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Language learning with Anki

It’s about time you learn the smart way to use the all-time best application for language learning — Anki. Anki is a free and open-source flashcard program using spaced repetition, a technique from cognitive science for fast and long-lasting memorization. “Anki” is the Japanese word for “memorization”.

In case you missed the memo, Anki is a sworn by tool for many polyglots and a daily part of most serious language learners’ study routine. (Mine included!) It’s essential for memorizing and retaining your target foreign language.

There’s a learning curve, but much less of one than most Anki experts will make you believe. The platform honestly isn’t intimidating at all once you learn a few basics. And when it comes to language learning, you only have to know the absolute basics to get the job done.

Learning a language with Anki and learning other subjects with Anki is often very different. The insight and tips shared in this article are solely for learning languages with Anki. (Although they could still be applied to other subjects!)

You won’t learn anything about Anki’s interface that’s not necessary for the language learning process. My goal is making sure you become a pro at using Anki for the language learning powerhouse that it is.

The tips and tricks in this article can be applied to learning any and all languages. Spanish, French, German, Italian, Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, you name it.

So make sure you bookmark or pin this article for later! (Unless you have photogenic memory… which in that case, you won’t have to.)

Oh, and don’t forget to grab your 51-page language learning printable bundle before you leave!

First things first… should you make your own deck or download one from online?

Answers vary quite dramatically to this question and I’m sure you’ll find solid cases for doing both.

In my opinion, learned through experience, you should create your own deck when it comes to language learning.

There’s a good chance that decks you pick up online will be filled with words or phrases that you don’t care to learn yet. They’ll likely be very random and there’s a good chance you’ll find mistakes.

When you create your own deck, you’re able to personalize it around your own learning style preferences. You can add images, audio, example sentences, tags, and plenty of other personal touches.

By adding words and phrases yourself, you learn associations and contexts gained through outside reliable language learning sources.

I suggest find a language learning platform that you trust, and collecting phrases and words from there. Once you finish that platform, find another reliable source and start adding words from there. Start with vocabulary (and grammar structures) most relevant to you!

Science has proven that making the language learning process personal is the key to quick memorization. Check out my post on 4 ways to apply memory psychology to the language learning process to learn more about that.

If you need some reliable language learning apps / platforms, try my top 3:

Best note types to use

Anki allows you to create different types of notes for different material. Each type of note has its own set of fields and card types.

When you create a new collection, Anki automatically adds some standard note types to it. The standard note types are as follows:

  • Basic
  • Basic (and reversed card)
  • Cloze
  • Basic (optional reversed card)
  • Basic (type in the answer)

Now that we’ve got the introductions out of the way, let’s proceed to which note types will give you the most bang for your buck as a language learner.

Basic (type in the answer)

My personal favorite is the note type where you type in the answer. The “answer” in this case, is the translation of the word / phrase displayed on the front of the card.

The key here is making sure you have to type in the foreign language translation. Meaning you view the phrase / word in your native language and then answer by typing the translation in your target language.

You’d be surprised at how much easier it is when you do the reverse and type in your native language. Trust me friend– it’s no challenge writing something in your native tongue… even when transliterating from another language.

When it comes to Anki, “easy” is not better. In more ways than one, which I’ll discuss in greater depth later.

I’m sure you can understand why typing in the answer is a much more mentally invigorating process than staring a card and clicking a button to be given the answer. (Which is exactly what the basic card is.)

Using a type-in card from a reading, and possibly listening practice, to a reading, listening, and writing practice. And ideally verbal as well, though I’ll discuss that more in a little bit.

Typing means you actually have to know the answer– down to all the diacritics and accents. Anki visually displays which parts of your answer you got wrong, you got right, and you forgot.

Answering in your mind can lead to overconfidence and a false afterthought that you got the answer right… when you didn’t. Writing it in means you have to choose one answer and stick with it without arguing with yourself afterward that you got it right.

Cloze

This is a note type which makes it easy to select text and turn it into a cloze deletion (e.g., “Man landed on the moon in […]” → “Man landed on the moon in 1969”).

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 [...].

Here me out though. While you can create a deck consisting solely of basic type in the answer cards, you should not create a deck solely of cloze cards.

Cloze cards serve a specific purpose. To assist in memorizing grammar through the placement of words in their proper context.

Unlike other card types, you won’t have a translation on the card in your native language. A cloze card simply has a phrase written in your target language with with a word or a few missing that are also in your target langage.

Consider this card type a fill in the blank type thing. And since you won’t have a native translation to reference, you’ll actually need to know what the card is saying prior to adding it to your deck.

Saying the translations out loud

While this doesn’t have much to do with creating the flashcards, adding a verbal element to your Anki study is super important.

There are so many language learners who know another language but are simply too afraid to speak it. Either their mouth isn’t acquainted with the sounds, their accent makes speech indistinguishable, or they literally never took the time to actually learn the way certain letters and diacritics sound together.

Regardless of what the reason is, unless your only intention is to be a transliterator, knowing a language does you little good if you can’t speak it.

There’s no excuse to not verbally practicing your target language.

Even though Anki doesn’t offer an “answer with speech” feature, you can still very well answer with your speech. And you should.

Before you flip the card over to reveal the phrase or word in your target language:

  1. Mentally visualize it.
  2. Type it in the answer field . (If Basic type in answer card)
  3. Say it out loud.

Then flip the card to see if you got it right. Now, Anki makes adding a written translation mandatory– so it’s a given you’ll be able to check your answer in that regards. However, with speech you can’t check your answer unless you’ve added audio to the card. Which brings me to my next pro tip.

Adding Audio to your notes

How else are you supposed to check whether you got the verbal translation correct?

Since you’ll likely be listening and speaking in your target language more than reading or writing, you don’t want to miss this step.

Some language learners even opt to skip adding the text translation and only add the audio translation. (However, I advise against that since Anki doesn’t automatically back up media… which means if you don’t manually back up your deck regularly, you’ll lose recent audio translations. Tragic.)

I find that audio adds a bit of life to language learning with Anki. Anki study sessions exceeding 30 minutes can quickly turn dull when there’s no audio and/or you’re not speaking out loud.

Audio keeps things interesting. And most importantly, it makes sure you’re learning how to master the verbal side of the language. Accents and all.

All you have to do is click the microphone icon to add audio to a card.

language learning with anki audio
You can also click the paperclip icon if you’d like to add an image… although this isn’t necessary when learning a language. Pictures can definitely help strong visual learners.

Making the timer visible

I’m well aware that this may scream “too much pressure” for some language learners– but if you can handle the timer being visible, then enable it.

What is this timer I speak of?

Anki monitors how long it takes you to answer each question so that it can show you how long was spent studying each day.

If “show answer timer” is checked, Anki will display the current time taken for each card in the study area. Anki is always tracking the time, but whether or not you can see the timer is up to you.

By default, if you take longer than 60 seconds, Anki assumes you have walked away from your computer or have been distracted, and limits the recorded time to 60 seconds, so that you don’t end up with inaccurate statistics. (This can be changed in settings.)

Click More at the bottom of the Anki deck screen –> click Options –> click the General tab

The ignore answer times… option allows you to adjust the cutoff threshold. The minimum cutoff is 30 seconds. I’d suggest keeping it at 60 seconds or higher though, since 30 seconds isn’t always enough to remember newer or more complex phrases.

Why does making the timer visible matter though? Simple. It takes the guesswork out of how long it took you to remember a translation.

When deciding whether to mark card as “again”, “hard”, “good”, or “easy”, the most important factor after whether you actually got the answer right or not… is how long it took you to remember the answer.

You should mark the card “again” if you got it wrong (meaning it’ll be shown to you again in under 10 minutes). Deciding what time range constitutes as “hard” depends on the complexity of the word or phrase you were trying to remember.

Long story short:

  • When it takes a long time to remember the card, mark it “hard.” For a one-word answer, consider 20 to 30 or more seconds as a “hard” answer. For a phrase, consider 30 to 60 or more seconds as a “hard” answer.
  • If it took a moderate amount of time to remember the card, mark it “good.” For a one-word answer, consider 5 to 20 seconds as a “good” answer. For a phrase, consider 5 to 30 seconds as a “good” answer.
  • If it took a short amount of time to remember the card, mark it “easy.” For a one-word answer, consider 3 or less seconds as an “easy” answer. For a phrase, consider 5 or less seconds as an “easy” answer.

Avoid clicking “easy” (for the most part)

If the “easy” time range above seems overly narrow, that’s because it is. In all honesty, I’d encourage language learners to very rarely hit the easy button.

The easy button should be solely reserved for cards in which the answer comes to you automatically. If the answer is second-nature, then sure, mark it easy.

But it never hurts to over familiarize yourself with a word or phrase. (Learn more about the important of strategic repetition in 4 ways to apply memory psychology to the language learning process!)

Always remember the age-old phrase, if you don’t use it you lose it.

After you’ve been studying a word for quite a while, Anki makes the ‘easy’ button mean you won’t see the card again until over a year from the present day. (Which consistently goes up with time.) Clicking “good” means you’ll see the card in a little over half that time. It’s not failure clicking good.

Anki functions with the intention of showing you a card right when you’re about to forget it. I’d say do yourself a favor and don’t overestimate your memory.

Setting a reasonable new card limit

Card limit and new card limit are two different things. When you’re still in the initial phases of language learning with Anki, you’ll likely be adding tons of new words on a daily basis.

There’s no real reason to wait in bulking up your deck after all. Once you add a card to your deck, it’s considered “new” until after you review it for the first time.

Depending on how many cards you add daily, the amount of new cards available for study can quickly become overwhelming.

Anki’s default is 20 new cards. So if you have 20 new cards to learn, you’ll have those mixed in along with the cards you need to review for the day. If you have 100 new cards to learn, you’ll still only have 20 new cards available for you study that day.

All I can say is to adjust that amount to what will feel most manageable for you. If you’re not sure, stick with 20 new cards and see how that goes.

Click More at the Bottom of the Anki Deck screen –> click Options, and this will be the first tab you see.

A nice mix of new and older cards is the way to go. It’s all about balance and respecting your mind’s short-term and long-term memory capabilities.

Before you head out

If you need a consistent, time-efficient, less hands-on way to study your target language, do yourself a favor and check out Pimsleur.

Head over to my review on 30 days of learning Spanish with Pimsleur to get a taste of what Pimsleur is all about. All you need is approx. 30 minutes daily to reach near fluency in 5 months.

Pimsleur is perfect for busy bodies who want to drive, clean, exercise, cook, or do something else while listening to a language learning podcast. At least give it a try.

If you need an interactive way to take notes, track, and plan your language learning journey, then snag my exclusive language journal mega bundle!

You can also get a nice dose of language learning inspiration on my PinterestInstagram, and right here on this blog.

You can even score your own digital creative language learning tool kit straight by putting in your name and email below!

And trust me– I never spam.

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Keep learning languages my galfriend or palfriend! And I look forward to seeing you again real soon.

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