Anki Grammar Deck: Participial Adjectives

I’ve created and shared another Anki deck for EFL students. This cloze deck focuses on the grammar concept of participial adjectives (for example, interesting and interested). While these adjectives have an overlap in meaning because they come from the same verb, there is a difference between being bored and being boring! This is a grammar mistake that plagues many beginner and even intermediate English learners, but the good news is that participial adjectives can be mastered with some extra drilling and attention, like the cloze exercises in this deck.

This is not a vocabulary deck; it is for students who already know the vocabulary but have trouble knowing right away which form to use. I used this list from the University of Victoria as a reference: twenty of the most common verbs used as participial adjectives. I used the past and present participle of each verb, so there are 40 cards in all.

To add the deck to your own Anki account:

1. Download the deck to your computer.
2. Open your desktop version of Anki.
3. Select “File -> Import”
4. Browse to the directory where you saved the deck in Step 1.
5. Select the deck.
6. Sync your desktop client to the web. Now the downloaded deck is on your Anki cloud and can be accessed on your desktop client, on the web, or on your phone.

And there you have it! Let me know what you think.

Are there other Anki decks you’d like to see? Don’t have time to make them yourself? Comment or contact me on Twitter (@KobaEnglish) and I’ll see what I can do.

Thoughts on DuoLingo Mobile

I’ve talked about DuoLingo and its strengths and weaknesses before. But as I’ve finally sorted out how to add international keyboards to the DuoLingo app, I thought it would be appropriate for me to share a few thoughts on the mobile version.

I will preface this (and my previous review of DuoLingo) with the caveat that as of this post, I use DuoLingo for two languages: Russian and Turkish. The lessons for each language are designed by different groups of people and cover different topics; as far as I can tell, DuoLingo doesn’t enforce any kind of strict universality across different languages. Later Russian topics include “History and Fantasy” and “Spirituality,” which Turkish lacks; instead, there’s “Nature” and “Turkey.” So what I see in my trees will not 100% reflect what you see in yours (unless you’re also using English to study Turkish and Russian).

At some point I will have to work my way through the English tree and offer my commentary on the available material, but that’s another post altogether. A study has linked competency in DuoLingo with competency in that gold standard, TOEFL, but it was a study sponsored by DuoLingo so it’s worth taking with a grain of salt (for now). For now, I will repeat my earlier concern with DuoLingo: it’s great for grammar and vocabulary, but lacks in long-form reading and writing practice. Also, returning to the Turkish tree has only reinforced my belief that DuoLingo requires supplementation to truly be effective; relying only on DuoLingo will not get you far. Fortunately, there are free options like Anki and Lang-8 to fill in the gaps.

What are the differences between DuoLingo web and DuoLingo mobile?

First and foremost, I want to say that the DuoLingo app has been really well modified for mobile. It’s really easy and intuitive to use. If you had to do as much typing as you do in the web version, it would be really tedious. Instead, you have the option of drag and dropping words. You can also opt out of the listening exercises without any penalty, which is great when you’re on a noisy commute or waiting room.

As far as structure and guiding principles go, there obviously isn’t much different. You still have all four language areas represented, there’s still a spaced repetition model that guides review, and there’s still a focus on individual words or single sentences instead of longer texts. What’s different is the implementation, though it does seem to depend on the language you’re taking. For example, in Turkish DuoLingo Mobile, one of the exercises on the mobile app is matching word pairs—a useful and effective review exercise that seems completely absent from Russian. Other things are consistent across both languages (and presumably across the entire board). For example, if you choose to review a specific lesson (rather than the catch-all “strengthen” option), right at the beginning DuoLingo mobile will show you the specific words that you’re weakest on (and that will presumably be the focus of the review). It also balances the lowered difficulty of dragging and dropping words with the increased difficulty of no translation hints. The occasions where you do have to write things out, of course, you get your standard mouseover translations.

The gradient on DuoLingo mobile is more nuanced, which I like. Here is the last leg of the Russian tree as of my progress today, as viewed on the web:



There’s a clear demarcation of five levels, and you can see that “Science,” “Politics,” “Colloquial,” and “Nothing” are all at the same level: 4 out of 5. Here’s how the same lessons look in the mobile app at exactly the same time:



At a glance you can see that “Colloquial” and “Nothing” are weaker than “Politics” and much weaker than “Science.” I suspect by tomorrow they’ll both be at 3 out of 5. This is really great if you want to work ahead and target (relatively) weak areas; I wish the web version did this.

And, finally, in the mobile version you have the option to spend your lingots on cute costumes for the little owl mascot. It’s trivial and obviously imparts no new content or skills, but it’s adorable and that’s enough for me.

Which version do I prefer?

While I spend most of my day in front of a computer, making the web-based version of DuoLingo more or less a habit by now, I have to say I actually prefer the mobile version. Thanks to matching word pairs and cut-up sentences, there is a greater variety of activities on the mobile version than on the web. In terms of both usability and challenge, it’s probably a little easier on mobile than web, which means that on tough days I’m more likely to keep up my practice on my phone than at my computer. Challenge is important, but so is repetition. Whatever gets you to keep at it and keep training is good.

Hey, what about the Windows version?

I don’t use Windows myself, so I can’t really comment on it. But feel free to comment or Tweet at me (@KobaEnglish) with your thoughts—that’s something I would love a guest post about!

Tatoeba Tips

Tatoeba began as the brain child of Trang, inspired by the English–Japanese website The name “Tatoeba” even comes from the Japanese word for “for example.” You can read more about the history of on Trang’s blog, but the long and short of it is: Tatoeba is a collection of open source, community-generated sentences in multiple languages—something like a huge, global phrasebook. These sentences can be a great resource in your language study. But Tatoeba can also be overwhelming at first, so here are some tips to get you started.

1. You should probably register.

The nature of Tatoeba is such that everyone can browse it and look up sentences; registering allows you to contribute translations, add your own sentences, and (eventually, if you decide to ask for such privileges) tag and link sentences. If you’re just curious about a word now and then, you probably don’t need to sign up. But if you want to dig deeper, you’ll need a proper account. (It’s free!)

Note that Tatoeba, unlike Lang-8, doesn’t make a clear distinction between your native language and the languages you’re studying; rather, you list any languages you can speak, and then rate your fluency in them, from “almost no knowledge” to “native level.” So go ahead and add everything you’re interested in and know about. Here are mine, for example:


There is no limit to how many languages you can have in your account, and there’s no fluency requirement, so add as many as you like. My Korean, for example, is in absolute shambles, but since I at least know how to read Hangul, I listed it (and then put it at level 0: “almost no knowledge”).

2. Learn to use the search function.

Tatoeba uses Sphinx Search to account for all of the complexities of language. It’s mostly intuitive, but there are some wrinkles to be aware of. You can learn more at the Tatoeba Wiki.

Sphinx Search relates to the search bar at the top of the page. This search focuses just on the content of sentences, looking for actual, literal words. If you’re interested in a particular category of words, such as sports or politics or weather, you can search the tags instead. This search function is much less complex and does not use the same operators as Sphinx Search.

3. Add sentences.

If you want to improve Tatoeba (and of course you do, right?) and you have the time, you can also add sentences of your own. There are two ways to do that.

First, you can simply add a sentence directly to the corpus. Tatoeba even helpfully suggests vocabulary that hasn’t yet been featured on the site, so you can maximize your helpfulness by focusing specifically on those words.

The other way you can add sentences is by translating sentences already in the corpus.

When you’re looking at sentences on Tatoeba, you’ll see a little symbol in the upper left corner of every sentence, like this:


This is the option to translate. It’s not necessary (and even, arguably, flat-out unhelpful) to give a translation that’s identical to what’s already on the site. (Alas, there’s also no upvoting/approval system like there is on Lang-8, so there’s no good way to tell if a given translation is good or bad.) But if you look at sentence and see that it doesn’t have a translation in a language you know well, or the other translations are awkward or inadequate, then you can feel free to add one! When you click that symbol, a little box comes up:

I’m not actually brave enough to try to translate this into English. Yet.

Tatoeba also uses indirect (from L1 to L3 by way of L2) translations. It distinguishes between direct and indirect translations with blue arrows (indicating direct translations) and gray arrows (indirect translations). But you have to be careful: if you decide to translate something indirectly, make sure you click the translation you’re working from first. This will take you to a new page where that L2 translation is the “main sentence,” rather than just a translation. That way, your L3 translation is appropriately marked on the original L1 sentence as an indirect translation, and the code stays neat and tidy. (You can read more about Trang’s philosophy here.)

The principle of translating on Tatoeba is sentences and meaning, rather than word-for-word correspondence. “I’m 25 years old” is not, technically, a word-for-word translation of French (“I have 25 years.”) or Russian (“To me there are 25 years.”), but it’s how native speakers would express the idea of being 25 years old, so it’s the best (and only) possible choice.

4. Submit high-quality work.

Tatoeba is not a playground, or an opportunity for feedback/error correction. When you submit a translation or a sentence, you are submitting study material for other learners to use. This is why Tatoeba stresses that you only add translations and sentences only in languages in which you have fairly high levels of competency. Anything else—grammar or vocabulary practice, writing practice, proofreading—is better saved for elsewhere, such as Lang-8.

That’s Tatoeba in a nutshell! I’d like to shout out to my friend Yousef, who was the first to alert me to the existence of Tatoeba. It’s a great project but a little overwhelming, so if you need help (or if I missed anything), comment below or let me know on Twitter!


Thoughts on DuoLingo

There are lots of free online language-learning tools, but the one I see used most often is DuoLingo, so that’s where I’m going to start in my survey of web-based language portals.

What Is DuoLingo?

DuoLingo is a free language-learning website and app. Today, I’m only focusing on the website, as that’s what I use myself.

As of now, you can use the site in 21 different languages and study up to 16. It looks like the native English version of the site has the most languages available out of any other, including niche offerings like Welsh or Esperanto. For everyone else, the choice is a little more limited and is usually English. I think it’s pretty safe to infer that many of DuoLingo’s users are using it to learn English.

Languages available for English speakers to study on DuoLingo
Languages available for English speakers to study on DuoLingo

DuoLingo is built on translating simple sentences. Exactly what is available seems to depend on the language, but the basics include:

  • translating a sentence from the target language into your native language, and vice versa
  • multiple choice questions
  • simple clozes (fill-in-the-blanks)
  • dictation

In some lessons there’s also a speaking portion, if you care to use your mic. (I don’t have it in Russian, but my partner has it in Italian.)

DuoLingo is free to use.

What Do I Like About DuoLingo?

It’s free! And for being free it’s a pretty great resource. It attempts to address all four areas of language acquisition (speaking, listening, reading, and writing) and every exercise has a discussion thread attached to it, allowing you to get feedback from experts and native speakers about why a particular answer is or isn’t correct. DuoLingo’s userbase is so large that any question you ask will probably be answered fairly quickly.

Russian grammar Q+A on prepositions and possessives.
Russian grammar Q+A on prepositions and possessives.

The focus of each lesson is also sufficiently narrow to keep from overwhelming the true beginner, while the level tests allow a false beginner to skip ahead to an appropriate level/lesson instead of going over the basics yet again. And it generally seems pretty forgiving on spelling (unless spelling is an essential part of the grammar).

DuoLingo also encourages daily practice. In whichever language you study, you set yourself a goal of how many points you want to earn a day. You can set it low if you want to keep things casual, or if you’re serious you can set it quite high. If you use Chrome (or Chromium) and allow DuoLingo to use your alerts, the site will nag you if you haven’t hit your daily goal yet. You also get rewarded for streaks.

DuoLingo gives you a weekly summary of your activity.
DuoLingo gives you a weekly summary of your activity.

Finally, the whole thing is built on daily practice and a spaced repetition model. The site shows you exactly which areas you need to review and which you don’t, according to models that I assume are based on your previous performance and how long it’s been since you reviewed a particular lesson.

How I'm doing in Russian. You can see that I need to review "prepositions and place," "family," "people 2," and "nature."
How I’m doing in Russian. You can see that I need to review “Prepositions and Place,” “Family,” “People 2,” and “Nature.”

What Don’t I Like About DuoLingo?

It focuses almost exclusively on simple sentences, or at most two or three. This is fine for learning new vocabulary or grammatical structures, but won’t help your long-form reading (or writing) skills. Also, some of the sentences are surreal to the point of uselessness. (“There are many problems from his houses.” is one that springs to mind from the Russian for English speakers series.)

I believe language acquisition works best when you’re able to use it talk about, well, you! Yourself and things you care about. With DuoLingo, you are an incredibly passive participant, with zero input into the direction of the lessons.

The quality of lessons also seem to be inconsistent across languages. There are lots of cool options available to my partner in the Italian tree that I don’t have in Russian, like using lingots to purchase bonus lessons on idioms or pick-up lines. Likewise, I can’t guarantee the quality of any other lesson, because it seems to depend at least partially on your native language.


DuoLingo is really good for learning vocabulary and essential grammar concepts. But no matter what your level is, you should be supplementing it with other material: music, movies, or podcasts; short stories, essays, or news articles; conversation classes or Skype sessions; writing your own work. These last options require clear and useful feedback, something a good teacher can provide.

Want conversation practice or feedback on your writing? Email me from the sidebar or tweet @KobaEnglish and we can set something up.

Tips For Getting The Most Out Of Anki

I first came across Anki in Gabriel Wyner’s Fluent Forever. It’s a whole treasure trove of language-learning tips, but the bulk of Wyner’s philosophy revolves around flashcards, Anki, and spaced repetition. I couldn’t begin to summarize the book in a single blog post, so I’ll just recommend it. Wyner is sometimes a bit too gung-ho about all the great tools he wants to sell you, but Fluent Forever is no less helpful because of that.

Wyner sings the praises of Anki, and since the Droid version is free, I thought I’d give it a shot. I’m currently studying Russian, so it came along at the perfect time. Once I got the hang of creating the cards, and got my smartphone synced up with my desktop version, things were a breeze.

Flashcards are for more than mere vocabulary, however. Here are a couple of different ways I would recommend using Anki in your English study—aside from vocabulary.

(Note: I assume that you have a copy of Anki and that you’re comfortable using it. If you’d like more details on how to customize Anki, you can refer to their manual. Another good guide is this one from Alex Vermeer.)

1. Spelling Help

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

If you struggle with English’s semi-random yet semi-predictable spelling, you can offload the problem on to Anki.

The first step is being aware of the mistakes you make the most consistently. Maybe you have issues with -sion versus -tion, for example. Or maybe you struggle with irregular verbs: not eated but ate? not runned but ran? Put them in Anki.

You can just use a basic card with, say “eat” on the front and “ate” on the back. Or maybe “b__t (thing on water)” on the front and “boat” on the back. If you feel comfortable typing within Anki, you can set up the card so that you have to type in an answer (rather than just think about it). Anki will then display the correct answer and highlight any mistakes you may have made. For more about how to design Anki cards with typing input, see this how-to video.

I would recommend this method if it all possible. If not, try to keep scrap paper on hand to write on while you study so you can write out the correct spelling yourself. If you don’t have that, then you can move your hand as if you were writing, or imagine writing the answer. Or spell out in your head, like in a spelling bee. The more you do something yourself, or the more you think through the steps of doing something yourself, the better you learn something and the less likely you are to fall into the trap of just assuming you know something.


2. Listening And Pronunciation

How's your English listening?
Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons and Håkan Dahlström

Learning the phonemes of a language—its individual, component sounds—is maybe one of the most difficult parts of learning a language. Usually we struggle with sounds in a language because we can’t distinguish them from other sounds, whether in our native language or the target language. I have a tough time with å and o in Swedish, for example. You can use an Anki deck to blitz the difference between them.

Wyner has a number of useful Anki card templates available for download from his site. The template you’d want for this would be his “minimal pairs” template. If you want to make your own, though, you can. But whether you’re customizing Wyner’s template or creating your own, you’re going to be doing a lot of research and input.

First, collect a bunch of words that share your “struggle sounds.” A typical pair of problem sounds in English for many learners is short “i” and long “e” (ship / sheep, chip / cheap), for example. Find recordings from, and then very carefully apply them to cards (you want your recordings to match their answers!) in a pattern like this:

Front: ship or sheep? [sound file: ship]

Back: ship

Front: ship or sheep? [sound file: sheep]

Back: sheep

If you allow the cards to be reversed, you can practice your pronunciation as well as your listening: the word “ship” or “sheep” will come up, and you can compare your pronunciation with that of the recording. Of course, sometimes it’s hard to hear how close you are to a particular sound. That’s where a teacher comes in handy.


3. Grammar Blitz

Tips for studying English grammar with Anki.

There are so many ways you can do this. I’ll just share a small bit of my personal method and hopefully it will inspire you.

I use Anki to study Russian. Where modern English has only three cases (“grammar jobs,” for lack of a better word), Russian has six. Learning all of the ways that a personal pronoun can change depending on the job it has to do is just half the battle—when do you use each case?

First, I sat down and worked out a color scheme for all of the cases. So prepositions or verbs that require the accusative case (“him” in English) are dark blue, and prepositional cases (“by him”) in red, and so on.

Then, when it came to making the cards, I put phrases (“with him,” “without money,” “to the park,” and so on) on one side of the flashcard, with the Russian preposition in its appropriate color and whatever noun in its nominative form. The right answer is to 1) have a correct English translation of the preposition and 2) to know the proper form of the noun (and any attendant adjectives).

The other side of the card has the English translation of the preposition and the appropriate form of the noun (in its matching color). The right answer is the Russian translation of the preposition.

You can apply this similarly to English. If you struggle with catenative verbs and remembering which ones take a gerund, which ones take just the verb stem, and which ones take the “to” infinitive, you can come up with your own color code and little phrases and review those in a similar manner.

(I find it helpful to relate the color to the grammar point in some way. For example, my genitive case prepositions are in green, and instrumental in indigo. You want the color associations to be quick and easy! So in this case maybe green for gerund, taupe for “to” infinitive, and silver for stem. But it depends, of course, on the color names in your native language.)

So those are just a few ways you can use Anki beyond simple vocabulary. Do you have any other tips or tricks? Share them in the comments, or tweet @KobaEnglish!