Tools

What is Anki? It’s The Key To Remembering Japanese Forever.

If you’ve searched around the internet for ways to learn Japanese, then you’ve no doubt come across people recommending the use of Anki. But what is Anki and what does it do?

The basic answer is that it is a digital flashcard program that utilizes spaced repetition for organizing your review sessions.

Maybe that explanation doesn’t really clear everything up, but instead creates new questions.

So today I’m going to talk about what Anki is, where you can get it, how I recommend you use it, and how it helps you to remember Japanese forever.

Here’s the Breakdown on Anki

Alright, so Anki is a “digital flashcards program that uses a spaced repetition system (SRS) for reviewing cards.” Let’s break each of these terms down, and explain them now.

Probably everyone reading this article is familiar with flashcards. They are simply rectangular pieces of paper with the information you’re trying to memorize on the front side, and then any answers, explanation, or tips on the back side.

They’ve been around for ages, and a lot of people used them in school to remember useful information before a test.

The nice thing about Anki is that these flashcards are digital, so your deck of cards will always fit into your computer (or on your phone) even when you get up into the thousands or tens of thousands of flashcards.

Another benefit of digital is that you can sync your data up to the cloud and then practice across multiple devices.

You could do thirty cards on your phone while waiting in line and then upload your progress when you take a break. Later, when you return home you could then finish your reviews for the day on your computer.

Super convenient!

But besides all of that, the main power of Anki is that is uses a spaced repetition system for reviewing the flashcards.

What this means is that every time you review a card, it gets pushed out into the future a certain number of days based on how easy it was for you to recall the information, and how many times you’ve already reviewed it in the past.

So for example, the first time you review a card it will get pushed out about four days. Then the next time you review it, it’ll get pushed out about week. Then a month. Then six months. Then a year!

There are several options for you to select from after reviewing each card (easy-medium-hard-fail) and this selection also has an effect on how far out into the future the card gets pushed for review. If you select “hard” for example, you’ll probably see the card sooner rathar than later.

The principle of SRS is based off of the fact that most memories have a shelf-life, and if you don’t revisit them every so often and “refresh them,” they expire.

As you can deduce from this, you end of spending the majority of your time going over the cards that were the hardest for you to remember, since the easy ones don’t need as much love, and therefore get pushed out the furthest.

But this also means is that you spend your time efficiently since you don’t waste time on beginner stuff that is super easy for you.

If you’ve seen a phrase fifty times, you probably don’t need to keep practicing it. Anki will push it out several years for ya’.

Where Can You Find Anki?

If you want to download Anki onto your computer you can do so by visiting their website. The good news is that it is free!

Or if you would like to use it on a mobile device, you can search Google Play or the App Store to find it there.

It’s free for Android devices, but if you want it on your iPhone or iPad you will have to purchase it for $25. The reason is because that’s how the developer of Anki supports himself.

Now $25 may seem like a lot for an app, but if you think of it more like a software program, then it begins to make sense.

I personally paid for it and got it on my iPhone, and I’ve never regretted the decision. The thing you have to ask yourself is if you feel the investment is worth it or not. Only you can really answer that.

Nevertheless, once you’ve got it, what should you do next?

How Should You Use Anki for Japanese?

One of the interesting things about Anki is how customizable it is. You can change things like the font and color of not only the text, but also the background of the cards.

You can make regular text flashcards, or cards with pictures, or cards with audio, and it really never ends.

Basically speaking, if you can think of it, you can do it with Anki!

This is nice because you can make some pretty incredible cards, but it can also make you feel lost if you don’t know how to go about making good cards for remembering Japanese.

Here’s what I recommend you do: Keep it lean.

By that I mean, keep your cards simple and focused on helping you remember Japanese. Don’t get caught up in all the bells and whistles.

I personally have only made three changes from the default settings:

  • I increased the font size, so it would be easier to read.
  • I added a stroke order font for kanji, so I could learn that specifically.
  • I added an extension that automatically added furigana to kanji.

Alright, so that’s what I recommend you do for the format of your cards, but what about the content?

I only have two decks:

  1. A deck for remembering the meaning and writing of kanji.
  2. A deck for Japanese sentences.

I think that Deck #1 is pretty self explanatory, so let’s focus on Deck #2.

Below is a picture of a typical card for me. The top half above the grey line is the “front” of the card, and it is the only thing I will see at first.

Then once I’ve read the card, I can click on it to reveal the “back” of the card (the stuff on the bottom, under the grey line) and verify both comprehension and readings of the sentence.

As you can see, it’s nothing fancy. But I do this intentionally for some very specific reasons:

  • Full sentences teach vocabulary and grammar at the same time.
  • This is how Japanese is used in the real world.
  • It’s easy and quick to create new flashcards.

You have to remember that the point of using Anki, is not to use Anki. The point is to practice and review Japanese until you have it locked into your long-term memory.

You’re going to be creating and reviewing thousands and thousands of cards over the life of your Anki deck, so anything that you can do to reduce the time it takes to create new cards, will naturally free up time to spend reviewing cards.

Furthermore, you want to get as close to reality as you can when studying Japanese, so learning the language in full sentences will cover both vocabulary (meaning and usage) and applied grammar at the same time.

Where to Get Japanese Sentences From

So let’s say that you’d like to use Anki for yourself, and you like the idea of practicing the language in full sentences for all the reasons mentioned above.

The big question is: “Where do you find good sentences to use?”

There are potentially unlimited resources at your disposal, but here’s what I recommend.

First of all, if you’re going through a good Japanese textbook then there should be lots of example sentences that illustrate certain grammar points, or introduce common expressions.

Go ahead and start creating cards based off of these sentences. You only need to put a single sentence on each card, with the Japanese on the front and the English on the back.

You can also take the sentences from any phrasebook that you have lying around.

Another option, and perhaps even a better option, is to simply copy and past the sentences from a good online Japanese course that you have access to. This will speed up the process of card creation from a minute to a few seconds.

Now the main reasons why I recommend copying the sentences from materials you are studying is because I personally think that Anki is best used a tool for review.

You learn the new information in the book or course, with all the explanations on grammar and such, and then you just put the raw sentences into a card that you can go over again in the future to keep the information strong.

Some people will download pre-made Anki decks as a way of quickly getting lots of flash cards, but there are a few problems with this, the main one being that you end up spending a lot of time looking up new words and grammar, rather than just reviewing the ones you already know.

Personally, I don’t use Anki to learn new Japanese. I use it to retain the knowledge I learned somewhere else. Obviously I recommend you do the same, but at the end of the day it’s really up to you on how you want to use it.

When to Stop Using Anki

I absolutely love Anki for two primary reasons:

  1. It’s a convenient place to store all the Japanese sentences that you’ve learned.
  2. It makes learning Japanese bite-sized.

In particular, Reason #2 is critical for beginners and intermediate learners of Japanese.

When your still fairly new to the language, it can be totally overwhelming when you open up a native book or try to watch a movie all in Japanese.

There are just so many words that you don’t know!

But when you break it down into individual sentences, you make it a lot more manageable for yourself and you begin to really get a feel for how Japanese works.

Eventually you grow to the point where you actually can start to read those Japanese books and watch those Japanese shows.

It may still be tough, but at least it’s not impossible anymore!

Once you are able to start using native materials as your primary learning source, you can begin to wean yourself off Anki by simply stop adding new cards.

Due to the way SRS works, as long as you stop adding new cards, you daily reviews will gradually decrease until you get to the point where you’re only spending 5-10 minutes per day reviewing Japanese.

At this point, you can probably say goodbye to Anki, and instead spend all your time enjoying real Japanese materials the same way that natives do.

In other words, Anki is just a bridge to get you quickly and effectively from Point-A (knowing very little Japanese) to Point-B (enjoying native material).

But once you’ve crossed the bridge and are on the other side, you don’t really need Anki anymore.


Have you used Anki to learn Japanese? What are your thoughts and opinions on making a good flash card? Let me know with a comment below!

2 Comments

  • Cathy

    Yes, I benefited from the use of Anki when I first learned Japanese. It helped me through pronunciation in the initial stage and subsequently aided with kanji memorization. It’s been years since I left the language and it’s good to know that there is now an app to refresh my skills. Will surely check that out.

    I think a good flash card with some splash of colors (different color markers I mean) will help me to recall better on what I am learning.

    • Nick Hoyt

      Yeah, it’s actually pretty common to add some color to specific words in Anki to highlight a particular part of the sentences. The two most common usages that I’ve seen are for bringing attention to grammar structures, and to identify the pitch accent of words.

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