Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Best Way to Improve Your Vocabulary While Reading

You know reading foreign language books will help your vocabulary, but HOW exactly do you do that, in a fun way?



It is no secret I think the best way to improve your vocabulary in general is flashcards.

But...I will be the first to admit that creating flashcards is tedious.

I believe most people that commit to creating flashcards while reading will either stop creating the flash cards while they read, or just stop reading entirely.

There must be a better way, right? One that's fun, and also efficient? I believe there is, and it requires a little upfront investment but I feel like this trick is well worth the effort.


Enjoy Reading While You Read, Do Vocabulary Later


The trick I use is to completely separate reading from the vocabulary review. Keep the reading fun, and you'll stick with it.

With some modern technology and software, this is possible. Once you have this all set up, it looks like this:

  1. Download some new Spanish language book to your Kindle Paperwhite
  2. Look up words as you need to, in a built-in Spanish->English dictionary with a simple long-press
  3. Periodically connect the kindle to your computer to turn your lookups into flashcards for review
Sound good? I can tell you it is way more fun. I stay in the story while I'm reading so I actually read instead of giving up. Since the words I didn't know end up in my daily vocabulary review I actually learn them. It works.

Alright, here's how you do it.

Get a Kindle Paperwhite Setup for Language Learning



  1. Purchase a Kindle Paperwhite. I don't like to recommend purchases, but the Paperwhite is amazing. Smaller and lighter than one book but lets you carry 1000s of books. Backlit so you can read in bed or at night, but no blue light so you can sleep. Syncs to the cloud, and it lets you read free books. And it looks like a normal hard drive on your computer when plugged in, its charge lasts a month, and on and on and on. But most importantly for this guide, it remembers every word you look up and stores them in a database you can access yourself. That is unique and amazing. It is the key to this trick.
  2. Get a translation dictionary for your Kindle. For Spanish->English I use the HISPANO English->Spanish Dictionary.  Make sure to deliver it to your Paperwhite after purchase.
  3. Set your new translation dictionary as the default - In your Kindle, go to Settings > Device Options > Language and Dictionaries > Dictionaries. NOTE! You cannot change the default dictionary in the mobile apps, so this trick just doesn't work. You have to use a paperwhite. Sorry!
  4. Download a free Spanish reader to your Kindle. There are lots of these online and lots of ways to get books on your Kindle, but getting this ebook from Amazon will make sending it to your Paperwhite very easy
  5. Read! Just enjoy reading. Don't try to remember words. Long-press on any words you don't know, and you should get an English translation unless it is a difficult conjugation with pronouns attached etc. This easy look-up makes reading in a foreign language much more fun as you stay in the story instead of hunting through a dictionary.

Turn Your Word Lookups Into Flashcards Automatically



Okay, the first part of this trick - looking up words easily while reading in a foreign language - is useful enough. You should already be enjoying reading much more. 

But wouldn't it be great if you could easily take all your missed words and easily turn them into flashcards? Here's how you do that:
  1. Get the Anki flashcard system setup
  2. Get the "kind2anki" Anki Add-on - install instructions are on that page, but you install the free Anki Desktop program, then in the Tools->Add-Ons menu you tell it to search for and add an add-on, then paste in the kind2anki add on code, hit return, then restart Anki
  3. Turn dictionary look-ups to flashcards. Every once in a while, plug your kindle directly into the computer you set up in step #5 above. Once the kindle shows up as a hard drive, copy the vocabulary database to someplace easy to find (for me on a Mac this is in /Volumes/kindle/system/vocabulary/vocab.db and I copy it to my Downloads folder). Then in Anki Desktop run Tools -> kind2anki. I dump all the words into a "From Kindle" deck, I have them set to translate to 'en', and I let it run. I get a little pop-up when it's done, telling me how many words it processed
  4. Clean up the import to make sure it's useful. I use the Card Browser ("Browse") and on the left I select the deck I imported to ("From Kindle" for me) sorted by "Created Date". I start from the top and look at each card to make sure the card looks good and alter it as I see fit. One thing I usually do is alter conjugated and participle forms to infinitive for instance. I also change plurals to singular, delete words I am certain are duplicated in other flashcard decks, verify definitions on SpanishDict.com etc. This process takes time but is important, and it didn't clutter up your fun reading time did it?
  5. Review your new cards during your normal daily Anki sessions and enjoy your new words



The second part in particular, creating flash cards from your Paperwhite word lookups, takes a fair bit of setup but it is the key to never forgetting words again. And as you read a series of books (perhaps Harry Potter in Spanish?) or a long book, you'll notice that the same words keep showing up so if you really learn them you should find reading becomes more and more enjoyable and less like language-learning work.

If you try this and get stuck, or if you have a good experience, please post about it in the comments. I'll attempt to help anyone with issues if you can provide some good information about what you tried and what didn't work.

Good luck!

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