Learning Japanese on the go: Anki

Learning Japanese is an immensely time consuming process. Therefore if you want to learn the language in a reasonable timeframe, you should spend a lot of your time on it. However, many people have a normal life and full-time job and cannot afford to learn 5 hours of Japanese everyday. So what should you do in stead?

Read this post and you will know. I will share the first of the two tremendously useful tools I use everyday to make the most out of the tiny gaps in my daily schedule.

Using flashcards

As little as 128 kanji can turn into a massive heap of flashcards

As little as 128 kanji can turn into a massive heap of flashcards

When I started learning the kanji last christmas, I also started making flashcards. I wanted to use them when commuting to work, which takes me about 50 minutes in one direction. Exploiting the time on a train for learning has always worked great for me when I was in university and I think it’s a fantastic way of utilizing this time.

For every new kanji I had learned I started making one new flashcard. On the next day I would take the new ones and the ones that hadn’t sticked with me yet and repeat them on my trip to work. This proofed to work great.

Managing flashcards is too time consuming

Except for the fact that it didn’t! Producing the flashcards took a lot of time and updating my selection every morning just didn’t work. Managing three stacks (new, right and wrong) on a packed train wasn’t an exactly easy task and 2,200 flash cards really need a lot of space as well. My flashcard journey ended after 128 kanji.

Anki for the rescue

My Anki decks for Genki and Remembering the Kanji. I already studied 93 cards today.

My Anki decks for Genki and Remembering the Kanji. I have already studied 93 cards today.

For quite some time I had known about Anki, a digital flashcard tool, or app as you would call it. The one or two times I had opened it, I always thought it wasn’t intuitive and had an ugly design and so i didn’t use it.

This time however, I had the pressure of having to move to Japan in less than six months and since so many Japanese learners did recommend it, I thought I should try it with a bit more seriousness this time.

Anki is available for free for Linux, Mac and Windows. A free open source Android port called AnkDroid is available as well. The official iOS version is AnkiMobile, which is $24.99. iPhone users that don’t want to spend $24.99 can use the free web version.

There are many reasons to use Anki, the main two being, in order of importance:

  1. Anki exploits spaced repetition
  2. Decks can be shared

Spaced repetition

My hero, Hermann Ebbinghaus

My hero, Hermann Ebbinghaus

The spacing effect was first described by fellow German countryman Hermann Ebbinghaus in 1885. In short and simple words it means that humans can recall information best when it is repeated in intervals that increase over time.

So instead of learning a certain word every day, it is better to learn it now, repeat it after a couple of minutes, then again tomorrow, after five days, after three weeks and so on. For a moment I was really thinking if I could build a system to organize my physical flashcards in such a way that I could use them and still make use of spaced repetition. After that two minutes I came back to sanity and started using Anki.

Spaced repetition in Anki is calculated by a modified version of the SuperMemo 2 algorithm. On every card you can judge your ability to recall the information out of up to four options. Choosing the red again button means all your progress will be lost and the card will be presented to you again in the next minutes. The other three options mean that you where able to recall the content and that it was either hard, good or easy for you to do so. Based on your selection, Anki will then schedule the next time it will show you the card. Take a look a the graphic I made to get a better idea.

The repetition intervals are repeated on every successful review of a flashcard. If an information could not be recalled, its interval is reset to 1 minute. The repetition intervals are repeated on every successful review of a flashcard. If an information could not be recalled, its interval is reset to 1 minute.

The repetition intervals are repeated on every successful review of a flashcard. If an information could not be recalled, its interval is reset to 1 minute.

Spaced repetition is the ideal complement for a mnemonic way of learning. It helps to connect the images you have created to words and makes sure that you will never forget them again. I personally currently manage to conveniently learn about 20 new words and phrases every day by the combination of the two methods.

Shared decks

Creating new flashcards is a really time consuming process, no matter if it’s on paper or digital. Let’s say you need 2 minutes to write one flash card. For 2,200 kanji that would be more than 73 hours of your time just for preparing your learning material. That’s a lot of precious time that could be used for learning Japanese instead! Fortunately, Damien Elmes, the creater of Anki, has thought about this as well.

Every Anki user has the possibility to share his or her deck with the rest of the world and right now more than 6,000 shared decks are available. I, for example, am using this Genki vocabulary collection with 1,287 words and phrases and more than 1,100 audio files. All the vocabulary is categorized by chapter, so I can always check my progress and see how much I have still ahead of me. Most of the words are connected to audio files so I can also listen to the correct Japanese pronunciations and try to somehow understand Japanese intonation.

In addition to that I use this German deck of Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji. The Anki app allows to enable a whiteboard (or scratchpad on iOS),  so that you can write down the kanji before seeing the result, assuring that you are able to write them as well. If you want to learn the right stroke order, there also is a deck for that.

Of course your decks don’t have to be shared to the public. However you are always able to log in with your Anki account and synchronize your decks and progress to the web, so that you never lose progress across the different platforms.

Conclusion

Anki is complex. It is not the usual flashcard app people download and then just work with. It requires some time to get into it, discover your right set of decks and understand that spaced repetition is helping you. Once the starting barrier is crossed however, it is a fantastic tool. On every single day when I arrive at work I now have already repeated about 100 words. Whenever I have little gaps of free time, I can just take out my phone and repeat some vocab. In the elevator, when waiting for the bus, on the train, anywhere. If you are not yet using it, I highly recommend to give it a go now.

Do you have any favorite apps for learning Japanese? Feel invited to share them in the comments.

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