Learning Ancient Egyptian in an Hour Per Week with Beeminder

Thursday, May 22, 2014
By Eric Kidd

Hieroglyphics with an Infinibee

We were (and are) pretty pleased with our Duolingo integration but in this guest post, software developer and language-learning expert [1] Eric Kidd puts that to shame. It’s seriously impressive. (If you’re a programmer we also highly recommend Eric’s blog, Random Hacks.)

I learned to speak French in my 30s. [2] It turns out that learning a language is a bit like hiking all 2,200 miles of the Appalacian trial: it sounds like something that only a talented elite could do. But all you really need is the ability to keep putting one foot in front of another for 6 or 7 months. Couch potatoes have hiked the trail — as well as a grandmother in sneakers with a homemade bag slung over her shoulder. Language learning is the same way: If you can stick with it long enough, you’ll get there. Sheer stubborn persistence is a superpower.

Now, when I learned French, I had the luxury of being totally committed. I spoke it with my wife. I read 500 pages of French a month for 20 months. I bought the French dubs of Buffy the Vampire Slayer [3] and Angel and watched season after season. It was easy for me to stay motivated, because I was obsessed.

But when I decided to learn Egyptian, I was faced with a dilemma: I couldn’t justify spending more than an hour per week on it. Hierogylphs are cool, but come on — it’s a dead language. Unfortunately, it’s hard to learn a language in slow motion, because two things always go wrong:

  1. I get distracted, and I never actually put in that hour per week. You’re reading this on the Beeminder blog, so you can already guess how I’m handling this.
  2. I forget everything I learn between lessons. Fortunately, I already knew about spaced repetition and the awesome memory amplifier provided by Anki.

So how does this work in practice?

Picking a course and setting a goal

My favorite language courses are made by Assimil, a family-owned French company. These courses are great for beeminding, because each lesson takes 20 to 40 minutes, and I can mostly just soak up the language through osmosis. Assimil publishes quite a few language courses for English speakers, but in this case, I grabbed L’Égyptien hiéroglyphique out of their French catalog. [4] The English version of this course isn’t expected to come out before 2015, and I wanted an excuse to practice my French.

Assimil Egyptian course and wand scanner

Normally, I’d study one Assimil lesson per day. But this time, my goal is to study one lesson per week:

Eric's (live) Beeminder graph

Beeminder is in charge of letting me know when I’m in danger of dropping below my goal. I find this enormously helpful, because at a rate of one lesson per week, I have no intrinsic momentum or habits to keep me going.

Anki, the memory amplifier

Anki is my favorite flashcard software. It implements spaced repetition, which means that I don’t have to waste any more time than necessary on a given card. There’s an open source desktop version, a slightly pricey iPhone app, and an open source app for Android users. Anki supports robust syncing, plugins, images and audio. Using Anki, I have few problems remembering what I’ve learned between lessons.

Since I’m lazy, and I refuse to waste any time on data entry, I’m using images of the pages. You can make these using a cell phone camera or a scanner wand. Of course, it would be ideal if I could buy a PDF of my language course and just copy and paste.

Once I have an image, I paste a section of the Assimil lesson into an image editor:

Assimil snippets in an image editor

This comes from a short story about a light-fingered monkey that steals a girl’s necklace. In English, it would read:

A difficult moment (bad moment)

It really is a thief.
(“Truly”-he as-a thief in truth)

Look, I’m sad!
(Look, heart-me in sadness)

Once I’ve assembled the image, I open the Anki Image Occlusion Plugin, and paste it in:

Assimil snippets in Image Occlusion plugin

The next step is to block out various unfamiliar parts of the text. Sometimes I block out the transliteration of the hieroglyphs; sometimes I block out half a word on both the hieroglyph and transliteration lines. Basically, I want these occlusions to be ridiculously easy. I’ve found that easy Anki cards work just as well as hard ones, and I can review them a lot quicker, and with a lot more pleasure, so why not? (This technique was inspired by Khatzumoto’s MCD cards.)

Hieroglyphics and transliteration with portions hidden

Now, I save the results to Anki (using the overlapping squares button). This will make a separate card for each occlusion. Here’s a preview of the front and the back of one of the resulting cards:

Anki card with part of transliteration hidden and shown below corresponding hieroglyphs

To pass this card, all I need to do is guess what’s under the red bit. One nice thing about this process: I can easily make multiple cards from the same material.

Don’t let Anki turn you into a quivering ball of stress!

Unfortunately, I’ve seen lots of people make themselves thoroughly miserable using spaced repetition software. Here are a few tips that have worked very well for me:

  1. I spend as little time on data entry as humanly possible. Think “copy and paste”, not “artisinally craft perfect cards.”
  2. I make multiple, very easy cards from the same material.
  3. I configure Anki to introduce no more than 5 new cards per day, and my daily reviews rarely go above 10–25 cards. As a rule of thumb, if you introduce X new cards per day, you should be prepared to review at least 5X, and maybe 10X. Give Anki a month of steady use before getting ambitious.
  4. If a card is hard, boring or annoying, I just delete it. This saves me from endlessly reviewing the same 50 horrible cards. And if I need to know something, I’ll see it again at some point.
  5. I don’t stress out about the “right” way to cloze things. I try all sorts of different ideas.

As you can see, I’m not using Anki to “permanently memorize” things. I’m using to amplify my natural memory considerably, but I still forget obscure things and delete cards. And that’s OK.

What else could you beemind?

If you’re learning a living language, you’ll face additional challenges. Here are some things which might help you out a lot, and which you could easily beemind:

  1. Skype conversations per week. If you want to start speaking very early on, Benny Lewis’s book is full of excellent advice. For conversation parteners and tutors, check out iTalki and Verbling.
  2. Pages read per day. Once you finish an Assimil course, you’ll probably know enough to muddle through real books. Try reading 10 pages a day, and you should see noticeable improvements within a month, and dramatic improvements within a year. Still struggling with real books? Feel free to skim, or to try an ereader with a popup dictionary, or to check out LingQ, Learning with Texts or readlang.
  3. Episodes of a TV series watched. Once you get good enough to follow 40% of the dialog in a TV series, things get fun. At this point, you should be able to buy a DVD box set of an easy TV series, and start watching. The first episodes may require subtiles and multiple viewings. But within a season or two, you should see dramatic listening gains. TV series are especially good for this, because they have pictures to provide context, and because they have hours and hours of conversations between the same cast members about the same topics, providing much-needed training wheels.
  4. Words written on lang-8. Try writing 50 or 100 words per day for a month, and getting them corrected by native speakers. This will vastly improve your ability to express yourself.
  5. Anki cards made using subs2srs. This open source program takes video files and subtitle files, and spits out hundreds of audio flash cards. Just be sure to delete 90% of the cards to preserve your sanity. This will burn dialog into your brain like an annoying top-40 song lyric. Beware: geek skills will be required.
  6. Your progress on Duolingo. If you’re looking for a fun supplement to a beginner course, Beeminder also has automatic Duolingo integration. I’ve never used Duolingo, but I’ve heard other successful learners recommend it as a fun way to learn vocabulary and master the finer points of prepositions.

Of course, standard beeminding advice applies: Start out minding one or two important goals, with modest targets that you know you can achieve.


I’m having a ton of fun beeminding my Egyptian. Thanks to Anki, I have an unusually good memory. And thanks to Beeminder, I have an unusually good ability to study one lesson per week without that trailing off to zero lessons per week. And that’s one way to learn the basics of an obscure language really slowly, but quite pleasantly, over the course of a couple of years.



[1] Beeminder editor’s note: Eric tried to get us to change “expert” to “enthusiast” but, come on. First of all, have you read this post? Oh, and we didn’t even mention that he also helps moderate a language-learning forum.

[2] On the CEFRL scale, my French is somewhere between B2 and C1. I could take a class in a French university, but I’d struggle a bit.

[3] You can buy a box set of Buffy DVDs from Amazon.fr using your regular Amazon login, password and payment information. You can find a French transcript of the episodes on the web. But be warned: If you want to play DVDs from another country, you’ll probably need a multi-region player.

[4] If you want an excellent introductory-level Egyptian course, but you don’t speak French, check out Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs by James P. Allen. This is one of the best courses I’ve seen for any language, and it’s quite beginner friendly. If you just want to learn some basic tomb inscriptions, How to Read Egyptian Hieroglyphs by Collier, et al., is also popular, and I’ve seen some pre-made Anki decks floating around. And if you want a little light reading material, I can’t resist mentioning the British Museum’s Egyptian translation of Peter Rabbit.

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  • http://www.cis.upenn.edu/~byorgey/ Brent Yorgey

    Funny, I’ve been learning ancient Hebrew ( https://www.beeminder.com/byorgey/goals/heb ) essentially the same way, spending 1 hour per week with Beeminder + Anki (going on 60 weeks now). I didn’t know about the image occlusion plugin for Anki, that’s pretty neat! At this point I’ve gotten fast enough with a Hebrew input mode for emacs that it wouldn’t be worth taking pictures of my textbook instead, but good to keep in mind for future reference…

  • emk1024

    Yay! A fellow student of an afroasiatic language with not nearly enough vowels. :-)

    I type hieroglyphs on Linux using two tools that I wrote: ibus-ancient and hierogloss. But it’s still slower than taking pictures of the book, because Egyptian is not designed for touch-typing. :-) I’m very much a fan of doing whatever gets the data into Anki as fast as humanly possible.

    I see that you’re minding study hours. Do you have any tools to automate that?

  • http://www.cis.upenn.edu/~byorgey/ Brent Yorgey

    Amen re: getting data into Anki as fast as possible! I don’t have any special tools for automating the timing; I usually just use the timer on my dumbphone and then manually enter a data point via SMS. I’m pretty fast at it by now (and haven’t been tempted to falsify data) so there hasn’t been much incentive to change.

  • Serpent

    Hi! as you know I don’t actually beemind, but if I did I’d probably use the integration with RescueTime… although I don’t use RescueTime nowadays.

  • http://beeminder.com Daniel Reeves

    Here’s an embarrassing question coming from a cofounder of Beeminder:

    Last time I tried beeminding Anki everything was clunky and cumbersome and I failed to stick with it (even with Beeminder!). But that was a couple years ago and I should try again… Any suggestions for the smoothest path to picking an interesting-looking pre-made deck and diving in? (I’d probably want to mostly practice on my phone (Android) but manage decks and things on my laptop, with everything magically in sync between devices, if that’s possible these days.)

    I’m also super intrigued by heroic tales from the likes of Paul Fenwick about using Anki to remember everyone he meets and other such superpowers.

  • emk1024

    Excellent question! Here’s a brief answer that I should probably expand with screenshots at some point. :-)

    Anki 2 is way nicer than Anki 1, so start by getting the latest versions of everything if you still have old versions from a few years ago.

    Once that’s done, use your computer for data entry. Click “Add” at the top of the main Anki window. Leave “Type” set to “Basic”, and “Deck” set to “Default”. (You can get fancy later.) Fill in “Front” with the front side of the flash card, and “Back” with the answer. You can copy and paste images if you wish. Hit “Add”. When you’re done adding cards, hit “Close”.

    To synchronize with the server, click on the “Sync” icon at the top right of the main window. Now download the Anki app for your phone, and synchronize there. Enter the same user name and password you used on your desktop.

    You should be able to review cards without too much trouble now. Just click on the deck named “Default” and follow the instructions. Sync when you’re done; it’s a good habit.

    Basically, if you don’t get fancy, Anki’s pretty simple. Where most people go wrong is that they decide to curate these artisinally hand-crafted, “perfect” decks using every last power-user feature. Anki does have all kinds of useful features, but try to avoid using them unless they fix a specific, concrete problem.

    Once you’ve used Anki for a while, check out the “Type” button in the “Add” window. It allows you to make double-sided cards and “cloze” cards. Cloze cards are fill-in-the-blank cards, and they’re awesome, because they allow you to learn things in context.

    For example, if I want to learn vocabulary, I find that flash cards with a French word on one side and an English word on the other can be gross and boring, especially once I have a thousand of them. It’s much nicer to copy a sentence from a web page, paste it onto a card, and use the cloze button to hide a vocabulary word. Add the dictionary definition of the clozed word to the front of the card as hint; easy cards work just as well as hard cards.

    To import decks, check out https://ankiweb.net/shared/decks/ Download an interesting deck, and use “File” > “Import” to load it into Anki. But pre-made decks are sort of a devil’s bargain, unless you’re learning something well-defined like kanji characters. Whenever possible, it’s better to create your own decks, because they’ll be way easier to remember, and they’ll only contain stuff you really care about.

    And now to reiterate two critical pieces of sanity-saving advice from my post:

    1. Do not mess with the “new cards per day” setting in Anki, except possibly to lower it. Sure, you’ll finish your first day’s cards, say “Wow, that was easy”, and you’ll want to learn more. Resist this urge, because reviews build up to 5 or 10 times the number of new cards you learn per day. Start slow. Wait a month before deciding to do anything excessive. If you do something excessive on day 1, you’ll never make it to day 30. Pace yourself.

    2. Delete, delete, delete. Do not try to treat Anki as a permanent store for facts, because 5% of your cards will cause 90% of your suffering. Instead, accept that Anki is a memory amplifier, and that some stuff will fall between the cracks. If you ever look at a card and go, “Oh, good grief, not this card again,” just delete it. Khatzumoto of AJATT fame sells a bunch of SRS advice, which includes a list of 60 handy tips. 23 of those tips are variations of “delete” and “purge.” This one habit will make your Anki life ten times as pleasant. And if you use pre-made decks full of random content, try deleting like half the cards, to show that you are in control of your life. In fact, if you’re writing elaborate tools to beemind your Anki reviews, consider counting one deleted card as two reviews, so you have an incentive to keep your deck clean.

    I like Anki because I have something like 35,000 reps under my belt at this point, and Anki Just Works™, regardless of what I throw at it. And if I do need a terrifying advanced feature, I know it’s there somewhere.

    Some of my cards are now going 3 or 4 years between reviews, and I generally find Anki to be a pleasant distraction. In part, this is because my decks are full of sentences from my favorite French books, and audio clips from awesome movies, and it’s fun to go and review them. And it’s also because I don’t get attached to any given card, and I delete anything which fails to amuse me.

  • emk1024

    Hi, Serpent!

    Serpent is way better at language-learning than I am, folks. :-) We’re talking something like 5 serious languages, here, and another dozen in various stages of learning. I’m particularly impressed by the way she learns from native materials, including sports on TV.

  • Serpent

    You make me blush, haha.

  • Roman Duda

    A potentially more user friendly low set up costs spaced repetition app is memrise (http://www.memrise.com).

  • GlyphStudy Moderator

    If you are interested in more interactive study–Look at Glyphstudy–student, led study group –working through various Middle Egyptian grammars since 2005. Send a first and last name and some indication that you are serious about studying hieroglyphs to glyphstudy-owner@yahoogroups.com

    First and last name are required, or your application will not receive consideration. We will be offering Collier and Manley section beginning Septermber 15, 2014. You will need to purchase a textbook to participate.

    We will be offering both Hoch and Allen sections in 2015

    hope to see some of you
    Glyphstudy Moderator,