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How to Use Anki — For Language Learners

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A quick introduction to on how to use Anki to learn languages — still the best flashcard tool for learning languages.

Everyone tells you you should use flashcards… but you hate flashcards! Join the club. Even though you hate them, 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.

But either way, at some point there is going to be a series of words that are hard to learn. And Anki is still the best flashcard tool, and one of the best ways to learn hard-to-learn words and phrases.

How to use anki to replace paper flashcards like these ones.
Do you know how to say this in a language you’re learning?

There are many reasons why Anki is our favourite flashcard tool.

  1. It’s free (on most platforms),
  2. It’s widely used (so everyone has tips/resources),
  3. It’s really flexible (extensible, customisable, etc.), and
  4. There are loads of free decks for you to learn things — mostly in the language-learning and the medical sphere.

There are also a few reasons you may not like Anki. Mostly because it’s a little clunky and complicated. But that’s why we have this guide — to help you get started with Anki learning languages.

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

How to Use Anki for Learning Languages — A Quick Overview

In this guide on how to use Anki, we’ll go over everything you’ll need to know about how to use Anki to learn languages faster.

We’ll cover


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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.

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 around.

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 very focused on audio — Glossika!)

Try Glossika for a Week for Free

Sign up with the link below and get a week for free before committing. Make sure you have half an hour every day to use it and really try it.

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

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 easier.

How best to use flashcards to learn languages

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; don’t take shortcuts or “cheat”. 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!

Configure your cards right. This is more of an advanced topic, but definitely use cards that have a) two sides, b) audio, and c) the target language’s writing system. You can make your own audio!

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.

Sometimes, we feel overwhelmed by our flashcard routine, and it becomes getting through it for the sake of getting through it. If you find you’re at this point, then it is important to be able to tell yourself to stop.

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 best.

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. It’s feature-rich, but that also means its complicated. The user interface can be overwhelming when you’re just trying to get started.

Alternatives to Anki are plentiful and not too expensive.

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

  • Never want to build or modify your own card decks
  • Think the interface is too ancient and that bothers you
  • Don’t want to learn the Anki setup. The system isn’t the most intuitive.
  • Don’t mind paying money, or being locked into 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

We got started with Anki by watching a Youtube introduction on a topic other than language-learning. Here it is: Anki Flashcard Basics.

If you already use Anki, then you might want to read our questions and answers (“FAQ”) on pro tips 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

FYI — once you get started with your computer and you have your deck well set-up, there might be long periods where you just use your phone.

Step 2: Create your first Anki deck and add notes

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 flashcards. A flashcard (or really, a set of flashcard fields) is called a “note” and can be broken up into multiple cards (like front-to-back, back-to-front, etc.).
  3. Click Add and decide on the note type you want.
    How to Use Anki — For Language Learners 1
  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

In a nutshell — use the Basic (and reversed card) type. It’ll be the most useful one for a long time.

  • Basic: Two-sided card. Side one has a question, the reverse side has the answer. This works
  • Basic (and reversed card) — This is our favourite!: 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. But to start with, don’t use “Basic” — at least use the Basic (Reversed)” type.

This means that for every “Note” you create, you get two cards — one that’s front-to-back, and one that’s back-to-front.

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.

Quick pro tip — it’s super easy to add audio into cards using either the computer or the app. You can add audio of your own voice, and yes, it’s OK to record yourself mispronouncing the audio. You’ll improve over time, and when you go over earlier cards, you can re-record it easily.

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!)

Depending on the language you’re learning, you might like to start modifying the format of the cards that you’re given.

For example, if you’re studying Chinese, you might like to have a card that has four fields: Chinese characters, your language (e.g. English), Pinyin pronunciation, and audio. Then you can create cards to prompt you in two or three of those things.

Step 4: Start using Anki regularly!

Set time in your calendar for flashcard review. As mentioned above, don’t add too many flashcards every day. You should plan to review flashcards for about 20-30 minutes a day and take a break one in ten days (roughly).

If you want to study for a solid 20-30 minute block every day, we recommend adding no more than 10 new cards a day. Your reviews can really add up, and you don’t want to review quickly just to “get through them”.

Step 5: Don’t let Anki rule over your life

Anki is cool. It’s effective. But it should never become your whole life, your entire language-learning routine, or something you hate.

We think of Anki like staying generally active, like walking. It’s important to do it every day, but if you go out on a 10 hour hike, you’ll be so exhausted you won’t do it again for days (or weeks).

And like walking, Anki shouldn’t be the only way you learn. There are many ways we can generally learn languages in our everyday lives, including

  • Keeping a journal
  • Listening to podcasts or watching television shows
  • Thinking up sentences and writing them down

You can easily find articles about Anki burn-out by perusing Reddit or just googling it. People totally flame out after a year or two. Don’t do that. Do the amount that you can while keeping sane, even if it’s just five minutes a day.

And if reviews become overwhelming – take a break. Stop adding new cards, and just do reviews until it’s over.

Using Anki Apps on iPhone and Android (and how to sync Anki with your phone)

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

Also, flashcards put us to sleep. Studying is a great way to knock yourself out.

Syncing Anki between computer and mobile 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, download the mobile apps.

  • Pre-warning: Do not download anything but the following apps. People have stolen the “Anki” name and misuse it. There are a few that sound similar but are unsupported and incompatible.
  • 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 nowhere near 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.

We hope this guide on how to use Anki to learn languages was useful. Please share it if so, or pin it for later!

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Larry Michael Lynch
Larry Michael Lynch
5 months ago

Very nice piece, thanks! It’s important to note that Anki should be installed on your laptop or desktop before you start using your phone.

Stephen Lawson
Stephen Lawson
4 months ago

Very helpful review, thanks very much. I’ve been using Glossika for Persian too, and I’m enjoying it so far.