A few years ago I was living in Buenos Aires and picking up Spanish. (Fluent now, thank you.)

I needed a tool to build vocabulary, something to help me gather and remember all those strange new words. So I tried a few flashcard apps, and ended up trying all of them and putting up that information on a website.

After seeing and experiencing what works and what doesn’t, I decided to make the app that I thought was still missing, the app I would like to use myself:

An easy-to-use app for learning as fast as possible only the words that you personally will use.

The main points:

  • Effective, for fast learning
  • Your words, no others
  • Pronunciation examples
  • Add words quickly
  • Looks great
  • Easy to use

Effective, for fast learning

No unnecessary bells and whistles, just the quickest way to learn.

Some language-learning apps have multiple choice questions, or have you type out answers, or have games like memory, connecting cards, etc. That might be entertaining, and just spending time with a language is always good, but I want to learn the language. I want to get to know the words and sentences I need as fast as possible so I can use them in real-life conversations. I want to speak the language.

That’s why Vocab Ninja uses the fastest way of learning and makes sure you don’t lose time studying things you already know.

Your words, no others

You should only study the words that you’re going to use.

I used the SuperMemo app for a while when studying Spanish, with one of the Spanish packages they offer.

SuperMemo left us a legacy (it was the first ever SRS) so I have lots of respect for what they did, but it did annoy me that the app forced me to learn words I would probably never use, like for example, many different kinds of medical specialists.

Those words might be useful, but I prefer to look them up in a dictionary the day I will have to go see a traumatologist, oncologist, neurologist, chiropodist, dermatologist, podiatrist, pediatrician, otolaryngologist, orthopedist, neurologist, eye doctor, surgeon or speech therapist.1  

But that’s just me. A doctor or nurse would want to know these words, together with many other medical terms. Every person is different, and uses a different vocabulary, so it should be possible to skip the words you don’t need.

In Vocab Ninja you can get rid of words you don’t want to learn by sliding them to the right; this will move a card to Archive so you will never see it again while studying. (But you can always move it back if needed.)

Pronunciation examples

Hear the correct pronunciation of any text.

When I started developing, I wanted to make it possible to record sound, like you can do in some other apps. The idea is that you can record a native speaker to have an example of the right pronunciation.

But when you add your own words and sentences to a stack and are building your own personal word list, how would that work? Most people don’t have access to a native speaker who they can bother regularly to pronounce words and sentences for them to record with their iPhone.

Fortunately, Text-to-Speech (TTS) has become pretty good – definitely good enough for hearing how to pronounce something.

So I added TTS. First I used iSpeech, which is quite good, but you need to be online for it to work. Now Apple has added TTS to iOS 7, and their enhanced voices actually sound more natural than iSpeech’s, so I’m using that.

Add words quickly

Because you might come across new words anywhere, at any time.

I made it easy: the ‘new card’ button is always visible, and in the edit screen you can swap between question and answer by swiping.

Also: you can quickly add a word without having to complete all the details. New cards are placed in a separate ‘New Cards’ list, so you can always add the translation later.

You can also use a picture as a question. Vocab Ninja has a shortcut for this: When you hold your iPhone in landscape, the ‘new card’ button will become a camera button so you can jump straight into the camera.

Hold your iPhone in landscape to quickly make a picture card.


Looks great

Beautiful interface, beautiful icon, because ugly software is no fun to use.

Illustrator Josh Cleland made a great icon and Krzysztof Dąbrowski designed the user interface of the app.

Easy to use

You should be able to pick it up and figure out how it works.

How something works is always obvious to the person who made it, but not necessarily to everybody else. And the best way to find out how an app should work (where to put which buttons, to put it simply) is just to test it, to have different users try it out.

I made 6 fake versions of the app before writing the first line of code.

They were all tap-through prototypes: different screens stuck together in a PDF file so people could get an idea. Tapping a certain area of one screen (like a button) would lead to another screen. I handed this dummy app to random iPhone users to see if they could figure it out without me saying, “Don’t you see it?” or, “No, it’s that button!” And then every time I noticed a few people making the same mistakes (or rather, run into the stumble-blocks still present in the app) I made a new and improved version.

Is something missing?

There are still a few things I would like to add to the app, most obviously an online version so you can add and edit cards on your computer. And more, but I can’t reveal everything.

What I can tell you: the next version will let you add hints to cards, mental nudges to help you recall a word, like an association, a mnemonic, a picture. The hints on Daily Spanish Word will of course be included in the 1000 Spanish words stack.

  1. Yes, I went back to the SuperMemo app to make that list.