When I first started to learn Arabic in college, I hated flashcards. They never for worked me and I was never able to retain information past the quiz of that week. Because of that, I really struggled with how in the world I would remember everything I was learning. In reality, I just never really did.
I fully and truly believe that 100% of my journey to fluency is finding systems that work for me and sticking to them. So I found a flashcard system that has helped my vocabulary explode from a few hundred to 2000 words minimum in the past 9 months. (To reach the level of fluency I’m aiming for, I want to reach 10,000 flashcards over the course of the next 2 years aka by the time I’m 29.) Of these words, I can probably recall 85% – 90% from memory without too much difficulty. This post will show you what I do, and hopefully you can adapt it for yourself.
Step 1: Get Anki
If you’ve read my article, The 10 Things You Need to Understand if You Want to Learn Arabic Fluently, then you already know that one of the best ways to retain the new sentences you’re learning from immersion, is through an SRS (Spaced Repetition System). In my opinion, one of the best one’s is called Anki.
Anki is a phone app, desktop app, and website. If you have an Android, the app is free. If you have iOS, you’ll have to pay $24.99. Anki is well worth the price, so be discouraged by it. If you find yourself thrown off by the fact that you have to pay, that could be your fears getting in the way of your own success.
Step 2: As you’re immersing, choose sentences/phrases that speak to you.
Especially when you’re starting out, don’t worry about understanding every single word and sentence that you hear or read. This will frustrate you because you will very quickly realize how little you know. Allow sentences to jump out to you. I promise you, the more you immerse, the more sentences and phrases will pop out at you. You’ll either start to notice sentences that you never understood before or you’ll just think, I really want to remember that! and you’ll add it to Anki.
Overall, your deck should be sentences or phrases you’re interested in because you have to review them. No individual words! (Read this post to find out why words alone are terrible to learn.) Also, if you’re not there yet, don’t learn sentences that throw around terms like “thoroughfare” and “putrid”. This is not school — you don’t get any gold stars for how “difficult” your deck is. Make sure your cards are the right challenge for you. To assess your challenge, try and make sure your cards are just one degree higher that what you can already handle. Stretch yourself, but only a little, until you can stretch more.
Lastly, each card should only have ONE unknown word on it. Only study one thing at a time. If the card has 2 or more unknowns, break it into smaller sentences, or find other example sentences for the words you don’t know, and add them to Anki individually.
Step 3: Don’t add too many cards per day.
Pro tip: Don’t add any more than 20 cards per day, unless you have a lot of time to review flashcards. Anki reviews compound over time. The first few weeks will be fine, and you won’t have so much to do. But one day, you’ll wake up, open your deck, and think — Where did all these reviews come from?? With Anki, the more cards you add daily, the more reviews you’ll eventually have. For me, the max I really want to be doing daily is 100 cards (80 old cards + 20 new). I don’t add cards every day, but I do add them regularly, so 20 cards per day eventually comes out to around 100 daily and takes me about 25 minutes or so.
You can actually use this Anki Card Simulator to figure out how many cards you can expect daily.
Step 4. Keep your cards short.
Your cards should be easy to get through, so keep them short. 3 – 7 words if you can.
I do find that sometimes I need to add a longer sentence, that sometimes a sentence in Arabic is a bit more elaborate, or that I just need more words to build more context around the card. So use your judgement. But don’t go too long. When I first started making cards, my cards were 6 lines long. I was just adding paragraphs — things I’d taken directly from books. That was TERRIBLE. Don’t even think about doing that foolishness. At the time, I thought I would acquire the language faster by adding more information to one card vs. many cards. But then I noticed 1) I hated doing my reviews and 2) Although, I could understand the context of the paragraph, I wasn’t acquiring individual words well. And words are important!
I know I’ve been talking a lot about only adding short sentences and phrases to your SRS, so this will probably sound contradictory, but hang with me for second. I want to talk about the importance of words. Think of it this way — speeches are made up of paragraphs, paragraphs are made of sentences, sentences are made up of phrases, phrases are made of words.
So by studying phrases, you are actually studying words. To fully understand a phrase you must understand every word or at least how the words work together. You don’t need to fully understand every word to understand a speech.
So, if you add loooong sentences and paragraphs to your cards, your brain will approximate the meaning of that paragraph, but you’ll likely walk away still not knowing the meaning of individual words.
So in short, keep it short.
Step 5: Write in Arabic on the front of the card, and English (or your native language) on the back.
As much as possible, you want to bring your all-Arabic immersion to your Anki deck as well. Never, ever, unless you absolutely must, write anything other than Arabic on the front of your card. The point of your SRS deck is to be able to read Arabic phrases and sentences and begin to understand them. Eventually you’ll completely move away from translating Arabic into your native language altogether. At that point, you’ll have Arabic on the front and back of your card. (I haven’t fully reached that stage yet, though I hope to in the next 6 months.) Until then, keep your native language’s translation of the sentence on the back of the card.
Step 6: Add GIFs to the front of your card to add more context.
You might be thinking — How am I going to remember all these new phrases if I can’t add translations to the front of my deck? In my experience, two things have worked.
1) Pull sentences from immersion: If I’m pulling sentences from my immersion, I find it easier to remember words because I remember the context and the situation wherein I learned that word. I’m extremely audio-visual, so it’s very hard for me to forget the meaning of phrases I pull from a movie or tv show.
On the other hand, when I started reading raw text more, I started to struggle with retention. So, I came up with a new idea that I use for almost all my cards now, no matter how I acquired the sentence. Which leads us to…
2) Add GIFs to the cards to create context: Firstly, I love GIFs because they’re designed to be funny. Sometimes I come to flashcards and laugh out loud. This really helps on the days when I don’t feel like doing any more Anki reviews. Secondly, I’ve found adding GIFs to be sooo helpful for learning new words that I really like, but don’t have audio-visual context for.
Think of it like this — Remember how when you first learned the word “apple”, it was next to a picture of an 🍎 ? And “book” was next to a picture of a 📕? Before you really even knew how to read or write, you could name objects in the world around you. And through that, you learned to speak. I don’t know for sure, but I suspect the reason why so many kids books have pictures, is because linking words with images supercharges our language retention.
That’s what I’m up to here. And it’s really worked for me. To give examples, here are some of my actual Anki cards:
- A dinosaur chilling right before the meteor hits. The meteor is the big yellow orb in the top left hand corner
- Lilo with Stitch in the shrink’s office
- Stephen Colbert shooting syringes in the air
- A meme about Roe V. Wade (* I prefer there to not be any English on a GIF. But if there is, as is the case with this GIF, I make sure that it doesn’t include the actual word I’m studying.)
Moral of the story: If you don’t have context, build context! Get creative. The GIF doesn’t need to explain the sentence fully. I just find funny things that have a similar enough context and can help me remember the word. To find GIFs, I use the GIF keyboard on my phone. There are search engines online too. Taking this route will mean that making cards take a bit more time, but I retain so many more new words now, so it pays off.
Alright, that’s it!