In my last post, I mentioned that one of the most important tools I’ve used for learning German has been Anki. Here, I’ll explain a little what Anki is and why I find it to be so useful, and then I’ll talk about how I’ve learnt to use it in a more effective way. If you’re already using Anki, you might want to skip the introductory bit, but I think the part afterwards should be interesting for you.
Anki is an intelligent digital flashcard system, or to be exact, a Spaced Repetition System. The basic idea is that you set up a deck of “cards” with the word you want to learn on one side and the translation on the other side. When a card comes up, you try and remember what the translation is, and then you check if you have remembered correctly. If you do remember correctly, you press “good” and the program files the card away. It will then come up again in the future for you to check again.
The intelligent part about it is that Anki works out how far into the future you’ll need to see the card again, based on how many times you got it right before as well as a few other factors. If you get it right three times in a row, the card will come up again months later. If you keep getting it wrong, though, the card will come up again much sooner, giving you the chance to learn it properly. In this way Anki makes sure you focus your effort on learning the cards which need most work, and those cards which are easiest for you get quickly dismissed.
I think Anki is particularly valuable because it leverages the way learning works. Cramming isn’t really useful for having things “stick” in the long term. I find that learning a word more or less briefly, then refreshing my memory of it again a day later, then refreshing my memory again three days later, is much more cost effective in terms of effort. Just when something is about to be forgotten, you remind yourself of it again.
Using Anki involves a learning curve. Over these two years that I’ve been using it, I’ve slowly gotten better and better at using it, and I’ve worked out my personal style.
Firstly, I found that having a smartphone was key for me for using Anki. While you can use the program on a computer, I find it’s a lot less comfortable. For one thing, a computer’s screen is big and glary, and it’s nice to have a respite from it with the small, less intense screen of a smartphone (for which reason I often use my phone to surf Facebook even when I have the computer at hand). For another thing, Anki involves a lot of button pressing, and it’s much nicer to do it on a touch screen than with a mouse. Though these issues may seem small to those who have never tried, I genuinely think that without a smartphone Anki would have been useless for me.
Smartphones also make Anki very portable. As I mentioned in the last post, I use Anki in public transport most of all. Because of its physical convenience and the fact that it’s easy to get back into Anki after being distracted, I think it’s one of the best ways of spending time on the metro.
Now, I think a lot of the Anki-using skills I developed have simply meant learning to trust the program. For instance, to start with I didn’t like it when I spent weeks without using Anki and came back to it and found out that when I pressed “good” my cards would be spaced whole months into the future. I later learned that that is how it should be: if you still remember a card after weeks without seeing it, then it means it’s quite well established in your memory, and you don’t need to see it again too soon.
You should also try and be as honest as possible when assessing whether you know a card. It’s tempting to think, “Well, I SORT of got it right…” and press “good”, especially if the card in question is already getting a very wide spacing and you don’t want it to be reset to a 1-day spacing again. However, this really isn’t the end of the world. And if you almost know a card but not quite, then it will vanish into the future again very quickly as it will take you a rather short amount of time to learn it properly.
As I’m not a schedule kind of person, I no longer try to use Anki to learn twenty new words every single day. I find this rather rigid, as sometimes the backlog of review cards will be very big one day and I don’t have the time, and sometimes I will finish all my cards one day and want more.
I used to use the “review forgotten cards” option (allowing me to go over the cards I found harder in a given day) when I wanted to do some extra studying in a given day. However, nowadays I trust in the whole idea of spaced repetition, and think that re-reviewing cards I’ve already studied on a particular day won’t do so much for my long term retention. Instead, when I finish all my review cards, I just study more new cards. I keep on studying more new cards – often hundreds at a time – until I’ve had enough studying for the day.
This of course means that the next day I’ll have hundreds of review cards to look at. This is okay. This might take me several days to get through, but it works for me this way. I think that since I’ve started to follow this pattern, I’ve begun to learn much faster.
So basically I set the “new cards per day” to 0, and only add new cards when I’ve finished my review cards and want some more studying to do. About 3 out of every 4 studying days I’ll be doing nothing but reviewing cards, and then on the 4th day I’ll pump a load of new cards into the system.
It’s funny, cause to start with I didn’t really imagine I could learn hundreds of words at a time. I felt successful if I could learn twenty words in a day. With this new system of mine, I trust in myself to have a larger capacity for learning, and so I’ve discovered that I really do have a larger capacity. The beauty of Anki is that it keeps you studying a word for only as long as you need, and doesn’t make you linger there for too long. It maximises the value of your time.
I’m going to finish my original two thousand word deck soon. (I think I learnt the last thousand words about ten times faster than the first thousand). I suppose that after that, I’ll try and find a few more thousand words to study. I don’t know what I’ll do when I run out of German words – perhaps go for another language, it’s a bit too tempting when I know I can learn so effectively.