The Secrets of a Successful Language Learner: Anki

In this article, I want to show you how I set up Anki. I want to explain to you why I set it up that way. But most importantly, I want to establish that Anki has value, and I want you to introduce that added value into your daily life.

With this self-admitted excess of purpose in mind, I have tried to format the tutorial to deliver both necessary and extraneous information while maintaining some semblance of flow.

(1) Essential elements are formatted as titles. Follow these steps and ignore the rest if you already understand the value Anki can provide in your life and are ready to get going. (2) I continue each point with descriptions of what’s going on in the background so that you’ll have more context. (3) I’ll conclude the article with a few tips on how I’ve used Anki, what it’s good for, and what it isn’t.

Putting my Microsoft Paint skills to work

When I was at university, I skipped French 1001 and went straight to 1002. I’d never taken French before, but my plan was to get my pre-requisites out of the way as fast as I could. I had big dreams, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to waste my time on useless classes!

(I was an idiot, of course. People like me who drag down classes are one of the main reasons pre-reqs are a nightmare and why so many students feel they’re useless.)

In the panic to catch up to my fellow students and learn to conjugate basic verbs, I developed an elaborate flash card system. My cards had English on one side and French on the other. I’d review the cards by memorizing five or ten cards at a time, adding my larger stack of already memorized cards into the “new” card pile and slowly combining new and memorized information into one large deck. Then I repeated this process with the next five or ten flash cards.

Eventually this process became unmanageable and ineffective. Setting aside for a moment that translation is one of the worst way to learn a language, there was simply too much vocabulary to learn.

Carrying around a large deck of halved index cards (because I was cheap) and reviewing over a $5 cup of coffee (because I was irresponsible) quickly got out of control.

One day while setting up to study on a bench, my rubber band broke and my cards scattered into the wind. It was the kick in the ego I needed to find a better solution.

Enter Anki.

Boiled down to its essentials, Anki is digital flashcards. Information on one side, information on the other side. Easy, right?

You can have moderate success using Anki with that one application. But real productivity lies in using its more advanced features. Today I’m here to walk you through how I set up Anki, and share with you some of the tricks I’ve learned along the way.

To successfully follow this tutorial, you’ll need (1) a laptop or computer, (2) an internet connection, and (3) a list of words you’d like to learn in your target language.

Step 1: Download Anki and install it on your laptop or computer.

It’s very important that you install the app on your laptop, not on your mobile device or tablet. Building decks is always faster on a computer, and I don’t want you to get frustrated building cards on a mobile device and then give up.

Anki is a free application. The only paid version currently on the market is the iOS app, and considering the use that it’s given me, I’ve been happy to pay the 25USD on two occasions. In exchange for the paid version, iOS users get a much cleaner UI than Android users.

Step 2: Create a Deck. Name it.

Anki has many pre-made decks available online that were shared by other users. The majority of them are very bad. They often either require you to learn vocabulary through translation or have too much information on them. Most importantly, though, you have not received prior exposure to the information in the pre-made decks. Cramming information into your head through brute force is never a good idea and would result in a lot of wasted time, so I strongly encourage you to take the route of always making your own decks.

Step 3: Change the settings in your new deck. Click the small gear/widget and change “Show new cards in order added” to “Show new cards in random order.”

I highly recommend this setting for those following the technique I detail here. Imagine you want to learn a word that has two different meanings. You create a note for one meaning and then another note for the second meaning. With the default settings, when you review those notes they’ll be right next to each other, creating a false level of awareness of the word. To avoid that, make certain new words you learn are presented to you in a random order.

Step 4: Open your new deck. Click “Add” to add a new card. Under “Type,” change the note type from “Basic” to “Cloze.”

The note type we’ll be working with today is called “cloze deletion” or, in layman’s terms, fill-in-the-blank exercises. “Basic” notes are traditional front-and-back flashcards. They’re not useless, they’re just not the best for what we’re doing today.

Step 5: Think of a new word you want to learn. Find an example sentence with that word. Copy the example sentence that you want to learn, then paste it into Anki.

Resources that I use to create sentence notes in Anki include the exact context I originally heard the word/phrase, Reverso Context, Linguee, and the macOS dictionary. These days I heavily rely on the latter because it’s so simple to use and macOS automatically detects the language I’m typing in, which is extremely useful when working across more than two languages.

In Anki, we never want to memorize sentences through translation. We want to memorize words in relation to other words in your target language. This way you develop a co-dependent ecosystem of words in your second language, one vocabulary neuron firing the other vocabulary neurons in your brain like real-life text prediction. One key to making this work successfully is to never learn vocabulary. Instead, learn lexis.

Lexis is the idea of learning entire units of language rather than individual elements. In English learning, one of the reasons learners have so much difficulty with prepositions is because they learn words in isolation. For example, they learn the word “interested” instead of the lexical unit “interested in.” To build truly good Anki cards and increase their use to you in eventually producing that information, you’ll need to understand what these lexical units are in your target language. Then find example sentences that employ not just the vocabulary but the lexical unit. For example, if I were learning the English word “interested,” I would not make an Anki note from the sentence “What do you think of rock music? I’m interested.” I would instead look for a sentence that said something like “I’m interested in rock music. I love the way it makes me feel.”

Step 6: Highlight the lexical unit you want to learn. Click the […] button to create a cloze deletion. Add the note.

Congratulations on making your first note! This is the basic process you’ll follow in order to make notes.

Step 7: Repeat steps 5 and 6 while employing shortcuts. Hovering your mouse over any element in the Anki interface will show you its shortcut.

When I’m adding a long series of notes to Anki, my workflow on my Mac looks like this:

  • Open source material/browser in one desktop. Open another desktop with Anki. Use the touchpad or ctrl+arrow to move in between desktops.
  • Search for sentence
  • Triple click to highlight the sentence
  • CMD-C to copy
  • Switch to Anki via touchpad
  • CMD-V to paste
  • Double click to highlight single word. Use shift+arrow to extend the highlight to other words.
  • CMD-SHIFT-C to create a cloze
  • CMD-ENTER to add
  • Use touchpad to flip back to source material desktop.
  • Repeat.

Step 8: Close the add window by hitting “close” or pressing ctrl-w / cmd-w.

Ctrl-w / Cmd-w are the universal commands to close any open window on Anki. Those same shortcuts also work for Zoom, Google Chrome tabs, and a number of other applications.

Step 9: Start reviewing. Only use the “Again” and “Good” options. Use the shortcuts “space” to show the answer and “1/3” to mark the answer as “Again/Good.”

This is the moment when you really experience the “Spaced Repetition” part of the program. “Failed” cards will be repeated sooner, while “Good” cars will be repeated later. The more you repeat this process, the stronger and longer-lasting your memory of these notes will become.

“Space” is the shortcut listed in Anki to show an answer. “Enter” serves the same purpose. Pressing space/enter again will also mark a card as “good.”

Step 10: Sync to the Anki Server. Create an AnkiWeb account. UPLOAD to the server.

The shortcut to sync is “Y.” Alternatively, press “sync” in the top menu.

This step is specifically for first-time users. When you sync, make certain that you upload to the server. The first time you sync, there’s nothing on Anki’s server for you. If you download, you’ll effectively sync with nothing, and Anki will erase all the work you’ve just done. (I once made this mistake when installing Anki on a new laptop, and to my eternal shame I lost all of my university notes.)

AnkiWeb is the online version of Anki, and it’s what will allow you to sync in between devices as well as review online. If you have an iPad/iPhone and you’re not yet sure if you want to make the 20USD investment, try reviewing on AnkiWeb instead.

And you’re done! I hope you were able to work with shortcuts and that those shortcuts made your life easier.

From now on, your primary objective shouldn’t be learning all of the information you can. Your primary objective is to figure out how you can easily and painlessly integrate Anki into your daily routine.

What does a good Anki routine look like? How do you best integrate reviewing cards into your daily life?

For me, it means that I do my Anki reviews first thing in the morning. I wake up, I roll over in bed, I check for any important emails, and then I do 15 minutes of Anki reviews across six languages and a number of extraneous subjects. Then I work out, shower, and have breakfast.

Now according to science, I’m doing my morning routine wrong. I should work out and then do my Anki reviews because in theory the exercise will make my mind more acute. The problem is, once I work out I want to take a shower, and once I shower my cat is begging for my attention. My ADHD can’t handle all that input, and I end up delaying or not doing my reviews for that day.

As I mentioned earlier, we’re looking for the most painless way to integrate reviews into your daily life.

How do you best integrate creating cards into your daily life?

I know that some people keep a running list of information they want to put into Anki. They then put it into Anki in batches in the evening.

For me, I work best keeping Anki constantly open. Every time I encounter something that needs to be committed to memory, I immediately put it into Anki. This also assures that I often use the source material as the sentence in my cards. For example, if I’m watching a YouTube video in French, I immediately pull the transcript and use the original sentence.

At night before bed, I review the notes that I created that day.

(A note on the science: studies show that it’s best to review new info in the morning and learn new things at night. This is the schema that I go for.)

This is what works for me. I used to do reviews during my morning and evening commutes, but I no longer have one. You might do your own reviews while taking public transportation, waiting in line, or with your morning coffee.

Let me just stress again that it doesn’t matter where or how you do your reviews. It doesn’t even matter how many reviews you do each day. What matters is that you establish it as a habit, and that you very slowly strengthen that habit.

More than anything else, that habit of daily practice is what will make you a strong language learner.

I don’t know what all the celebrity polyglots are doing to learn their languages, but Anki is the one tool that I have used on each of my language journeys.

I have a suspicion that most professional language learners are using this or a similar app, but they’re so interested in selling you their own product that they don’t really tell you the secret to successfully juggling language acquisition and maintenance. Celebrity polyglot videos of “How I Learned X Language in Y Days” look so stupidly inefficient to me that I simply cannot believe anyone can exist in the professional learning environment and not be using spaced repetition software (SRS) like Anki.

As a language teacher, I have a pretty good idea of how language acquisition works. Find new thing. Practice new thing. Use new thing. Repeat ad infinitum.

Anki fits vaguely in the second place, “practice.” Language teachers call this “constructed exercises,” but you can basically think of it as any language fill-in-the-blank exercise you’ve ever seen in a classroom. It also succeeds in covering an often-neglected part of language learning where we forget something as soon as we’re no longer actively using it.

To reiterate: Anki is “practice.” It is not comprehensive self-teaching. It is not the initial learning stage. It is not producing the language you’re learning in any meaningful sense. What Anki does is (1) set you up for success when the time comes to use your target language and (2) ensure future success by periodically reinforcing what you learned.

This means that the time that you invest up-front building Anki notes and doing reviews actually saves you time in the end. In the realm of language practice, it means that you save time by not repeatedly looking up the same word on multiple occasions. It also means that you don’t sound silly when speaking casually with natives by repeating the same word in order to assure yourself you’ve got it down.

If anything is unclear, I made a truly terrible YouTube video walking through the process with two of my English students. You can also find additional help on the Anki subreddit. If you need any help, please reach out to me via a comment on this post!

After this long journey together, I hope you’ve picked up a new asset to add to your toolbox. However, let me stress that that is exactly what Anki is: a tool. It is not the answer to all your language learning prayers.

At the end of the day, the only thing that will help you learn a language is consistent effort. Anki is one extremely efficient way to get in one essential part of that effort.

Teacher trainer and ESL instructor based out of Morocco. Head of Training and Development, Resilient Communities NGO. hmu @nickguyrees

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