Memory warrants review. And plenty of them. And at the right times. We all know it because we’ve been doing that ever since we started learning stuff as kids. This is the basic tenet of learning and it holds water in the context of vocabulary as well. That’s why flashcards were invented.
Spaced repetition is the technical name for this concept. The name is self-explanatory. Any software that helps emulate and automate this process is a spaced repetition system. That’s SRS for short. Anki® is one such piece of software and perhaps the most ubiquitous of its kind. There are others too, such as Mnemosyne® and Memrise®, but Anki remains by far the most popular.
Now Anki is great. There has to be compelling reasons why it’s got more users than all its alternatives combined. Being free and open-source has a big part to play here I guess. Then there’s its easy-to-use interface too. But using a tool is one thing; using it effectively is another. This article is about how I used it to maximize my results.
Vocabulary: Use It or Lose It
No, I’m not talking America’s Second Amendment here. This is about words. This is about grammar. This is about language. Long-term memory calls for consistent reviews. And the only practical way to review things you learn is to use them. The more you use them, the longer you retain them. It’s really that simple!
Say you learned a bunch of words today. People in the know say that by the end of tomorrow, you’ll only remember 25% of it. Ouch! This should break any language-enthusiast’s heart; it did mine for sure. But bring in Anki (or any SRS for that matter) and you can tweak that number in your favor.
Anki helps you with two things: Active recall testing and spaced repetition. You can cover both of these tasks using physical flashcards too. But things stop being practical once you have more than a few dozen cards to review. Toting around a thousand-odd flashcards is unwieldy. And keeping them on schedule is more than challenging.
The principles of effective reviews state that they should be done at specific intervals. And these intervals are not uniform. For example, the first review must be after six hours of learning. But the second, after 24 hours. The third, after about a week, and so on. Now, if you’re learning new words each day, how do you keep track of which ones to review when? This is where a software-based solution like Anki shines. It takes all this planning and scheduling off your back so that you could focus solely on your reviews. Dead-tree flashcards are far from practical for more than, say, a hundred words.
Using Anki is as simple and straightforward as stealing candy from a baby. Actually it’s easier. You just install the app, create your cards, and review them at a fixed time every single day. Let’s break it down for you in easy steps.
Installing the Right App
The first step is, of course, to download the program to your device. Being open source, Anki is in a constant state of development and that’s its USP. Another big plus is that the program is available for virtually any platform you might be on.
The program goes by the names Ankidroid® on Android® and AnkiMobile® on iOS®. There also exist versions for Windows®, Mac®, and even Linux®! How’s that for ubiquity? Oh and there’s also AnkiWeb®, a browser-based alternative.
Although Anki is a free application, its iOS version (AnkiMobile) isn’t. Don’t ask me why but that’s how it is. That being said, there do exist ways to avoid paying. The simplest is to use a free third-party alternative such as iAnki®. I haven’t used it personally so cannot offer any comment on its quality. Just bear in mind that iAnki is not Anki despite the deceptive similarity in their names.
Now that you know the various flavors of Anki, go ahead and install the ones you need. I suggest having one on every device you own. That way, you have your decks with you no matter where you go.
Through with the installation step? Awesome. Now head over to AnkiWeb on your browser and sign up for a free account there. You should have an account on AnkiWeb even if you never intend to perform your reviews on the browser. That’s because there’s no other way to keep your decks synchronized across several devices. AnkiWeb does this over the cloud so your decks look the same on all platforms. That is as long as your devices are all connected to the Internet, of course.
There’s one more benefit with the browser-edition. While AnkiWeb is necessary for synchronization, you can also perform your reviews on it. However, that doesn’t render the app-based versions redundant. While AnkiWeb lets you create text-based cards easily, it can’t do multimedia. If you need images or sounds on your cards, you need the desktop or mobile app. You also need the app in case you want the ability to use one of the myriad shared decks off AnkiWeb. These are user-submitted decks freely available on the Anki website for anyone interested. It’s funny that AnkiWeb doesn’t let you directly add one of those shared decks to your account.
Once you have your apps installed and the AnkiWeb account in place, you’re good to go. I doubt all this would have taken you more than five minutes. It’s a pretty lightweight app and the interface is just as functional and user-friendly. I doubt you’ll take long to learn your way around its options.
Your First Deck
Like I said above, the Anki app comes in various editions. It could be AnkiDroid, AnkiMobile, or one of the desktop versions. For this illustration, I am using the Mac edition, officially known as Anki for Mac®. Let’s fire up the app. The interface should not look drastically different on Windows.
If this is your first time ever on this app, your home screen is going to look pretty virgin. No card. No deck. Well, my bad; actually, there does exist one default deck albeit with zero cards. At the bottom of the window, you’ll find three buttons one of which says Create Deck. Click it. Enter the name of your deck when asked. Name it anything you fancy, say, animals or greetings.
Congrats, you just successfully created your first deck. You can also create sub-decks. Just create another deck and drag it under the first. Alternatively, you could just create a new deck and prefix its name with the parent deck’s name. Add a “::” between the prefix and the name. This way, Anki will automatically take the new deck as another deck’s child-deck. An example could be Animals::Wild Animals. Anki calls them nested decks.
Your First Card
Now that you have your deck in place, let’s add some cards to it. On the top of your home screen, you’ll find three options – Decks, Add, and Browse. Click Add. The Add window might try to overwhelm you at first but don’t let it.
The first input here is Type. There are several options in the drop-down list but we’ll leave it at Basic, the default value. This card type allows just two fields – back and front. This is the closest it can get to emulating a physical flashcard. Just enter what you wish to memorize in those boxes like you would write on an actual flashcard. For example, you could enter zorro for front and fox for back.
At this point, you could just click Add at the bottom and have your first text-only card added to your deck. However, let’s do more. Let’s make it richer with some multimedia. In order to add an image, just right-click any image file on your desktop and click Copy Image. Now head back to your unfinished card and paste the copied image in the field of your choice. The procedure is similar if you wish to add an audio file to your card. Drag-and-drop works too.
That’s all! Wasn’t it easy? Now go ahead, make a bunch of cards for your deck, and start your reviews. Don’t worry about the scheduling as Anki takes care of that for you. You just have to tell Anki, during your review, how well you’ve learned a particular card. Depending on your inputs, Anki will figure out when to bring each card up for review next. The more difficult you find a word, the more frequently Anki will make you review them. Works like clockwork!
Making new cards is an easy but tedious process and you’ll do well to learn some keyboard shortcuts for the job. Since the task is repetitive, keyboard shortcuts can make things a lot quicker for you.
Tips for Optimal Results
This is what you’ve been waiting for. Just adding a bunch of cards and reviewing them like a robot is not enough. There’s got to be a method to this madness. These are the five lessons I learned from my own experiences with Anki.
1. Learn It Both Ways
I don’t know if there’s any science behind this but I always found merit in learning word pairs both ways. By both ways I mean English-Spanish as well as Spanish-English. What’s the difference, you might wonder. Well, here’s the thing. the direction seems to determine how well you comprehend or produce the language. Your brain always finds it easier to recognize the base word than the meaning.
Take, for example, gato. If you have memorized that gato means cat, you’ll do good at recognizing it when you hear it. That’s a plus for your Spanish comprehension skills. On the flip side, if you wanted to talk about a cat in Spanish, it’s going to be a tad harder. You’ll have to look up your mental dictionary and see which Spanish word translates into cat. That’s like scanning a database without an index. This is what causes us to mentally translate before speaking a foreign language. This impedes fluency.
If you had memorized the pair as “cat-means-gato”, things would be different. Now you would be able to talk about cats in Spanish without any mental translation. Thus, you see, learning a pair two-ways works best: Spanish-English for comprehension and English-Spanish for spoken fluency.
2. Always Learn in Context
Words learned in isolation are incredibly easy to forget. And they are equally useless for all practical purposes. Barring certain classes of nouns, most words don’t enjoy a one-to-one mapping across languages. No two organic tongues evolved identically. They all have unique nuances and methods which is why words don’t translate. Instead, it’s the thoughts that translate.
For example, memorizing that de means of is going to be of little value. Because de can also mean from and of can also translate into a depending on the context. In fact, learning words in isolation can be disastrous! So always strive to learn words in context.
The best way to do this is by learning simple sentences or phrases instead of individual words. Instead of de, try learning sentences using de. The method has another advantage in that you get to learn not only the word but also its usage. You nail vocabulary and grammar simultaneously.
But don’t go picking just about any sentence you get your hands on. There’s got to be a system. Not all sentences are equal. Too short and it fails to convey enough context. Too long and it becomes hard to remember. A fine balance seems to come at around 5-9 words. Also, I have found that set-phrases and popular sayings work better than arbitrary sentences. That could be because they are wired to sound catchy, maybe?
3. Enrich Your Cards with Multimedia
You have a brain that’s capable of processing a lot more than written words. In fact, written words are the hardest for it to process. What’s a lot easier is images. And sounds. That’s why pictures are easier to remember than words.
If that’s true, why not incorporate images and sounds in our flashcards? Taking the gato example, you have gato on one side and cat on the other. Instead of the word cat, why not add a picture of one. It can speed up your learning a whole lot.
We discussed the importance of context in the previous section. So, you’re gonna have most cards with short sentences instead of individual words. Even though Spanish is a phonetic language spoken fluency is not gonna come naturally to you. Why not add audio clips to the Spanish side of your cards? These audio clips could be those of the sentences in question being spoken by a native speaker. You could source them from movies, TV shows, YouTube videos, music tracks, etc. Several free apps exist to help you extract specific clips from a longer video or audio file.
This way you’ll not only learn the words but also develop an ear for how it sounds in a native setting. In no time, you’ll realize multimedia is a staple for fluency. And none of this costs a dime!
4. Rain or Shine, Stay Consistent
No matter what happens, be regular. Be consistent. Unless a temblor flattens your neighborhood or a hurricane sweeps away your village. There’s just no excuse for procrastination.
I admit there will be days you’ll really struggle for motivation. There will be days you just won’t feel like. It happened to me too. But remember, this is spaced repetition. The very nature of this system is such that what you skip today will come back to haunt you tomorrow. And that means backlog. Backlog means more cards than optimal which means further erosion of will. This is a vicious cycle and hard to break out of once you get in. In an SRS, backlogs build up faster than you expect due to the non-uniform nature of the spacing. Therefore, the only way to stay current is by staying consistent.
5. Keep It Simple
Simplicity is key. There are several ways to achieve this but the most important one is to avoid having a million decks. In fact, I just went with one! The more organized you are, the worse it is for your memory. How come? There’s a common-sense reason for that.
Say, you have all your cards painstakingly assorted by themes. One group is animals. Within this, you have separate sub-groups or sub-decks for wild animals, pets, livestock, etc. Now, when you are reviewing these cards, this classification serves to offer you clues.
The best way to test recall is to do so without any clues. Recalling with clues is cheating. The moment you see a card that says gato you already know it’s an animal, a pet one at that, thanks to your earlier classification efforts. That makes it easier for you to guess cat. See how classification failed you? So my advice is to stick to a single deck and keep it as random as possible.
On the other hand, you could also combine more than one related words in a single card for simplicity. For example, say you have three separate cards for enero, febrero, and marzo. I suggest replacing them with a single card with a short sentence like the following:
Enero, febrero, y marzo son nombres de los meses.
January, February, and March are names of the months.
This way, you learn not one but three different months in a single card along with a little context. Isn’t that more efficient? Combine Anki’s spaced repetition sorcery with some mental word-association ingenuity of your own and you have a formidable vocabulary tool in your arsenal.
So that’s my two cents on making the most of Anki. I am sure most of you have already had some experience with this program in which case I would love to hear them out. Do you have a personal strategy with Anki that worked for you? Have you discovered a way to make Anki even more effective than I thought? We’re all eager to hear from you in the comments below!