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Anki SRS and How It Can Help You Learn a Language

What is Anki?

Anki means “memorization” or “learning by heart” in Japanese. Once you understand that word, then you have a hint about what Anki is:  it is a study application that helps you remember things, using digital flashcards. You can use Anki to study for your geographyexam or biology midterm, but it is also highly useful for language study, which is what we`re concerned with here.

Active Recall Testing 

Active recall testing is how Anki helps you remember. Passive recall is when you just take in information and you kind of leave it to fate whether you will remember it or not. But active recall is when you check to see if you recall the information and can produce it. If you have ever read a book and had a hard time explaining what it was about, you were using passive recall. If you stopped after each chapter and checked to see if you could summarize it or needed to read parts of it again, then you were testing your active recall. Flashcards are anki`s method of active recall testing.

Spaced Repetitions 

Anki data screenThe weakness in traditional paper flashcards is that you are reviewing all of the cards in the same way, the easy ones and the hard ones are mixed together in one pile, and when you finish all of the cards you start again. Or you take out the easy ones and put them aside, but then maybe you forget them while neglecting them for too long.

Anki is an SRS (Spaced Repetition System) in which not every flashcard is reviewed the same way. When you review the card, you can judge how well you were able to recall the information, and choose (from a few options) the amount of time between now and the next repetition. If the card was easy, you can choose the maximum length of time; if it wasn`t automatic but you recalled it with some effort, then you can choose the medium length of time, and if you couldn`t recall it you can choose the shortest length of time. The more often you recall the card, the longer all of the interval options become. The more often you fail to recall the card, the shorter the interval options become.

This spaced repetition system insures that you are focusing your effort where it is most needed, and testing how well the information is sticking in your longterm memory while you challange yourself to remember after greater intervals. This is a really amazing function, and it places Anki lightyears ahead of traditional paper flashcards.

What Devices is it Available on?

Anki is available for your home computer (free), for your iOS device (costs $24.99!), Android device (free), or Kindle Fire (free). I don`t think the official app is available for Windows Phone, but I have seen a third-party app that costs a few dollars.

Your anki account is based in the cloud and syncs to whatever device you are currently using. After you finish a round of card reviews, it`s good to press the sync button to upload your new study data to the cloud, and then if you open Anki on a different device you can sync with the cloud data. So you can start your reviews on your iPod and finish them on your Android phone, everything is linked.

How do you use it?

Creating Cards and Decks

On Anki you can create multiple decks (sets of flashcards), and you can download shared decks created by other people. So I recommend that you keep a variety of decks in different categories. Rather than have a general “Japanese” deck, for example, have Japanese decks for various contexts. If you read a Japanese novel, have a deck with vocabulary for that book. If you read Japanese newspaper articles, keep a deck for newspaper vocabulary (and you can chunk the categories down to be more specific than that). By doing this you are helping your brain to remember by adding some clear context to the vocabulary.

So when you`re using a particular language resource and run into vocabulary you want to learn, make an anki card consisting of the vocabulary word, along with an example phrase or sentence for more context (or an image, like a photo you took or screenshot), and the meaning in your native language. Like this:

example of japanese anki flashcard side 1click anki buttonExample of anki multimedia flashcard for Japanese

You can also attach sound files to Anki cards, to test yourself on the pronunciation. I usually don`t use this though, and just write transliteration on the card. The file size of the decks can get huge if you use too much multimedia stuff, which can make syncing a bit rough (especially without wifi).

It`s best to review vocabulary from your native language to the target language, so that you are learning productive skills (speaking and writing) in addition to receptive skills (listening and reading). Though you could do target language to native language, if you are focusing on learning to read a language, for example. Also, I sometimes review from target language to native language if I want to build up some receptive knowledge and build confidence quickly, and then after a few rounds of reviews I will switch the direction of the cards to native language —> target language.

Chunking Up

French anki flashcardUsing anki for individual words (with an example sentence for context) is useful for learning vocabulary. But you can turn Anki into a more efficient tool for practicing the structure of the language at the same time. Start making cards for collocations and phrases, and short sentences or clauses. We remember vocabulary better when it is part of a larger larger unit, but you are also testing your active recall of sentence structure, prompting yourself to produce longer utterances. You can progressively increase the complexity of the sentences and drill yourself on basically any kind of language you want to produce.



It`s important to keep up with your Anki card reviews everyday. If you do so, then the vocabulary will remain continuously reinforced and end up in your longterm memory more easily. Plus, you won`t have all that many cards to review each day. On the occasions that I`ve fallen behind in my reviews, it`s been a few days of headaches trying to catch up on my reviews, because there are 1000+ cards waiting to be reviewed and most of them have either vanished from my memory, or I can recall them only passively when I see them in the target language.

Leech Cards and How to Deal With Them

When you fail to actively recall a card many times (I believe 16 times is the default), Anki labels the card a “leech”, meaning “This card is sucking up all your time. Get rid of it and spend your time more wisely on other cards” and the card becomes suspended. You can un-leech a card, but the question remains: what do you do with a card you can`t remember even after multiple reviews? When I can`t recall a card, specifically if it`s a vocabulary word, then I will create a mnemonic device to help me remember it in future reviews.

The Bottom Line

If you create separate decks for different contexts and sources of vocabulary, and continuously add new cards and review previous cards, then anki will hugely improve your vocabulary as well as your command of sentence patterns. The days of me carrying a big plastic bag full of paper flashcards around are a thing of the past!