Note: Although this post is mainly geared towards Chinese learners, the ideas I share are quite general and I think they are valid for any language.
Why use Anki flashcards to study Chinese?
The use of Anki flashcards involves active recall tests, which means asking a question and trying to remember the answer. There are two main reasons why active recall is better than passive study:
a) The memory reinforces the memory increasing the possibilities that you can retain something.
b) If you don’t remember the answer to a question, you will know that you have to review that lesson again.
What is spaced repetition software (SRS) Anki?
Many people use flashcards without a specific plan, they review them “when they feel like it.” I was one of them, and of course, I quickly ended up not reviewing my flashcards at all, because it was a lot of work to get a pretty poor result.
So how to use these blessed flashcards?
We all know that our brain acts as a filter and only remembers what it uses: if you learn a Chinese character, but never use it again, your brain will forget it because it will “judge” it as not important. Studies show that we forget 75 percent of what we have learned in two days. The only solution is to review.
(The last sentence has been shamelessly translated from information provided by Anki, Anki being my favorite spaced repetition software (SRS).)
To further emphasize the concept, let’s say today you learn five new phrases, I review them tomorrow, in three days, in ten days, in two months, and then every six months: You will remember them forever. This phenomenon is called the spacing effect and has been known since 1885.
If you don’t believe me or prefer a more technical explanation, you can purchase Quantum Memory Power by Dominic O’Brien, the eight-time memory world champion. It teaches how to remember the phone numbers of your date, the name of your boss’s children, and the list for the supermarket.
However, Anki implements the algorithm that I (and Dominic O’Brien) described, allowing us to not waste time revisiting characters or phrases that we know very well (我, 你, 他, 小狗, whatever).
At the same time, if for some reason there are characters that are more difficult for you to remember (my personal challenge is all characters that are pronounced “qi” or “Ji” since my memory tends to filter them), I should see a psychologist? ), it can be indicated to Anki by clicking on the red bottom when the character appears. This way, Anki’s algorithm will display this character more often until you memorize it.
The result is that if you log out of Anki almost every day, you’ll never forget the characters you’ve already learned. If you think you don’t have time for all these things, think about this: Anki works on any smartphone (Nokia, Siemens, iPhone).
So you can do the daily check on the bus, subway, over coffee, or wherever (I’m using my laptop as I must be the only person in eastern China who doesn’t have a smartphone ).
Of course, if you want to progress with your Chinese, you need to add a few new flashcards to your deck every week. For example, you can add the phrases you are learning in your favorite online Chinese course/class/soap opera.
What type of flashcards should I use?
I think character flashcards alone should not be used. It’s much more useful to prepare flashcards – or download a deck from Anki’s database – that contain short phrases so you can learn each character in its own context.
Learning from the SRS teachers
Below I present an extract of the main ideas of three excellent articles on SRS (all in English).
The first, Misgivings about SRS, John Pasden explains how some people, especially those with highly analytical minds, fall into the trap of thinking that an SRS is all they need to learn a language.
This is obviously a mistake: SNSs are good for revising, building vocabulary, and, if done right, learning new words. However, learning a language is not just a matter of expanding your vocabulary: if you really want to master Chinese, you still have to get out of your comfort zone and talk to people.
He explains that you should do daily programming with the SRS only of the phrases that you like and that make sense to you. This article made me realize a mistake I was making with Anki: I was trying to memorize all the phrases in the deck I chose, which also included phrases that I will never use and are therefore quite difficult for me to memorize.
This leads to boredom in the long run: It’s much better to only include in the deck the phrases that “fit” your needs and discard the rest. This will allow you to stay motivated and not fall back into “bad habits“—that is, forgetting about revision altogether.
Finally, some tips for designing your own flashcards.