Learning Vocabulary in More than One Language

I use flashcards (Anki) daily as a part of my language learning routine (in addition to lots of comprehensible input of course). Whenever I create a card, I try to add lots of possible connections (phrase for context, images, synonyms, antonyms) which facilitate recall. However, I have always kept each card to just English/French or English/Italian because it can be hard for me to switch between speaking French or Italian without stumbling into “Fritalian.” However, in the spirit of creating more connections, I am wondering whether I might also try adding the French equivalent to my Italian flash cards and vice versa. That could also help find “gaps” in my vocabulary.

Does anyone have experience with this? What do you think?

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Yes, this is called “laddering” and it is what I do both on Duolingo and on Quizzlet (similar to Anki). I have failed to find good information / research about this issue and how to optimize it, but my intuition is that it helps create a web between languages and possibly reinforce them better than if each of them was only tied to L1.

So rather than having L1 → L2 and L1 → L3 brain connections, there are L1-L2-L3-L1 connections.

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I was under the impression that learned languages are stored in different location in brain than mother tongue, which is why sometimes, when I have to shift languages quickly from English, I come out with a word or phrase in the wrong language. Which is not to say that what you are describing here couldn’t be helpful to reinforce both L2 and L3 (personally I just can’t stomach flash cards but do sometimes try L2 <-> L3 in other contexts).


To be honest, I used Anki for a lot of time and I stopped using for vocabulary. I find LingQ more efficient without using flashcards but just reading content and focusing on the yellow words over and over.

But I use Anki for remembering grammar rules or some words that I don’t get when I have some intuition or phrase where I understand that words. The numbers of cards I have right now on Anki are a lot less and I can manage this way multiple languages.


Thank you David. I agree LingQ is more efficient in that it automatically creates cards and manages the SRS presentation. But I quickly got frustrated trying to use it. First, I found the automatic phrase snippets often weren’t sufficient to provide usable context. So I add the phrase myself. Second, I don’t create a flashcard for every word I do not know, especially when reading older works of fiction. But I don’t like the fact lingq assumes I “know” it. Third, I find I get more leverage learning irregular verb forms together with the verb itself. Yes, it’s a bit more work, but it helps me use a verb in new ways after I have learned it. And fourth, I often add a funny picture, in-language synonyms, and sometimes antonyms or mnemonics, particularly if I find I am getting “stuck” on a particular word.

Anyway, to each his own!

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That is my understanding too. I also mix up two different languages (never my L1), especially when I am starting a new one.

Building up on this model, if different Lx are stored in different parts of the brain (“brain islands”), we could picture that learning words of Lx in context would be tying new Lx words to other Lx words (through collocations, checking Lx-Lx dictionaries, etc). Learning the meaning of a word of Lx in another language Ly would create a neurological path between different “brain islands”. By laddering, you not only create neurological paths between Lx, Ly, Lz islands and L1, but also new, different neurological paths among them.

It is efficient in time, since you activate two languages at the same time; and perhaps interference from L1 is overall reduced. I suspect interferences from different languages may perhaps “cancel each other out”.

This may be a naive oversimplification, or even a gross misrepresentation, but at any rate I do not think it can harm the learning process.

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Yes, definitely there is some work to do to make it better but I don’t even use the Lingq’ srs anymore like many other users here. It’s more efficient to increase the reading material (which I’m not really good at it) and continuously find the same words in the context again and again. Basically you leave to the brain to learn naturally everything it can without asking why something it’s easy to grasp and something else is not.

Then you reiforce with flashcards for things that you really need to know and are essential for you or your work.

I tried to use images as well when I was using Anki and it works better but it takes a lot of time. And it’s less efficient than watching a youtube video with transcription, importing the text on LingQ. So with the video you also have the visual element, but also the context and many more other details.

I also understand the LingQ is not perfect in deciding what you know but it’s not really a big deal, you just mark the work back again to yellow when you find it again in context and you’re not sure about it.

But I understand your difficult in avoiding mixing similar languages, it’s the same for me. I also try to put extra attention when I speak each language to avoid mixing them up but it’s not always easy. Once thing you could do though it’s increasing your writing time and ask for corrections. Probably in this way you could better correct your spelling mistakes and get familiar with the orthography. If you’re able to visualize the word when you speak your mistakes on mixing those languages will decrease. Or at least I believe so.

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I don’t remember whose YouTube lecture it was — but probably one of the big polyglot professors — that suggested that languages are not kept in nice neat memory bundles. The brain may work not by pulling out vocabulary from your memory. Instead the brain suppresses all languages that are not the one being spoken at the moment. Consequently polyglots may take longer to do word recall than monolinguals: there are just more words to suppress for any single expressible idea. So part of learning L3 is learning to successfully suppress L2.

My own experience would concur with that hypothesis. When I had newly learned Spanish as L3, I had to work not to speak in French L2. When I had first been in immersion in France, I had to work to suppress English as L1.

Can you put multiple language on one flash card? People who teach Memory Castles for language vocabulary suggest keeping the words and images focused on one language. But if you want to try multiple languages, they suggest having each language have its own niche. For example, if you are studying French, Italian and Spanish as an English L1, each language could have its own corner of the flash card. So French could be upper left corner, Spanish lower left, and Italian upper right. Then if you had another language, you have the lower right and middle for future uses.