Before I discuss my favorite vocabulary trainer Anki, let me at least mention a few other flashcard systems out there, and why I mostly prefer using Anki.
Byki is available as desktop software and as a more limited iphone app. It comes with a quite extensive collection of pre-made decks that are well suited to beginner-intermediate vocabulary learning. The are on topics like vegetables, family relations, travel, and include simple phrases, verbs, and nouns. The audio pronunciations in Byki are of very high quality. All the words are spoken clearly by a woman with a ‘neutral’ Brazilian dialect, and there’s an option to slow them down which works very well. I’ve found that hearing the pronunciation as I study the card increases my retention rate, and also helps to build the sound-meaning connection, which is crucial for listening comprehension.
Byki moves you through 3 stages of reviewing the cards. First, you are allowed to freely browse the cards in recognition mode (it shows you a word, and you flip the card to reveal the definition and a photo). Second, you test yourself in both recognition and then recall mode. Byki uses sort of a crude spaced-repetition alogorithm for this part, where you tell it if you got the card right and it keeps bringing the card back until you’ve gotten it right 7 times. Finally, Byki gives you a ‘quiz’ on all the cards, but the quiz is kind of a joke since it’s multiple choice with only four choices. To make it more challenging, I set the quiz to recall mode instead of the default recognition mode, and I cover the answers so that I can mentally arrive at the right answer without seeing it first.
Unlike Byki, Anki is a robust flashcard system that takes charge of your learning by 1) Showing you cards you’re having difficulty with more often, so you learn them; 2) Showing you words you have already learned less often, so you don’t waste your time, but also 3) occasionally bringing back old cards so you don’t forget them.
If you are going about haphazardly learning a Portuguese word here, a phrase there, I cannot emphasize the power of getting it all organized, putting it into Anki, and letting the software do the work of scheduling your reviews for you. Anki is awesome for busy people. By scheduling a 5 minute review every day, which you can do on your computer/phone/tablet, you will spend less time per day studying and retain more of what you learn in long-term memory. This is truly the way to learn vocabulary, folks. Short study sessions every day >> long study sessions every now and then.
As an example here are a few decks of intermediate/advanced words that I created 2 years ago. They’re in no particular order, just words that I happened to be studying at the time. I usually recommend that you create your own decks of words that are meaningful to you. But if you simply want to give Anki a try or learn a couple hundred new verbs, have at it!
- 100 verbs
- 89 nouns and adjectives
- 77 more verbs
- Parts of the body
- Expressions from StreetSmart Brazil’s 2013 facebook feed
And here’s a video showing how Anki works:
Recall is better than recognition
Before we talk about the best ways to use Anki, let’s consider the two types of learning processes involved in learning a new word. The first one is recognition, which means that when we see the word, we can remember the concept. The second is recall, meaning that when we’re thinking about the concept, we can remember the word.
Recognition: disfarçar (-se) -> to disguise, mask, camouflage (onneself); to hide, conceal, cover up
Recall: to disguise, mask -> disfarçar-se
In general, recall is more difficult than recognition, but it’s also a deeper level of knowledge. I find that once I’ve learned to recall a word given its meaning, recognition of that word is automatic. So, I think it makes more sense to spend most of your time practicing recall.
Of course, many bad flashcard apps and language learning tools focus only on recognition to teach you vocabulary. The problem with this approach is that recognition is often easier than recall, yet recall is what you’ll be doing when you’re writing or speaking. Just practicing recognition also keeps you from having to memorize the exact spelling and pronunciation of the word, because you can look at a word a dozen times without really seeing and internalizing it. Then when you need to recall the word, you’ll be stuck wondering, Is it disfarçar? disforçer? desforçar?
It’s possible to set up Anki to drill you using both processes: it can show you the word and ask you to remember the concept, or it can show you the concept and ask you to remember the word. Some people use it both ways, but I prefer to just practice recall alone. I find that once I can do recall well, I can automatically do recognition.
Add sound to your flashcards
You need to be able to recognize words not just by sight, but more importantly by sound. Listening to a pronunciation of the word while you study it helps to build the sound-meaning connection as well as the visual-meaning connection. Byki’s flash cards come pre-loaded with very good Brazilian dialect pronunciations. In Anki, you’ll have to record them yourself, but that involves nothing more than the click of a button while you’re creating the card.
Setting up your card layout
I have a custom card layout that looks like this:
“Concept” (front): definition of the word, images that illustrate the concept
“Word” (back): name of the word + any unexpected prepositions, audio clip of pronunciation, example phrases
I call the front of the card the “Concept” rather than “Definition”, because when we really speak a language, what we’re aiming for is not to associate every word in Portuguese with a different word in English, but to associate each Portuguese words with a concept. So try to be creative with the concept field. In addition to an English translation, you might want to add a cartoon or photograph, to illustrate the concept. Anki lets you paste images into any field of a card.
Another tip for describing the concept is to use other portuguese synonyms that you already know rather than English translations whenever possible. If I’m creating a card for saltar (to jump, leap, skip), I might put another verb I know that means “to jump” in the concept field, pular.
In the Word field, I’ll type the vocabulary word. If it’s a verb, I’ll put it in the infinitive, remembering to add “-se” if it’s reflexive; if it can be used both reflexively and normally, I’ll put “(-se)” in parentheses after the verb. If a verb uses an unexpected preposition (disfarçar de alguma coisa), I’ll include the preposition.
I also record a short clip of me pronouncing the word. This way, when I’m reviewing the cards and the word is displayed, the clip will play automatically. This helps with aural recognition as well as visual recognition of the word. Anki makes recording very easy by providing a button (the red bullseye) to record a sound clip. (You can make your sound clips sound better by removing background noise; choose Tools->Advanced->Record Noise Profile). I also try to put a few examples below the word that show how it’s used in context. These could be example phrases from a dictionary, any examples that I wrote down in my notebook, or a sentence that I make up on the spot. In the early stages of learning a new word, it’s much easier to remember if you see it in context.