I am learning Danish as a foreign language using English as the "base". I am at the very beginning of it and I found using flashcards (with Anki) very useful.

I have cards for both "directions", seeing the Danish word and having to "speak" the English equivalent, and seeing the English word and having to write down the Danish equivalent.

I have a problem, however, when the words have multiple meanings, e.g. multiple English words can be used for the same Danish word, or the other way around. An example would be "fly" which is both a verb and a noun and there are multiple Danish words for it. There are some cases when even the type is the same (synonyms). In these cases if I see e.g. a Danish word with multiple meanings, I don't know which English version I should say.

Is there any best practice to handle these words? If the type of the word differs (verb+noun) I can just write the type as a hint, but when it is the same for all the meanings then it doesn't help.

I am afraid that if I add some extra info (e.g. an example sentence) then it would affect the learning process and I won't be able to recall it without that context.


3 Answers 3


Your question reveals a major shortcoming in translation-based flashcard: the ambiguity of words. Some people who have written about language learning advise against translation-based flashcards. Ambiguity is only one reason; other reasons are that this type of reviewing can be boring and that translating is not what you do when you speak a foreign language.

In his book Fluent Forever, Gabriel Wyner recommends using picture-based flashcards. Of course, pictures can also be ambiguous. For example, if you have a picture with snow falling over a landscape, does the flashcard want you to remember the word for "snow", "winter" or "cold"? There are various ways of dealing with this.

Wyner argues that you should always make your own flashcards, and the process of choosing a picture etc. is part of the learning process. The choice of image should reduce ambiguity. If that is insufficient, you can always add another picture and/or an example sentence from which you have deleted the word in question (cloze test).

See also Gabriel Wyner's article Tips, tutorials and resources to aid you on your path towards fluency.

The book's website provides a number of resources you can use to put Wyner's method into practice.


You might try two things for cases like this:

  1. Make two cards instead of one. Using your example of "fly", you could make one card based on "fly (noun)" and another one based on "fly (verb)" or "to fly". This will erase any ambiguity.
  2. Make cards with chunks or short sentences instead of single words. Learning words in context is better than learning isolated words. Why learn "fly" when you can learn "I swatted the fly" or "We want to fly to Denmark"?

I took a more direct approach for my German deck, which is to list out the words not to translate to and have those appear on the first side of the card.

For example the word "easy", could be translated to both "leicht" and "einfach". With an extra field on the card for "leicht" I specified the target word is: not einfach.

If you've already got a large deck, as I did, this could be a lot of work to do manually, so I wrote some code 1 that uses the AnkiConnect API to find cards with ambiguous words and list them out.

preview of my German card for "easy", showing that "einfach" is not the answer

1 https://github.com/deed02392/anki-disambiguate

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