Anki flashcards: a shortcut for learning Chinese

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Disclaimer: Even if this post mainly target Chinese learners, the ideas I share are quite general and I believe they hold true for any language.

Why should you use flashcards to study Chinese?

The use of flashcards involves active recall testing, that is being asked a question and trying to remember the answer. There are two main reasons why active recall is better than passive study:

a) Recalling something increases the chance you will remember it because strengthens your memory.

b) If you don’t remember the answer to a question, you know you need to review that specific material.

What’s a spaced repetition software (SRS)?

Many people use flashcards without a precise scheduling, reviewing them “when they feel it.” I was one of them, and of course I quickly ended up not revising my flashcards at all because it was a lot of work for a quite poor result. Not cool…

So, how to use these holy flashcards?

We all know our brain acts as a filter and only remembers what it uses: if you learn a Chinese character but you never use it again, your brain will forget it because will “judge” it is not important. There are studies that show we forget about 75 percent of what we learned within two days. The only solution is review.

(Last sentence has been shamelessly copy-pasted by Anki‘s documentation, where Anki is my favorite spaced repetition software (SRS).)

To further stress the concept, let’s say today you learn five new sentences, that you review them tomorrow, in three days, in ten days, in two months and then once every six months: you will remember them forever. This phenomenon is called spacing effect and it’s known since the 1885. If you do not believe me or prefer a cooler explanation, buy Quantum Memory Power by Dominic O’Brien, eight time memory world champion. He will also teach you how to remember phone numbers of cute girls, the name of the children of your boss and the list for the supermarket : O

Anyway, Anki implements the algorithm I (and Dominic O’Brien) described, allowing us to do not waste our time revising again and again characters or sentences we know very well (我, 你, 他, 小狗, whatever). In the same time, if for any reason there are characters that are more difficult to remember to you (my personal challenge are all characters pronounced “qi” or “ji” as my memory kind of filter them off, should I see a psychologist?), you can signal it to Anki by clicking on the red bottom when that character shows up. In this way, Anki’s algorithm will show this character more often till you learn it by heart.

The result is that if you complete your Anki’s session almost every day, you will never forget the characters you already learned. If you reckon you have no time for all this stuff, think about it: Anki works on any smart phone (Nokia, Siemens, iPhone, …). So you can do your daily review on the bus, subway or wherever (I’m using my laptop as I’m the only person in East China that doesn’t have a smart phone).

Of course, if you want to progress with your Chinese, you need to add every week some new cards to your deck. For instance, you could add the sentences you learn on your favorite Chinese online course/class/soap opera.

For the moment I’m testing a deck I’ve downloaded from Anki’s database (see How to learn Chinese fast: my (lazy) way for details on my deck). However, I will eventually start to write my own flashcards.

Which kind of flashcards should you use?

I believe you shouldn’t use single character’s flashcards. Instead, try to prepare flashcards – or download a deck from Anki’s database – that contain small sentences so that you can learn every character on his own context (check out How to learn Chinese fast: my (lazy) way for details on “context”).

On the shoulders of SRS’s giants

Here three great articles about SRS. In the first one, Misgivings about SRS, John Pasden explains as some people, especially the ones that have a very analytical mind, fall on the trap of thinking that an SRS is all they need to learn a language. This is obviously a mistake: SRSs are great to review, solidify vocabulary and, if done right, learn new words. However, learning a language is not only matter of extending vocabulary: if you want really master Chinese, you will still need to go out, step outside your comfort zone and talk with people.

The second post is from Khatzumoto of All Japanese all the time. He explains as you should keep on your SRS daily scheduling only the sentences that you enjoy and that make sense to you. This made me realize a mistake I was doing with Anki: I was trying to memorize all the sentences from the deck I chose, which also include sentences I will never use and that are then quite difficult for me to memorize. This will eventually lead to boredom: it is much better to only keep on your deck the sentences that “fit” your needs and throw away the others. This will allow you to keep momentum and do not fall back on your “bad” habits, i.e. no review at all.

Finally, some good tips to write your own flashcards: Effective learning: Twenty rules of formulating knowledge.

Are you using a SRS to study Chinese? What’s your method?

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