Farsi Friday Week 3: Free language resources that work, and the theory of learning

I know, I know, it’s a Sunday. On Friday I was at the London Bike Show, where I did my first ever public talk about my travels (a first tiny step towards curing my phobia of public speaking).

And because the UK’s train drivers treat a flurry of snow as a reason to stay in bed for the day, the nice four-hour train journey home — on which I’d planned to write the update — did not happen.

Enough with the excuses. Onto the week’s developments…

Learn Tons Of Words Quickly With Spaced-Repetition & Flashcards

There’s a theory of learning called ‘spaced repetition’ which is backed up by a rigorous body of evidence. The basic idea is that, given a new piece of information to learn, you’re asked to recall it — just as you’re about to forget it. This self-reinforced memory will now last quite a bit longer, so there’ll be a bigger time gap before you forget it again — at which point you’re asked to recall it once more. In this way, you’re recalling a given piece of information 1 minute, 10 minutes, an hour, a day, a week, a month, after you first learnt it, until it’s there forever.

How to turn this theory into a practical technique for learning vocabulary? The answer lies in one of the oldest learning methods of all: flashcards. Quite simply a piece of card with a foreign word or phrase on it, and its translation on the opposite side.

Flashcards have moved into the digital age with the advent of computers, and more recently smartphones. You can carry the entire vocabulary of another language in your pocket, ready to study at any time — in a lift, on the loo, while the kettle’s boiling. This is amazing.

Combine these two ideas — spaced repetition and flashcards — and you’ve got a technique for making a lot of new words stick very quickly. Enter Anki, a free app that does just that. Run it once a day on your Windows/Mac/Linux laptop, or your iPhone, Android phone or tablet, or just load up the web-based interface. It’ll sync your progress, give you the words you’re about to forget, and give you as many new ones each day as you like.

There’s no restriction on what information you can put on a flashcard, by the way. Instead of a word, it could be a phrase. Or a photo. Or a recording of your own voice, or that of a native speaker. Whatever works. It’s old technology, I guess, but it’s a nice revelation after too many textbooks and teachers. (Other flashcard software is available; I like Anki because it’s established, free, simple, multi-platform, it syncs, and it works.)

And it’s worth mentioning that cramming vocabulary is pointless unless you can use it in a real conversation; the ultimate point of learning it in the first place. It’s a great technique, but it’s only one piece of the learning puzzle.

Other Language-Learning Reading & Resources

In the comments of last week’s edition of Farsi Friday, a reader posted a link to Quizlet. It’s like a polished web/iPhone version of Anki’s flashcards, but (unfortunately) without the spaced-repetition functionality. It does, however, benefit from a ton of pre-made flashcard sets.

Another commenter pointed out a very useful rundown of the most fundamental aspects of language learning by Tim Ferris.

I’ve been reading a blog by a chap called Benny, aka The Irish Polyglot, who has this to say about spaced repetition and Anki. His website is encyclopaedic, as you’d imagine from a hyperactive speaker of 9 languages. He also sells a language ‘hacking’ guide*, detailing everything he’s learnt in 10 years of full-time language learning. (I haven’t yet tried this, as it’s not available in Farsi, but it may be of interest if you’re taking on one of the 24 included languages yourself right now.)

And I never thought I’d say this, but Lonely Planet’s Persian Phrasebook* (the first Lonely Planet book I’ve ever bought for a trip) is coming in amazingly useful — mainly because it includes both the formal Persian for a given word or phrase, and the colloquial version in use on the ground.

A lot of Persian language learning resources (e.g. Rosetta Stone, textbooks, university classes) are presented in very stiff, formal Persian, their teachers and authors wanting to defend the purity of their language from an encroachment of street slang.

But the aim is to understand and be understood with normal people when I am in Iran, rather than to speak like a newsreader and for everyday chatter to go over my head. It’s only by communicating at a conversational level that I’ll be able to pull off the trip I’m planning.

Know of other language-learning blogs, software or resources worth checking out? Post them here.

5 Responses to “Farsi Friday Week 3: Free language resources that work, and the theory of learning”

  1. Liz

    Hi Tom,
    I’ve recently started learning Persian and I was wondering if you should share some of the Anki decks that you may have used?

    Reply
    • Tom Allen

      Sure – the most useful I found to begin with was the shared ‘fa-lonelyplanet’ deck which contains the contents of the Lonely Planet Farsi phrasebook dictionary, which amounts to a couple of thousand useful basic words in colloquial spoken use. It’s missing the short vowel marks but I added them in for words I needed to remember the pronunciation of, then deleted them when I’d learned them. For extra vocab I picked up in Iran I created my own deck and added cards / studied the deck at the end of each day. Hope that helps!

      Reply
  2. Sohaila

    Great blog Tom.
    I’ve been trying to learn Persian, but since I’m focusing on spoken word before learning to read/write I’ve had a lot of trouble finding decent Anki flashcard sets that are written in “Finglish”
    I’ve a Anki veteran, however I can’t seem to find the Lonely Planet phrasebook deck you mentioned. Would you mind sending me the link to that set or your set? I would really appreciate the help.
    Thanks!

    Reply
    • Tom Allen

      Sure – can you drop me an email through the contact page?

      Reply
      • Tin

        Hey Tom. Thanks so much for the inspiring article. Can you help send the Anki deck you mentioned to me also? I’ll leave a message in the Contact page as well.

        Reply

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