If you’re interested in getting to know the local culture, you should use Anki. One of the best ways to get a more genuine experience – interacting with locals, getting them to show you the “Behind the Scenes” of that city, and even hearing about spectacular places – is to learn the local language. Now, if you’re busy during your normal life (let’s be real, who isn’t?), you want a clean, straightforward way to review vocabulary. (While grammar matters, the most important part of being able to communicate is knowing the right words to use.)
Note: I get no compensation from recommending them, and Anki is a completely free tool to use! They have an iPhone app that is expensive by app standards ($27+), but you can easily access it for free on your iPhone browser instead. The Android app is in development.
What is Anki? How Does It Work?
Like many other language-learning software, Anki allows you to use flash cards to review new vocabulary. You can download the desktop version of it (Mac or PC) for free, and you can create different “profiles”, which act like accounts. When you have logged in, you can import decks which are available on the Anki website, or create your own. You can break the decks down into subsections (my Spanish deck has verbs, nouns, etc.) or just leave it as one large deck (my Chinese deck). If you want, you can change fonts and font size, add pictures, record sound, and even insert a place for you to type in the correct answer for a card. When you learn/review the cards, you can set a maximum number of new cards and cards to review, or flip the cards over if you want to test yourself another way.
Anki stands out from other flashcard services because it has built in time-interval system. When you see a flashcard for the first time, you have three choices: see it again in 1 minute, 10 minutes, or 2 days. Depending on how familiar you are with the card, you can choose which time interval is best for you. If you are reviewing a card, times until the next review can range from 10 minutes (if you have forgotten it) to 1 year (if you really know it). You can change the minimum and maximum times, but the defaults of 10 minutes to 1 year have been really helpful for me.
This is extremely useful because it helps you review the cards that you don’t know at a much higher frequency than the cards that you do know. It helps you overcome the biggest challenge when learning a new language – focusing on the wrong things. When you put more time into strengthening your weaknesses, you can improve dramatically and much more quickly than if you tried to review the same cards (physical or virtual) every day.
[Recommended Read: How to Learn a Completely New Language While Abroad]
How Has Anki Helped Me?
When I have enough motivation and time, I review my flash cards in Anki basically every day. Since I’ve gotten more serious about studying, I spend an hour a day studying my flash cards daily, and it has really paid off. While I spoke Chinese before, I can read much more now, including health-related guides; I knew no Spanish before but can now read many news articles. Even in English, I have expanded my vocabulary a lot more. Needless to say, much of my progress in learning these languages and greatly expanding my vocabulary is due to Anki.
The Pros of Using Anki
- Varying time intervals between reviews
Seriously. It’s a revolutionary way to study vocabulary; if you know it, you can see the word again much later. If you don’t, you will see it more often until you remember.
- Super data-friendly
If you want to study on the go, Anki is a super minimalist interface; they claim they use just 2kB per card. If you still have limited data, this is a blessing.
- Tells you about duplicate cards ASAP
If you accidentally make two of the same card, Anki will tell you right away.
- Can easily include pictures, audio, etc.
Inserting other types of media is really easy, and can enrich your learning process.
[Recommended Read: What’s So Different About Chinese Weddings Anyway?]
- Hard to find good pre-made decks
It might just be me, but I haven’t had a lot of luck finding great pre-made decks to use. I want my decks to be tailored to my experience, so I make my own from scratch. Needless to say, it’s not very quick. If you want good pre-made decks, not just the samples, you might have to do some soul searching.
- Really piles up when you don’t review
It takes 10 minutes to review my Spanish flashcards, but if I miss a couple days it adds up. Normally, I have ~70 cards to review, but it quickly becomes 200+ if I don’t stay on top of it. This is because the time intervals are different for each card, so an easy word you saw a week ago, a medium word you saw 4 days ago, and a new card from yesterday all show up today. You can set maximum reviews per day, but once the pile up happens, it can be daunting to get back into the game.
- You can’t play games for review
Some flashcard services allow you to rearrange your cards so you can play matching games or fill-in-the-blank. Unfortunately, Anki doesn’t have that sort of service built in.
Overall, Anki is my preferred flashcard service. It’s imperfect, but I think it’s one of the best tools I’ve used for vocabulary. It helps you focus on the words that you need to spend more time on so you can learn more quickly.
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What are some tools that you have used to help you learn languages, for travel or something else? Let me know in the comments below!