Learning Language for Travel with Anki

I was ashamed.

We were standing in a crowd of hikers at a bus stop in Komagane, Japan with three dozen faces turned towards me indicating that they couldn’t speak any English. All I wanted to know was if the ropeway was running and if not when it may start running.

I was ashamed to be in someone else’s country and not be able to communicate with them even a little bit in their language.

Later that day we ate at a very busy sushi train restaurant and we were having the same sort of language problems ordering. Then when finally trying to get the bill I got blank stares unit I remembered a phrase we had taught the kids before traveling to Japan. “Gochiso sama”, which roughly means means “all done”. And with that phase everything was sorted. Having the few words you need makes all the difference.

I have tried to learn languages many time over the years, mainly Latin American Spanish. I get the podcasts/lessons in the car, I get the work books and I try…. but I never seemed to last. Something was missing.

After the events at Komagane something in my head switched. I needed to do better, and I would work out what was missing. Well at that stage I didn’t realise something was missing, so I would just start doing the same thing as always.

This was before Covid and in my head our next travel destination was China. In fact it would have actually been Malaysia and Cambodia in June, but all we have to show for that is a large Air Asia credit. So back in January 2020 I took the plunge and subscribed to a Chinese learning website.

I downloaded all the podcasts, review tracks, transcripts and workbooks. And I tried. Very stubbornly I tried. But progress was slow, and listening to the same podcasts over and over, while not being able to hold the words in my head was painful (especially the banter, which is only good on the first listen through).

After about 6 months I was making very slow progress, but I started looking around to see what other websites or learning tools were availible.

I tried some apps, but the game like structure of them did not suit me or my limited free time. But while looking for apps I kept running into a flashcard app called Anki. So I downloaded Anki onto my laptop and tried to figure it out.

It seemed very basic. The free flashcard decks you could download seemed very disordered and didn’t really work for me. I decided I would create my own deck from scratch. At this stage my Chinese language website subscription had expired, so using the pdf transcripts I had downloaded and taking audio from google translate I started building cards.

Almost straight away things started changing. I was moving on to new lessons easily and my memory was actually working.

This was the missing element.

Anybody that has undertaken any serious language learning is probably looking at me thinking I am stating the complete obvious. But to tell you the truth if it was that obvious why did it take so long for me to work it out?Secondly why is the critical component, Anki, so tricky to configure? To get the cards working for me the way I wanted I almost had to become a html programmer.

After the initial trial using google translate, and its horrible robot voice, I signed back up to website I had using which did have word by word and line by line audio. I then started exporting the proper native recordings into my Anki decks.

It is now 5 months later and not only have I gone from lesson 30 in the beginner class to finishing another 75 lessons and knocking on the door of the intermediate classes, but I have done the unthinkable. I have started learning multiple additional languages. Now this may seem like a crazy thing to do , but to tell you the truth I would consider the first part, maybe six months to a year, of learning a language to be a familiarisation rather than actual “learning”. I will see where I go from here, we will have to wait and see.

But this has allowed me to think about the “system” I am using and how it should be applied to learning language for travel.

This is what I wish someone had told me a year ago…

How to create your Anki deck

  1. Pick a learning website or system that has word by word and line by line audio that can be extracted into individual mp3 files.
  2. Download Anki onto you computer and download a couple of random free decks to get the idea of how the Anki flashcard system works.
  3. Find the language lesson series you want to focus on. This may be the generic beginner course most websites will have, or if you are travelling soon go straight to the survival phrase courses.
  4. Download all the vocabulary audio files for the first 10 lessons and create your own Anki deck based on these. At this stage you will need to think about what flashcard layout works for you. I also think this will vary dependant on the language you are learning. I will discuss this more in detail in a future post I think. Anki is very customisable, and I believe this is the key to making it work.
  5. Study your flashcards and listen to your lessons. Anki has a good phone app too. (I had a dumb phone 5 months ago, but went back to a smart phone just for Anki).
  6. Study your Anki decks every day. EVERY DAY. If this is taking to much time then pull some cards out into a holding deck.
  7. Continue expanding your Anki deck as you go. Add notes to hard cards telling a story that helps you to remember them. Add pictures if that helps. The key is customising the cards to suit you.
  8. Add decks that have phrases, add decks that just have audio, mix them all together. Find what works for you!

Now I am not even a year into this learning process, but I feel like I have unlocked something in myself. Learning language used to feel like a chore most of the time, now I find it to be one of the best parts of my day.

An example of one of my cards

Next time I will write about how I set my cards up, including some code you can cut and paste if you like the look of them. I will also talk about the websites I used to collect the files I need and to check translations.

If you have any questions please leave a comment and I will see what I can do to help. As I have said above this is what I wished somebody had done for me, so if I can help steer you on the right track that would make me proud. Which is the opposite ashamed.

Bus back down from the ropeway
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Roy

Roy

Growing veggies, keeping the solar going and listening to music; one might think Roy never leaves his home with his green thumb yet he is an adventurous foodie who loves trying the weird and wonderful cuisines of any culture. An electrical engineer by trade his nerdiness also crosses over into his love for folk music and playing warhammer.
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