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  • How to learn a language’s sound system with Anki

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    I’ve been fielding questions about my methods for Hungarian and how they might work for a less phonetic language like French, with multiple ways of spelling a single sound. Today, I made a 44-card sample deck for French, which you’re welcome to download and use as a model here.

    The sample deck includes 3 chunks:

    • Minimal pair practice
    • Spelling rules
    • Basic picture words

    These 3 parts work together to cement and automatize your understanding of a new sound system, and give you some vocab while you’re at it. My goal in creating it is to break a sound system into its constituent parts, so that you can master each part individually. In this post, we’ll go through each part in detail. This can seem sort of abstract. To get a feel for how it works, just download the deck and try it for a few days. You’ll learn a little French and get a sense for what I mean here. If you like it, I’d encourage you to use the custom models and scheduling used in the deck for your own studies.  Part 1: Minimal Pair Practice

    I keep harping on this research on Japanese adults learning the L-R, “Lock”/”Rock” contrast in English because it’s the best tool I’ve seen so far. Basically, they quizzed Japanese adults, asking them whether they heard “rock” or “lock” when a recording was played. At first, the adults literally couldn’t hear it. The contrast didn’t show up on brain scans. There was no difference in their ears between the two sounds; a serious obstacle to language learning. But when these adults took tests with immediate feedback (Test: Which word is this: Rock or Lock? Adult: “Rock” Test: “WRONG! Lock.”, and so on.), then these adults picked up the ability to hear the distinction within 3 20-minute sessions. It’s basically a magic, brain-rewiring pill, and noone seems to be using it, except for Chinese tones. My goal is to bring this pill to as many languages as possible over the next year, and I’m busy making native-speaker recordings for that purpose right now. The first chunk of this deck uses minimal pair contrasts (su-sous-si, huis-oui, etc.) to enable you to hear new sounds:

    Minimal pair cards (plays one of two similar recordings, asks what you heard, then plays back both recordings so you can hear the contrast):

    Once you can hear the contrast between the two words, I’d suggest that you repeat after the recordings out loud, so you can practice producing it. If you still have difficulty producing it, use Anki 2’s voice recording features (Press Shift-V or click in the bottom right on the Desktop version of Anki) to record your own voice, and compare it to the recording. Now that your ears can hear the difference, I suspect you’ll be able to self-diagnose many issues when you listen to a recording of yourself. (Final final step would be to really understand the IPA and its relationship to your mouth, so you can figure out what you’re doing wrong physically, but you’ve already won much of the battle if you can hear what’s going on)

    Part 2: Spelling Cards

    Here’s where we break down the various spellings for each sound in the language. This was much simpler in Hungarian, because Hungarian is a wonderfully phonetic language. With one slight exception, if you can hear it, you can write it down, and vice versa. (The only sound with two spellings is [j]: jegy (ticket) and belyeg (twine) both have [j]). Most languages are less forgiving, and so we need a way of covering common spellings in a systematic fashion, without getting so bogged down in intricate rules that they become difficult to remember, boring, or both. We can fix all that using 5 interrelated card types:

    Spelling Card #1 (Answer with any spelling for a given sound): Spelling Card #2 (Given a spelling, tell me what sound it makes):

    You can have multiple cards here for each possible spelling of a single sound:

    Spelling Card #3 (Give me any example for the following spelling):

    Just as before, you’ll have another example for every other spelling you wish to teach yourself:

    Card Type #4 (Given a recording and picture of a word, how do you spell it?) :

    (Again, you’d have another one for every other spelling you wish to teach yourself (“aïkido”)

    If you do this for every common spelling in your language, you should have the basics covered. Because of the pictures and examples, it should be concrete enough to actually remember, to stay interesting, and stay practical.

    Part 3: Your first picture words

    In this section, you’re ostensibly teaching yourself basic vocabulary, but really, the main function of this section is to reinforce and help you internalize all of the sounds and spelling rules you learned in parts 1 and 2. For the first few hundred cards, you’ll be quizzing yourself on spelling specifically, to help with the reinforcement process of the Spelling/Sound system of the language. Because you’re practicing all of the letters as they’re seen in context, and because you’re using recordings here (get them from Forvo or from the wonderful Anki plugin called ‘Download Audio’), you’ll also automatically internalize a number of relatively complex phonetic rules that you’d typically have to learn explicitly (e.g., German consonants devoice at the end of words, so Hand is pronounced Hant). The only rules you won’t automatically learn in this manner are the rules that connect multiple words (e.g., liaison in French: “c’est le chien” is pronounced [sɛ lə ʃjɛ̃] but “c’est un chien” is pronounced [sɛ‿tœ̃ ʃjɛ̃] – the T in “est” is pronounced when it comes before a vowel but not before a consonant). But these rules need to come later anyways, because you’re at the beginning of a language, and you’re not yet in a position to string together words. You are in a position to learn how to hear and say each sound in your language, to say each individual word correctly, and to internalize your language’s spelling/sound system. Each of these will make vocabulary acquisition faster in the future, prevent you from internalizing bad pronunciation habits, and make your listening comprehension more successful when you’re ready for it.

    Anyways, here are the 3 card types for this chunk:

    Card Type #1: What’s this word mean? What does it sound like?  (If appropriate: What’s its gender?)

    When I hit the space bar, I’m also treated to a recording of the word, so even if I wasn’t particularly savvy at IPA, I’d know what my word sounded like.

    Card Type #2: What’s the word for this picture? What does it sound like? (If appropriate: What’s its gender?) Card Type #3: Given a recording of a word and its picture, how do I spell the word?

    I’d make cards of all three types until I rarely made mistakes about spelling, and then I’d stop making card type #3. This will occur at different times in different languages (perhaps after 100 words in Hungarian, 300 words in French, and 2000 words in English), but the net effect will be that I’ll have internalized the spelling system of the language, such that when I encounter new words in print, I’ll have a reliable gut instinct about the sound of a new word. This becomes invaluable when I start reading for the purposes of vocabulary gain, which I’ll do automatically when I begin to make more complex cards with words in context, later:

    These cards will reinforce grammar, connections between associated words, etc.  If I’ve done my job well in my earlier cards, they’ll also reinforce my ability to speak, because I’ll unconsciously read the example sentences in my inner ear, and I’ll do it with a good accent. We’ll get to these sorts of cards later, after we talk about grammar in depth.  Stay tuned!

    23 thoughts on “How to learn a language’s sound system with Anki

      1. Gabriel Wyner

        It’s prettymuch the same process. Go here:


        And use their recordings for the alphabet and their sample words. You’ll have a bit of difficulty finding useful minimal pairs. Spanish has so few vowels that you’re not going to get them mixed up. You might be able to find some useful minimal pairs for the consonants, but for now, skip them and focus on parts 2 and 3 of the deck.

    1. Jericho Jak

      I think I may have made Anki deck similar to this for learning how to properly pronounce Chinese tones. It doesn’t strictly follow your method, I simply paired a single-character or two-character sound with the pinyin (shi4, or jiao3hua2).

      I feel as though my tone recognition and production ability has improved a great deal since I started this deck, but I guess we’ll have to wait until I’m in conversation to see. Here’s the link (https://ankiweb.net/shared/info/1306530162) to the deck if you or your readers are interested. What do you think?

    2. Cecilia

      This has been very helpful!

      I used the spelling cards to create a deck, which is a beginner’s attempt to learn the sounds and spelling of Irish using IPA, Ó Siadhail, and Foclóir Póca (all found on Wikipedia). Audio is from http://www.phouka.com/gaelic/sounds/sounds.htm and Forvo. Irish is tricky because there is no one standard pronunciation, but several regional variations. But this has already helped me make some sense of the spelling system and learn some pronunciation.

      Thank you for posting all the work you do on language learning!

    3. Janice

      Thanks for the post, I’d like to try this process. How do i know what the minimal pairs are eg for Brazilian Portuguese? For the spelling section, what do you mean by common spelling? Should I make cards for the different spelling variations for each letter in the alphabet?

    4. Ryan

      Hello, I am feeling a little slow. Would you please better explain how to make each of the cards in Parts 2 and 3? Maybe even a step-by-step explanation?Thanks.

    5. Andy

      Hi Gabriel, thanks for the info.

      I have a few questions:

      1. Exactly how many sounds do you cover in your catagory 2 cards? Every variation of every letter? How many cards are we talking in total?

      2. What is the difference between catagory 3 cards here, and the vocabulary deck I plan to set up next (utilising 400 common words)?



    6. taha

      Hi, thank you for this post, but the link that you’ve posted to the module at the beginning of the article doesn’t work: check it at www . sendspace . com/file/kmg7g2

    7. Juan Maciel

      Dear Gabriel;
      I tried download the 44-card sample deck for French but I didn’t have successes because the possible reasons include: File date limit has expired or File was not successfully uploaded.
      It is not possible to restore the file.
      The site suggest that I contact the uploader and ask them to upload the file again.
      Can you help me?

    8. Hew

      Dear Gabriel, same problem as posted by Juan Maciel and Taha above. Link says file not available. Any chance that this file can be made available. Thanks for all your great work and your willingness to make information available.

    9. Miguel

      you can use websites taht ofer hight quality text to speech, such as Acapela, and Ivona Voices, to crete dosen of audios, and practice repeting. (use a recoreder software)
      After 3 months using Anki every day, with 25 new cards per day, and no review limit, I could speek german with no accent. Authough germans still notice I am a foreigner, because of my grammar mistakes, specially with the aticles.
      Now I am learning french by myself, and using this method, my pronunciation is still far from good, but it got much better.


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