Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Constructing an Anki list for German

[Edit: I have recently released the Anki deck I created while preparing for the Goethe Zertifikat B2. It's free, so check it out! See my post: http://yetanotherlanguage.blogspot.com.au/2013/10/my-anki-list.html for more details.]

This is a short post on my thoughts on constructing a good Anki list, specifically for German. Some of what is below would be applicable to other languages in general (argument structures, arbitrary grammatical forms, etc), but I haven't put too much effort into distinguishing them at this stage. Perhaps I will sometime in the future.

1. Add mainly content words

It takes time to add words. Don't bother adding tiny words that you'll see/hear thousands of times per month of normal study. This includes many of the words in the top 500 or so of frequency lists. Instead, add words from your lessons, and from whatever you read or hear that interests you. Sometimes I added every word I didn't know in a text which is quite laborious and involves a significant investment of time. I only did this really for Lesetraining B2 which was ready material at my target level and therefore it was extremely important for me to be very accurate on this. When I started reading Der Beobachter I needed to add a lot of new words, many of which are more specific to murder mysteries in general, as well as other words which felt more informal and everyday to me like "herumtoben" which refers to the noisy way kids play. The translations on Linguee are a bit twee: "to frolic, to romp" or sensible to misleading out of context "to shout and scream", but put them in your Anki list anyway, or come up with a better one from the context. A slightly twee definition is better than none at all. As I progressed through the book, I added less and less words because it became unnecessary in general for my flow and was affecting my enjoyment of the story.

I just realised while writing this that I think the word "herumtoben" appears exactly once in "Der Beobachter". Maybe it's a few times, but it doesn't appear often in a 650 page novel, though it did mean that the sentence it was in meant little to nothing to me, so I added it to my list. Now, all this time later, even without having revised my German Anki list properly in the last couple of months, it's still stuck in there. Some people would think that's a bad thing. I personally will never complain when I remember a word, whatever it means!

2. Everything you consume is a source of words

Everything. Your textbooks, the news, your podcasts, conversations you have, everything. This may seem obvious, but I like to just have one list that covers everything I wanted to remember, as much as I could be bothered entering into Anki. This 

3. Include the argument structure

I mentioned this point in my last post, but I think it's worth reiterating. The argument structure of a word (usually verbs only, but sometimes the idea is valid for other parts of speech) specifies how it is used in real sentences, not toy sentences. I spent some time learning French at one stage at Alliance Francaise with no real great success (but at great expense!). One problem I found was that although I felt like I had learnt a lot and could probably have passed an appropriate written-only exam on various points of grammar, I just couldn't express normal, everyday thoughts. I could say, for example, "to protect" but not "to protect from" which is the sort of thing you need to put together a really useful sentence. In fact, most sentences will fill in several of the "slots" in the argument structure. These are often the interesting and important parts of a sentence. In German these connections are usually expressed either by the case of the noun (let's face it, usually the dative :-) ) or a preposition. Here are the examples from my last post:

"an einer Veranstaltung teilnehmen, bei/in ... mitmachen, sich an ... beteiligen"
"to take part in an event, to participate"

"aus folgendem Grund"
"for the following reason"

"im Büro"
"at the office"

"sich die Nase putzen"
"to blow one's nose"

"auf etwas warten"
"to wait for something"

Remember too that some prepositions can take different case depending on the meaning of the sentence, so I recorded that usually as well. I decided in the end that I preferred to show this by writing "etwas" for the accusative or "einer Sache" for the dative. In the examples above I've used "an einer Veranstaltung" because that's what's most appropriate.

4. Include arbitrary grammatical categories with every definition

In many ways I needed to have already studied German a bit to know what to do here, but after you read this article, you'll know what to do from the start - too easy!

So, what do I mean? A concrete example is that every German noun has a gender (i.e., takes the article "der", "die" or "das") and the plurals are highly irregular. While the latter fall into various "standard" categories (standard-ish), you can't always tell for certain which category it will be. There are some hard and fast rules: any feminine noun ending in -in will have plural -innen. Still, I chose not to rely on knowing the rules sometimes, and the exceptions the others. When I add a word to my Anki list, it has the article and the plural form, and I expect myself to be able to produce the plural as well as the article.

I do something similar for irregular verbs. Regular verbs are fine to just enter in the infinitive, but for irregular verbs I give the dictionary forms which are: infinitive, third person indicative singular, simple past and compound past tense. If you don't know what these terms mean, don't worry - just look up a German verb you know well in a dictionary and see the forms it lists. An example from my Anki list is:

"verschwinden (verschwindet, verschwand, hat verschwunden)"

Note that there are some more forms which can be irregular but they are much less commonly used so I didn't overload myself. Also, I don't do this for highly irregular verbs. In fact, they are all such common verbs (like sein, haben, etc) that I would never bother to add them to a word list. Note though that you would have added them if you didn't follow my advice in point 1 above :-)

One important note from the above is that I included the auxiliary verb with the compound past tense ("hat verschwunden" above). My source for verb conjugations, Verbix, does this and I decided that it's a good idea because, even though they are mostly "haben + participle", leaving the 'hat" in there helps me cement the purpose of that form in my brain, and it makes sure that I remember which auxiliary it is (haben or sein). I recommend it.

5. Cut yourself some slack when entering words

Basically, I found that doing all of the above took enough time as it was. Although it was worth it in the end, my time for all this has always been extremely limited, so I had to drop some ideas that I wanted to do. I wanted to add an example sentence for everything, but I found that this is onerously time-consuming and also of limited benefit really. Most of my words were sourced from material I was actively consuming myself, not high frequency lists of words I found on the internet, or that I was spoonfed in class, so I usually have a vague memory of the context associated with each word, or at least have a rough idea where it came from. To continue with the example of herumtoben from above, I roughly remember that it was in a scene where the main character was watching her teenage daughter play some team sport. I remember that I read the word "klirren" (to clink) in a scene where the main character was meeting up with her daughter's sports coach for a drink in a pub at the start of an affair with him.

In brief, spend the time on what's most important. For me that was getting down the random grammatical categories, plurals, irregular verbs and argument structures. I have 1400+ cards currently in my deck, so you can imagine that it's already taken me quite some time. There might only be 1000 if I had tried to do more.

6. A weak translation is better than nothing at all

I found the dictionary at www.linguee.com to be excellent, but dict.leo.org was also very useful. However, I don't know every nuance of the language, and sometimes there doesn't seem to be a perfect fit. Or you're just in a hurry and you choose poorly. Whatever. Get that word in there. As long as it's pretty good it's going to be doing you good. Just try to make sure you don't get it completely wrong, but still don't worry too much. One or two mistakes won't kill you. One day you'll say something wrong and have a good laugh at it, probably. Not the end of the world.

7. Don't be afraid of many-to-many cards

What's a many-to-many card? Well, I'm glad you asked. Look, the world is crazy. Words don't always (ever?) mean an exact, perfect, fixed thing. They can be fuzzy. There are lots of synonyms or near synonyms. And this isn't just one way. Have a look at this card from my deck:

"vorzüglich, ausgezeichnet, hervorragend, exzellent"
"excellent, superb"

I expect to be able to produce all the forms on the card in both recognition and production. I think four synonyms should probably be my limit, though I have cards with five this feels like too many. Linguee has a guide to indicate how frequent words are in its corpus, which may not match your own experiences, but it's a guide. It's a quick way to help you pick the most important near synonyms. 

I feel that this sort of card, rather than making your life hard, makes it easier because language and words really are a sort of giant semantic web of connections. Keeping these things together can help support the meaning. Note that sometimes the same word appears on multiple cards, grouped with different words. This is because the same word often has multiple meanings depending on context and also smeared out over the semantic space. This kind of card helps you get a feel for which types of words substitute for which kinds of meanings.

It's not pretty, but then, neither is the real world.

That's about all I can think of for now. I might do another one for other languages in the future, but if you've got any tips of your own for making Anki decks for any language, just pop them in the comments!

1 comment:

  1. I am new to anki and I was hoping to have a conversation with you because i an having trouble understanding the right approach for making templates....I am making each card by hand, (very inefficient)and missing some of the versatility of the system. lostgrim@yahoo.com