As James Clear wrote in Atomic Habits, “You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.”
Well, my past efforts to learn a language fell apart because I didn’t have a system that allowed me to stay on top of phrases I’d learned or new concepts. After using a language during a trip, I’d fall off the study wagon.
The same thing happened with ANYTHING I wanted to remember.
Luckily, two years ago my questing friend Jono recommended Anki, a powerful tool whose name is derived from the Japanese word for memorization. People from medical school students to language learners to pilots to musicians use Anki to memorize, well, just about anything!
It’s essentially a smart flash card system that uses spaced repetition. I won’t go into the details here, but check out my tutorial blog post on how I set up Anki.
Anki works. By studying 15-30 minutes/day, I’ve memorized more than I thought possible. Initially it felt like a “should do,” but now it’s a daily ritual. A handful of minutes each day to build my knowledge and skills, brick by brick. I actually look forward to it!
Sure, there are devices in our pockets that can look anything up. But without knowing stuff, it’s tougher to understand context or pull threads together from disparate ideas and weave them together. For many things, be it writing, speaking a language, or playing an instrument, we need to memorize things.
My results after two years
In less daily time than most of us spend texting or scrolling online, here’s what I’ve learned (and, more importantly, retained) in two years. I share this not to brag, but to demonstrate the sheer power of Anki!
About 7,000 Italian vocab words (plus thousands of example sentences, conjugations and grammatical concepts) with an average 92% retention.
For language fluency, 8,000-10,000 words is a good target, which I’ve seen now that I can converse at an advanced B2 level. Future travels in Italy (or living there!) will up my game dramatically with such a strong foundation.
Another 1000+ Spanish words now that I feel solid with Italian, learning 20 words a day. (That’s 7000+/year, bit by bit!) Even better, relearning Spanish after forgetting my high school studies feels easy now with a Romance language under my belt. I bet I can achieve fluency in Spanish (or Portuguese, or French…) much faster. So motivating.
Famous musicians/composers and musical time periods
Music theory concepts, plus expressions like adagio or appoggiatura.
Difficult passages from piano and guitar songs I’ve learned and want to keep sharp.
English vocabulary, poker lingo, countries of the world plus US states (DelaWHERE?), Italian provinces, US presidents, wilderness first responder info…
The NATO phonetic alphabet (alpha, bravo, foxtrot, yankee…no more embarrassing moments trying to spell my name to a customer service rep!)
For book quotes from Kindle highlights, I use the fantastic service Readwise, which also uses spaced repetition, but syncs with my Kindle. I review a handful of my favorite quotes each morning, which adds up to thousands of quotes per year that I remember instead of wondering “did I even read that book?”
Wow, just putting all that in one list gets me fired up to continue using Anki! Such a powerful tool. I can’t tell you how motivating it is to have a system I’m confident will allow me to retain these concepts long-term.
OH, did I mention it’s open-source with no monthly fee?! (iOS users do have an upfront $25 cost.) Get it here.
Back to habits-master James Clear, who says:
“The purpose of setting goals is to win the game. The purpose of building systems is to continue playing the game. True long-term thinking is goal-less thinking. It’s not about any single accomplishment. It is about the cycle of endless refinement and continuous improvement. Ultimately, it is your commitment to the process that will determine your progress.”
In the same way practicing piano scales is paves the way for musical success, studying Anki is a foundational daily practice for me. From music to reading to writing to language fluency to helping injured people with my first aid skills (it’s happened numerous times), Anki supports many of my goals.
For anyone considering using Anki, I can only say that I wish I’d started using it back in elementary school. It would have been magic for all the memorization we had to do. (Like it or not—I don’t—school still primarily operates this way.)
For anyone looking to learn and retain new concepts, I can’t recommend it enough. If I were a parent with a kid, I’d 100% have them add concepts from school into Anki. I’d be such a fun dad…
Hey, I’d take them biking too!
But only after they finished their Anki study.
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I’ve “studied” Spanish for years: high school classes, traveling in Spain and Central America, plus a language immersion in Mexico pushing me to the point where I dreamt in Spanish.
The result from all of that effort? I forgot most of it. My Spanish is roughly A2 level, beyond “Yo hablo Espanol,” but basically survival level. *sigh*
The problem? I lacked a system for learning. My scattershot approach generated results that were full of holes, with no plan for long-term retention. I’d learn something before or during a trip, then forget it.
There is a better way
Then I discovered I can become an Italian citizen, which fired me up to learn the language. I finally got serious, researched and compiled a systematic approach, and stuck to it.
One year into my pursuit of learning Italian, I’m fluent at a B2 level (independent, spontaneous conversation) and well on my way to C1 (fluent Italian with more complexity).
Better yet, I’m confident I can continue this forever, retaining what I’ve learned while adding other languages.
In the past year, I’ve learned over 5,500 Italian vocab words and sentences, about 2 million times my Spanish results. As my teacher Luigi said recently (in Italian, obviously), “At this point, you’re prepared to talk about anything!”
He administers fluency tests for the Italian government, so you can bet I felt good. I’m writing this post because I want you to experience the same satisfaction!
If you just want to say a few words of broken Spanish next Cancun trip or simply order a pizza in Rome, stop reading.
If you’re serious about learning a language effectively and efficiently, journey onward!
Remember more words and speak a language better than you ever thought possible!
Into Anki and language learning and want to learn more? Check out my free 2x/month newsletter for life hacks and my journey with languages.
A Simple Language Learning System
To speak a language, you need words! If you don’t know enough vocabulary, you’ll stare blankly at a local as you try to say “I’d like to buy some pink swim shorts to match my flamingo pool floatie.” NOBODY wants to be in that blank-mind state.
And conversation requires a ton of words! Here’s the generally accepted rule for language proficiency, vocab-wise:
A1 – Survival I: communication at a basic level (500 vocab words)
C1 – Fluency I: fluent in a complex manner. (8,000 vocab words)
C2 – Fluency II: same abilities as a native speaker. (16,000 vocab words)
But how do I put words in my brain?
Luckily, remembering words isn’t complex. You can do this.
At the core of efficient vocabulary acquisition is spaced repetition learning. This is simply a way to store all the words and info you’re trying to learn plus a way to shove it into your long-term memory storage.
I won’t go too far into the weeds, but think about it like this…
Say you learn some vocab. With zero reviews, you’ll forget 50% of what you learned in just a few days.
This is why cramming for a test works, but only for short-term memory! A week later, all that effort is for naught.
The problem is that our brains are efficient at forgetting things we don’t need. It saves calories, just like when we roamed the savanna millennia ago. To remember something, we need to see it again and again in different contexts.
TL;DR: Think of it as smart, computerized flashcards. Rather than flipping through an endless pile of cards, they’re optimized for retention.
Get a card right? You won’t see it for awhile. Miss it? Back to the front of the line. It’s the age-old flashcard method, but with an algorithm that delivers them on a schedule to push words deeeep into long-term memory.
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Anki is the best program for spaced repetition learning.
Anki (Japanese for memorization) is an open-source project available for computers or phones. Free on computer and Android, a $25 one-time fee for the iPhone app. (Think of it as a donation.)
There’s no monthly fee, no BS. Sorry, no dinging sounds when you get an answer right. Just effective utility that WORKS.
Further proof: in 2010, Roger Craig used Anki to obtain the then-all-time record for single-day winnings on the quiz show Jeopardy!, memorizing a vast number of facts. Med school students use it, advanced language learners use it…and so can you.
Anki is the place where I put anything that I want to remember. Language vocab and sentences, musical terms and blues riffs, countries of the world, presidents of the U.S., anything.
For 20-30 minutes a day for the past year, I committed to reviewing my Anki cards. When I’m home, the reviews consist of new cards plus reviews. While traveling, I only do reviews, reducing time to about 10 minutes a session.
Because Anki shows you a word or sentence just as you begin to forget it, the whole process is enjoyable! You’re in the flow zone between too easy or too hard.
At home, I usually lie on the floor and stretch, but it’s great for any moment when you’re killing time. I’ve flipped through cards at the barber, waiting for a friend to show up for a run, and in a tent on the Colorado Trail. The results?
I reviewed 100,010 cards (!) last year. WHOA. The power of consistency at work. Total cards memorized: 8,800. No wonder I feel far more proficient with Italian in a year than I did with years of sporadic Spanish.
(More soon on how to create cards.)
Other Components of the Language System
Anki is the brain of the system, but it needs food.
How you find new vocab is up to you. Here are some that I use, with more later on creating sentences from these:
Active vs. passive recall: Creating sentences you’ll actually remember
I started out simply memorizing vocab words, but noticed using them in conversation felt tough sometimes. I dug deeper and bought a course from the Universe of Memory, created by a Polish guy who speaks 10 languages and has seemingly read every study available on memory.
My biggest realization: active vs. passive recall.
Think of active words as those you can use in conversation at any time. Passive words are those you recognize, but only if you hear or read them. i.e. you can’t quickly access them for conversation. (We also have these in our native language: think how many words you can recognize while reading, but never use in daily life.
Universe of Memory course takeaways:
Simply reviewing individual words often isn’t enough . You need to create your own sentences using the target vocab word. Mix your native and target language in the question to jolt your brain into active recall.
Memorize natural phrases you might use in a conversation.
Your sentences shouldn’t be longer than 5-7 words. Ideally, they should be 2-4 words long.
Use only words you know.
For additional cards, make sure the context differs from other cards (e.g. I sit on the chair, the chair is brown, please push in your chair).
Create a new sentence (out loud or as a new flashcard) whenever you fail to recall a given word.
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