding more info to basic Anki cards soon becomes messy.

Adding more info to basic Anki cards soon becomes messy.

There is a quick fix. When you create your vocab items, you can switch to inputting in HTML. Using HTML tags, you can then add line breaks and other formatting. With a bit of fiddling around, it is possible to separate out that info and at least make it more readable.

Formatting busy entries using HTML in Anki

Formatting busy entries using HTML in Anki

The result of HTML formatting an Anki text input

But still, all that information is jammed into a small input box. What happens when you want to make them more comprehensive, adding other tenses and so on? They will begin to look unwieldy.

And adding all that formatting is hardly economical with your valuable time. It would be better if the formatting were somehow automatically connected to the data itself, rather than completely manual.

Not only that, but there is also a good pedagogical reason for not cramming all that information into one space. During testing, all the material in that input box is bundled together as the answer. That is now a lot of material bound to single English prompt “to be”.

If only there were some way to separate it all out!

Anki custom card types

Well, a huge strength of Anki is how customisable and extensible it is. True, its advanced functionality might be well-hidden under a very plain interface, but you have a great deal of room to adapt and extend its basic workings.

It is Anki’s ability to create custom note types that will help us solve this problem. Custom note types allow you to define the fields for your cards. And they can be as comprehensive as you like, reflecting all the separate morphological parts of each vocabulary item.

It started with a list…

First things first: if you are creating word lists with very detailed, systematic additional info, Anki is probably not be the best place to collate it initially. Spreadsheet programs like Excel, Numbers or Google Sheets are much better geared up to this kind of thing. The format you need to save in is CSV (comma separated values), and all mainstream spreadsheet programs should give this option when saving or exporting.

Simply start adding your items, row by row. Use a column for each piece of information you want to keep separate. There is no need to use column headings. In the German verbs example below, there is a column for the infinitive, English translation, and then each of the six parts of the present tense.

Importing complex vocab items into Anki via CSV file

Importing complex vocab items into Anki via CSV file

Once you are happy with the number of items, you are ready to import it into Anki. And to make a fitting home for your new words, we create a new custom note type matching the fields in your spreadsheet list.

A wee note before we start: you need to be using the desktop program for this, as it is not possible in the mobile app. Before you do so, be sure to sync on all your devices, then sync on the desktop program. This is because the changes we make on the desktop client will require a full resync with Anki, and you don’t want to lose any progress from your devices. Also, to be safe, always back up your Anki decks before performing any major surgery on your precious cards!

Creating a new note type

In Anki, head to Tools > Manage Note Types. Once in the there, click Add, then Add: Basic and OK to select a template to base our new type on. We will use the basic one here, but you can experiment with more complicated types later on, if it takes your fancy!

Importing complex vocab items into Anki via CSV file

Importing complex vocab items into Anki via CSV file

Here, you add the fields that correspond to each column of information in your vocabulary spreadsheet. In the example below, I have also renamed the first two fields to reflect the verb-based example material more appropriately.

Importing complex vocab items into Anki via CSV file

Importing complex vocab items into Anki via CSV file

Now your data has a custom-made container to call home, you are ready to import it. Head to File > Import in your desktop app, and find the CSV file you saved / exported from the spreadsheet.

In the Type field, select the custom note type you just created. Then, select a deck to import it into (you might want to create a brand new one for this first).

Magically, Anki matches up the columns in your spreadsheet to the fields in your custom note type, as indicated in the lower half of that window. You can change how they marry up, but you shouldn’t have to as long as the number of spreadsheet columns and note fields tallies, and the order of them is the same.

Importing complex vocab items into Anki via CSV file

Importing complex vocab items into Anki via CSV file

That’s it! Anki has taken charge of your data, and will now drip-feed it to you daily along with your other cards.

But hold on – something isn’t quite right. None of the new, extra fields show in study mode. Egads! Not to worry – there is just one last step.

Styling your cards

The problem is that the basic type, which we used as a template, only shows the first two fields by default. That’s because it is based on a simple vocab flashcard with a front and back, and just two corresponding pieces of information. We need to style our new card type manually and add in those extra fields.

In the desktop Anki app, open up the Browse window. In the left-hand list of your Anki assets – decks, cards and so on – find the entry for your new note type. Click on it and you should see all your imported items on the right-hand side.

Locating your imported vocabulary via note type in the Anki Browse window

Locating your imported vocabulary via note type in the Anki Browse window

With any of those entries highlighted, you should see a button labelled Cards underneath. Clicking that opens up the card styling window, where you can add in placeholders for those missing items.

On the left, Anki gives you three editing panes. Bear in mind that this window represents a card with two ‘sides’. The first pane represents the front side of each vocab card. Then, there is a window you can use to add styling to both sides. Beneath that is a pane for the flip side. On the right is a preview of how both sides look.

On first opening this view, you will just see the first two fields (in the example below, Infinitive and Translation). Crucially, however, note that they are enclosed in {{double curly braces}}. This is Anki shorthand for a field when creating card templates.

With this knowledge, you are equipped to add in your extra fields. In our verbs example, the extra fields correspond to parts of the verb paradigm. Therefore, the field 1ps (first person singular) from the note type becomes {{1ps}} wherever it should appear on the card in study mode.

You can embed them within basic HTML, too, using divs, headings, paragraphs, line breaks and anything else to make them clear.

Importing complex vocab items into Anki via CSV file

Isn’t that better? Formatted cleanly, with styling applied automatically to every new vocabulary note of that type.

Top of the Anki class

Here’s where this technique can be really powerful. Now your information is separated, you can add in some of Anki’s other testing features to your card templates. If, for instance, you add test: after the first pair of curly brackets, that field becomes a type-in box in study mode.

You can put in as many of these as you want. In our verbs example, you could use type-in boxes to test the whole paradigm, like this:

Building more comprehensive tests using your Anki custom note types

Building more comprehensive tests using your Anki custom note types

Isn’t that a huge improvement on the original, basic A-B flip card? You have turned Anki into a real grammar testing machine. Take a look at the Anki manual for further tips and tricks about styling your cards in this way.

Keep playing

For sure, there is a lot more to this technique than the outline above. Our verbs example uses just a simple, one-sided card as a template, but there are many more options. As with all things Anki, it is well worth playing with the tools available to see what is possible.

After all, personalising your learning is taking charge of it. Have fun with your customisation!

Modal verbs can lend colour to your speech (image from freeimages.com)

À la modal : how these little nuancing verbs can fix your fluency

I have a nerdish love of verbs. For me, it’s where it all comes together in language. They are sentence glue. Conjugate them, and you can hang the rest of the sentence from them like on the branches of a tree. But there is a small group of verbs that always make me feel more expressive and fluent in a foreign language. They are the modal verbs.

You have likely already come across them in your studies. In English, they are words like canmustshould and so on. They are often irregular, and very high-frequency in the languages they belong to.

So why are they such a boost to fluency?

À la modal verbs

The magic of modals is that they nuance what you say. They decorate your sentence tree with colourful subtexts. Technically speaking, they layer your speech with modality – the ability to express situations which may not be real.

Concretely, modals are verbs that imply intention, possibility, obligation and probability. These are all complex nuances, but very quick and easy to apply succinctly with modals. And they fix a common frustration of beginners: boring conversation syndrome.

It is a common beginner language learner experience to feel limited by straightforward, indicative tenses. You quickly frustrate yourself in speaking if all you can do is make statements of fact. I am a studentI went to a concertwe have a dog, we travelled to Spain. Hmm – boring!

Modal verbs change that up. They colour the story. Suddenly, I could be a studentI wanted to go to a concertwe should have a dogwe might go to Spain. Beyond bare statements of fact, you are now expressing hopes, wishes, dreams, judgements, assessments and more. From dull zero to language learning hero through the addition of just a few words.

Letting you off lightly

Modal verbs can actually make your language easier to speak, as well. Since they usually connect to the bare infinitive – or most basic form – of another verb, they give you a wee respite from conjugating it.

For example, let’s take the Spanish verb phrase:

ir al colegio (to go to school)

Ir is a notoriously irregular verb. If you are fumbling for its past form when trying to say I went to school, then there is a simpler way: modal verbs and constructions. If you have memorised the simple past of ‘had to’ in Spanish, it becomes easy:

tuve que ir al colegio (I had to go to school)

That tuve que construction just saved you if you had forgotten the form fui (I went). Fair enough, the meaning is subtly different – you are expressing obligation here instead. But it is close enough to express the original indicative sense that you went to school too. A neat trick.

The great thing with this tactic is that just learning a couple of conjugated forms of modal verbs can go a long way. You need only learn a few key forms at first. Perhaps the first person present and past forms (I mustI had toI canI could and so on) are the most immediately useful for conversation. Then, simply clip on whole verb phrases to the end – no conjugation required. An instance fluency boost!

To continue the metaphor of the verb as the trunk of a tree, modal verbs are big, sturdy branches that can comfortably take the weight of even more verbs.

More bang for your buck

Let’s face it – some words are more useful than others.

For a start, modal verbs are common, high-frequency words that you will regularly come across. A good benchmark is where a word appears on a frequency list of words in the target language. Anything in the top hundred suggests that you will be exposed to the word all the time. Spanish puede (can) features in its top sixty, as does its French counterpart peut and German kann.

But something makes them even more useful that just being frequent. They are often semantically overloaded, too, meaning that they have multiple meanings depending on context.

Just take must in English. It can be a bare indicator of obligation, as in we must go. But it can also express the speaker’s assessment of high probability, as in they must be the new students. Many languages mirror this usage, such as the Spanish debe de estar cansado (he must be tired).

Consulting any good reference on your target language should throw up scores of examples. This Wiktionary page on the Spanish deber (must) gives a good overview of that word, for instance. After checking out constructions there, you can then hunt down sample sentences containing them on a service like Tatoeba.

Overloaded words are excellent news for squeezing lots of language out of a little learning. You get even greater mileage than normal out of each modal verb mastered.

Modal Verbs : fast-tracking fluency

Convinced by these little nuancing fluency helpers? The facts speak for themselves. Modal verbs are high frequency words. There are just a few to learn. They have dense, multiple meanings. And they make speaking easier when you are still grappling with general verb conjugation. They are the perfect fodder for a bit of language hacking towards fast fluency.

Could it be magic? It just might. Say yes we can and enjoy pumping up your fluency with modal verbs!

Learn tricks with verbs to get your conversation flying high above the clouds

Verbs made simple: make your conversation fly

English speakers have it easy with verbs. Aside from those pesky irregular ones, you’ve only got -s and -ed to worry about.

That’s why verbs can be the first brick wall anglophones hit when they begin a foreign language. Look at Spanish – every tense has six forms, one for each person (I, you, he/she/it etc.), and all of them are different from the word you’ll find in the dictionary. Look up hablar (to speak) as a total beginner, and it won’t tell you about hablo – hablas – habla – hablamos – habláis – hablan. And that’s just the present tense!

Now, I don’t mean to scare anyone off learning verbs. There’s actually a logical beauty to conjugation systems, especially for dyed-in-the-wool language geeks like me. The patterns might be unfamiliar, but they will come with time and patience.

However, there are a couple of tricks you can use as a total beginner to get your conversation flying, and not struggling to take off in a pea-souper of verb endings.

Cut-price verbs

Tables of verbs will easily overwhelm a beginner. It’s just a massive wall of words if you don’t know the language very well. But ask yourself: how much of that detail do you actually need as a beginner?

Chances are that as a newcomer to a language, your conversations will mainly be talking about yourself (I), or the person you’re speaking to (you). You’ll probably be doing most of that in the present tense (making general statements) or the past (talking about what happened). So why not cut the padding, and just focus on the four combinations of those things? In English, that would look like:

Present Past
I speak spoke
you speak spoke

In many languages, you can ask a question by simply changing the intonation of your voice. So you won’t even have to learn any special question forms. Pick out your simplified verb parts, and add them to your favourite vocab drilling program like Anki like you would with any other word or phrase. Paper flashcards are great for learning these verb parts, too.

But wait…

Ah, you might be thinking. My foreign language has several different past tenses according to what you’re talking about! Spanish, for example, has the preterite for single, completed actions, and the imperfect, for repeated or habitual actions in the past.

Well, just take one of them. If you’re talking about stuff that happened in Spanish, then the preterite (the ‘story-telling’ past) is probably the best. In German, the perfect tense might be best, as it’s used as a ‘conversational past’. Whichever tense you choose, if you use it incorrectly, most native speakers will be forgiving and still understand. And comprehension is the name of the game, right?

So, here’s our ‘essential conjugation’ for the Spanish verb hablar (to speak):

Present Past (Preterite)
yo hablo hablé
hablas hablaste

The same goes for languages with different familiar and polite words for you. Pick just one, for now. Make it the one that makes most sense for you – I used the familiar in the Spanish above. If you’ll be speaking with peers and other students, then probably the familiar one is best. If you’ll be in lots of formal situations, learn the polite one.

To be, or not to be

Of course, you can go one step further, and not learn any endings at all. The trick is to find phrases that you can just slot that dictionary form – the infinitive – into. Then, just look up your word, pop it into your sentence, and voilà! Neatly-formed sentences without any effort.

Taking Spanish and French as an example, here are just a few stock phrases you can use with an infinitive:

Spanish French English
Hay que … Il faut … I/you/we must …
Me gusta … J’aime … I like …
Voy a … Je vais … I’m going to …

Just look up a verb in the dictionary, and wodge it on the end. Simples!

It’s all about making your job as a learner easier. Simplify – you’ll be communicating all the sooner for it!