Zettelkasten Forum

Learning German

Hi everyone,

These last couple of days I have been scouring the Internet trying to find a method to organize all the notes I have written during the years. I have everything from recipes to code snippets. These days I'm learning German. I've been considering if it would be possible to use the Zettelkasten method to organize my German notes. Does anyone have any experience on using Zettelkasten for language learning? Thanks!


  • I don't, when it comes to using a Zettelkasten for this. When people talked with me about learning a language in the past, they were always grateful for the flash card app recommendation Anki https://apps.ankiweb.net/ -- It comes with mobile apps to practice recall. That's what I think about when I think about the basics of language learning.

    Author at Zettelkasten.de • https://christiantietze.de/

  • edited November 2018

    Danke für Ihre Antwort! Natürlich hilft Anki einem beim Sprachlernen, aber am meisten beim Lernen der Vokabeln. Jetzt brauche ich ein System, in dem ich meine Grammatiknotizen speichern kann und wichtige zusammenhängen einfach finden kann. Deswegen habe ich gedacht, dass das Prinzip "eine Idee per Zettel" gut dazu passt. Haben Sie den Zettelkasten gar nicht benützt, als Sie Englisch gelernt haben?

    Sorry: I couldn't resist to write a bit in German. Please let me know if it Ok.

  • edited November 2018

    @hdanielv12 said:
    Danke für Ihre Antwort! Natürlich hilft Anki einem beim Sprachlernen, aber am meisten beim Lernen der Vokabeln. Jetzt brauche ich ein System, in dem ich meine Grammatiknotizen speichern kann und wichtige zusammenhängen einfach finden kann. Deswegen habe ich gedacht, dass das Prinzip "eine Idee per Zettel" gut dazu passt. Haben Sie den Zettelkasten gar nicht benützt, als Sie Englisch gelernt haben?

    Sorry: I couldn't resist to write a bit in German. Please let me know if it Ok.

    Huh, I misclicked or something and my text didn't get posted along with the quote...trying again.

    Anki can also work pretty well for grammar learning. You can have for example fill-in-the-blanks style cards for verb or noun forms or even cards that say "make a sentence containing " with an explanation and some examples on the back.

    You kind of need to burn things like grammar and vocabulary into your memory in small chunks so you can later use them to construct and decode sentences.

  • This is a question I have spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about myself. As a PhD student in ancient history, I have to learn and maintain a number of modern and ancient languages. I've used Anki for many years to supplement this need. Because of my daily use of Anki over many years, I also tried to extend its utility to other conceptual forms of learning via a Supermemo form of Incremental Reading and Writing. Anki was a useful source, but it set a number of cognitive limits and burdens on me. Half a decade of reps leads to an unholy number of cards. I have since found the zettelkasten as a better way of learning through conceptual articulation, connection, and re-organization.

    I'm still trying to iron out a useful way to integrate what I've learned about language learning from immersion and anki into the zettelkasten approach, but I have reason to believe that you can.

    For example, learning by memorization means (to oversimplify) that your brain is treating each individual fact of grammar or vocabulary as a unique and separate unit. You just have to memorize what it is or what it does. On the other hand, approaching a language through sheer immersion forces your brain to learn by observing how certain words or phrases (or just sounds?) relate to each other. The revolution in linguistics brought on by Ferdinand Saussure in the early 20th century supports this. Saussure argued on the basis of the phonemes of a given language (the smallest units of sounds that make up words) that each unit of sound was defined in relation to what it was not. The sounds in and of themselves do not have their own mean. They only acquired meaning in relation to other sounds. If you have an apparatus to track how words and phrases relate to one another in a given language, then you don't have to waste your time memorizing every single possible word (and re-memorizing day-to-day and month-to-month). You can just get right to reading/listening/saying what you want.

    There must be away of employing the versatile connectivity of the zettelkasten for these learning purposes.

    I think the first step is jumping into L2 texts, rather than starting from artificial grammars and vocabulary lists.
    The goal would be to engage with these texts in your zettelkasten just as you would a language you are fluent in.

    So I would have a Latin text chunk in my inbox. [spare me your ire, I know this is already heresy] If I encounter a word that I don't recognize, like "verbum" then I will put a "#" in front of that word in the text. This makes the word clickable in my zettelkasten so I can pull up every other time I might have engaged with this concept but have forgotten. If there is no note, then it is time to create one. If there are other notes, I can look out how the word is being used there and what it tells me about the current context in which I find it. Eventually your notes and hashtags would be collecting not just vocabulary terms but also grammatical patterns as they reveal themselves to you or notes on conjugation etc.

    Ideally you would try to get to a level where you are creating these notes in the L2 as well, but that all depends upon your language goals. Do you want to speak and write in this language or just be able to translate it to english? I think this is important for rethinking how to use a zettelkasten to learn a language.

    I submit this for debate. It's an experiment of mine - so definitely try at your own risk. I recognize that this is a highly unorthodox usage of the zettelkasten for many reasons.

    Note: I use the # approach because a blanket search would return too much. Plus it helps me track this specific linguistic approach to note creation.

  • tl;dr

    I propose an input heavy approach to language learning (like the polyglot Kato Lomb) and just use the zettelkasten similarly to how you do in your L1.

    But there has to be a way of specifically leveraging the zk toolset for linguistic ends. It's a more granular focus than the traditional note. For this, I have started using word-by-word tags.

  • What are L1 and L2? - can someone explain to the uninitiated? Otherwise, very useful posts

  • Your L1 is your first language or the language you are fluent in. L2 is the language you are learning.

  • @pseudoevagrius:

    • If you still use Anki on Desktop this add-on might be interesting for you: https://github.com/glutanimate/popup-dictionary It's not available in the official AnkiWeb add-on repository. I'm not sure if it's about the quality. Maybe the author just wants to monetize it in his patreon campaign.

    • I hope to reduce the amount of Anki cards I have and I am contemplating Supermemo which promises a much better scheduler with much fewer reviews. Have you ever shard your experiences with it? I ask because there is very little material available: Besides supermemo's official documentation I mainly find a blog by a former Anki user who had an awakening and now preaches about supermemo. But I think reports from more normal users would be much more helpful. Would you mind sharing a few sentences? I don't care about reviews on a smartphone or the fact that it's not available for MacOS because I have a VM on my mac that's running the whole time.

  • I actually haven't used Supermemo. My references to Supermemo above were based on my extensive studying of it (specifically Incremental reading and writing) and also my attempts to replicate it in either Anki or Buboflash (which I think is a good service but I just couldn't get it to meet my learning style).

    So I can't shed any light on Supermemo.

    If you care less about the timing of the reviews I think you can modify Anki to operate a lot more like Supermemo. I'm a fan of repetition and incremental progress, but I don't believe in rote memorization so I'm less attached to the system's memory curve and more just looking for a digital secretary to tell me what to focus on next based on the priorities and goals I have set for myself. Along the practiced repetition, reducing decision fatigue and anxiety is the ultimate goal for me. Supermemo is much better at working both as a secretary AND as a knowledge base for collecting, organizing, and connecting (branching) data. I have my zettelkasten of plaintext files for that so I don't need the knowledge base aspect that Supermemo offers.

    Anki would be my digital secretary for learning. My only problem is finding a lean and friction-less way of getting Anki and the zettelkasten to communicate.

    So far I haven't.

  • thank you very much for the quick reply. I feel obligated to try to give back but I'm not sure if these ideas really help.

    I dislike Anki as a digital secretary because Anki mostly uses absolute intervals that grow with every viewing of the card. For priorization I would prefer a tool that allows me to assign like A-E and then works through the list according to some rules I set like "show A first; if no A remains 70% B, 20% C, 10%D". Only for new cards Anki assigns priorities instead of due dates. So I would need a custom scheduler that doesn't graduate but just rearranges the due column. org-mode would be better suited for this.

    My only problem is finding a lean and friction-less way of getting Anki and the zettelkasten to communicate.

    What do you have in mind? If you want to periodically review/open a site in your zettelkasten you could put the filename of this zettel into Anki. You could make it clickable so that it's opened in your zettelkasten viewer. There are several ways to do this in Anki: You could create a regular html-link and on the system level define a link handler. That's complicated. Using a custom Anki add-on is easier. So far I have found this and maybe this. Both of these add-ons need slight modifications. Then these add-ons allow to just paste the text so that you don't have to format it as an html link.

    You could even create a script that sends the current file name from your zettelkasten software to a new Anki note/card if your zettelkasten is scriptable. As far as I see scriptability is listed as an upcoming feature in The Archive and for Anki (as the receiving side) there is the add-on ankiconnect.

    If you just wanted to review your zettel on your mobile phone you could make a script that exports all your zettels as html to anki's media folder and creates a csv file with the names that you can import into Anki. Then an existing deck would get updated. You could use a note type that allows to embed other html files (like iframes).

  • There are a lot of excellent suggestions that I need to fiddle with here. Thank you!

    The question will be whether I can reduce the moving parts necessary to run this conversation between Anki and the zettelkasten. The main issue in the past has been going mobile. I can go mobile easily with just Anki or just my zettelkasten. But getting both to work together on-the-go has been more trouble than benefit. I think I need to decide how much mobile is actually important to me. Maybe that's something I should just give up for the time being. Or just keep mobile time to simple cloze and basic flashcard reviews.

    While I'm away experimenting with your suggestions, have you looked at the incremental reading addon? There are versions for both Anki 2.0 and Anki 2.1. It uses a different card format (IR3) that has a priority field. The addon also provides a "Reading organizer" that is ordered by your priorities rather than graduating intervals. You can manually move specific reading up or down in the scheduler or have the scheduler reorganize the entire list all over again based on your modifications to the priorties of the cards.

    eshapard also has some helpful blog posts about customizing how Anki schedules.

    I think the Incremental reading addon is closest to what you are describing, but probably not spot on. What you describe is exactly what I want too!

  • I haven't really used the IR add-on. It feels a bit cumbersome, e.g. I can't edit the topic I read immediately. I can just cut and highlight. To delete a word I need to open it in an edit window. This is just one shortcut but still it distracts me.

    getting both to work together on-the-go

    I can't imagine that this works with a mobile OS like android or ios. I could only imagine it on a tablet or maybe a convertible with windows or linux

  • Agreed on both counts.

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