We’d all like to know the best way to learn a foreign language, especially the best way to learn vocabulary. With that in mind, here are some tools I have found helpful for learning vocabulary in another language. Each is available free, although some also have premium (paid) editions. BYKI, ANKI, and Memrise are all essentially flashcard systems. However, they each incorporate algorithms which repeat words at spaced intervals which increase as you show that you know the word/phrase better.
BYKI stands for Before You Know It, an allusion to how quickly you will add and solidify vocabulary using this tool. The Express version is available as a free download from BYKI.com. The free version comes pre-loaded with several wordlists in the language of your choice. Not nearly as many words are included as in the Premium version. But that really doesn’t matter because you have free access through BYKI Central to a great variety of word lists in 74 different languages.
BYKI employs a three step system for vocabulary acquisition: Preview It, Recognize It, and Produce It. The first step allows you to peruse the cards and acquaint yourself with them. In step two, Recognize It, you are shown a word in your target language, think of the English translation, then indicate whether you got it right or not when shown the correct response. Step two continues by showing English words, and you need to think of the word in your target language. Step three raises the difficulty by showing you the word in your target language and you type in the English, or by showing the word in English and you type in the word in your target language.
The Deluxe edition costs $69.95 and adds several features, including several games, a progress meter, speech comparison (comparing your pronunciation to a native speaker), several test options, and the ability to create your own custom decks. In my experience, creating custom decks using images of my own choosing helps tremendously in recalling words. Creating your own custom decks also allows you to use BYKI for any subject you can study using flashcards.
BYKI is my personal favorite platform. However, I do have one major complaint. The mobile app costs $7.95 for each language. So, even after purchasing the mobile app in Spanish, I still cannot review a deck in Japanese which I created myself on BYKI and uploaded to BYKI central for the BYKI community.
Many language learners prefer ANKI as their flashcard software. ANKI promotes itself as a flashcard learning system, not specifically for language learning. While a variety of vocabulary lists are available in many languages, there are also decks for law exam prep, medical terms, geography, and other disciplines. They even suggest using ANKI for associating names and faces. (BYKI could be used for any of these as well, but the lists available are limited to language learning.)
One primary difference between BYKI and ANKI is that, instead of BYKI’s three step system, ANKI shows you one side of the card, asks you to think of the other, then – when the answer is shown – you pick again (you missed it), hard, good, or easy according to the relative difficulty you had in recalling the term.
Personally I find ANKI a bit more difficult to use, but that may simply be a matter of my familiarity with BYKI. I also find ANKI less appealing graphically and less captivating to use.
Memrise incorporates flashcards into a game. Its available courses are organized into the categories of languages, arts & literature, maths & science, the natural world, history & geography, professional & careers, entertainment, and trivia. So, besides languages, there are many options for study. The basic version of Memrise is free; a premium version is available for $9/month or $59/year. The premium version includes several tools to optimize your learning. Their data suggests that one might learn 58 words per week using the basic version, but 311 words per week using premium.
The key way in which Memrise differs from either BYKI or ANKI is its use of mnemonics. Pre-made decks offer memorable mnemonic images and explanations that help you to remember new terms; sometimes several mnemonic devices are suggested for you choose from. I find that I occasionally switch to Memrise specifically for this feature when facing especially troublesome words.
Forvo.com is specifically designed to help with pronunciation of vocabulary in other languages. You can look up a word and listen to a native speaker pronounce it. Sometimes you even have a choice of several speakers for a given word. Plus, you can download the sound files and incorporate them into flashcards in your chosen flashcard system.
625 Base Vocabulary Words
If you’re not sure where to start, I suggest you either pick a program and a premade deck of flashcards or – better yet – learn to create your own. Gabriel Wyner, author of Fluent Forever, offers a list of 625 words which he considers basic for learning any language. You could start with these words in English, then create cards incorporating a translation to your target language (which you look up in a hard copy or online dictionary), pronunciation from Forvo.com, and images from Google images. Search on the word in your target language, find an image that helps you recall what the word means, then copy and paste it into the card for your own private use. (If you are using an image for anything beyond your own private use, you’ll need to look up the usage rights.)
I encourage you to share your own impressions in the comments below and especially any other vocabulary tools you find helpful.