Presumably if you are reading this post you have an interest in learning Ancient Greek. You also, apparently, have an interest in leveraging some of the resources computer technology has made available. One of the great learning resources available for free is Anki. If you don’t yet have Anki, go get it now. This post is entirely devoted to some of the basics of using Anki to work through a Greek grammar book.
As I begin, I will give credit where credit is do. My usage of Anki and the methodology I present here is strongly influenced by Gabriel Wyner’s excellent work at Fluent Forever (the book is a great read if you need some inspiration in the language learning journey). He has shown a helpful big picture way to take advantage of Anki in language learning. I have been tailoring his approach specifically to Koine Greek, through years of trial and error (in hindsight, mostly error). As a helpful prerequisite, head over here to get his sample Anki deck with some special card types that are hugely useful for language learning. Of course, you don’t have to use them, but they are very well designed cards for language learning and I have found them to be very useful as a default set of resources. I make use of a couple other card types in my learning, but his cards form the backbone of my Anki decks focused on language.
Without further ado, let’s get on to the good stuff: using Anki to learn all that stuff in a Greek grammar.
Step 1: Get a Grammar
To learn Greek, you need a source that has the information you need to learn. Any intro Greek grammar can work. Not all are created equal and, frankly, the standard layout for introductory grammars kind of makes it hard to get into the language and learn it well, but even for the disadvantages, there are some advantages. Without getting too mired down in the details and issues, here are a few practical thoughts on getting a grammar to use (if you don’t already have one).
- If you are at the beginning of your Greek learning journey, you are probably not yet adept at typing in polytonic Greek (that is, Greek that uses the acute, grave, and circumflex accents). Thus, it will be convenient if you have access to a digital grammar so you can copy and paste text into your Anki cards (though, you should learn to type polytonic Greek ASAP; it will be immensely helpful).
- If you are in a Greek course, the choice is made for you what grammar you use, so don’t sweat it. Even if there is a “better” grammar out there than the one you are using, just take full advantage of what is offered to you in your grammar (and the in-class tips that teachers often give which tend to be way more helpful than a stock explanation or example in a grammar).
- If you are learning more or less on your own, pick whatever grammar is readily available for you. There are scads you could get and any one of them will work. Don’t spend too much time soliciting opinions (everyone has their favorites) and hurting your head over it. I would recommend John Dobson’s Learn New Testament Greek (do yourself a favor and get the 3rd edition, if you use this one) as a very good, humane, and easy to adapt grammar for the approach I am outlining here. But, you really can use any. The approach I am outlining here will focus primarily on getting you to spend a lot of time and focus on the Greek examples in the grammars, rather than on the other explanatory details. If you want to learn that stuff, go for it, but focus on the Greek the most. You can always come back later and learn more technical details. Focus on getting as much Greek as you can.
- If you happen to be in a situation where there will be a strong aural/oral component in your Greek learning, don’t sweat it. Anki can easily handle audio and visual resources as well as text.
For the sake of this post, I will pull some examples from Dr. Shirley Rowlinson’s The Online Greek Textbook, Accented edition, as it is good and she has graciously made it available online for free in pdf form.
Once you have a grammar, you are ready to proceed.
Step 2: get Anki and get the Anki deck
If you missed it in the intro, make sure you have Anki installed and have gone and grabbed Gabe’s model Anki deck. It will give you a few different card types, one of which I make extensive use with for ankifying Greek grammars and texts. The big advantage of these cards, beyond that they are nicely formatted for a variety of useful information, is that they make it easy to get a lot of mileage out of any given sentence. They can save you tons of typing or copying and pasting once you get the hang of how to use them. With Anki and a good deck of card types on hand, it’s time to start making cards.
Step 3: making your cards
As a general rule, the brunt of your cards should be focused on the actual Greek examples in the textbook of your choosing. After all, you want to learn Greek, not just how scholars talk about Greek and the history of the Greek language. While that stuff is interesting (to some of us, anyways), much of it is of limited value for gaining a working knowledge of reading Greek, and I would not recommend focusing your energy on learning it at the beginning of your study. Focus on learning the Greek instead. What a good intro grammar provides is short examples of Greek with clear translations into a language you already know. These samples of Greek and their accompanying translations will be your main focus. They will allow you to piece together the basics of how Greek works through lots of practice.
Step 3.1: Grab a Greek example
Let’s take as our first example this sentence: οὐκ ἔχομεν. The provided translation in the grammar is “We do not have.” This gives you enough information to get going.
Step 3.2: make a lot of cards
First principle of ankifying a Greek Grammar:
When you are beginning with ankifying a Greek grammar, default to making a card dedicated to learning every point that one could obviously learn from a given example.
Naturally, as you learn more, you will be more selective on what cards you make from an example. Once you have down solid that the -ομεν ending on verbs is “we”, why both keep making cards for it? That would give you a bloated and boring Anki deck. Make a card for anything in an example that appears worthwhile to learn. Your judgment on what is worthwhile to learn will only improve with increased knowledge of the language and with practice making cards. Default to making lots of cards at the beginning.
Our first example has two words: οὐκ ἔχομεν. So we should make at least two cards (you could easily make four cards from this example, at least). In technical Anki terminology you make “notes” which generate “cards.” Many of the note types we will use can actually generate more than one “card” to review, making them faster and more efficient than writing out cards by hand. However, this distinction in terminology is not important to grasp for just using Anki at a basic level.
This short video will show what we do with this sentence.
After finishing the example cited, you might glance down at the next one in the text and see the following Greek and translation: οὐ λύουσιν, “they do not untie.” This informs you (attentive reader that you are) that there are at least two different spellings of the Greek word for “no” (there are three, actually, with οὐχ filling out the set). This is something you will read about in the text of the grammar. What should you do to make sure you learn this? I would advise taking the following approach to learning this.
Make an Anki card for each different form of “no/not” that occurs in a Greek sentence in the grammar to make sure you learn them all. That means, you will need at least three Anki cards to deal with the different forms of “no/not.” Don’t skimp on this. Make the cards. Alongside just making the cards, it will also prove helpful to find the spot in the grammar that explains the rationale for the different forms of “no/not” in Greek and make a card or two to learn the basic information there.
Think of it this way. Your main goal is to make Anki cards of the Greek examples. To make effective Anki cards, you need to understand what is going on. Go to points in the chapter to find the information you need to understand the actual Greek you come across in the examples. Learn enough from the explanations to understand what is going on in the Greek examples. And while you are learning what you need to know to understand the example sentences you see, why not make an Anki card or two to reinforce what you just learned? (tip: when you make these cards, I would recommend using the “basic” card type and tagging them with a separate tag, or putting them in a separate sub-deck, so they are easier to review as needed). The grammatical information is important to learn, at some point. You will never be able to interact with the grammatical tradition, or other learners of Greek, if you don’t know the basic grammar terminology of Greek. Just don’t major on learning that information rather than the Greek of the examples. Further, and perhaps more motivating, it is well documented that learning grammar rules is actually helpful for adult language learners.
The second principle of ankifying a Greek grammar addresses this point:
You should understand what is going on in your examples, as best as you can, before you make cards.
Trying to learn something you don’t yet understand is a great way to waste time, but a really poor way to learn. You don’t need a perfect understanding, but at least a clear grasp on the basics of what is going on in your examples.
Step 3.3: grab another example and keep going
For illustrative purposes, I will pick a more complex example: πῶς δύνασθε ἀγαθὰ λαλεῖν πονηροὶ ὄντες; “How are you able to speak good, being evil?” This Greek sentence gives lots of opportunity to make Anki cards. Assuming that by the time you have made it to this sentence in the grammar you have already learned a lot of what is in this sentence, I will not make “every possible card” that I could make on this sentence. There is one card type that I find super useful for longer, more complicated Greek sentences. I call it the “fill in the blank” type. It is pretty simple.
Make a card with the following: πῶς δύνασθε ἀγαθὰ λαλεῖν πονηροὶ ὄντες; The idea is to remove an element–whether one word, or a phrase–and give yourself enough information so that you know what you are supposed to recreate in its place. For example, I would replace ὄντες with “______” and then give myself the relevant parsing information. This way, I am forcing myself to replace the Greek form based on context and parsing information, which I find to be helpful. As a visual example, the card would look like this:
Continually applying these techniques over and over again throughout the grammar will eventually get you all the way through. I will elsewhere provide some advice on how to handle paradigms, which generally make up a lot of what is in introductory Greek grammars, for good or ill. This approach will get you into the meat of learning Greek quickly and will provide a lot of practice learning all the core components of the language. While there is a lot more that could be said, this is enough to get going. Keep an eye out for more tips and thoughts on Anki and Greek over here, where I am (slowly) building up a more comprehensive suite of resources on using Anki for learning Greek.
 Anki is free in all its permutations except for as an iPhone app. It is free for Android, free for desktop, and you can set up an online account for backing-up your decks and syncing them between devices all for free. I personally make cards on my laptop, which is by far the easiest place to make them, and review primarily on my phone. You can make cards on your phone as well, but it is quite slow, by comparison.