I've Been with Anki for 12 Years. Here are 10 things I've learned about advanced language learning

About Me

I’m a hardcore language learning enthusiast, linguist, and software engineer. I maintain a constellation of related interests in sociology, psychology, pedagogy, applied linguistics, and memory. I’ve been using Anki for 12 years, mostly to learn and maintain languages, and I’d like to impart some observations from this experiment in brain hackery. I hope you will find them interesting and possibly useful for your own studying.

Why Use Anki?

Anki is an open-source program that implements a spaced repetition system (SRS). Simply put, spaced repetition is a formula that predicts when you need a reminder for a particular piece of knowledge, based on the last time you saw it. For a great, not-too-technical overview, see this piece in Wired.

I can’t overstate how much an SRS has done for me for learning. I have an exceptionally poor memory, and as I age things only get worse. I can’t just learn words from context, even after seeing them and looking them up many times. I’m often lazy, and delude myself into thinking I know something enough to skim over it without actually knowing it. I find the strict regimen of creating flashcards and forcing myself to dredge droplets of knowledge up from the deep well of memory invigorating. I thrive on repetition, routine, and predictability, so for me, perfectly spaced flashcards are a solid foundation for making deeper connections outside the focused study space.

If you are easily bored by repetitive tasks, have an exceptional memory, or enjoy more interactive ways of accumulating knowledge, spaced repetition might not be for you. I encourage you to give it a whirl for six months before you decide, but it’s just one way of learning that works great for certain types of people. The great thing about Anki is that it’s free and easy to get started with, and you can tailor your time investment to fit your needs and wants.

A Short Timeline of My Personal Experience with Anki

I’ve been learning French for 25 years and Japanese for 21 years. I have a bachelor’s degree in Japanese and a master’s degree in French Linguistics. I can tell you without exaggeration that Anki completely changed my life, and I didn’t start using it until after my bachelor’s degree. I first stumbled across the program when I saw it on a computer lab machine during college. Someone had installed a Japanese deck on that computer, so I opened it up out of curiosity, but I didn’t really understand it. I didn’t even Google what it was! I regret that day even now, because I could have gotten started with Anki two years earlier than I did. I often wonder what high school and college would have been like for me with Anki to help.

I passed the JLPT Level 2 in 2009 after a year of very intense study. I was young, living with my parents, and had an easy office job with lots of free time. At that point, I didn’t truly appreciate how much the spaced repetition algorithm would cement the knowledge I wanted, and I spent most of my time reviewing vocabulary on Quizlet. I wasted a lot of time reviewing cards I knew well instead of focusing on things I didn’t know well. It was only after a couple of years of using Anki consistently that I started to notice how easily I remembered the words I had made cards for, and how it created a little “ding!” in my brain whenever I came across the words in other contexts.

I studied abroad in Tokyo during college, and then traveled to Japan for fun in 2009, 2014, and 2016, and each time I felt I understood more and more of the world around me. I could read more of menus, museum placards, advertisements. I could gather more from conversations I heard around me.

When I went to graduate school in 2010 for French, I started more earnestly adding French words and specialized terms I needed to know during my graduate school experience. When I needed to study for a course in neurolinguistics (hard sciences, sadly, never being my strong suit), I started creating cards at the beginning of the semester in Anki instead of cramming right before the test on Quizlet. I had never received an A in a science class before in my life, but I got one in that very challenging course and I absolutely credit the study skills I gained with Anki as a tool.

I watched my friends in my undergrad major let their skills completely atrophy over time, while mine only grew stronger, and I wasn’t even putting that much effort in. I read manga and blogs casually, watch some anime and dramas, and do cards for 20–30 minutes per day. Every few months I go on a binge of card creation, but I don’t spend a very large chunk of my life devoted to language study. I probably spend more time on it than the average person, but no more than the average person probably spends on another hobby. I have a family and lots of other hobbies. I’m not like the people who somehow devote 9 hours a day to maintaining 6 languages and learning 4 more obscure ones.

The return on investment you can gain with spaced repetition is wonderful, and it frees up time to have other hobbies, spend time with your friends and family, and still feel like you’re making progress in even an advanced language.

Over time, I have completely retooled decks and note types, archived entire decks and stopped using them for years, switched to Quizlet and Memrise for various chunks of learning, even tried out Supermemo, and had many, many, many lapses of months where I did no cards and amassed an overwhelming backlog that took me a long time to whittle down. I have always come back to Anki, and I now feel I have a process that works well for me with only moderate commitment.

Observations About Learning With Anki

1. Creating your own cards is the best way

I have tried several shared decks from Anki Web. I have one for Spanish that I am working my way through right now, but putting in the time to create your own decks is best.

Creating the cards gives you extra context for the word. Memory is context-dependent, and the more cues you use to encode a memory, the easier it is to retrieve. If you create a card while drinking coffee at your desk and looking at a purple pen, all of those things will be associated with the memory of that word.

You can also tailor a card to work with your personal memory. I have a card for 法案 whose back side is “a bill (on Capitol Hillllll).” You can add fun anecdotes, word associations, tunes, or other things that are only meaningful to you in a deck you create. The worst part about this method is that it takes a lot of time. It requires a lot of patience and labor, but I almost always lose interest in a shared deck that someone else created.

2. Using your native language is good enough

A lot of language learning “professionals” will argue that producing your cards with 100% target language is best. If this works for you, go for it, but I find that “translating” foreign language words is not a detriment to my learning.

Pictures work very well for beginner/high frequency vocabulary and other concrete items. However, once you reach a certain level of proficiency, you’ll mostly be learning abstract terms or high-register synonyms that are not as picturable. Using a target-language dictionary definition is not ideal for me, because I like to do my cards as quickly as possible, to make the association with the word and its meaning completely automatic. I have about 20,000 cards in rotation, so I review around 1,000 a day. I don’t want to try to remember an entire sentence in the target language every time I hit a card. I also may not know several words in the definition, which will eat up valuable time as I look each one of those up, and so on and so forth. If you can come up with a good enough equivalent word in your native language, you have spent a fine amount of effort and can move on!

I have also tried translating target language dictionary entries into English, but I don’t love this solution. The length and specificity slow me down, and usually don’t work much better than just using a single equivalent English word. (“l’acteur: a professional who performs in plays, TV, or movies, pretending to be a particular character” or…”l’acteur: actor”?)

I now feel that it’s more than okay to use your native language as one tool in your language learning toolbox. It’s one of the spheres of knowledge that will almost certainly always be with you. You have many years of deep knowledge accumulated in it, a myriad of social contexts, historical and cultural references, and complete automaticity in labeling almost everything in your life with it. You will never be able to start over as a baby in another country, born to native speakers of another language. Every way of being a speaker of a language is valid, even if you only know 10 words in that language.

3. Sometimes you just can’t take shortcuts: single words and sentences serve different, complementary purposes, as do forward and backward cards

I started using Anki with single word definitions, out of context. This can be frustrating when you “know” a word but have no idea if you’re using it properly (is it the correct politeness level for this situation? Am I making a funny second language speaker error like saying “powerful tea” instead of “strong tea”?), and have to do extra work to look it up yet again to get a feel for the proper context.

So for a few years, I exclusively did cloze cards (“Je comprends parfaitement que ma doit être en accord avec les convenances.”). I now had the opposite problem: I could reproduce a ton of grammatical sentences with proper context, but I found that when I stumbled across the word in another context, I couldn’t remember what it meant. It was very frustrating to spend a lot of time with a word and still not feel familiar with it.

Similarly, many language learning bloggers and consultants advise that you only create “forward” cards to learn a word (target language on the front, native language on the back). But I found that I struggled to come up with words I knew I had in my deck, like “salt shaker,” on the fly. I started adding “backwards” cards and gained the automatic “lookup” I wanted that demolishes the tip of the tongue phenomenon.

Now I keep multiple decks for a single language. I have single words forward and back, cloze sentences, and sentences with the key word highlighted (a version of “forward” and “backwards” for sentence cards). This has worked very well for me, and I will detail more in a future post on how I farm words and create cards.

4. Start literal, then go abstract

Just like how you learn “easy” words in a new language first (“cup,” “baby,” “red,” “to go”), you should always start with the literal definition of a word before you learn more abstract or figurative uses. This serves as a mnemonic and also gives you cultural knowledge. If you know that in English, a “gem” is a precious stone first, when you find out that people say “she’s a real gem” to mean the person is special and valuable, it’s easier to remember, and you also learn that speakers of the language prize precious stones. When you learn that あまい in Japanese means “sweet” as in the sensation of tasting sugar, and then you find out that when you refer to a person as あまい it means they are naive (rather than heartwarming or kind, as in American English), you’ve learned something about how Japanese culture views sweetness in food differently, too.

5. Turn off anxiety triggers while studying

It can be kind of fun to see when the card will next be due in Anki (1.2 years! Wow!), and sometimes you just really want to know that there are 67 cards left to review. However, I’ve found that these stats distract me from the actual studying part, so I turn them off. When I study, I’m trying to create a flow state and live in the moment of each card, which is something I can’t do when I’m feeling stressed about having so many left to do, and how dammit, I just got this card wrong that would have been due in 6 months, and now it’s set back to zero! (there will be a future post on this phenomenon as well, and I’ll explain why I am fine with this setting).

Relatedly, I’ve found that closing my eyes during each card while trying to remember it works very well for me. Sometimes I start to get frustrated trying to remember, only to close my eyes and have the word float to the top of my mind, almost like magic. I recommend trying this strategy sometime and see if it affects your studying!

6. Be persistent about interfering items

One really helpful strategy I adopted after reading Polyglot: How I Learn Languages by Kato Lomb is that when I know two words are similar and I often get them wrong due to interference, is to force myself to sort them out every time. Secourir means “to help” and secouer means “to shake.” I got those wrong all the time and those cards almost both became leeches until I forced myself to get them BOTH right in my mind before I showed the back of the card when each one came up. Sometimes words are going to be similar and it can’t be avoided.

7. More effort early in learning pays off in the long run

Sometimes you kind of know a new or young word. You see it, you have a hazy image of what it means, maybe a vague sense that it’s positive or negative, slang or fancy, and then you see the back, and you really don’t want to hit “again,” because time is short and you’ve got so many other things to do today. It’s really important to hit “again” on this word. If you really get the meaning solidly in your mind when you see it early on, when the intervals are low, you won’t end up in the painful situation of setting a card back to zero once it finally, painstakingly graduates to mature even though you didn’t really know it 100%.

If that happens, I always make sure I know the back word for word before I graduate it again. I’m mean, I’m strict, and it’s annoying, but it works. Automatic recall is the goal, and it’s very, very rewarding.

8. Anki is cutting onions

In the long run, Anki is just the prep work for the finished meal of actual language use: reading, writing, speaking, and listening. Doing Anki consistently and well will make the other activities much more enjoyable and smooth. It rules when you see a word “in the wild” from your deck and you know exactly what it means. And, at least for me, it always sticks forever after I run into it in the wild, like the last puzzle piece falling into place.

9. Don’t start over

I hope you’ll learn from my many mistakes using Anki over the years, but if nothing else, do not start over! It can be extremely tempting to look at a backlog of 5000 cards (yep) and burn it all down. Don’t do this. Even the card you know the least, the thorn in your side that you’re sure is going to be a leech every time you see it again, is better known than before you started, and if you delete it, it will quickly fade from memory and undo all the hard work you’ve done.

I started my French deck over in 2010. I had just moved for grad school and figured I knew all those words well enough to start with a clean slate. At the time, I also had these Quizlet sets of random subsets of vocabulary that I would drill (I did not understand how to use filtered decks yet!). A few years ago, I reimported all of those words back into my French Anki deck and though it was really heartwarming when I came across a card I still remembered after all those years, it was embarrassing how much I had forgotten.

10. Language learning is about letting go of perfectionism

Prune your deck of useless cards you don’t want anymore, delete your leeches (seriously, it’s okay!), but don’t start over. Learning a language is a great exercise in humility, and that extends to your Anki decks, even though Anki is something you can rule with an iron fist. I’ve got ugly cards that were weirdly formatted after changing note type, tons of cards that are missing audio and images that I just haven’t gotten to, some cards where I’m suspicious of the definition I put down, etc. It’ll all work itself out in time. My language journey is unique, just like yours. You don’t have to know every single word or get everything right to call yourself a speaker of X, Y, or Z, and enjoy the expanded world you grant yourself access to through studying languages. Enjoy yourself.

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