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!

Polish words in a dictionary

2000 words and still not fluent? My Polish Anki experiment 🇵🇱📱

Would you be impressed if I told you I know over 2000 words in Polish? What about if I told you that I still can’t actually speak Polish?

As crazy as it sounds, it’s true. At least, it was true – I’m working on the speaking part now. But for some time, I’ve been exploring ideas of what fluency really means in language learning. Common sense dictates that, of course, fluency isn’t just knowing hundreds of words in a foreign language. But sometimes, you have to try something to confirm what common sense tells you. So I set off on a little Polish experiment: what if I just learnt all the words first?

Away with words

The language-canny amongst you might already see where this was heading. I should add that I never expected to reach conversational fluency this way. Rather, it was a trial to see just how far mass vocabulary learning can take a learner. There are plenty of courses that focus on rote-learning of vocab (Vocabulearn Polish, for example). Just how effective is the approach on its own, or, at least, as a springboard for more rounded learning later on?

Also, a disclaimer: I wasn’t completely new to Polish. I’ve had a casual interest in the language and culture ever since this formative TV moment at the age of 17. I’d learn a little Polish before, and knew the fundamentals of grammar. But fundamentals is perhaps an overstatement – I knew a handful of set phrases, a couple of noun cases and one verb conjugation.

The process

The whole thing was done pretty much on the cheap. I set about building a list in Anki based on a really old Polish text that I picked up for 50p in a second-hand bookshop: the 1948 edition of “Teach Yourself Polish”. Chapter by chapter, I’d strip the pages for new entries, and add them to Anki, tagging for parts of speech and topic. After I exhausted that (it contains maybe 1500 individual vocabulary entries or so), I turned to other texts I had at home (but never completed), like Routledge’s Colloquial Polish.

As I built the lists, I cross-referenced carefully using tools like Wiktionary, to check for mistranslations, obsolete terms and so on. That’s a pretty important step when using a text from 1948! However, the core vocabulary of a language doesn’t typically change drastically in any 70-year period, so I ended up with a pretty solid list of everyday words in the language (as well as some nice little oddities like jaskółka – a swallow, and borsuk – badger). 🐦

Input, test, repeat

I started doing my daily Anki routine right after my first words had been input. That meant that, for some weeks, I was learning words from early chapters, while typing them in from later ones. I found that helped, in fact; I’d become familiar with words for the first time when entering them, and then have an ‘echo’ of them when they came round in Anki. I certainly had a lot of success with recall that way.

Thankfully, there’s no damage that can’t be undone when learning languages. I’m back on track now with a structured textbook and regular one-to-one lessons with a Polish teacher. Those months learning the entire vocabulary of “Teach Yourself Polish” weren’t wasted – I now have a massive word bank at my disposal (even if learning to put them together is taking a lot of effort!).

Lessons learnt

So what did I learn, besides 2000 words, and how to be a walking dictionary?

Well, it clearly demonstrates two distinct mental processes when it comes to linguistic memory. There is the mental dictionary. And then there is the rule book. They can be learnt in isolation, but to really speak, they need to be learnt together.

Also, without learning them together, your power to retrieve words from memory can be a little mechanical and clunky. I had never practised firing off reams of words in the flow of conversation. I could answer like lightning if asked “what’s the Polish for apple?“. But when the time came to try and speak, my retrieval was just too slow to be useful.

It’s necessary to practise your vocabulary in the full stream of everyday speech; your brain must get used to pulling words quickly from memory as soon as they are needed.

By way of comparison, I notice a huge difference between my Polish and Icelandic. For me, the two languages are approximately at the same level on paper. However, speaking Icelandic in full sentences from the start, I come to a complete, faltering stop much less often.

Curating your own lists in Anki

It was also a great lesson in vocab organisation. Because I’d diligently tagged all of the entered words, I could leverage Anki’s search and filter to pull up custom vocab lists based on topic, or even parts of speech. What are all the adverbs of time I’ve learnt in Polish? Search the deck on ‘tag:adverb’ and ‘tag:time’, and hey presto. What about all the words for colours I’ve learnt? Pop in ‘tag:colours’ and there they all are.

This is important because of the power of ownership in language learning. These were my lists – they have particular salience to me, as I create and curate them. When entering them, I thought hard to think up tags that might be useful for sorting later. It’s quite satisfying to interrogate a mass of words in this way, and see the patterns and orders in them. And it works wonders for helping them stick in memory.

Interrogating lists of Anki words by tag

Interrogating lists of Anki words by tag

Gist king

Even in the absence of full syntax, it is now much easier to get the gist of most Polish texts.  Words alone are certainly not useless; they just serve the user better in a passive capacity.

The boosted banks are also a fantastic advantage now I am learning Polish in a more rounded,  systematic fashion. As I learn new structures, I have a ready-made treasure of words to drop into them.

Incidentally, it gave me a wonderful bird’s eye view of certain differences between Slavic languages, too. As a former learner of Russian, it was fascinating to see where Polish completely matched, or totally diverged from Russian.

An experience to repeat?

Has the experience been useful? Incredibly. Would I do it again? Certainly not with a completely new language that I knew nothing about in terms of grammar.

However, the sense of purpose and diligence it gave me was invaluable – I felt very actively engaged in the process of learning Polish. Not only that, but it was a masterclass in how to use Anki and take ownership of your vocabulary. As such, I shall definitely incorporate the same approach into further learning – only as a complimentary, rather than a principle, strand!

Polish Verb Blitz for iOS

Pulling out lists of words by tag in Anki

Anki, the vocab monster

Did you think learning vocabulary in a foreign language was just about memorising lists of words? Well, there’s a science to it. And Anki, a free flashcard learning system, has it down to a tee.

I’ve made frequent mention of the program in previous blog posts, and it’s formed a key part of my learning strategy since I started experimenting with it last year. I’m using it to drill and practise a couple of different languages, but here, I’ll focus on my experiences with it to achieve a decent working vocabulary in Polish.

Getting started

I hear it from several language-loving friends, and I felt the same at first: it’s a little bit intimidating at first. Its basic, unstyled interfaces can be offputting for the newcomer, and for certain things – like styling your cards – it is helpful to know a little tech magic like HTML. However, there are some helpful videos on the fundamentals at this link. And further assistance is just a YouTube search away, as there is a vast number of active users online, posting tips and hints. This excellent video introduction is a good example, and a great place to start.

Of course, all the magic is under the hood; it’s in the algorithms that Anki uses to drip-feed you vocab, day by day, and decide which words need more practice, and how often. It just requires a little work on your part, in curating your word lists.

feeding the Anki monster

There’s one key rule to maintaining pace with Anki: keep filling it up. Treat it like a vocabulary monster than needs a regular bucket of new words every so often to keep it fierce. You can add hundreds of words in one fell swoop at the beginning, and let the program do its stuff over the following weeks and months. It will select 25 new words from the bank a day, adding them to previously viewed words to recycle in each session. Eventually, it will run out of new words, and you’ll just be in memory maintenance mode.

Adding huge swathes of vocabulary in one go isn’t practical, though. It’s boring, for a start. And how do you decide on a source right at the beginning of your language learning journey? Also, vocab learning should be – in my opinion – an ongoing, lifelong process, and I feel my own use of Anki should reflect that.

Instead, then, I decided to just stay a few weeks ahead of myself with adding words. I chose a primary text for learning Polish – a very old edition of Teach Yourself Polish – and made a note to myself to add 2-3 chapters of vocabulary from it each week. I did this religiously, and within a few weeks I’d added a whole book’s worth of words.

However, making this a regular habit also allowed me to add in extra sources of vocabulary when I came across them. Along the way, I started to use the excellent Routledge Basic Polish – A Grammar and Workbook and Intermediate Polish – A Grammar and Workbook. As I found useful words in the examples, I’d add those in too. To keep things tidy, I’d add a sub-deck of flashcards to mark vocabulary from different sources separately.

Vocabulary mining

As well as books, I found two other useful ways to mine for vocabulary: self-interrogation and headline hunting.

In the first case, I’d actively interrogate my vocabulary as it was presented to me each day. If the words ‘shirt’, ‘trousers’ and ‘dress’ popped up, I’d ask myself: have I come across the word for ‘t-shirt’ yet? I’d check my vocab list, Google Translate the missing word, double-check it in Wiktionary, and add it to the bank if necessary. (I always use a couple of electronic resources with word-checking – never just a single one. Cross-referencing ensures you don’t end up with any dodgy mistranslations in your word bank!)

Headline hunting speaks for itself – I’d find a new site, and scan down the headlines for new or unusual words. Again, I’d Google Translate, check in Wiktionary and add to the bank. If I only do this once a week, it still generates a trickle of extra vocab to keep the monster fed.

Notably, I decided that vocabulary didn’t just mean ‘words’. Throughout my mining, I’d take model phrases, sayings, turns of speech – anything that I thought could be useful. Doing so meant that I could use Anki to revise simple structure, as well as dictionary items.

Tags are key

Crucially, I’d also add keywords to each vocabulary item. These were mainly based on broad topics that I could assign to each individual word; examples were ‘food and drink’, ‘clothes’, ‘colours’ and so on.

This turned out to be invaluable, given that the vocabulary was not thematically organised in the source material. After adding the words along with keyword tags, I could sort topically later on, pulling out all the ‘colours’ words for revision, for example. It’s especially satisfying when you call up a search list like this, and see how many different sources have gone into building your learning material.

Pulling out lists of words by tag in Anki

Pulling out lists of words by tag in Anki

First-pass learning

The very act of adding words to Anki doubles up as a sort of pre-learning phase. I never make a conscious effort to remember vocab as I’m typing it into the app. But inevitably, some items will catch my attention, and there’ll be a fair bit of residual recall when they pop up later in the program. I call this ‘first-pass learning’, and it’s often enough to provide a hook by the time the words get a second pass when popping up as scheduled.

This ‘learning proper’ phase could happen any time, in any place, thanks to the Anki app. I usually find myself squeezing those 10-15 minutes into train journeys – it’s a great way to fill otherwise ‘dead time’.

For Android users, the experience is still completely free, thanks to a third-party tool app on Google Play. However, for us iPhone people, the iOS app is a slightly pricey purchase at £23.99 / $24.99. Nonetheless, there are ways to approach that price tag on a budget of nothing. I bagged some free iTunes vouchers on Swagbucks for mine – see here for my experience with that!

Lieutenant Anki, language-learning regiment

The greatest thing is that Anki has regimented and regularised my vocabulary learning. Where I could be a little chaotic, now I have organisation. The system forces you to stay on top of things, too; miss a couple of days, and the list of words to learn and revise grows bigger and bigger. Stick to little and often and you won’t work up a backlog!

I’ve now thoroughly learnt over 1000 Polish vocabulary items. In fact, Anki has been so successful at drilling them, my vocab level has far outstripped my grammar – one possible downside to blitzing your words like this! But as I learn grammar at a slightly less frenetic pace, having a large knowledge of words to use with new structures is definitely a bonus. And I’m still experimenting with ways to drill grammar and structure in Anki, too.

In short, I’m now hooked on Anki. I’m proud of my curated word lists, as they are a record of how far I’ve travelled on each language learning journey. They’re highly personal, and, for that, I’m all the more motivated to work with them and learn them. If you’ve ever tried and have felt put off, please persevere – it’s definitely worth it!

A cheeky monkey - a staple of humour!

Humour and language learning: fuel your vocab with idioms!

Humour can be a great aide memoire when learning foreign languages. For one thing, humour increases the salience – or importance – our brains attach to learning material. We’ve all experienced how it’s easier to learn something that isn’t boring!

What’s more, many research studies have repeatedly demonstrated how humorous material can enhance learning. It can boost recall – it’s one of the reasons the keyword system of vocabulary learning can be so effective. It can reduce anxiety in an education setting. And some, like this one, even suggest that the dodgier, morerisqué the content, the better the effect!

So, where to look for humour in your target language? Perhaps the best place to start is the quirky turns of phrase, aphorisms and idioms, that are very particular to a given tongue. Just take English, for example: it’s not hard to smirk at such gems as . One reason language is so full of them is that our brains latch onto the entertaining imagery in them, operating along these lines of salience and ensuring that they’re easy to recall later on. It’s the same reason that the wild, fantastical stories of oral literary traditions were passed down the generations by memory for centuries before being written down.

Hunting for humour

The easiest way to source these is to simply Google for “funny idioms in French / German / Spanish / your language”. Humour is popular, and there’s therefore no shortage of collections of funny sayings for language learners!

Once found, the best way to integrate them into your learning is to pick out a few of your favourites, and add them to your own personal word lists. These could be offline, in a notebook, or in your favourite vocab / drill program like Anki Flashcards.

However, since idioms lend themselves to some hilarious, imaginative visuals, it’s a good idea to harness that in your learning, too. As a starting point, there’s a superb book of Castilian sayings for learners, which illustrates each saying with a simple but funny cartoon: 101 Spanish Idioms. Although the hard work is done for you here, it’s even more fun and satisfying to create your own illustrations, especially if you like to doodle. For simple scribbles, for example, I like to use to use Notability or Procreate for iOS. Find a saying, create a sketch, then export it to use in flashcards, or add to a drilling program like Anki.

More vocab for your buck

But don’t just learn the phrase – break it down, and mine it for vocab. Take the Spanish phrase tomar el pelo (to pull someone’s leg). It literally means ‘to take the hair’ (weird, right?). But from that phrase, you get two extra words for your vocab list, ‘to take’ and ‘hair’, both of which are pretty useful. So add them as separate items to your word bank, and you get multiple hits for the price of one.

Humour in idioms: some favourites

Without further ado, here are a few of my own favourite humorous idioms in a range of languages. As you’ll see, many of them are based on animals or food – strangely recurrent themes when researching the world of weird idioms!

English 🇬🇧

mad as a box of frogs 🐸🐸🐸
completely crazy, eccentric

French 🇫🇷

avoir le cafard
to have the cockroach 🐞 (I know that’s a ladybird – there’s no cockroach emoticon yet!)
to be depressed

Dutch 🇳🇱

een appeltje met iemand te schillen hebben
To have a little apple to peel with someone 🍏
To have a bone to pick with someone

The English translation is just as odd and quirky as the Dutch!

Finnish 🇫🇮

juosta pää kolmantena jalkana
to run with the head as a third leg 🏃🏽
to be in a mad rush

Just an aside: it was tricky to find Finnish idioms that didn’t contain some very dodgy language – this was by far the cleanest in my little ‘net search!

German 🇩🇪

Schwein haben
to have pig 🐷
to have good luck

Icelandic 🇮🇸

ekki upp í nös á ketti
not enough to fill a cat’s nose 🐱
very little

Italian 🇮🇹

trattare a pesci in faccia
To treat with fish in the face 🐟
To disrespect

Norwegian 🇳🇴

født bak en brunost
born behind a brown cheese
a bit dim

Some useful general vocab here, plus a lovely nugget of Norwegian culinary culture!

Polish 🇲🇨

myśleć o niebieskich migdałach
to think of blue almonds
to daydream

dzielić skórę na niedźwiedziu
to divide the skin while it’s still on the bear 🐻
to count your chickens before they’ve hatched

Another one where the English translation is just as animalistic and odd!

Russian 🇷🇺

делать из мухи слона (dyelat’ iz mukhi slona)
to make an elephant from a fly 🐘
to make mountains out of molehills

…another pair of translations which are as colourful and zoological as each other!

Spanish 🇪🇸

arrimar el ascua a su sardina 🔥 🐟
to bring the coals closer to one’s sardine
to look out for number one, be selfish

Swedish 🇸🇪

nära skjuter ingen hare
near shot, no rabbit 🐰
close but no cigar

Do you have more personal favourites from your own language explorations? Please share – more laughs are always a welcome thing!