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Using LLMs to learn foreign language vocabulary

Published: at 03:22 PM

I have a vocabulary workbook for French, and it’s generally pretty great, but I have two problems with it.

The first is that it throws a lot of vocabulary at you, all on a theme. So, for example, one page will have a couple dozen words and phrases, all about fatigue. Since I’m using the workbook without a teacher, I don’t know which terms I should be using and which I should just recognize.

The second problem is that I like to study the vocabulary using Anki, but creating cards is a bit of a pain. I’m generally a big believer in creating cards yourself, rather than using a pre-made deck. That’s because people will first encounter a term in Anki, whereas it should be where you reinforce what you already know. This workbook is helping me with the “what you already know” part, so I don’t get any benefit from creating the deck myself.

This is a great use for LLMs like ChatGPT or Gemini. I can ask it to organize the terms by ones that are common versus ones that aren’t, and then ask it to create a file I can import into Anki. If it messes up, the worst case is that I study a term that isn’t really all that useful, or I don’t study one that I should have, but I’m already into fairly uncommon terms at this point anyway.

Here’s the prompt I send. (I’m using Gemini for this because I had a free trial.)

I am a French learner, around level C1. I have a list of vocabulary, and, for each word or phrase, I want you to tell me if it's something that is commonly used by native speakers in France, especially those less than 60 years old.

And it works well! Here’s the output:

Gemini's prioritization of French vocabulary

To transform that into something I can import into Anki is quite simple, just using this prompt:

Create text that I can import into Anki as a txt file that includes on the front of the card all of the commonly used words/phrases from above and the back has its definition in French.

There’s still a bit of finessing I need to do in order to get that prompt where I want it: the cards that Gemini creates are quite different compared to the ones that I create, so it’s easy for me to recognize the “theme” based on what I’ve learned recently. This will change over time as I add more Gemini-created cards, however.

All in all, I’m happy with this set up. It’s difficult to build up vocabulary at my level, and especially to do so efficiently. This makes it easier.