Friday, July 31, 2015


As the name of this blog suggests, I'm a big language nerd. Specifically, I enjoy the process of learning to read in foreign tongues. This post is about the piece of software that helps me do it the most - Anki.

The app's name means "memory" in Japanese, though it is primarily developed by an Australian named Damien Elmes. The quickest way to describe Anki is as smart flashcards. What makes them smart? If you answer a card incorrectly, you will see it again very soon. If you answer it correctly, it will take longer to reappear. If you recognize a card a few times in a row, you may not see it for a few months or even a year. The algorithm that determines card intervals is of course adjustable.

I've got more than 20,000 cards in my main Anki "deck". Paper flashcards are usually much thicker than book pages, but even if they had the same thickness, my personal "deck" would be as wide as a 40,000-page encyclopedia. That's about 40 very thick volumes. And I carry all of that on my little iPad.

Where did I get 20,000 cards? I added more than 60% of them one by one, while reading books and web pages. Any time I come across an unfamiliar word I look it up and add it to Anki. This is undoubtedly how one should use this program. Getting a ready-made deck from the Internet is less effective because there's a lot more to language study than rote memorization. It's possible to know all the words in a sentence, yet not know what it means. And you can't learn grammar by memorizing rules. The only way to get it is intuitively, by listening to people talk or reading large amounts of text.

The other 40% of my cards come from pre-made decks. I've learned from my mistakes. Some other non-vocabulary-related things that I've learned during my 7 years with Anki:

I recall words more easily while walking than while sitting or lounging on beds. Surprisingly though, sleeplessness does not seem to hinder performance.

The first card I see after I open the app is, on average, easier to answer than the second one, which is easier to answer than the third, etc. Long-term memory fatigue appears to be a very real thing. After answering one or two dozen cards I usually space out for a while or close the app and do other things, and then come back to my deck.

Anki's statistics page says that I've done more than 1.1 million reps since 2008. This isn't as monstrous as it sounds. Every weekday morning I spend almost an hour in buses and subway trains going to work. By the time I get to the office three quarters of my reps for the day are usually done. The people sitting next to me during commutes are often busy with Candy Crush or Sudoku. At least I'm learning something.

Anki's built-in stats are pretty good, but I do my own as well. Fortunately the data is easy to extract and manipulate. I periodically update my personal statistics on a page that's linked at the bottom of the right column of this blog.

Stats-wise I'm motivated by the same kinds of things as gym rats. Am I doing better today than I did yesterday, what are the long-term trends, how many reps have I done this week, month, year, etc? I especially watch the Correct Mature statistic. It's natural to be fuzzy on newly-added cards, but you've got to answer older, "mature" ones with some regularity. I try to keep this number close to 90%.

Does this kind of study work? Absolutely. It almost feels like an expansion HD for my brain. I can stop studying a language or some other subject for a year or more and then come back to it at whim. If I do my Anki reps in the interim (and what else am I going to do in the subway?), most of the knowledge that I spent time and effort acquiring will be retained.

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