Catherine Gracey

Living Life, One Misadventure At A Time.

Switching to Anki

on February 2, 2014

I recently downloaded a copy of Anki for my language practice. It is a flashcard program that utilises spaced repetition, which means that each time you are correct the program will delay showing you the card for increasing intervals of time. It is freely available on Windows and Android, which are the only platforms I looked into. With their server, AnkiWeb, my laptop version and my android version can sync independently of each other, so I can work offline and update when I’m ready.

Language practice has definitely taken a hit since Shroomi was born. It isn’t that I don’t have the time so much as I don’t have the type of time that I was used to. Computer games are fine, but I need her to be in an accommodating mood to play them. Duolingo is quick, although it is so painful since the new website design that I’m losing interest in it. I need something that I can use for one minute or one hour, which doesn’t come with stupid sound effects that are guaranteed to wake up my child. Anki ticks these boxes.

AnkiWeb has a lot of free user decks available for download, but I didn’t want to check the quality of someone else’s data. After a few misadventures with Memrise, I’ve learned not to trust random word sets from the internet. Keying in the words that I want to learn and doing a thorough proof read is a great way to introduce myself to the material, so I created my deck from scratch.

Setting up Anki took a bit of work, and I relied heavily on the manual, but now that it is up and running it is brilliant. Users create notes in the program, and then determine the cards that they want generated. This means that you can quickly set up multiple types of cards from the same data set, so bulk edits are fast. Cards based on the same note are linked to each other, so if you have multiple cards the program will mix up the way your data is presented to you.

I began by deciding how I wanted my cards to be designed. Verbs were the first area I tackled since the type of information I need here is quite different to nouns and adjectives. I want to learn the infinitive of each verb, but also the conjugations for the past tenses. To do this I took the list of verbs that I want to learn and typed everything into an Excel spreadsheet (a lot of my data was already in Excel). I exported a few lines into a CSV file and then resaved in Notepad to get the correct encoding (because we love it when Microsoft removes important functionality). After checking that my fields lined up correctly, I imported the full list into Anki. Verbs are in their own note type, which I can filter or edit without touching the rest of my deck.

Because Anki is so easily controlled by the user, unlike most web applications I have come across, I can dictate how new data is introduced. My first group of verbs had 130 different words. Some of these verbs I am already familiar with, and others were new. I told Anki to display every card that showed the German infinitive and asked me to translate it into English, because this is the easiest translation for me. Normally there are three options for new words: Again, which repeats the word quickly; Good, which repeats the word at 10 minutes and then one day; and Easy, which repeats the word in four days. In the settings I am able to change Easy to repeat the word with a longer interval, so for my first run through while setting things up I could push revising those words to a much later date. After the first run through I can then return the setting to four days. This delays the conjugations I am confident with in my regular practice, so Anki will show me the conjugations I am less confident with earlier and more frequently.

My full word set has primarily come from a first year German text book, and contains approximately 3500 words. As I encounter new words that are not in my list I can just create a new note in Anki to include them. This means my word list is much more organic than a single training program. It also means I am unlikely to forget words because I am no longer exposed to them, which solves a big problem I have faced since my last trip to Germany.

Anki has a lot of benefits, but as a new mother there is a single feature that makes it fantastic: no time requirements. If I can’t finish today’s cards then the program will reschedule tomorrow’s cards to prioritise the ones I am most likely to forget. If I don’t have time to add new words I can include them later without disrupting my progress. I can study during stolen moments and those long hours where I’m stranded in a chair. Other new mothers might be resorting to daytime television, but I’m making use of those otherwise unproductive hours. I might not get everything done during the day that I would like to, but I can always feel a sense of accomplishment by the time my partner gets home.

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