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Learn new words and phrases from videos

Passively listening to music or watching TV isn’t going to make you speak Vietnamese overnight but by actively engaging with the content, both music and movies can be a useful learning tool.

Today we’re going to look at one way of using films or TV shows to improve your vocabulary.

The basic premise of this technique is that you use the video to find authentic, interesting phrases or words that you want to learn. After watching the show you use Anki to learn (or ‘internalise’) those new expressions.

What’s needed?

You need a video or film with Vietnamese subtitles.

I tend to prefer TV series over full-length films because of the continued storyline and repetitive vocabulary. Also because they’re shorter than full length films. It’s much easier to find time to occasionally watch a 30-60 episode of something or a 5 minute short story like Qùa Tặng Cuộc Sống.

Step 1: Find new words

You watch the video on your computer, with subtitles. When a new word or interesting phrase you want to learn comes up, pause and take a screencap. I usually quickly look it up in a dictionary or online to get approximate understanding of the meaning, then hit play and continue watching.

Work on your question form by learning phrases from a film.

Work on your question form by learning phrases from a film.

Top tip: Don’t spend too much time looking up words while you’re watching or you’ll spend 2h+ watching an 1 hour long show (or give up part way through). I usually have google translate open on my phone to get the gist of new vocab and take a screencap so I can look into it in detail later.

Step 2: Fully understand the new words

After the whole show, I go through my screencaps with a dictionary to accurately understand the meaning. Even if you think you know what it means, it’s really important to check so you’re certain.

For example, when using this method with French I assumed sans doute meant without a doubt but actually it’s more like maybe (sans aucun doute is without a doubt). That’s a big, fundamental difference!

Step 3: Make your flashcards

Put the sentences and screencaps into Anki or another customisable flashcard program.

An example recall flashcard

A recall flashcard for the video method

The flashcard contains the sentence translated loosely into English and this is what prompts me to recall the sentence.

Top tip: I usually do this in batches to break up Step 2. While working through the phrases with a dictionary I take a break every 5-10 minutes and put the cards into Anki.


How to Learn Spanish have a detailed video showing how this method works. It’s 90% what I do, though I differ from Andrew in that I keep the information displayed on my cards to a minimum and I use both Learn and Recall cards in Anki.

Advantages and disadvantages of this method

The advantages of this method are that it’s really enjoyable because you’re watching something you’re interested in and it’s authentic because you’re learning words and phrases in natural spoken contexts.

The context is very strong because you have visual and audio to go with the new vocabulary. You don’t just learn new vocab, you feel it. Often when prompted to recall a card, I imagine the scene where the line was said which helps me to remember it.

Disadvantages are that it can be hard to find enjoyable subtitled materials, the language can be very informal or even vulgar (a good dictionary should alert you of this) and you have to be careful when looking up and translating new words you learn this way. If you make a mistake and learn the wrong use of a word, it will be hard to relearn.

This last potential problem is one reason why I recommend this for intermediate learners or above, because at that stage you have a better feel for the language, you’re able to discern things about the language and better judge what is and isn’t useful to learn. Alternatively you could go through your sentences with a tutor or bilingual friend to ensure you’re correct.

However if there are also subtitles in your native language, you can use them to make your cards.

Over to you: Have you ever tried to ‘study’ a film or TV programme?

How to beat Anki backlog

Have you ever left Anki alone for a few weeks and come back to a huge card backlog?

Several months ago I got overwhelmed by my Anki decks. I’d been on holiday and not reviewed anything. I’d started a new course and was behind with adding new words. I basically stopped using it because it felt like a black cloud hanging over my head.

I didn’t want to delete all my cards and start again. I liked having them there as a reference, like a personal dictionary.

Here’s how I tackled my huge Anki backlog.

Part A: Out of sight, out of mind

1. Create a new deck called “temp”

Transfer all the decks you are behind in to this new deck.

Although you can’t see it, most of these decks have 50+ reviews due. See Step 2 to find out how I hid the numbers.

2. Create a new options group “backlog”

Change the settings for this new “temp” deck to a new options group called “Backlog”. Set it to 0 reviews and 0 new cards.

Change the settings to 0 reviews and 0 new cards.

The problem has now disappeared from sight but the cards are still there when you’re ready to tackle the backlog. You can now continue using Anki to learn new cards without getting a visual reminder about those 90, 300 or 1000 cards you should review.

Secretly there are 498 due cards, hidden right there in my “temp” deck.

Part B: Tackling the backlog

Although you’ve hidden your backlog, the cards are still there waiting to be reviewed one day. So, what do you do when you’re ready to tackle the backlog?

3. Move one of your decks out of “temp”

Drag and drop one of your backlogged decks from “temp” to your normal Vietnamese deck.

The settings should revert to whatever your usual settings are (ie. Default). You can, however, double check if they’re using ‘Default’ or ‘Backlog’ settings.

You can then start to catch up on this deck – little and often. I like to review about 10 cards at a time, 2 or 3 times a day.

In a week or two of normal using Anki in short bursts as usual, you should be back to a more normal and manageable number of cards to review every day.

4. Repeat step 3 until all your decks are out of “temp”

This may take weeks, or even months if you have a large backlog. In the meantime, you still have access to your cards if you want to search them and you can keep learning new cards without a black cloud over your head.

No more Anki rain cloud.

Over to you: Have you ever been behind with flashcard reviews? What did you do?

How to find and add audio to Anki flashcards

Last month I introduced some techniques and tools for tackling hard-to-remember vocabulary.

My recommended solution for most words that you’ve learnt through your study, conversations or reading is spaced repetition. But most shared decks don’t have audio and if you make your own cards in Anki or elsewhere, how are you supposed to get (free) audio for them and what’s the best way to add the sound to your cards?

How to find free audio

If you already have the word in a recording (eg. as part of an MP3 lesson, podcast or recording of a conversation), you can use a tool like Audacity to edit it and get a clip of just the word you’re learning.

If you don’t or if you’d rather not do it that way, there are online tools you can use to get a recording of your target word.

1. Forvo

The website Forvo aims to collect a database of all the words in the world, pronounced by native speakers. The Vietnamese section has over 11,000 words pronounced already.

Just type the word in the search box and if it’s already been pronounced, it will turn up.

If the word you’re looking for is not there already, you can add it to a request list and someone will probably record it within a few days.

Advantages:

  • Most common words are already there, pronounced by native speakers.
  • You can download an MP3 recording of your target word if you create a (free) account.
  • Each word page has a map showing where the person who recorded it is from, so it’s easy to stick to Northern or Southern pronunciations as you wish.

Disadvantages:

  • It’s only single words (including compound words), so it’s no good for adding sentences or short phrases to your cards.
  • Because users make and upload their own recordings, the quality can vary and of course not every word is recorded in both Northern and Southern accents.

2. RhinoSpike

If you want custom recordings, community site RhinoSpike lets users request audio in exchange for uploading recordings in their native language for other users.

So if you want some sentences recording in Vietnamese, you’ll have to help 3 other users with your language first.

Advantages:

Disadvantages:

  • It can take a while for someone to record your audio (though you could find and make friends with Vietnamese users to speed this up).
  • You have to record or transcribe more than you request.

I usually wait until I have about 10 sentences I want recording and make one request with all of them, asking for a pause between. I then use Audacity to split the sentences in 10 files.

3. Other options

I haven’t used this personally, but here’s another option:

How to add and use audio with Anki cards

So now you have some audio, but how should you use it with your flashcards?

It’s easiest to explain this by a video:

Over to you: Do you find sound is important to help you remember words? Do you ever use audio with flashcards?

Photo credit: mlaiju

3 ways to remember vocabulary

Thảo ơi, I have a hard time remembering vocabulary. What can I do about it?

Some experts reckon it takes 6 or more meaningful exposures to a word to truly learn it, so it’s perfectly natural to struggle with this.

Luckily there are many tools out there designed to help language learners speed up the process of learning and remembering vocabulary.

Let’s start with the end goal.

What does “knowing” a word mean?

For most words, your aim is both to be able to understand it (passive knowledge) and to be able to use it yourself (active knowledge).

As I explained in a guest post on Lingholic, there are actually three stages to learning active vocabulary.

These stages take you through not only understanding the word, but also knowing what it sounds like, how it works in a sentence and how it’s spelt.

Situation 1: You’re missing some of this information

If you’re missing one of these pieces of information, that is the first thing you should tackle. Go to Forvo to hear how it’s pronounced, look in a dictionary to check the spelling or do a quick search to find example sentences.

Knowing words is important, but using them is even better.

Knowing words is important, but using them is even better.

Say Situation 1 is not your problem. Say you’re already familiar with these basic pieces of information about the word, but you’re still having problems. Again, we need to get more specific.

Is the word not going in the first place or are you forgetting it?

Let’s take that second case: you keep on forgetting the word.

Memory Tool 1: Spaced Repetition

As I said in the introduction, you need to see or hear a new word repeatedly for it to sink in.

You’re also inclined to forget it over time. This is the premise behind Spaced-Recognition Software (SRS). This software is designed to re-expose you to the word just as you’re about to forget it.

Projected forgetting with and without spaced repetition Source.

Projected forgetting curves. Look at the difference spaced repetition makes! Source.

These systems are designed to help you with that second stage of learning vocabulary – internalising the new word.

They’re not supposed to be a way to find new vocabulary to learn.

For this reason, a lot of people recommend creating your own cards rather than memorising a list of someone else’s vocab. Personalising your learning also means you are more engaged and motivated – a key to success in language learning!

Top Tool: Anki

Anki SRS is a program available in a desktop version (free) and as an app for Android (free) and iPhone (paid).

These sync through a simple website (free), which you could use to study on the go if you have an internet connection but you don’t have a smartphone.

Using Anki to review Vietnamese vocabulary

Anki is highly customisable. You can add as little or as much information as you want. You can use categories, tags or extra fields. You can add pictures or sound files. You can use cards that translate to your native language, or keep it entirely in Vietnamese.

I’ll have more tips on using and customising Anki in a future post.

Other systems

Anki was the first spaced repetition software I tried and I liked it so much that I haven’t actually tried anything else. But there are many other similar programs such as Flashcard Deluxe.

SRS revision of new vocabulary doesn’t have to be flashcards. The principle is also built-in to some courses like Pimsleur lessons.

SRS won’t solve everything

It’s not a replacement for other study methods like taking a course, reading articles and actually speaking to people in Vietnamese.

But by using these smart flashcards for a few minutes a day, you can increase the speed of learning new vocabulary and retain it for longer.

Even then, SRS won’t solve all your vocabulary problems. You will still forget words. This is part of the learning process. Sometimes you will have to go back to your notes or textbook to look at the word again. Perhaps you need more information or you need to take a different approach to learning it.

Memory Tool 2: Mnemonics

Back to the question – how can we improve how we remember vocabulary? Especially for words that just seem to go in one ear and out the other.

Mnemonics can be really useful.

mnemonic (noun)
A device, such as a formula or rhyme, used as an aid in remembering.

You probably remember some rhymes designed for this purpose – like the one for the colours of the rainbow (Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain) or how many days are in each month (30 days have September, April, June and November…).

The rainbow rhyme helps you to remember the colours of the rainbow.

The rainbow rhyme is an example of a mnemonic to help you remember the colours of the rainbow.

They’re a pretty good memory tool, but the dictionary definition seems to overlook the fact that images are one of the most powerful aids to the memory (especially for visual learners).

Mnemonics and language learning

These rhymes, word associations and imagery tied to locations or stories can be applied to language learning. They can be used to remember words or phrases and even to learn to read new scripts.

The links above give you some great examples on how to get started and make good mnemonics.

When using mnemonics to learn Vietnamese words, you may well find it helpful to include the tone in your rhyme or image.

Top Tool: Memrise

A website that combines mnemonics with SRS and gamification is Memrise.

The basic idea is that you create a ‘mem’ to represent a word or idea. As Memrise themselves say:

“In order to learn anything, you first have to connect it to what you already know. Memories aren’t stored nowhere, you know, they’re always made by creating connections to existing memories. Now, the more your brain does to encode a fact or word, the richer and more robust the resultant memory.”

You can map it to something in your own language or your target language. Whatever works for you.

The best mems are creative – they’re funny, or silly, or gross. That helps make them memorable.

When you input a word, you can see the mems or images that other people are using and select one of those if you like, or use their database to find an image to make your own. If there is already audio for the word you’re learning, Memrise will automatically integrate it for you.

One of my 'mems'.

One of my ‘mems’. It’s not the most creative but it helped me stop mixing up two words that both begin with giải.

Once you have your ‘mem’, Memrise then takes you through a series of game-like exposures to the word where you win points for correct answers.

Like with Anki, there are pre-made sets of words but again finding one that matches your textbook or making your own ‘course’ with words you want to learn is generally more effective.

While Memrise started as a website, there are also Android and iPhone apps so you can easily review vocabulary while on the go.

A word of caution…

Memrise by default emphasises recalling words (Stage 3) very early on and prompts you to type them correctly into a box. The mems are not used as part of practice. You might find it beneficial to stick to courses labelled ‘no typing’ that focus on multiple choice instead or just use the app where you (usually) don’t have to type in the answer.

What’s the best way to combine these 3 approaches to remembering vocabulary?

Going back to what I said at the beginning, you learn new words by getting repeated exposure to them. You don’t actually need to use any tools if you don’t want to. However accept that it will take some time, just like it does when learning your native language as a child.

This article presented you with 3 different solutions to your vocabulary problems, depending on why you are struggling to remember a word.

Here’s a handy flowchart reminding you how to find the root of the problem and my solution for tackling each one.

The steps to tackling tricky words. Download PDF.

The steps to tackling tricky words. Download PDF.

Over to you: How do you remember vocabulary? What problems do you encounter?

Image credit: HikingArtist and monique72

Improve your spelling

It’s fairly easy to learn how to read Vietnamese words aloud. It’s a bit trickier spelling them due to letters which can sound similar like a and ă, or are essentially the same like gi- and d-.

However you can improve your spelling with practice.

Tip #1: Write more

Because I learnt a lot of my basic Vietnamese by talking to friends, my spelling used to be awful.

My spelling used to suck

My spelling sucked until I started to practice writing

By getting your writing corrected and learning how to spell the words you got wrong, you can drastically improve your spelling.

Sometimes you’ll be able to remember these corrections right away. Sometimes you’ll have to practice spelling the words until you can consistently get them right.

Tip #2: Use Memrise or Anki with an input box

You can review vocabulary and test your spelling with a flashcard system like Memrise.com. You could also do this in Anki by creating a text input field and adding a third card to practise typing it.

Learn how to spell the words you get wrong

If you’ve done some writing and made a list of the words you got wrong, add them to a flashcard program so that you keep reviewing their spelling over time.

Use memrise to test your spelling

Words I’ve misspelt recently

Do this often and you’ll learn to spell common words correctly.

Learn to spell words correctly before you need them

Even now, there are a lot of Vietnamese words that I can say but can’t spell or can’t remember the tones for.

A good way to learn spell to familiar words like this is to download a deck in Anki or select a Memrise course with vocabulary you’ve already studied.

memrise-review

I’ve learnt about buildings but can I spell them all? Let’s see.

Practice the vocabulary through the Memrise system.

If you can spell the word correctly – great!

If you get it wrong, take note of the correct spelling and continue revising it in Memrise.

memrise-test

Is it ngoại thành or ngoài? Looks like I need to review this.


By reviewing words before you need them, you’ll improve your spelling and cut down on the number of words you have to look up in the dictionary.

Over to you: Do you struggle with spelling? How do you practice?