Does AI have a noun problem? Strategies for avoiding it.

AI Has A Noun Problem : Let’s Fix It!

If you’re using AI for language learning content creation, you might have already spotted AI’s embarrassing secret. It has a noun problem.

Large Language Models like ChatGPT and Bard are generally great for creating systematic learning content. They’re efficient brainstormers, and can churn out lists and texts like there’s no tomorrow. One use case I’ve found particularly helpful is the creation of vocab lists – all the more so since it can spool them off in formats to suit learning tools like Anki.

But the more I’ve used it, the more it’s become apparent. AI has a blind spot that makes these straight-out-the-box vanilla lists much less useful than they could be.

A fixation with nouns.

Test it yourself; ask your platform of choice simply to generate a set of vocab items on a topic. Chances are there’ll be precious few items that aren’t nouns. And in my experience, more often than not, lists are composed entirely of noun items and nothing else.

ChatGPT-4 giving a list of French vocabulary items - all nouns.

ChatGPT-4 giving a list of French vocabulary items – all nouns.

It’s a curious bias, but I think it has something to do with how the LLM conceives key words. The term is somehow conflated with all the things to do with a topic. And nouns, we’re taught at school, are thing words.

Getting Over Your Noun Problem

Fortunately, there’s therapy for your AI to overcome its noun problem. And like most AI refining strategies, it just boils down to clearer prompting.

Here are some tips to ensure more parts-of-speech variety in your AI language learning content:

  1. Explicit Instruction: When requesting vocabulary lists, spell out what you want. Specify a mix of word types – nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, etc. to nudge the AI towards a more balanced selection. When it doesn’t comply, just tell it so! More verbs, please is good start.
  2. Increase the Word Count: Simply widening the net can work, if you’re willing to manually tweak the list afterwards. Increase you vocab lists to 20 or 30 items, and the chances of the odd verb or adjective appearing are greater.
  3. Contextual Requests: Instead of asking for lists, ask the AI to provide sentences or paragraphs where different parts of speech are used in context. This not only gives you a broader range of word types, but also shows them in action.
  4. Ask for Sentence Frames: Instead of single items, ask for sentence frames (or templates) that you can swap words in an out of. For instance, request a model sentence with a missing verb, along with 10 verbs that could fill that spot. “I ____ bread” might be a simple one for the topic food.
  5. Challenge the AI: Regularly challenge the AI with tasks that require a more nuanced understanding of language – like creating stories, dialogues, or descriptive paragraphs. This can push its boundaries and improve its output.

Example Prompts

Bearing those tips in mind, try these prompts for size. They should produce a much less noun-heavy set of vocab for your learning pleasure:

Create a vocabulary list of 20 French words on the topic “Food and Drink”. Make sure to include a good spread of nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs. For each one, illustrate the word in use with a useful sentence of about level A2 on the CEFR scale.
Give me a set of 5 French ‘sentence frames’ for learning and practising vocabulary on the topic “Summer Holidays”. Each frame should have a missing gap, along with five examples of French words that could fit in it.
Write me a short French text of around level A2 on the CEFR scale on the topic “Finding a Job in Paris”. Then, list the main content words from the text in a glossary below in table format.

Have you produced some useful lists with this technique? Let us know in the comments!

A deck of neon flashcards. Anki cards might not be quite as fancy!

From ChatGPT to Anki : Instant Potted Vocab Decks!

With cutting edge AI galvanising the language learning world, traditional tools like Anki – which would have been considered the leading edge not that long ago – seem well in the shade. But it’s not a question of either-or. Traditional and new tech can work in happy symbiosis to support language learning.

Preparing for a recent high-stakes language mission (OK, island-hopping hol!) to Greece, I wanted to turboboost my Greek vocab. Anki was my tool of choice, of course, but one question remained: where to source new flashcard decks? Large Language Models like ChatGPT and Bing were easy choices for generating topical vocab lists, but how much copy-pasting would that involve? I wasn’t keen on spending hours formatting cards manually.

Thankfully, ChatGPT Plus’ Advanced Data Analysis mode can provide a bridge between old and new. Forget that slightly intimidating title – the main boon is simply that this mode can output a text file. And, given the right format, Anki can take such a text file as an import source. With a bit of prompting prowess, we can automate the whole process – from topic to cards, in one fell swoop. Before long, I had a fresh daily drip-drip of new words and phrases, a real shot in the arm for my Greek pre-trip.

Here’s how to task ChatGPT with the whole job of Anki deck creation. If you don’t have the Plus version, no problem – scroll down for a modified version that works with completely free plans and services!

Automatic Anki Decks – Plus Style

First of all, start a new chat in ChatGPT, and make sure Advanced Data Analysis is selected in the drop-down menu under ChatGPT-4.

Selecting Advanced Data Analysis mode in ChatGPT-4.

Selecting Advanced Data Analysis mode in ChatGPT-4.

Now, we’re ready for our prompt. Like our AI speaking prep worksheets, the beauty of this is just how specific you can make your flashcards. The topic can be as broad or narrow as you like. Here’s a sample prompt to create a French deck on the talking point ‘social issues’:

Hello! I’m learning French, and I’d like you to create an Anki flashcard deck to help me. To import a deck, Anki requires a CSV file format with just a “Front”, “Back” and “Tags” field corresponding to the English. the target language phrase and the part of speech. There is no need for header fields, so the first line should represent the first vocabulary item.
Can you create such an Anki-ready list of 50 flashcard items on the topic “Social Issues” for me, then save it for me as a .txt file I can import into the app?
– Provide a good mixture of essential and useful nouns, verbs, adjectives, and useful phrases / sentence frames (ie., so it’s not just a list of nouns!).
– Provide each term in its dictionary form if appropriate, indicating gender, plural and essential or irregular parts briefly as per convention where applicable.
– Ensure that all terms relate to the contemporary culture of the target language country as much as possible.
– Please draw on resources in the original target language when researching which words will be most useful, cross-referencing with all available data and checking constantly to make sure that the target language for the flashcards is accurate and colloquial, never bookish or unnatural.

Limitations (For Now)

One limitation with the Advanced Data Analysis mode is that it can’t run concurrently with ChatGPT’s now restored web-connected mode, or Browse with Bing. All that means is that it will be relying on its banks of training data for the vocab collation, rather than the web. But in most cases, it shouldn’t make too much difference given the vastness of that data (although it will notify you apologetically about it – see below). We’re waiting for the day – hopefully soon – that OpenAI allows users to run several premium features together.

ChatGPT Plus whirring away creating an Anki deck.

ChatGPT Plus whirring away at an Anki deck. Quirky repartee not as standard, but provided by special request thanks to custom instructions! I like my AI cheeky.

Into Anki We Go

One you have your ChatGPT-infused vocab file ready, you can import it straight into Anki. In the Anki desktop app, head to File > Import, and select the file you saved. The import settings window will pop up, including, crucially, which field matches to which column of your data under Field Mapping. The app guesses correctly for the most part, but occasionally you may need to specify that the third column (part of speech) maps to the tags field.

Importing CSV data into Anki decks.

Importing CSV data into Anki decks.

And that’s it. You should get a brief report of the number of items added, and they’re ready to play with straight away. Instant, fresh vocab decks in seconds!

No ChatGPT Plus? No problem!

Now, the above is all very well if you have ChatGPT Plus. Many platforms lack the file output side of things. But you can still get them do the heavy work of vocab-hunting and file-formatting; all you need to do is the final copy-paste-save.

Here’s how to alter the prompt for plain old vanilla ChatGPT and Bing, coaxing it to provide Anki-ready output. I’ve also made the format a little clearer, which might help if you’re using slightly older models like ChatGPT-3.5.

Hello! I’m learning French, and I’d like you to create an Anki flashcard deck to help me. To import a deck, Anki requires a CSV file format with just a “Front”, “Back” and “Tags” field corresponding to the English. the target language phrase and the part of speech.
Can you create such an Anki-ready list of 25 flashcard items on the topic “Driving a Car” for me? Output the CSV data as formatted as code so I can easily copy-paste into a text file for Anki.
– Don’t include header fields in the CSV – the first line of your output should be the first vocabulary item (ie., car,la voiture,noun).
– Provide a good mixture of essential and useful nouns, verbs, adjectives, and useful phrases / sentence frames (ie., so it’s not just a list of nouns!).
– Provide each term in its dictionary form if appropriate, indicating gender, plural and essential or irregular parts briefly as per convention where applicable.
– Ensure that all terms relate to the contemporary culture of the target language country as much as possible.
– Please draw on resources in the original target language when researching which words will be most useful, cross-referencing with all available data and checking constantly to make sure that the target language for the flashcards is accurate and colloquial, never bookish or unnatural.

Your platform should spool out some easily copiable code. Simply paste this into a text file, save, and import into Anki.

Even using 3.5, I got some great results featuring practical, useful vocabulary sets.

Creating Anki decks with the free ChatGPT3.5 model.

Creating Anki decks with the free ChatGPT3.5 model.

Experiment, Experiment, Experiment!

As with all AI prompts, it’s worth experimenting with everything to tweak, improve and get the absolute best out of it. The number of cards, the mix of words and phrases, the source of the material – make it your own. When you have it just right, you can create cards for your own, or your students’ learning, in seconds.

Oh, and don’t forget to save your perfect prompts somewhere you can copy-paste them from later, too!

If you’re keen for more artificial intelligence tips to boost your learning, please check out my book AI for Language Learners. It’s packed with practical examples to fuel your linguistic adventures!

An excerpt from the AQA GCSE Spanish spec.

GCSE Specs : Free Language Learning Roadmaps

If you’re a book fiend and love cheap resources, you’ll share my excitement for bargainous budget language guides for students taking school exams like GCSE French, German and Spanish. But you’ll be even more excited to learn that there’s a way to get this thematic, graded content for free.

Enter the humble exam specification document. All exam boards, like AQA and Edexcel in the UK, publish specifications for the qualifications they award. These PDF documents list all of the material students are expected to know in order to possess that competence, and serve as a checklist for teachers preparing students for exams. For foreign languages, that includes core vocabulary and structures, as well as cultural background information. Core vocab is frequently in glossary format, making it the stuff of dreams for systematic learners.

GCSE Goldmines

So where to find these little treasure troves of free learning? The first thing is to identify national exam boards that offer foreign language qualifications. I chose the GCSE as it’s the gold standard first stage school leaver certificate in England and Wales; change this as appropriate for whatever local qualification you are more familiar with. Google which boards run those qualifications, then mine their sites for subject pages, where you should find spec docs as downloadable PDFs. Check out AQA Spanish and Edexcel German for great examples.

GCSE French specification page from Pearson EdExcel

GCSE French spec page from Pearson Edexcel

When you drill down into these documents, you’ll find super-handy lists of topic-related words. But you can also find some really handy crib lists that aren’t simply lists of nouns under topic headings. What I find particularly useful are the round-ups of important function words, which you don’t often see in one place in a course book. Looking for a quick cheat sheet for connectives and sentence-builders in your target language? Bingo!

An excerpt from the AQA GCSE French spec.

An excerpt from the AQA GCSE French spec.

Once you have that precious vocab, you can tackle it with your tool of choice. I like to load mine into Anki, or – increasingly, of late – paste it into AI to play some word games with.

Roadmaps – to Plenty of Places!

Obviously, there is some limitation in terms of languages, with an obvious bias for mainstream school languages like French, German and Spanish. You simply don’t find many schools that are teaching Croatian, Swahili or Uzbek. But between AQA and Edexcel, I also counted Chinese, Ancient Greek, Modern Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Panjabi, Polish and Russian, so the choice is more impressive than you might fear.

Certainly, these spec docs are no comprehensive textbooks. For vocabulary, they can be a one-stop shop. But for grammar, you’re more likely to get a summary of features students should know, such as essential irregular verbs, or key tenses listed by name, but not fleshed out. That said, there is still huge value in that; see it as a kind of manifesto for what you, yourself, should be focusing on in the early stages of language learning. In this way, GCSE specs can supplement other learning materials as a kind of roadmap.

The Exam Spec Yardstick

As well as providing handy ‘how to’ guides for languages, there’s another benefit. It’s actually quite helpful to gauge your own competence against a national qualification. It gives you the confidence that you are performing in that language at a particular level. Many specs include links to wider levelling tools like CEFR (the A1-C2 scale) too, which is practically the currency of the polyglot community.

But specs can also provide the encouragement you need to seek accreditation yourself. If you have the knowledge and skills for GCSE French under your belt, why not sit GCSE French? There are plenty of further ed organisations that offer language GCSEs for adult learners – check your local colleges and universities to see what’s available.

It’s out there, waiting for you – a bunch of comprehensive, expertly curated resources to download for free. What gems have you found amongst the specs? Let us know in the comments!

An egg frying in a non-stick frying pan (image by freeimages.com). How do you ensure your vocabulary doesn't stick together?

Non-Stick Vocabulary : Separating Similar Words

We’ve all been there in the early stages of language learning. Somehow, certain words just seem to blend into each other. Does X mean Y or Z? I keep saying X for Y! And why do all those little words look so similar? You want your vocabulary to stick in your mind, not the individual items to stick together

These recall problems are pretty normal, particularly when you throw in the social pressure of speaking with others, which can even mess with your native language. With a foreign language, the problem is compounded by differences in phonemic salience – that is., which sounds count as important markers to distinguish one word from another. Something really subtle in your native language, like the difference between a hard stop and a palatalised counterpart, can completely change a meaning. Take the pair of words adabu (good manners) and ajabu (wonder, amazement) in Swahili. When I started Swahili classes, I could not separate them in my head for the life of me. It’s likely that my brain just found it tricky to meaningfully separate the sounds represented by d and j, as /d/ often morphs into /dj/ in my native dialect (try saying induce or and you).

Other times, words might get sticky because they share similar structures that co-trigger, like rhyming sequences. That would explain why I also found it tricky to separate the word asali (honey) from the previous two. Latching onto that aXa pattern, it somehow ended up occupying a very similar memory space to adabu and ajabu. And of course, it probably didn’t help that you spell all three with just five letters! It’s the cost-economising (read: lazy) part of the brain spotting patterns and making heuristic shortcuts – even when these are very unhelpful. Tsk. (Incidentally, the brilliant Daniel Kahneman writes about dodgy heuristics in Thinking, Fast and Slow, which is well worth a read if this piques your interest!)

Revisiting Vocabulary

Interestingly, it’s an effect that isn’t confined to brand new languages. It can even happen with old languages we’re dredging up from the past, or low-level maintaining.

Hebrew is one of those for me. It’s not quite a maintenance language; in fact, I can barely even count it as a fully-fledged language of mine. I barely reached A1 in the modern, spoken language, so it doesn’t take a lot of maintaining. I keep it in that list, chiefly, for reasons of nostalgia!

Anyway, a couple of years ago, I sought to do that minimal maintenance a bit more systematically. I grabbed my copy of Routledge’s Colloquial Hebrew, trawled the first six chapters for vocabulary, and dumped it into Anki. I set my Hebrew deck to drip through a single new card a day, and just let time do the rest.

Overall, it’s been a brilliant, low-key method for solidifying all that ultra-basic stuff. But, every now and again, I do struggle to recall certain words. And surprise, surprise, it’s usually those that look a little bit similar to others. It’s adabu-ajabu all over again!

Seeing it through Anki eyes gave me a new perspective on it, though. In test mode, mix-ups are largely artefacts of the isolated vocabulary item problem. It crops up time and time again in polyglot social media circles: don’t drill words, drill structures. Disembodied parts of speech have little salience on their own. Your brain needs something to hang them onto.

Damage Limitation

Of course, when all your Anki cards are done, you’re already in a bit of a bind over this. You could go back and update all your cards to be sentences (sourcing them from a bank like Tatoeba, for example). But that’s a lot of work.

Instead, you can embed mixological words in some kind of context on the fly. When cross-contamination occurs, think of a phrase – however short – to include the word in. Use alliteration, rhyme, any trick to make it stick. Say it out loud, enjoy the sound of it, visualise it. And try to recall that same phrase whenever the troublesome word pops up again. For my Swahili pair, I came up with:

  • mji wa ajabu (a wonderful town)
  • dada mwenye adabu (a good-mannered sister)

In both cases I’ve chosen a word repeating the troublesome letter (d/j) to highlight the problem sound. I won’t say I never mix them up now – but it has certainly helped.

From my novice Hebrew, another example shows that you can sometimes even combine them together. Take tsar (tight, narrow) and tsad (side). Smoosh them up into tsad tsar (narrow side), and they might just end up sorting each other out.

What words do you tend to mix up in your target language? And how do you go about fixing it? Let us know in the comments!

A big slice of cheese. And Anki moved mine! Picture from freeimages.com

Who Moved My Cheese? Anki media folder, Mac edition

It is actually a fair while since I last tinkered under the Anki hood. I haven’t needed to, to be honest. I’d set everything up just right for my current clutch of active and maintenance languages way back, and everything was chugging along nicely.

But polyglot dreams never sleep for long. The need for a fresh round of customising came from an exciting new side project, Croatian. Easy, I thought. I’ll rustle up some cute Croatian card layouts, complete with a cute wee flag.

The problem: everything had changed!

Frustratingly, it was no longer possible to access the media and backup folders from the app itself. There must be some rationale behind this, of course, and it’s not hard to reason why. Wrong moves when messing with app files can be dangerous for your precious vocab database.

But, for low stakes operations like simply dropping an image into the media folder, it seems reasonable to have access to it (with a helpful dose of caution!). Unfortunately, there’s a dearth of how-to out there right now. It took a bit of Googling and re-Googling to find the answer. But, finally, I sorted it.

And here’s how!

Anki media folder (Mac)

The Anki library folder now lives in the following place on a Mac:

/Users/[your_username]/Library/Application Support/Anki2/[your_anki_name]

However, the path is probably hidden to you from the Library level up. To get round that, bring up your username folder (Users/[your_username]) in Finder. Then,  hold down command (⌘), shift and the full stop (period, .) key to show hidden files and folders. You should now see a whole load of extra items, including the Library folder. Drill down from there along the above path, and you should end up in your Anki directory.

If it’s not there, then it’s also worth trying the ‘all users’ version of that path:

/Library/Application Support/Anki2/[your_anki_name]

Once you’ve located it and entered the (now) secret lair, it’s still collection.media we’re interested in as before. You can drop whatever you like in here, and refer to it in your card templates and other custom Anki items – just like in the old days!

Once you’re done, of course, you might well want to hit command (⌘), shift and the full stop again go hide all those oddly-named bits and pieces – until the next time!

 

A dark forest, a good setting for an Anki horror story, perhaps? Picture from freeimages.com

Coming Up Blank : An Anki Horror Story

I lived through an Anki horror story this week. 🧟‍♂️

There I was, skipping merrily through my list of vocabulary, words flying past at a rate of knots. This is going well, I thought, with naive overconfidence.

But then it hit me. I stopped fast in my tracks. Staring blankly at the word on the screen, nothing would rise from the depths of memory. A void. I was peering into the darkness, teetering on the brink. Brain, don’t fail me now.

Then, I scrambled to think back, at the edge of desperation, to the time when I first added that word to Anki. Where did I get it from? Could I just recall what chapter it was in, which website I found it from, where I heard it?

Suddenly, I could see the textbook page, the colour of the background, the shape of the word. Almost sobbing with relief, I realised the ordeal was over.

It had come back to me.

What a close one!

The Right Way To Anki

OK, flippancy aside – why was that a horror story, you ask? After all, my visual memory must be great.

The problem here is that I had fallen foul of the dastardly context effect, and the word was, in essence, tied very tightly to the circumstances I learnt it in. Having to dredge up the exact setting of a vocabulary item on a page to recall it isn’t very efficient in the flow of conversation in the target language.

I only had myself to blame, of course. In my haste to add the word to my Anki collection, I broke the golden rule: only include items in context. That means as few isolated words as possible, and more contextualising phrases and full sentences showing the word in use. Learning dictionary-style does not work (believe me – I learnt that the hard way!).

I’ve seen the results for myself; switching to a more phrase-based vocab drilling routine works wonders for your conversation skills. It’s the rationale behind platforms like Glossika, which you can replicate with your own DIY sentence-based vocab strategy. In short: it works.

So yes, of course I should have known better, guv’nor. But my Anki horror story was a timely reminder to get back on the right track (and we all need those now and again).

Don't hit the whisky when your language learning turns to comedy. Picture from FreeImages.com

Married and Drunk : Comedy Moments in Language Learning

Comedy moments in language learning are pretty much inevitable.

But they make learning fun, too. Unintentional double entrendre, accidential Freudian slips and downright nonsensical gibberish are some of my favourite things about language learning. For one thing, the salience of humour means that you never forget the vocabulary associated with these most unfortunate incidents.

Comedy Cornucopia

Lucky, then, that language provides an endless cornucopia of them. And sometimes it can be the strangest pairs of words that bear an uncanny, confusing resemblance to each other despite being poles apart semantically. A recent favourite duo is ua and -ua in Swahili – flower and kill, oddly enough.

And the language keeps on giving.

Just look at this trio from my recent lessons:

-olewa to marry (a man)
-lewa to be drunk
-elewa to understand

Surely this is a joke Swahili is playing on language learners. Just imagine the comedy misunderstandings! For instance, there is a tiny difference between:

  • ameolewa – s/he is  married
  • amelewa – s/he is  drunk

And…

  • ninaelewa – I understand
  • ninaolewa – I am getting married

That’s just asking for trouble (or laughs).

Keep It Together!

So how can we keep this sparring vocab items separate? As I’ve found with some dangerously close Greek words lately, sometimes it’s better not to. That is, to learn then in close proximity, embedded in a phrase or short story, so that they remain distinct in meaning.

For instance:

Amelewa kwa sababu ameolewa! S/he is drunk because s/he is married!
Nimelewa, lakini ninaelewa! I am drunk, but I understand!
Anaelewa, anaolewa? Does s/he understand s/he’s getting married?

These are pretty fun to learn. They’re less abstract – you can picture a silly story behind them. You can also practise them almost theatrically, reading them out with feeling. And hopefully, by doing so, you’re moving the comedy from your real-life interactions to humorous tableaux in your learning material. Phew.

It’s so much more effective that learning them as single, abstract and separate items on empty-looking vocab cards.

Shrinking violet? You are not alone as a shy linguist! Image of flowers from freeimages.com

He Killed Them with Flowers : Remembering Vocabulary Oddly

If you’ve been following my language learning journey, you’ll know what a keen mnemonic hunter I am. I experiment with all sorts of tricks for making vocab stick, all of it involving spotting patterns and making connections between words. Some of my favourite techniques include linkword, humour and rhyme.  In essence, anything that makes a word or phrase salient – giving it the weight to stand out – is a great memory device.

Death By Flowers

I was lucky this week then, as a pair of Swahili oddities fell into my lap. It’s an unusual correspondence between two quite different words:

  • ua (flower)
  • -ua (to kill)

First of all, it got me wondering whether they were actually from the same root, but through some twisted process of meaning change, they diverged. Maybe the original sense was ‘bloom’ and ‘kill’ was some metaphoric extension meaning “cause blood to ‘bloom’ (burst forth) from the body”.

I know, I know – what a weird imagination I have. That said, the idea can’t be that weird, as the Proto-Germanic for bleed is sometimes conjectured as arising through that very same metaphor.

Digging Up The Roots

But alas, in Swahili it was too fanciful by far. As it turns out, ua and -ua come from quite separate roots in Proto-Bantu:

Clearly a lot has happened to grind those words down to the same form over the centuries. But that leaves us with a correspondence that can help us tie the two together, and ultimately recall them perfectly. For my own mental image, I’ve constructed the phrase ‘aliwaua na maua‘ (he killed them with flowers), which neatly fulfils the bizarreness criteria for salient vocab memories. Oh – and it rhymes, too! I won’t forget either of those words in a hurry now.

The moral of the tale? Look out for oddities and weird coincidences in your target languages. They’re a gift for making lasting vocab memories.

Let's dally in the valley: rhyme can be a great aide memoire. Picture from freeimages.com.

A Rhyme to Remember : Wordplay Vocab Fun

I was really struggling to learn a new word lately. It was κοιλάδα (kiládha), or valley, in Greek. Nothing would make it stick. That is, until I realised the power of rhyme.

The word  has an obvious and natural rhyme in Greek: a much more foundational, essential word, namely Ελλάδα (Elládha), meaning Greece. Suddenly, I had a way to anchor the new word to the existing one in memory:

η κοιλάδα στην Ελλάδα
i kiládha stin Elládha
the valley in Greece

It creates such a musical phrase, and one that is so easy to picture in the mind, that suddenly, remembering it is no longer a bane. Finally, it stuck!

Rhyme is a brilliant aide memoire for words that stubbornly refuse to settle in your mental lexicon. Like other techniques such as rhythm, rhyming enlists sound effects and wordplay to add a memorable dimension to learning material.

So why is it so effective?

Rhyme and Reason

Rhyming is a triple whammy when it comes to language learning. First of all, the creation of a rhyme anchors one new word to another existing one, neural-networking on what you already know. But it also creates a story, a vivid mental picture that helps with recall (much like a beefed-up version of the Linkword system). That valley in Greece of mine is a really nice tableau to bolster the words with a visual cue.

But even more powerfully, rhyme circumvents the ‘words in isolation’ problem of learning new vocabulary. Instead of a lone word, we have added value in the grammatical context of the rhyming snippet, even if that is simply the odd article or conjunction as above. Every little helps. 

Like Lego, rhymes are extendable, too. You can expand the lexical scene by tagging on more and more rhyming words, with your memory the only limit. Another difficult-to-remember word for me in Greek, for example, is χιονοστιβάδα (chionostivádha), meaning avalanche. As another -άδα (-ádha) word, I can simply build it into my little poem:

η χιονοστιβάδα στην κοιλάδα στην ελλάδα
i chionostivádha stin kiládha stin elládha
the avalanche in the valley in Greece

Read phrases like this out loud, and the rhythmic dimension also becomes very clear – yet another support to bolster the memory.

Rhyming Grammar

In fact, learning whole snippets of language in rhyming couplets, rather than individual words, can support grammar acquisition. The following German pair serves as a great example of the dative case with feminine singular nouns:

  • an der Wand (on the wall)
  • in der Hand (in the hand)

You can build rhythmic rhymes like this into more extensive ‘mini poems’ to contain a range of vocab and grammar points. This can be a lot of fun: teaching German, I regularly worked the rhyming game into my lessons. In advance, I would put together a daft bit of verse containing the central words and structures for the current topic. Nothing too extensive – just a few lines of rhyming couplets. Perhaps something like this:

Ich habe einen grünen Hund, er ist ziemlich klug,
Er spricht mit Katzen jeden Tag, und fährt dann mit dem Zug.
I have a green dog, he’s pretty clever,
He talks to cats every day, and then takes the train.

Admittedly, that is a pretty nonsensical scene. And you have to think a little creatively to make this stuff scan! But it is worth the effort: in there, we have some animal vocab, a transport word, and a host of important grammatical points: adjective endings, verb conjugations and so on. Two lines, but packed with handy language learning gems.

These poetical delights would be on the whiteboard when my students entered the room. As the lesson kicked off, we would read through the lines together. Then, I would rub out a few random words, and we read again, reciting the missing words from memory. The process would repeat – rubbing out, reading, rubbing out, reading –  until nothing would be left on the board.

But – as if by magic! – the students could now recite the whole thing. At the end of the lesson, I would ask them to try again from memory once again, and, to their surprise, they could reproduce the whole thing. What a great confidence boost for kids who so often doubted their language learning abilities.

A Rhyme-Honoured Tradition

The power of rhyme is hardly a secret – it is a famously great technique for aiding memory. We have myriad oral traditions of epic poetry to prove the point. For millennia, stories have been passed from generation to generation through memorised verse; ancient texts such as Beowulf may have literary lives stretching back long before they were ever written down.

But you don’t need to be a literary genius to benefit personally – just a handful of words will suffice for some verse. And let’s face it: as beginners, we only have a handful of words to play with. But that makes more a greater creative challenge, right? 

And for when words fail, you can turn to online, multilingual rhyming dictionaries like the following:

The wordplays needn’t stop at rhyme, either. You can play around with other techniques, such as alliteration, to create more memorable vocabulary notes. Duolingo has recently introduced the phrase deiseil agus deònach (ready and willing) into its Gaelic course, for example. Doesn’t that trip off the tongue nicely?

Rhyme Stone Cowboy

So, a little rogue rhyming can go a long way to making tricky vocab stick. Next time you feel the uphill struggle, maybe try going for a ride in the kiládha stin Elládha

Searching by tag in Anki

Playing Anki Tag : From Plain Lists to Topic-Based Fun

Anki users, do you tag your cards?

If the answer is no, then perhaps you should think about adding this natty little superpower to your vocab decks. It’s not only a good habit, but it can turn plain old Anki lists into fun, interactive games like this. How? Read on!

Topical Application

To start with, tagging cards with keywords for topic names like colours, animals, or food, or parts of speech like verb, or noun, gives your data greater searchability. In the Anki browse window, you can then filter on these keywords using the tag: notation.

Straight away, this opens up the possibility to conduct a quick and easy language audit. For example, searching on tag:colours quickly shows if there are any gaps in your linguistic colour palette that need filling.

Filtering your vocab cards by tag in Anki.

Filtering your vocab cards by tag in Anki.

Now, wouldn’t it be nice if you could also test yourself specifically on those queries? Say, pull up all of your food and drink words and blitz them for a bit of extra practice?

Unfortunately, you can’t do that straight out of the box. Anki doesn’t provide a way to create a new or virtual vocab deck by tag. But you can easily export them to make thematic test-yourself activities on other platforms.

Playing Tag with Anki

It’s actually pretty simple to get sets of data out of Anki by tag. In the Browse window of the desktop app, start by tapping out a tag: query on your data as above. Then, highlight all of the matching entries that appear in the list (clicking on one entry and then hitting CTRL + A is the fastest way for me).

Selecting notes by tag in Anki

Selecting notes by tag in Anki

Next, head up to Notes in the menu, and select the Export Notes option.

Exporting selected notes in Anki

Exporting selected notes in Anki

As we’ll be using this data on any number of different platforms, simplicity is the order of the day. For that reason, Notes in Plain Text is the best format to choose for our data. Selected Notes should already be the active choice in the Include dropdown. Make sure to untick Include tags and Include HTML and media references to keep the data as plain as possible. Then, tap the Export button.

Exporting selected notes in Anki

Exporting selected notes in Anki

The result should be a .txt file containing a neatly formatted list of your thematic word list. Magic!

From Anki to Beyond

Now you’re ready to drop that into other edu-game services that have an import feature. Educandy and Quizlet are amongst the easiest, and a good place to start. With Educandy, you can simply upload the .txt file directly, and it handles the rest. With Quizlet, you have to open the .txt file, copy the text and paste it into a little box, but it’s still nice and simple.

Now, you have a whole suite of games you can play that focus entirely on your chosen topic. A brilliant way to granulate your Anki practice a bit – or simply create games for your friends (or students) to learn from too.

Anki vocabulary items imported into an Educandy game

Anki vocabulary items imported into an Educandy game

 

Anki vocabulary items imported into a Quizlet game

Anki vocabulary items imported into a Quizlet game

Sometimes you may need to do a little extra work on the other end. In Quizlet, for example, I needed to reverse the order of columns from term-description to description-term as the site default didn’t match my list. Fortunately, that’s just a single button-click on that platform. Phew!

Tag Tips

Anki tagging isn’t perfect, it must be said. Even the most avid taggers will point out that the app’s default tag management features are a bit basic. For some extra control over them, it’s well worth installing the free Search and Replace Tags add-on. There is also the premium add-on BetterTags, which adds some serious extreme tagging power to your app.

Both utilities are incredibly helpful if you end up with near-duplicate or misspelt tags to tidy up. For instance, I realised I had tagged cards variously as ‘animal’ and ‘animals’ over time. Easy to do if you add cards in tranches regularly, rather than all at once. But a nightmare if you are searching for the topic ‘animal’ and only half of your cards appear.

No problem: the two tags combined like a treat with the Search and Replace add-on.

Whether you’re brand new to tagging or have been tagging like a pro for years, it pays dividends to explore these import-export options with other sites. A bit of variety is never a bad thing!