Vocab and conjugations are two of the most important parts of any language learning strategy – without them, there is no way you will ever be able to communicate in the language of your choice. They can also be some of the hardest because so many of us have been traumatized by having to learn flashcards in school.
Fortunately for us in the digital age, the internet has come up with flashcard apps that are significantly better for actually learning the stuff we want to learn because they use something that we just can’t get with physical flashcards: spaced repetition software. My personal favorite flashcard app for language learning is Anki, and I think you’ll agree with me by the end of this Anki review.
What is spaced repetition software?
First off, to understand what’s so special about Anki, as opposed to just normal flashcards (besides saving trees), we need to address spaced repetition software. It’s a super important factor in language learning that will honestly transform the way you get new vocabulary into your brain.
So, we all know how flashcards work: you put your hint on one side, the answer on the back, and flip them over to see if you’re right or wrong. If you’re smart you’ll put the easy words in a separate pile from the harder words so you don’t have to waste your time on them, but most of us aren’t.
Spaced repetition software does that little step for us and so much more. It’s an algorithm that separates your flashcards into categories of how easy they are for you to recall. For the flashcards that you can remember pretty much immediately, spaced repetition software will stick them away and hold onto them for you; more difficult terms will be shown to you more often until you can consistently recall the information.
Then, as time goes on, the spaced repetition software will judge when you’re most likely to forget your terms and shows them to you just before you forget. This way, it helps bring your vocabulary from your short-term memory to your long-term memory, without wasting your time by showing you the words you already know as often as the more difficult ones.
While spaced repetition isn’t unique to Anki, the visible time frames are; sure, LingoDeer’s self-reporting SRS is much more beautiful, but it doesn’t tell you how long it’ll be before you see the term again!
For language learners, spaced repetition software is a game-changer. We’re learning thousands of words per language – nobody has the time to review all of them every day, nor do we have the brain space to keep track of when we should be reviewing each individual term. Thanks to spaced repetition software, we don’t have to do anything more than telling it how easily we remembered the card.
So, with the basic idea of spaced repetition software in mind, let’s continue to the Anki review. Let me preface by saying that while Anki isn’t the prettiest program on the block, it works. Anki is the spaced repetition software most commonly used by language learners, and it’s for good reason.
To start off:
- Yes, it’s free (only on Android, though. iPhone users have to pay. Sorry!)
- Yes, it’s both on desktop and mobile
- No, you don’t have to choose between the two: you can sync all your lists to Anki’s database at any point
Anki has its own lingo for the flashcards you create: the terms themselves are Anki cards, and the individual lists of terms are Anki decks.
When you make your Anki cards, the first option you’ll see is to select the type of Anki card. This defines how your vocab is presented to you, and you can use this for a whole bunch of things: learning to recognize vocab, learning to spell it, or even learning to fill in the blank. Anki does this with the following options.
Basic Anki cards
If you don’t define your type of flashcard (which is completely okay), Anki will select a Basic Anki card for you. This is your run-of-the-mill flashcard maker: you put your vocab word on the front and put the answer on the back. Flip the card over to see your answer and whether you were right or wrong.
With Basic Anki cards, you also have the option to switch the cards from back to front; you can do this for more of a challenge, since it forces you to actually learn the word in your foreign language, instead of just kind of recognizing the first few letters of your new vocab.
Basic (and reversed card) Anki cards
Next, we have basic and reversed Anki cards. When you choose this option, you’ll get two Anki cards for every card that you create – one will be the card you create, and the other will have the back for the front and the front for the back.
This is a good way to not only reinforce the vocabulary you’re learning by reviewing it twice, but you’ll also learn to associate your new word with your English word by creating that link in your brain. Do keep in mind, though, that because you’re doubling your Anki cards, you’ll spend twice the time reviewing, which may not be the most efficient, especially for more simple vocab.
Basic (optional reversed card) Anki cards
Fortunately, Anki recognizes that the reversed card option might not be efficient for every single one of your flashcards, so they also give you the option so you do not have to flip back and forth between types of Anki cards.
As you can see, this type of note has three fields; the first two are for the flashcard itself, and the third field is where you let the app know whether or not you need the reversed card. If you don’t, leave it blank. If you do, don’t leave it blank; it doesn’t matter what you put in the field, and, honestly, I feel like it should be a check box, not another field. Nonetheless, it is convenient to have this option as opposed to constantly flipping back and forth.
Basic (type in the answer) Anki cards
This type is my favorite. It’s important to me to know how to spell my words because it not only makes my knowledge of my vocab more specific, but I’m also practicing how to write the word, which helps me later on when I’m practicing my writing.
This option looks the same as the Basic notes. You won’t see the difference until you actually go to review your vocab, at which point you’ll be asked to spell out the other side of your flashcard, as opposed to just flipping it over.
Cloze Anki cards
Finally, we have the Cloze Anki cards. This option is less for learning vocabulary and more for practicing quizzes and how to complete sentences, which is also helpful. This is a great tool for learning conjugations, for example.
Cloze Anki cards removes a word or phrase out of a sentence. Your job is to fill in the blank. So, for example, you can use this as a fill-in-the-blank for verb tenses (because we all know how annoying those are to learn):
Types of answers in Anki cards
On top of all these different types of Anki cards, we can also switch up the media type. Besides just typing in the words, we can use our Anki cards to upload an image or record audio. I mean hey, the more options we have in taking in our new vocabulary the better, amirite?
I personally really love the audio option, because it helps me to train my ear for listening. Being able to read the word is only half the battle – I need to learn to hear and say the word, too! This is great, especially for brand-new languages, when you’re not used to the sounds just yet and need them consistently reinforced. You can opt to hear the pronunciation every time you see the word, which is incredibly helpful for taking it in.
While the option to upload an image isn’t personally helpful for me, it can be very helpful for a couple of reasons. First of all, this can really help with connecting the new vocabulary with the concept, as opposed to just the translation (we all need to learn how to think in our languages, not just translate them!).
Second, because you have the option to both upload an image you’ve already found online and take a new picture with your camera, you can connect vocabulary with the things you see every day; for example, pair a picture of your computer at work with the word for computer in your target language. That, my friends, is called immersion.
Suffice to say, Anki provides you with a variety of methods to learn your vocabulary. Because this option is in the same table where you create your notes, you can create an entire Anki deck with any and all of these types of cards, which can really mix up your practice, keeping it interesting.
Anki shared decks
If you’re not interested in creating your own Anki decks and find it easier to go off what others have used, another option is using Anki shared decks. They’re exactly what they sound like – Anki decks that someone has created and stuck online for the purpose of helping other people who want to learn the same things.
There are, obviously, pros and cons. While finding the right Anki shared decks for you might be easier than creating your own, you do need to take them with a grain of salt. Anybody can put up anything, so there is the possibility of what you’re studying being wrong. Also, since you’re not creating these Anki decks yourself, they’ll be harder to learn; I always say it’s best to learn new vocabulary and concepts from context.
If you’re new to Anki decks, though, I do suggest at least taking a look. You can see how others have used the platform and can get inspiration for the possibilities of Anki, as opposed to just using it as a basic flashcard maker and missing out on all the tools available to you.
Anki app vs Anki desktop
When you first go about making your Anki account, you’ll get a message suggesting you start out on desktop; apparently, it’s meant to be primarily a desktop program, and the Anki app exists mostly for convenience. Never fear, I use the Anki app almost exclusively and have not had any problems.
While the Anki app is almost exactly like the desktop program, there are a couple of small differences. For example, the desktop program gives you more freedom to edit the HTML of your Anki decks, which is nice, but not something that is usually important to language learners.
The desktop program does also give you a few more opportunities for personalizing your Anki decks. You can change colors, bold/italicize/underline the text, and go into exponents. This could be helpful for your memorization, so if colors work for you, please start out on the desktop program. But, otherwise, if you don’t even have a computer, the Anki app will work just fine for you.
How to use Anki for language learning
As you can see, the Anki decks in the Anki app are a really amazing tool for language learners. You can learn vocabulary, conjugations, practice listening, spelling, upload images, and have a computer figure out when the best time to show you each Anki card. It’s honestly one of the best resources for language learners, in my humble opinion.
And, as the Anki website states, please make sure you look around the program to figure out how to use Anki in a way that will work for you. I mean, plain, basic text flashcards are helpful, but you can really use Anki to your advantage to cement the things you’re trying to learn into your brain.
Decide how to use Anki for yourself, and I promise you’ll never look back. The way you learn your vocab will go from an overwhelming number of flashcards to a well-rounded review of what you need to review and nothing else.