Using Anki to learn vocabulary

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.

Using Anki

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!

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.



13 Responses to Using Anki to learn vocabulary

  1. Ryan says:


    Great website. Clearly you’ve put a great deal of thought into how to master language. I’m new to Anki. I downloaded the tool and snooped around for Portuguese decks, but feel like the ones I’ve found are not aligned with the learning philosophy you’ve put forward on this site. The decks appear to have no consideration for how they are thrown together. Thematically they are a mess.

    Presumably most beginners will start using Anki to learn the 1000 most common nouns and the 1000 most common verbs. Do you have a link to an Anki deck for those common words or do you believe there’s value in each student putting their own deck together? Prior to starting the work of creating a deck I wanted to make sure that I’m not duplicating someone else’s effort.


    • Lauren says:

      Hi Ryan, you’ve asked a great question that highlights a subtle point about what Anki is good for vs. what it’s not so good for. Here’s my take in a nutshell: I think Anki is good for keeping track of and learning words that you’ve encountered elsewhere. For moving things that you already have in short-term memory, into long-term memory. Anki is not so good for discovering new vocabulary to learn from scratch, as you’ve already discovered.

      This means that, yes, it works best if you build your own decks, adding only the words that you personally have collected, the ones you personally are most interested in learning or the ones you personally are having the most trouble with. I don’t think there’s much value to learning random words that another person has put together, if you have no personal context for them and the words aren’t thematically linked somehow. I’ve found it’s more effective to fill my Anki decks with words that I’ve encountered in the wild while reading, or listening, or in a lesson — words that I have some original context to place them in.

      For example, Anki solved a big problem I used to have. I would go to my weekly tutoring lessons and in the course of the lesson I would write down 10-20 unfamiliar words that came up in the course of the lesson; I’d write down the definitions and maybe an example sentence. But after the lesson was over, I rarely looked at those words again. I ended up forgetting most of them by the time the next lesson rolled around, and it made me question why I was going to the lessons in the first place. What I needed was a way to keep track of those words and review them periodically, so that I could transfer them from my short-term to my long-term memory. And that’s exactly what Anki is perfect for.

      One exception to all this might be at the beginner level, when you want to quickly build up a core vocabulary of common words. In that case, you need a different sort of tool, a vocabulary discovery tool, like Portuguese in 10 Minutes a Day or a good textbook. For software I would suggest using Byki, which is similar to Anki, and has some good pre-made lists with pronunciations and images already inserted.

      P.S. Here’s an example of an Anki deck I’ve used, containing 137 verbs that I collected over the course of a couple months:

    • Kathellyn says:

      for sticking to the bcsias though. And I recenty decided to add example sentences for all the words I wasn’t 100% certain of. When I get around to it. French is the same- I just began studying and got about 200 words in when I realised I wasn’t including the gender of any of the nouns I had added, or anything to indicate the gender, which is becoming a problem. Also, I was only adding cards one way, so only French-English (which is sometimes difficult because all my study materials are in Japanese )I agree on the adding interesting things, vocab you think you’ll actually use in a conversation with a native speaker (and if I ever have a conversation in Japanese about the morning-after pill or suicide by asphyxiation, I’ll be set. Let’s hope I don’t ever have that conversation though.)

  2. Hi, I just found out about SRS and I’ve been trying to use Anki in an advanced way. I teach English and I’ve been implementing the use of Anki with my students.

    Anyway, I read your post and I’m wondering if you could elaborate on the recall vs recognition. Are you saying Anki does one or the other?

    • Lauren says:

      Anki does both, it’s just a matter of which side of the card it shows you first. When you’re making the cards, you can choose to automatically have it generate a “Backwards” card that will test the opposite skill.

  3. PR says:


    Which version is your Anki? The Card Layout image that you posted seems different.

    Thank you

    • Lauren says:

      Yeah, those screenshots are from an older version of Anki. But the basic way of setting up the card layout hasn’t changed much I don’t think? Let me know if you can’t figure it out and I’ll take a look at my newer version of Anki.

  4. PR says:

    I´m brazilian guy.. I’m live in Rio :) but my accent is from São Paulo… if you need any help in portuguese… feel free to write me. I´m studing business english and have many anki cards ;) Cheers

  5. Joel Rendall says:

    Hey Lauren! I realize I’m commenting on an old article, but thought I would chime in about my own experience. If you are on the Mac / iOS platforms, there’s an application I use called Mental Case. When I come across a new word, I jot it down on my iPhone (no special app here necessary.. whatever app is closest for you to get in and out of as quickly as possible, because convenience is most important to make sure you capture words on a regular basis).

    Then, with a bit of tech knowledge, you can get that list onto your computer into a spreadsheet in the CSV format, and import it into Mental Case on the mac. Then I think it uses iCloud or Dropbox to sync over to the iPhone.

    Sounds like any other solution, but it really gets powerful once you dive into the settings for each deck of flashcards, where you can tweak the spaced repetition settings. So you can have some decks that you are focussed on for short term study, then later set it so you are prompted to review those words weeks later.

    That said, this stuff can get really fiddly and fast. There are lots of tools out there if you have some moderate nerd superpowers. But the challenge is finding the solution that you’re most likely to use on a regular basis. Admittedly, I also struggle with the “good enough” plateau in my own learning (floating somewhere in B2 land) and am constantly having to re-motivate myself to keep learning. Just living in Portugal doesn’t automatically result in new vocabulary and grammar improvements simply via osmosis!

    Keep up the great work Lauren

    ps. yes, it’s me from the P.P. podcast. but I didn’t include my URL so I’m not link bombing your high-quality comments! :)

  6. Juan says:

    Would it be ok to just use a picture as the concept (front)? I feel it’ll force you to recall the word and actually think in the target language, rather than translate back to back. Any thoughts?

  7. Ron Davis says:

    I love this website! It has so much great information and has been helping me to get on my way to learning Brazilian Portuguese. I am trying to use Anki to help with learning but the problem I run into is pronunciation. As a brand newbie without the sound it is hard to know if I am saying the words properly and/or makes it difficult to try and record myself saying them. Does anyone have decks with the proper pronunciation or an idea of how use this effectively as a newbie? Anki seems more effective than Byki but without the sound newbies are at a disadvantage.

  8. Alex says:

    How do you practice recall alone in Anki? The front of my cards is Spanish. The back is English. I want Anki to show the English words first, so I can recall the Spanish words.

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