Intro to Anki Flashcards for Fast Language Learning

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Getting started with flashcards for serious language learning. Pile of flashcards with writing on them.
Do you know how to say this in a language you’re learning?

Everyone tells you you should use flashcards. (But you hate flashcards! Join the club.) Even so, flashcards are one of the best ways of learning difficult words. (And if you really do find them boring, try these more fun ways of drilling in words.)

It’s tempting not to use flashcards. Maybe you’ll just make a list of words. Maybe you’ll learn organically. Either way, at some point there is going to be a series of words that are hard to learn. And Anki is one of the best ways to learn hard-to-learn words and phrases.

Also read: Our favourite apps for language learning, and how to use them

In this guide:

  • Why use flashcards for language learning
  • How to best use flashcards
  • Why use Anki for flashcards (or maybe why not!)
  • How to get started with Anki
  • Apps to use for Anki, and how to sync between desktop and mobile

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Why use flashcards?

There are three main reasons people use flashcards.

Firstly, because of “spaced repetition”. A slew of research reports have shown that spaced repetition is the most efficient way to memorize new information. This includes vocab, but also anywhere else where you need to memorize things (med students in particular seem to love Anki!)

Our brains are leaky sieves made of organic matter. We forget very easily. But there’s a trick to helping us remember. If you remind yourself of something just when your brain is on the verge of forgetting it, you will remember it for much longer the second time round.

That’s how spaced repetition works. You learn something. You remind yourself of it a few hours later. Then a day later. Then a few days, then a week and then… you’re done.

(Actually, our favourite spaced repetition app doesn’t even have cards — it’s pure audio and it’s called Glossika. Read all about how to use Glossika here!)

Of course, if you have difficulty remembering a word, the spacing will stay closer.

The second reason we use flashcards is it’s a great note-taking tool. Flashcard programs are an efficient way of cataloguing all the words we know, for later learning

Yes, we also like to use Google Sheets or notebooks to write all the words down. But a flashcard application is nearly as convenient. And it’s all in one place.

Finally, studying using flashcards is convenient and easy. Yes, it’s taxing on the brain (it actually puts me to sleep pretty effectively). But it’s easy to find fifteen minutes here and there to open up a flashcard deck and start going through words. It’s not ALWAYS the best way to study, but it makes reviewing hard words more easy.

How best to use flashcards

The most important thing to remember when using flashcards is to remember it’s a mnemonic device, not a game. For example, if I sent you a flashcard deck of Swahili words, I’m 100% confident you could learn them all with enough time. But you wouldn’t be able to speak Swahili in the end!

So these are our suggestions for how to use flashcards to learn a language:

Learn words in the context of sentences. Don’t just learn the words mechanically, like memorising the word for “to eat”. Learn sentences. Make sure you can use every word in context. Like “I feel like eating” or “I just ate, I don’t want to eat right now”. Say them back to yourself. You can even use Anki to just learn entire sentences, like Glossika does (or you can just use Glossika… but it’s not customisable like Anki is… or free).

Learn properly. Make sure you really know the words and sentences you study. If it takes you a moment to remember or you nearly got it right, you don’t know it yet!

Make sure you can pronounce the words. Say the sentences out loud, and consult your dictionary if you are unsure.

Side note: Why NOT use flashcards?

It’s easy to get stuck in a productivity trap with any app. You get obsessed over learning every word, or feel like going through flashcards is the most productive thing (when usually it’s talking to someone live). I would generally suggest people spend around 30 minutes a day on flashcards, focusing on things that are important but difficult to learn.

Why use Anki and not some alternative flashcard software?

Anki has been the gold standard for flashcard software for a LONG time. Here are a few reasons why it remains the bst.

Anki is free. Most other flashcard apps or websites charge you a small membership fee.

Anki offers cross-platform syncing. While it’s best to start on your computer, you can set up syncing between your phone and your desktop computer. Again, it does this for free, whereas other services charge for doing it over the cloud.

Anki uses a well-known standard format. Some websites give away or sell Anki flashcards to help you get through things — language tests, or exams in other disciplines. This is an easy shortcut to a starter deck of cards in case you don’t want to go through the task of building your own deck. That being said, I would highly advise creating your own decks. The act of making your own cards is very helpful to the learning process. The act of creating cards are a part of studying and help retain vocabulary and concepts much better than downloading a precreated deck online.

Anki has rich functionality that is customizable. Many of Anki’s features are great for language learning. For example, you can associate audio recordings for cards to help for pronunciation or even pictures if you’re a visual learner.

Reality check: why NOT use Anki?

Anki isn’t for everyone. Alternative are plentiful and not too expensive.

We would recommend you seek an alternative to Anki if you:

  • Just want to use your phone and nothing else. It’s much easier to maintain decks on your computer with Anki.
  • Never want to build or modify your own card decks
  • Think the interface is too ancient and that bothers you
  • You don’t want to learn the Anki Setup. The system isn’t the most intuitive.
  • Don’t mind paying money, or being locked in to another flashcard ecosystem
  • Hate flashcards in general

Nobody’s twisting your arm. There are dozens of ways to learn a language!

How to Get Started Learning Languages with Anki

Actually we got started by watching a Youtube video by someone not learning languages. It made it much easier. Here it is: Anki Flashcard Basics.

If you already use Anki, then you might want to read our questions and answers on setting Anki up for language learning.

Step 1: Download the Anki App on your computer

Start using Anki on your computer. The app works well on Macs or Windows. You can worry about syncing later to your phone. DON’T get started on your phone: it’s much harder to make and configure lists. Download Anki here.

Step 2: Create your first deck

You want to use a single “deck” for your language. It’s tempting to think you need a separate deck for each category, but there’s good reasons not to do that (see this question in our FAQ on Anki for serious language learning.)

  1. Break up decks into topics based on whatever you might be studying – ex: introductions and greetings, names of countries, directions.
  2. Once you’ve named the deck, you can now start adding cards!
  3. Click Add and decide on the card type you want.
  4. When you select Type, you’ll have the following options. Check out the youtube video to get more info on these card types. Anki Flashcard Basics
  • Basic: Two sided card. Side one has a question, the reverse side has the answer.
  • Basic (and reversed card): Creates a card in both directions.
    • Card 1 – front: “book” back: “livre”
    • Card 2 – front: “livre” back: “book”
  • Basic (optional reversed card): Basic card with option to select reverse card. 
  • Cloze: Select a text and omits the portion of text you want to remember.
    • Front – Je {…} un croissant.
    • Back – Je mange un croissant.

I recommend keeping things simple initially to not get overwhelmed with the options you have with Anki. Even now, I still like to keep things simple, so I create most of my cards as ‘basic’. If you’re always selecting the same card type, it will always default to this selection and you won’t need to choose it every time.

Step 3: Explore more of Anki’s functionality

Once you’ve got the hang of creating simple cards and studying, try out some of the other functionality, such as using photos, audio or cloze. I often use photos or cloze cards when I have a word or phrase that I have trouble remembering. (One of our tips on how to learn difficult words!)

Step 4: Start using it regularly!

Set time in your calendar for flashcard review. As mentioned above, don’t overuse flashcards. You should set up flashcard review for about 20-30 minutes a day and have a day break every once every other week.

Optional Step 5: Sync with your phone.

Make that time sitting on public transport (or… the loo) productive!

Also, flashcards put us to sleep. Great way to knock yourself out.

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).

To sync between your Anki desktop and your phone, create an AnkiWeb account. There, you can already use Anki online!

Next:

  • For Android, download AnkiDroid . It’s free.
  • For iOS, 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.
  • For iOS if you don’t want to pay yet, 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?”, yes, Anki is the one app that language learners all need. But if this is your first time with flashcards, absolutely get used to using them (like on your computer, or on the web interface) before spending money.


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