We like using Anki, a flashcard app, to drill in words.
Swahili is my ninth language and Jo’s fourth, and by now we’ve figured out how to use Anki and flash cards.
Anki is the original flashcard app, around for over a decade. It’s free (open source), it’s very powerful, and it syncs to a free mobile app.
Anki is so widely used you can buy flashcard decks from many major websites and publishers, like from Lingualism for example.
Unfortunately, Anki’s interface is not intuitive. Most modern software doesn’t need a manual, but Anki’s user manual is massive.
Don’t read the Anki user manual though; read these tips first.
If you just want to get started with Anki, then read this guide to getting started first.
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Onward to the Anki FAQ. Enjoy!
Should I use Anki or another flashcard app?
Short answer: Use Anki. The interface is a little old, but it’s still the king for lots of reasons, and worth the brief learning curve.
Anki has been around for donkey’s ears. It doesn’t have the best interface (which is why you even need this FAQ), and there are cleaner flashcard apps out there.
But there’s a few good reasons I still recommend it, after trying dozens of others.
Anki is free and open source. Not just the desktop app — the Android app, too, plus using the web service. There are a few cheap iPhone apps too. Nothing good and free, but I don’t believe there is ANY good flash card app that’s free for iOS.
You can get lots of Anki decks online. For whatever language — Arabic, Chinese, Spanish — someone has made a deck out there and usually shares it for free. You have to pay for the very best ones, but it’s worth it to get quality, up-to-date and error-checked decks. You can also share your decks later 🙂 (but don’t share ones you’ve bought!)
See below for a few of our favourite starter decks.
There are many Anki-compatible apps. If you later want to use another app, but just use Anki as the back-end, you can (but you don’t have to). Anki is so “standard” that many apps are designed to sync with Anki. They assume you use Anki to manage your database and want to let you keep doing that, and just provide a glossy surface on top.
You can learn how to use Anki in 30 minutes. These days I know people are impatient. You want to (and expect to be able to) open an app and know how to use it instantly. You need to figure Anki out. But that’s why we’re here (and why the Internet is in general).
So in summary, despite it being a little “2000s” in interface design, Anki is still the king. Use Anki.
Can I do multiple languages at the same time in Anki?
Short answer: focus on one language, don’t study more than one at a time intensively.
This is subjective, but I think it carries weight as we’ve studied many languages.
In our experience, as well as in the experience of 90% of successful language learners we know, there’s great power in focusing on one langauge at a time.
I would not recommend studying two languages, whether they’re similar languages (e.g. French and Spanish) or totally different (e.g. French and Chinese).
You may wish to maintain another language. This is different, and I think totally fine. Just make sure you’re not adding new cards to that deck, otherwise you will quickly run out of brain space.
Should I make my own Anki deck, or buy one or download one?
Short answer: Use a pre-made deck if it’s even just 70% right.
Making a deck is very laborious. If you find an excellent publisher for a language, then I heartily recommend downloading a deck and learning that.
The best place to start is the Anki shared decks online. These are free and amazing! For example, the “Chinese Words and Sentences, Spoon Fed” is well regarded on language learning forums as being the greatest Chinese Anki deck of all time. It has examples and even audio for many, many words.
Here are a few good reasons to start with another deck:
- Making a deck is not the same as studying, even it’s in a similar mental space. Just like building a motorcycle isn’t the same as practising riding.
- Even though you want to learn what’s important to you, there are many similar people to you out there. And if a deck is 70% aligned with you, it’s easy to just skip/suspend cards that you think are irrelevant.
- Even if you buy an Anki deck (like from Lingualism, for Arabic), you’re buying hundreds of hours of someone else’s time, and saving even more time for yourself, for less than $20. GREAT deal.
What are some great starter decks for languages you know or are learning?
I didn’t use Anki until Swahili, shockingly. Even though I’ve known of it since 2011 (and I tried it for Chinese, but I didn’t use it much).
But still, I’ve done some research and found great starter decks for languages we know/are studying.
- Egyptian Arabic: Matthew Aldrich’s Egyptian Arabic deck, with many colloquial words and sample sentences, available from Lingualism for $16.99 (other Arabic dialects available too)
- Mandarin Chinese: Chinese Words and Sentences, Spoon Fed (free)
- Hebrew: 100 Hebrew Verbs from TeachmeHebrew. Verbs are very important in Hebrew.
- Farsi: 504 English to Farsi, a great deck of words with many sentences
- Korean: Evita’s grammar and vocabulary decks, very rich content with audio (and free)
- Swahili: We did not find any good ones! I’ll make a deck public — check out our Swahili resources page, where I’ll make it available.
There are good decks for Italian, French, Spanish (and of course learning English from any of those languages) but I haven’t gone hunting yet as those languages are just on maintenance. If you have one you love, let us know in comments.
How many new cards should I study a day to learn a language?
Short answer: About add 25 new cards a day, for an average pace, if you’re studying flashcards for 30-60 minutes a day.
Remember, adding 25 means you’ll probably study 50-100. There’ll be 25 new cards, but still reviews from the previous days. It grows cumulatively, and a session can include 100 reviews or more, which can each take a while as you realize “Hey, I don’t know how to use this word, I should write a sentence”, or “I’m having trouble learning this word and need to learn it another way”.
In the beginning, the words you’ll add will be easy, like numbers and greetings. It won’t feel like a burden because you’ll learn them quickly through other means. You should aspire to learn about 25 new words every day if you’re trying to learn a language reasonably quickly. You could learn more, but you also have a lot of grammar and sentence structures to learn.
After a couple of weeks, you can increase to fifty. Be warned though, this will increase your study time to about two hours!
Learning 100 a day is probably too aggressive (unless you’re cramming for an exam, and not trying to learn). I wouldn’t recommend this. The only time this is OK is when you first add your deck, if you didn’t do it the first moment you picked up the language… you want to churn through the few hundred words and whittle down your deck quickly.
After a month at this pace, you’ll have a vocabulary of about 1000, which is enough to get by.
I looked around the web for other language learners using Anki, and found similar results: aggressive, full-time learners would even out at 50-100 a day, and keep on pace to learn thousands of words in a few months. But I’d only recommend this if a) you want to get to a professional translator level and b) the language you’re learning needs lots of memorisation, like Chinese or Arabic.
10 is kind of lazy. Are you serious? Do more cards!
How much time should I spend doing Anki flashcards a day?
Short answer: 30-60 minutes a day.
General consensus from the internet is 30-60 minutes, or around 150-300 cards. This equates to adding 25-50 cards a day. (Sources: Reddit, various language forums, and an online Anki calculator).
It’s not just that your brain gets tired. There are other things you need to do in the day, whether you’re spending a lot of time language learning, or it’s part of a broader life. If you’re commuting to work, you likely only have around 30 minutes to do flashcards in a day. You don’t want to drown and feel “behind” later. And if you’re learning language intensively, you need time for speaking, reading, homework and watching TV shows and movies etc.
What’s the most effective kind of card?
Short answer: words, pronunciation, and sentence examples. Pictures if you get stuck.
My favourite kind of card has three things:
- The word
- Pronunciation if not obvious (e.g. in Hebrew)
- An example sentence (also with pronunciation), and multiple if it’s a verb
- Optional: a picture
The picture is only optional because I only use them if I’m really getting stuck on a word, as one of our tips for when you get stuck with words. Pictures don’t even work for most words (like verbs). But they can help as mnemonics.
How do you sync Anki over the air between mobile and computer?
Syncing is one of the best bits that has really gotten better over the years. It’s not perfect, but it’s free and it works. (In the dark ages, you could only sync to a web interface, and it was done via Dropbox).
You need to download AnkiDroid, and create an account with Ankiweb. If you have an iOS device, you have to find another app on the app store (there are free ones, but I don’t think they’re totally free like AnkiDroiid is).
You also need to sync every time you switch devices, which can get tiresome. Like when you finish a session on mobile, and want to use desktop next, manually sync your mobile session.
When should I use a “Card” vs something else?
Short answer: Just use cards.
There are also other ways of understanding your Anki data, like “Notes”. But it’s just a distraction at the early stage.
When should I “Bury” a card, and when should I “Suspend” it?
Short answer: Bury is to hide it for a day; Suspend is to hide it forever.
If you don’t want to see a card for another day, you “bury” it. Do this when you know you can’t get it right, but plan on practising it, and want it out of the way.
If you don’t want to see a card again (because you get it, you know how to say the number “one” already!), you can “suspend” it.
How do I import a deck from Google Sheets?
Short answer: Three columns: Target Language, English, and Tags. Click “Import” and make sure you’ve chosen the right deck.
Short answer: Use tags to separate themes of words, not decks.
So you’ve diligently been making lists of words in your notebook or Google Sheets.
Now you have a bunch of words under lists like: “Household”, “Verbs” and “Describing People”.
If you made a bunch of decks, you could study them individually. That way, you could easily just study one category of words.
However, Anki recommends using tags to categorise your words with tags rather than decks. From the Anki user manual:
- Lots of little decks mean you end up reviewing cards in a recognizable order… you’ll end up seeing all the “food verb” cards together. This makes it easier to answer the cards, as you can guess them from the context, which leads to weaker memories.
- Anki was not designed to handle many decks, and it will slow down as you add more.
What they recommend instead is tags. Instead of using “Food Nouns” for example, you tag each word with “Food” as well as “Noun”.
Then you can use Anki’s custom search feature to create custom study decks.
What are the best Anki clients to download and use?
Short ansewr: the free app on Anki’s website, AnkiDroid (free), or AnkiMobile (paid).
For Mac, Windows, or Linux, use the free apps available on Anki’s web site.
For Android, use AnkiDroid. It’s free, but not built by Anki. However, the interface is much better than Anki’s own interface! It’s cleaner and easier to use, plus only contains what you need to know. Many people just use the Android app. (Personally I find it too troublesome adding and editing cards in the app. But I’ve done it.)
For iOS, you have to buy the AnkiMobile iOS app. It’s US$24.99. By paying for it, you’ll be supporting the free Anki software, plus Apple shareholders. If you’re not sure yet and are still just testing Anki out, you can use the web interface for Anki. It’s not as nice, and it needs an internet connection, but it’s free.
If you’re wondering “Is AnkiMobile worth the $24.99?”, people have asked this question of other language learners many times before. The short answer is: Anki is the one app that language learners all need. Yes, if you’re serious about learning, it’s worth it.
Got more questions, or an answer to share? Drop them in comments below and we’ll answer them for you and everyone else.
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