10 Tips for Learning a Language with Anki

Anki is a cross platform program for learning using spaced repetitions. It uses a “flash card” system with sophisticated scheduling so you can learn each card the minimal number of times that it takes to memorize it. The basic principle is that it shows you the “front” of a card. It can be a definition to a word (or the reverse), a picture, a question or all together. After you decide on what you think the “back” of the card is, you click on a “show answer” button. Then you tell Anki if you were right or not. You can use Anki to learn anything - languages, math, science, music, etc.

I’ve known of Anki’s existence for several years and always wanted to try it, but felt I didn’t have an appropriate subject. About a year ago, I took a course in Palestinian Arabic (the dialect that is spoken by Arab citizens of Israel, which is where I live) and realized it was a perfect opportunity to give Anki a chance. I can say without a doubt that it was the magic ingredient that propelled me to the top my class.

In this post, I’ll share some of the lessons I’ve learned in the past year about effectively learning a language with Anki.

Some terminology for those less familiar with Anki:
in Anki, a deck is a collection of cards. A card is what you might know as a “flash card” - with a front and back (or question and answer). Cards are not created directly, but via a note. A note is a bit of information that you need to know, and one note can generate many cards. For example, if you had a note for state capitals, that note might contain the information

State: New York
Capital: Albany

This note might generate two cards. One would have a front that says “What is the capital of New York?” with the back of “Albany”. The second card’s front would say “Albany is the capital of which state?” with a back of “New York”.

Tip #1: Read the manual

Anki is one of the most involved programs I ever had to deal with. That’s not bad, per se. Some programs should be easy and accessible because you go in and out of them quickly. But learning requires effort, and so does Anki.

The Anki manual is a treasure trove of useful information and tips. Once you know how the system works, it’s a lot easier to operate and customize to your needs.

Look, I know - “read the manual” sounds like a lazy tip. I never read manuals. I even assemble IKEA furniture without reading the instruction. I didn’t choose the thug life. The thug life chose me.

But if you’re reading this article because you want to be more effective with Anki, this is the best tip you should adopt. In fact, some of the following tips are derivatives of “best practices” I learned from the Anki manual.

Tip #2: Say the answers out loud

Just “thinking” the answer and then checking it leaves too much wiggle room for your mind to rationalize that you kind-of sort-of did get the answer right. I tried both, and the difference is noticeable. Saying the answers out loud forces you to decide on the specific answer and leaves no room to think “actually, in retrospect, I knew this was answer.”

This is doubly so for learning a language - since I might remember how a word (or sentence) is roughly spelled, but not the exact pronunciation. If you don’t say it, it’s difficult to determine if you actually remembered it.

While it is comfortable to use some free time on the bus to quietly ramp up on your Chinese, I suggest you do it only when you can speak it out loud (if you do this on the bus, it has the added advantage of giving you a lot of breathing space as other passengers might move further away).

Tip #3: Don’t use a shared deck

Want to learn Italian? It’s tempting to just go and grab a random Italian shared deck and study from it. However, I suggest you build your own deck instead. Why?

  1. Creating notes for your deck is a huge part of the learning process. After each lesson in my Arabic course I went over my notebook to select the most useful words and phrases I should memorize. I also went over exercises we did and tried to incorporate them into Anki. In effect, I did a review of the material, which is amazing, because throughout my actual degree in Software Engineering I haven’t done that even once.
  2. Language is a tricky subject. Your teacher might tell you that to greet someone hello in Arabic, you should say “Markhaba”, but another teacher might instead teach you to say “Ahalan Wasahalan”. Both are correct and are used daily by native speakers, but you would usually study just a handful of choices for education purposes. This means that using someone else’s deck might confuse you. Instead, your deck should grow with you, together with your understanding of the language.

Tip #4: Make your own note types

I suggest you not only create your own deck, but also your own note types. There are two reasons. The first is convenient editing. I’ll let the manual explain:

While basic note types are sufficient for simple cards with only a word or phrase on each side, as soon as you find yourself wanting to include more than one piece of information on the front or back, it’s better to split that information up into more fields.

You may find yourself thinking “but I only want one card, so why can’t I just include the audio, a picture, a hint and the translation in the Front field?” If you’d prefer to do that, that’s fine. But the disadvantage of that approach is that all the information is stuck together. If you wanted to sort your cards by the hint, you wouldn’t be able to do that as it’s mixed in with the other content. You also wouldn’t be able to do things like move the audio from the front to the back, except by laboriously copying and pasting it for every note. By keeping content in separate fields, you make it much easier to adjust the layout of your cards in the future.

– Anki Manual, Adding a Note Type

The second reason is customization for your specific language. Let me explain with an example. In Arabic (as in Hebrew), verbs are changed depending on the grammatical person, tense, plurality and sex. Consider the verb “open” in past tense:

Person / NumberEnglishArabic
You (masculine)openedfatakht
You (feminine)openedfatakhti
You (plural)openedfatakhtu

If you’re learning Arabic, you need to know how the different suffixes, prefixes and diacritics for each verb. Fortunately, verbs can be sorted into groups where these are similar. In this way, I have created a note type for each verb group (that I learned so far) that automatically creates many cards for each person, number, tense, etc.

Notice that I only had to enter the Hebrew definition of the verb (in this case, “started”) and only three letters of the Arabic translation (in Hebrew phonetic transliteration). This note type creates 19 different cards in my deck by combining the “root” letters with the correct suffixes, prefixes and diacritics.

Now, my method is specific to the Arabic (and similar, Semitic) languages. The point is for you to explore the language you’re learning and try to find small parts of the language that can benefit from a shared note type.

This is doubly effective. First, it does the obvious of saving me work when learning a lot of different verbs. But the most important benefit is that by trying to come up with good note types, I have also learned a lot about the language I’m studying.

Tip #5: Mix use of context and “pure grammar”

Reading the previous tip, you might think that my Anki deck is filled with verb tables and word-definition pairs. But that’s only part of the story. The problem with these “pure grammar” notes is that they are more difficult to recall during an actual conversation. The reason is that neurons that fire together, wire together. This means that it’s best to add context to your studies.

Instead of having 3 cards for “blackboard”, “chalk” and “write”, consider having one note of the sentence “Dan writes on the blackboard with chalk”. It’s both easier to remember and it helps your brain think of “chalk” when you think of “blackboard”, because you trained it to know these words are connected.

This is especially useful for learning prepositions. Learning the words “under”, “next to”, “in” is harder in isolation than in sentence like “the chair is next to the table”.

Tip #6: Make it personal

It’s noticeably easier to study cards you can relate to. Let’s say you want to learn the English word for “Lawyer”. Acting in accordance with the previous tip, you might conjure up a sentence like “Dan is a lawyer”. That’s great, but the best way to do this is to think of a sentence that relates to you. I have a card that (in Arabic) says “My wife is a lawyer” because she is.

“Personal” doesn’t just mean “facts”. It can be a joke or something from a book you like. If you don’t know a lawyer, you can use a sentence like “never trust a lawyer” or “Denny Crane is the best lawyer”. Whatever you can relate to.

Other than being easy to relate to, personal context can just be plain useful. I have a card that says “How do you like your coffee? No sugar please”. It can come in handy when you actually want your coffee without sugar.

Tip #7: Use the Cloze note type to learn “secondary muscles”

If you already use context and personalization to recall words, there is yet another technique I suggest for more effective learning - the Cloze note type. If you haven’t used it before, Cloze gives you a “sentence completion” card that is impossible to generate with any other note type:

Cloze deletion is the process of hiding one or more words in a sentence. For example, if you have the sentence:

Canberra was founded in 1913.

…and you create a cloze deletion on “1913”, then the sentence would become:

Canberra was founded in [...].

– Anki Manual, Cloze Deletion

I often use Cloze by having cards with small conversations, like so:

- What do you for work?
- I work as a programmer

Then, I use Cloze deletion to make several cards from this one note. In one card, I’ll delete both words for “work”. In another, the word for “programmer”. The nice thing about Cloze deletion is that you get to practice words that you don’t even delete. For example, in each card I’ll say “What do you do”, which is not the intended purpose of this specific note, but still lets you practice another aspect of the language.

Tip #8: Suspend often

In Anki, there’s a leech mechanism that automatically suspends cards when they are “a leech” on your study time:

Leeches are cards that you keep on forgetting. Because they require so many reviews, they take up a lot more of your time than other cards.

Anki can help you identify leeches. Each time a review card lapses, a counter is increased. When that counter reaches 8, the note is tagged as a leech, and the card is suspended.

– Anki Manual, Leeches

There is another category of cards that I recommend you suspend - cards that are not very useful. Sometimes I’ll see a card several times and realize I don’t really need the information it’s providing me. For example, I had a card with the Arabic word for “necktie” that I kept forgetting (but not so much that Anki marked it a leech). I realized that it’s very unlikely that I’ll be in a situation where I’ll have to use the word “necktie” in Arabic and that it’s a poor use of my time to memorize it. So I just suspended it.

I do, however, suggest that you be more inclined to suspend a note than to not create it in the first place - it takes a while to figure out what is useful (or not so useful, but easy to remember) and what is not. So I suggest you take an “easy come, easy go” approach to notes - dump whatever you can into your deck, but feel free to suspend it on a whim.

This allows you both to learn the most useful material and to enjoy it more.

Tip #9: Realize the effects of breaks

This tip has less to do with language and more to do with your psychology. I try to study with Anki on a daily basis, but some days are just hectic and I never get around to doing this. If this happens to you, don’t be bummed out. The Anki scheduler actually deals with this in a pretty cool manner:

When you answer cards that have been waiting for a while, Anki factors in that delay when determining the next time a card should be shown.

– Anki Manual, Falling Behind

Let’s say you had a card that had a learning delay of 7 days. If you fall off the wagon for 3 days after that delay and only then learn the card, Anki will realize that you had actually managed to remember the cards with a 10 day delay and will factor this in when calculating the next interval. This means that missing some days here and there doesn’t have a big negative impact on your deck scheduling.

To me, knowing about how Anki treats my “days off” keeps me more motivated when I’m ready to come back and study.

Tip #10: Memorize longer texts

For the last lesson in my Arabic course, we had to memorize a short story - about 250 words. At first, this exercise seemed like a waste of time - what good can come out of just memorizing text? In retrospect, it was one of the best exercises I did. Learning from one-off sentences or two-three sentence conversation is fine for learning new vocabulary or grammar. But learning a whole text - with “everything” thrown in - teaches you a lot more about how to actually speak that language.

Learning a longer text in Anki is not so difficult (I was one of only two people in my class who actually memorized the whole story), but it’s easy to make some wrong choices.

To learn how to use Anki for learning long texts, I picked this tip up from a SuperMemo article (SuperMemo is the program Anki’s algorithm is based on):

A poem split into easy items

Q: The credit belongs ... (Teddy Roosevelt)
A: to the man who's actually in the arena

Q: The credit belongs to the man who's actually in the arena ...
A: whose face is marred by dust and sweat (a man who knows the great enthusiasm)

Q: whose face is marred by dust and sweat ... (The credit belongs)
A: a man who knows the great enthusiasm and the great devotions (who spends himself in a worthy cause)

Q: a man who knows the great enthusiasm and the great devotions ... (The credit belongs)
A: who spends himself in a worthy cause (who in the end knows the triumph of high achievement)

Q: who spends himself in a worthy cause ... (The credit belongs)
A: who in the end knows the triumph of high achievement (so that his place shall never be), etc. etc.

Effective Learning: Twenty Rules of Formulating Knowledge

This is useful because it helps you associate one sentence with the next one. So you don’t have to remember the entire text at once, but every little bit reminds you of the next one, and the next one, until you can recall the whole thing from memory.

I suggest you select a long text (a story, poem, song or even a joke) of a difficulty that is just a little above what you currently know. It will allow you to learn some words from context and to get better, faster. Learning a long text also gives you more confidence when speaking, and will provide you with a proper response to the (very frequent) question “You’re learning a new language? What have you learned by now?”

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Thanks to Ram Rachum and Hannan Aharonov for reading drafts of this.

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