Chinese Domination Tools: Anki Intelligent Flashcards

The Anki LogoI’ve been studying Chinese for a few months now. As I continue to discover new study tools and methods, I will share them with you here. While these posts focus on learning Chinese, the strategies I write about are largely applicable to studying other languages as well — East Asian or otherwise.

Today, I’m going to tell you about a little computer program called Anki.

I first discovered Anki while living in Tokyo during the summer of 2008. Since then, I’ve used it for studying Japanese, Korean, and now Chinese. Though I haven’t used it consistently, I’ve always found that my vocabulary and reading abilities grow by leaps and bounds when I do use it.

What is Anki?

At its core, Anki is a digital flashcard program, which uses cards just like the 3×5 notecards you used to cram for exams during high school and college.

With Anki, however, there are no cumbersome paper cards to deal with — Anki stores all of your “cards” in its database and displays them on your computer/tablet/phone screen.

A screenshot from the PC version of Anki

This is a screenshot from the PC version of Anki. The front of the card shows the word contumacious, while the back shows the pronunciation, definition, and other notes.

While the above definition makes Anki sound like a simple replacement for paper flashcards, in reality it’s much more than that.

One of the big problems with traditional flashcards is that your deck of cards doesn’t know what you’ve learned and what you’re still having trouble with.

For instance, say you’re brushing up on your English. You have a deck of 100 cards. One of your cards has the word cat — an easy word. Another one of your cards has the word contumacious — a word which many of you are probably scrambling to look up in your dictionaries right now. (Hint: Look at the image above.)

Obviously, learning cat is much easier than learning contumacious. But when cycling through your deck of 100 flashcards, you’re going to see both words equally often.

Some people overcome this problem by organizing their flashcards into different stacks based on how well they know the information. This is both time consuming and not particularly efficient.

That’s where Anki comes in.

The power of Spaced Repetition

Anki uses what’s called “spaced repetition” to maximize your learning efficiency. When used properly, spaced repetition can simultaneously reduce your time spent studying and improve you memory retention.

In concept, the way Anki does this is quite simple — it spreads repetitions of your cards out, only showing you flashcards as often as you need to see them.

In practice this means that once you learn cat, Anki won’t show it to you again until weeks or months later. But if contumacious keeps giving you trouble, Anki will show that card to you again and again until the word sticks in your memory.

Anki does this by asking you about each flashcard as you study. After you look at the question and check the answer, Anki asks you how difficult the flashcard was. It then uses this data to estimate how long it should wait before reviewing that card with you again.

These are the buttons in the AnkiDroid program.

How difficult was the flashcard? This is how you let Anki know.

As you continue to study, these intervals will eventually be measured not in days or even months, but in years!

Now that’s what I call long-term memory.

Where To Get Started

Did I mention that Anki is free? You can download the Windows, Mac, and Linux versions for no charge at You can also study using your web browser via Ankiweb.

Android and iOS versions are also available — AnkiDroid is free; unfortunately the iOS version is not.

Studying with Anki on a Google Nexus 7Personally, I do most of my studying on my Google Nexus 7, as I appreciate its portability and I prefer the AnkiDroid interface to the desktop program. However, it’s easy to change platforms at any time — Anki synchronizes decks across platforms via the web, so you can study on your phone or tablet one day and on your computer the next day if you like.

Self-made vs. Pre-made Decks

Although some people prefer to make all of their own cards (and I’ve done this in the past as well), there are also many pre-made decks available for Anki. You can check them out at the Anki shared decks page.

Making a deck yourself is a great exercise, as it gives you complete control over the information that’s in your deck. Thus, all of the cards are tailored precisely to your needs.

However, making a deck can be time consuming, and some of pre-made decks come complete with audio and visual elements that would be difficult to recreate on your own.

For my studies, I’ve been using a series of decks called Mastering Chinese Characters. Overall, I’m really impressed with these flashcards — so much so that I’m going to save my praise for them for a separate post.

(Keep in mind that language learning is not the only use for Anki — it’s versatile enough that you could use it to memorize the periodic table or even cram for a bar examination. You can find many pre-made decks for these topics as well.)

What’s the downside?

In this blogger’s opinion, the biggest drawback of Anki as a language learning tool is that it can trick you into feeling a false sense of progress. At times, Anki seems like a magic bullet that’s allowing you to become proficient quickly, when in reality it’s only helping you improve in a few areas.

It’s true that Anki makes it easy to learn many new vocabulary words and Chinese characters in a shorter time that you ever would’ve thought possible. Because of that, however,  it’s easy to become obsessed with studying solely via Anki at the expense of adopting a more well rounded approach.

I’m afraid that I’ve been falling into this trap myself, in fact. Anki-study has composed the majority of my studying for the past month, and while it’s been great for learning how to read and write Chinese characters, I haven’t been investing as much time into speaking and grammar as I should. This is an issue that I’ll have to correct soon if I want to continue my forward progress.

I’ll leave you with an awkward Anki-inspired life story:

I like to study in coffee shops. A few times here in Taiwan, people have seen my notebook full of Chinese characters and they’ve approached me to strike up a conversation in Mandarin Chinese. Needless to say, these conversations don’t last long, and I feel quite embarrassed that I can write pages upon pages of characters without being able to speak well!

You win some, you lose some.

I’ll keep at it. You should too.

Did you find this information about Anki useful? If so, I’d appreciate it if you could like this post on Facebook and help spread the word! [fb]

Thanks again for your support.

The Anki logo was designed by Alex Fraser, and is used here under permission of the  CC-GNU GPL. I took the Nexus 7 photo while visiting Minneapolis a few months ago, and the other two images are screencaps from my PC and Nexus 7, respectively.

Henry Olsen

Writer, adventurer, and humble servant of the universe since 1986.


  1. I’ll give Anki a try for Japanese.

    I wonder if Henry used it for learning kanji.

    • I’ve been using it for the Arabic alphabet and Latin. I like how it “punishes” you for not using it for a while. Yesterday, I had 120 Latin flashcards to go through. Took me over three times as long for Latin than for Arabic.

      • Yeah, it can be pretty brutal at times. I fell behind on my studies about a month ago and got a little disheartened, but as of today I am once again at zero cards due! I tweaked my deck a bit as well, eliminating certain types of cards, which will hopefully make my studying more efficient.

  2. Good introduction to my favorite software.

    You’ve probably read it, but Benny Lewis has a blog post about learning Chinese in Taiwan where he talks about sitting in a cafe studying, feeling comfortable, but reminds himself that Chinese is all around him waiting to be engaged.

    I used to sit in a coffee shop in Japan copying kanji, and I even made friends with the woman next to me, who struck up a conversation over the (really obscure) stuff I was writing. Looking back on it, that was the only way I knew how to learn at the time–on paper. However, it was that friend I made who made more of a difference in my Japanese studies than knowing how to write ‘udon’ or ‘kirin’ in kanji.

    Perhaps learning obscure kanji was necessary for me for some reason, but it became a bad habit in Chinese. I learned to read Chinese characters using the same method you are using–the Mastering Chinese Characters deck. However, when I finished the deck, like when I finished RTK 1, I should have stopped there. Doing RTK 3 was fun, and only took like two weeks, but it didn’t really help me learn Japanese. After MCC level 10, I started adding onomatopoeia and other weird hanzi into my deck. Lots of fun, but I was hung up on “gotta catch em all” with the hanzi and still couldn’t hold a proper conversation in Chinese.

    This is NOT criticism directed at you. This was my experience, and in the end, I learned to speak Chinese and Japanese in my own roundabout way. However, once I was in Shanghai (and after I started reading Fluent in3 Months), I made listening my priority. I LOVE reading, but listening comprehension is the basis for good reading skills. A workaround I found is to listen to books on tape. :) I found recordings of Zhang Ailing’s 《金锁记》and《色戒》online. Lu Xun stuff is also not that hard to find. Classical Poetry is all over the place, which helps a lot with pronunciation.

    Best of luck,

    • Thanks for the thoughtful message, Kieran. (Or should I say messages?)

      My Chinese is coming along, slowly but surely. My Anki use had fallen off, but I’ve recently found a routine that works pretty well for me. Also, I started taking classes. They’re definitely on the easy side, at least for the time being, but speaking is my weak point and they help boost my confidence, which should help me speak more comfortably with people outside of class.

      I tried to download 蜻蜓, but Google says it’s not compatible with my Nexus 7. Strange.

      Also, when I was still in Wisconsin I would walk around country roads and listen to Pimsleur tapes. I got kind of sick of Pimsleur, but I do think there’s something to studying on the go. I really should get back into it.

      • Glad to hear it’s going well! I think listening to audio while doing other things is a good way to learn. I like to have some natural dialogue to listen to, like from a TV show or radio station. If you can get a transcript to study later (get one on RhinoSpike or something), even better.

  3. PS: There’s also a free app called 蜻蜓 that plays radio stations from around the world. There are some books on tape on there too if you hunt around.

    Also, I don’t mean to give the impression that I use Anki less these days. I use it every single day! I just try to prioritize useful information and reading out loud. I do like Alexander Arguelles and read aloud while walking outside. Dunno if it helps, but it’s more fun than sitting on the couch.

  4. I am sorry to say that I just gave up on Anki. I just couldn’t balance it and everything else I was doing. I would skip a day because I had a test the next day, and then forget the next. I just ended up with it taking up space on my USB drive. I only just realized that at school I am surrounded by people who speak Mandarin, Japanese, Spanish (which I am already fine in, but practice never hurts). But Anki was just too much. Does anyone have any other general language learning suggestions?

    • Learn every day, and make it fun. If you don’t enjoy Anki, try changing the content, or the way you use it. I use Anki because it’s on my phone (so I can use it any time, and while walking outside), and it schedules reviews for me, so I can be sure I will learn the stuff I put in my deck. Plus, there are a lot of great public decks.

      However, some people prefer something like LingQ, where you choose which materials to review each time you study.

      In general, language learning is a physical and auditory skill, like playing piano. The most important skill is listening comprehension, followed by reading comprehension (which should be a kind of “listening silently,” or read out loud for practice), followed by production. A vast amount of comprehensible input is necessary to improve, so you should start by building it day by day. Even a few minutes of study a day is good enough; that’s why I use Anki.

      If you have people to talk to in person, I would definitely talk to them, though it might take a few months before you can have much of a conversation. (Though Benny Lewis does it in the first week.)

  5. I’ve been using Anki for over 2 years. Anki is really a great software or App to help you memorize vocabulary. I use Anki to memorize English and Japanese vocabulary, the result is amazing. I suggest you create your own decks instead of downloading shared decks from Anki web. There are many words lists by frequency on Internet. Please memorize high frequency words first because it is more efficient to learn new language.

  6. Pingback: Chinese Domination Tools: Mastering Chinese Characters - Simply Unbound

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