The purpose of this chapter is to help improve your method using the core resources from the earlier chapter on finding resources. We will cover how to use your course, flashcards, content, and dictionary.
Using your course effectively
The purpose of a course is to introduce you to basic grammar and vocabulary using phrases, explanations, exercises, dialogues, or whatever method is preferred by your chosen course.
The best way to improve your usage of your course is by using the following principle:
Principle: Don’t try to learn things perfectly the first time you encounter them
Learning happens slowly over time, usually well after you are first introduced to a word or concept. The very act of moving forward with a loose understanding will help teach you things already covered as you encounter them again.
You don’t need a perfect understanding of a lesson before you begin the next. Knowing a language is far more than memorising rules and definitions. Notice that you speak your native language perfectly well, but would struggle to talk about the grammatical rules you are applying. The same applies to your target language. This means that you should avoid trying to memorise your lesson content. Languages must be acquired, not memorised.
There’s no prescribed way to use your course. Many learners prefer to skim through workbooks or online resources to get a broad understanding before using content. Other learners make their own workbook, writing down the key words, insights, or grammatical forms of every lesson.1
When to stop using a beginner course
You can move on once your course finishes or you have dealt with the core grammar, such as verb conjugations and noun declensions, articles, and prepositions. This occurs faster with languages that are more similar to your native language. After that point, it helps to use your course or some other book or website as a reference of forms to take note of when you are using content.
It is helpful to finish your course. This will give you a wider knowledge base that will let you recognise forms you might miss otherwise.
Words and grammatical forms will be apprehended only once your brain is exposed to them enough times.
There are three main ways learners get repetition. First, content provides natural repetition as the most common words and forms are encountered frequently in context. Second, drills such as flashcards that are designed to repeatedly prompt you until you remember. Finally, you can consciously repeat the same piece of content multiple times or review past lessons.
The best repetition follows the principle of spaced repetition, where reviews are done just before the learner forgets. Try to encounter new words or forms again soon after you first learn them.
Using flashcards effectively
Those who emphasise learning lots of words via flashcards usually recommend doing so for the purpose of enabling you to quickly move on to using content. Keep this in mind if you end up using flashcards heavily. They are still a drill and a supplement—their purpose is to aid your use of the language, not as an end goal in of itself.
Here are a few good tips for you to keep in mind:
Don’t learn too many new words at once—you will be fine to start, but reviews will quickly overwhelm you
Try to study consistently every day
Make your own cards of words you want to learn
Regularly delete or suspend cards that are too easy or aren’t working for you for any reason—you can always learn it later
Use phrases—I will cover this soon
If you use Anki, tweak the settings a bit
Productive and receptive learning
There are two ways you can review your cards:
Prompt with native language, answer with target language (productive learning)
Prompt with target language, answer with native language (receptive learning)
Productive learning means you are trying to produce your target language. Productive learning is the more difficult of the two, and card review is generally slower as a result. On the positive side, productive learning is great for forcing your mind to absorb a word or phrase properly, meaning you tend to learn more thoroughly and in a way that lets you begin using that knowledge sooner.
Receptive learning means you are simply being repeatedly exposed to words or phrases in your target language and asked to recall their meaning. This method is faster, but generally helps much more with understanding than it does producing your target language. This can be great for getting you using content quickly.
I recommend a combination of both, based on your needs. What you do should be determined by your goals. Some words you might need to be using soon, so you might practise them productively. Others might just be helpful for using content, but not something you expect to need soon, so you’d practise them receptively.
Key tip: Aim to get about 90 percent of your cards correct
As I have noted, flashcards utilise the forgetting curve to try to prompt you with a word just before you forget it. You will begin to notice that this doesn’t always work perfectly. Sometimes you will have already forgotten a word, forcing you to relearn it, but other times you will get the answer easily. While you can improve your retention by setting Anki to show you your cards more often, this has the effect of slowing down your study, as you will see cards you know comfortably far too often. Conversely, if you set Anki to show you cards less often, you may find yourself forgetting lots of words before you see them again. The best spot sits in the middle. Aim to “strategically forget” about 10 percent of your cards. In the long run this will save you time.
While you can learn words on their own, I recommend you use phrases. Learning phrases with their translation is useful for lots of reasons:
They can teach you key phrases for early communication or travelling
They help you use more complex but common constructions earlier in your learning
They provide insight into how the language is used
They provide context for how words are used and what other words tend to be used with them
They can teach you grammar by forcing you to absorb certain forms
They give you passive exposure to other words, cementing them in your mind
When you use phrases receptively, you are generating repeated exposure. This is great for giving you context for a words usage, but you are unlikely to remember the phrase well.
When you use phrases productively, you build a strong recall of the phrase, which is useful when you want to remember a construction so you can use it yourself. This is less useful for building a large passive vocabulary because it is slower.
Putting it together: how to make your flashcards
The different combinations: phrases and words, productive and receptive learning make for a large number of possibilities for your flashcards. Not all are ideal, so I will narrow it down to the few I think work best.
I recommend your flashcard usage include one type from the productive methods and one from the receptive methods. Learn words receptively with an example phrase to quickly improve your vocabulary and help you read and listen; learn phrases productively with a word or construction highlighted to absorb the usage of the language. Focus on words and forms you find useful.
Here some ways you can structure your flashcards:
Key phrase: The front side contains a phrase, and the rear its target language translation. Try to produce the whole phrase correctly. This is ideal for very common phrases (such as “I’m not sure”) or phrases you need for travelling (“Where is the bathroom?”). Keep them as simple as possible, because larger sentences can be said correctly in a variety of ways and there’s little point to memorising only one.
Cloze deletion: Anki also allows for cloze-deletion. This shows a phrase in your target language with a single word either hidden or replaced with its translation in your native language. Attempt to produce the word in your target language. This works much like the above method, but the context phrase is more relevant since it focuses on your target language. Beware: this only works well if you already understand the rest of the phrase.
Word/form + phrase: The front side contains a word or grammatical form with a phrase to help with context, both in your native language. Alternatively, you can simply highlight or bold the relevant word/form. The rear side can include information on the word/form, such as its translation/s and/or a definition. Mark the card correct if you manage to produce the correct word or form in your target language. You can attempt to get the phrase correct if you want, too, but mark yourself correct even if you don’t get it all. This helps you learn to produce a word or form’s translation, while the phrase helps with context and gives you exposure to the language. This type of card is useful for learning grammar and words you need to use soon.
Word/form + phrase - hard mode: The card is the same as above, but you attempt to get both the word/form and its phrase completely correct. This is the slowest and most thorough card you can use. This ensures you properly absorb at least one correct usage of the target word or form. This is a valid alternative, but I don’t recommend this as the cards are generally too hard and slow. You are better off creating 3 easy cards instead of one hard one.
Word/form + phrase: The front side contains a word or form with a phrase to help with context, both in your target language. The rear side generally includes the word/form’s meaning and a translation of the sentence. Attempt to understand the sentence and the word in context. This helps you recognise words in context. Beware: the support phrase can make these cards too easy, as you may be able to read the phrase and get the word using only the context.
Word/form + hidden phrase: The front side contains a word or form in your target language. The rear side of the card reveals the word’s meaning and its usage in context in your target language. Anki has a “hint” functionality that lets you hide things and reveal them on the front side with a single press, which can let you reveal the sentence before you see the word’s meaning. Only mark the card as correct if you recall the word’s meaning/s without the help of the phrase. This helps you recall a word’s usage without relying on its surrounding context.
Anki allows you to create dual-sided cards, meaning creating one card actually creates two: one target language first (receptive) and one native language first (productive). This would typically be a word/form + phrase type card. This has two flaws: 1, as I noted, receptive flashcards are easier, so it is difficult to make a two-sided flashcard with the right difficulty, and 2, you will have double the cards for your word/form, so it may be too easy overall or simply too slow. You can get around this in part by simply suspending the receptive card later on as it becomes too easy.
Key tip: Keep your flashcards simple
Learning something new takes focused effort, so you can only really memorise one thing at a time. Flashcards work best when there is only a minimal amount of new information. The key information in your flashcard should be either one new word or one grammatical form. If you use a phrase in support, that phrase should ideally not contain any other new words or forms, though this can be acceptable if context makes its meaning obvious. Avoid using phrases that are long or consist of multiple sentences.
If you have lots of information you want to learn, split it into multiple cards.
I also recommend you learn some essential phrases such as “how do you say…”, or “what’s the time”. These are very useful for understanding how native speakers express themselves and will help you a lot when first communicating. These are usually learned productively.
Make your own flashcards or use pre-made decks?
In the ideal world, learners make their own flashcards based on their needs. If you find vocabulary that you want to know and use sentences that you have chosen, learning them becomes easier as you are more motivated and pay closer attention to what you are learning. There is a helpful video here on how to do it. However, making flashcards is a lengthy process that many people do not enjoy or want to commit to.
If you use Anki, you will remember the shared decks from the resources section. These can be your saviour. Pre-made decks can be useful because a lot of the hard work has already been done for you. On the other hand, pre-made decks are often not formatted in the ideal manner. The good thing about Anki is that it is completely customisable. You can change these decks to suit your needs. Check the documentation or search for some guides online.
Unfortunately, Anki’s interface is not very intuitive, and learning to use it to its fullest extent and modify cards takes a bit of time. If you would rather not spend the extra time learning a new program, you will need to decide for yourself if you are fine with the deck you have found or want to search for something else.
Using input effectively
Here is the key rule: It takes a lot of exposure to get comfortable using the language, so try to use as much content as you can in your study.
How you use input depends a lot on what you are doing. There are two broad types of activity: those in which you sit and focus with a difficult piece of content in order to learn something new (active learning), and those in which you simply use content for enjoyment without focused study (passive learning). You will do both during your study. Content used for passive learning tends to be easier.
No matter how you use it, the key to input is that you try to understand as much as possible.
Principle: Engage your memory
One key to effective learning is by actively using your memory during the learning process. This means, as much as possible, try to actively recall the meaning of words and forms you encounter. Don’t just passively read or instantly turn to a dictionary or textbook for answers. Flashcards are built on this principle by forcing you to attempt to recall a word’s definition before you can see the answer.
Key tip: Repeat the same content multiple times
Repetition is important to learning. By re-using the same piece of content, the words and forms you encounter there will be much more likely to stick in your mind. The more you repeat it, the more repetition you will get.
What input should I use?
This is covered further in the section Comprehensible input.
There are two key criteria:
How interested you are in it
How understandable it is
One way to ensure interest is to use content similar to what you already find interesting in your native language. That is, do the things you already enjoy doing, but using your target language instead. This can be watching YouTube or TV shows, reading comic books, or even gaming. As a beginner, finding good content can be hard, especially for those learning rare languages. You may have to compromise and choose something less interesting because it is closer to your level.
Your content should already be mostly understandable, meaning you already understand 90–98% of it.
Principle: Your level +1
Learning occurs when the brain struggles a bit before making a successful connection. The best way to ensure this is to choose content that is your level +1. +1 means that the content is just a little bit challenging. It is difficult, but still comprehensible.
What precisely +1 means depends on what you are studying. An audio recording with 100% known vocabulary counts as +1 if you struggle with aural comprehension.
For more info, read and in the appendix.
Using dictionaries and translators effectively
Dictionaries and translators are a learning aide that are best used to get the meaning of key unknown words.
More important than what you do is what you avoid doing. Here are four key don’ts:
Don’t simply look up new words as you encounter them. First, attempt to understand the sentence, then finish the section or text. You are unlikely to remember the meaning of a word if you immediately continue reading.
Don’t look up uncommon words when there are plenty of common ones to learn. A large portion of the new words you encounter will only appear once, meaning there will not be repeated opportunities to help learn them.
Don’t blindly trust single-word translations. Translations are imperfect. Languages use words differently. For example, the English word “exercise” has two completely different meanings, one to do with fitness and the other with study. A dictionary won’t know which one you mean.
Don’t use dictionaries to learn words on their own. This can cause you to learn less common words without being aware of their proper usage.
Avoid memorising your lesson content or trying to learn your lessons perfectly the first time. It is better to move on with an incomplete understanding.
Flashcards are best used by prompting with both your target language and your native language. This ensures you encounter words and forms in a variety of ways. Make sure you use simple sentences with your flashcards.
Input is best used in mass amounts. Use input that is already mostly comprehensible.
Use dictionaries to search for key unknown words. Use it once you have first attempted to understand the text you are using and have completed the paragraph you encountered it in.
If you choose to do this, keep in mind it can be very time-consuming. ↩