A Complete Beginner’s Guide to Anki, or How I Learned 900 Words in Two Months

[Find the blog barren? That’s because I’ve moved to trms.me]

If you are just beginning your adventures in language learning and found assimilating vocabulary to be a dramatic experience, it means you might not have heard of this nifty piece of software called Anki. In short, it will bring your vocabulary (and in general, language)-learning to lightspeed. But how does it work, how exactly can I use it to its full potential, and does it really… do something for me?
Well, I’ve used it for a little over two months now and I can safely say that I am not planning to stop anytime soon. I’ll explain in some detail how I used it to learn over a thousand Turkish words and idioms in such a short period of time.

How does it work?

Short answer: It asks you the words at exactly the right time before you forget them, this way you’ll remember them.

Long answer: Let’s say I tell you a word in a foreign language, now, once. Then, one day into the future, randomly, I will ask you: “Remember that word I told you 6 weeks ago?”
Well, that can’t really work, can it? Anki fixes this. Put simply, you save a word and its translation into Anki. Then, it will ask you about it. First after only ten minutes. Then, if you answer correctly, the next day. Then three days, and so exponentially going. You don’t even have to think about it too much. This method has been, in fact, scientifically proven to be working and beneficial for your memory. You can learn not only languages, but basically anything like this.

So, does it really work?

Short answer: yes, it does.

Long answer: In March, I started following a daily Turkish language course in Ankara. I had initially thought the course was going to be rather slow and in English, so I didn’t really prepare much for it, I simply kind of… went there. As soon as the teacher came into the room speaking fully in rather fast Turkish to a class of (almost) clueless students, I immediately realised I needed a more aggressive attack plan. So that day, after the lesson, I went straight home and downloaded Anki. I had only used it sparingly some years before to learn Japanese Kanji but quickly dismissed it after two weeks since I lost interest in the language.
I started inputting words I was reading or listening to during each lesson into Anki and, with an average of 25 to 30 minutes a day of reviewing, I had mastered approximately 600 words after a month. So needless to say, I was feeling pretty pumped up.

Getting started.

First off, we’re going to need to download Anki itself. Link! It’s available for a plethora of platforms, for free, even from the web browser here. This way even if your smartphone is a tad older, or you only have restricted access to a PC you can still get your practice on. Now, the iPhone app is the only one option which has a cost, (and a rather high one as that, 25 USD) but this is also where the website comes in handy. Simply access it from Safari, click on share, then “add to homescreen”. Done! Free Anki for iPhone.
Let’s take a look at the main screen immediately after we open the software. I’m going to refer to the Windows version in this tutorial, but this knowledge applies equally across all platforms.

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In the center, that’s my main deck, called Turkish Words. On top, we have three buttons we will use in the next steps. On the top right, the graph button will show you stats about your studies and the circle will let you sync your words between devices (we will take a look at this further down below).
Now, let’s say we wish to create a deck for our Italian words, so first thing we do is click on the “Create Deck” button on the bottom. We’re going to be prompted about the deck’s title: you can name it whatever you want. We’re going to name it, simply, “Italian Words.”

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We have our deck! Right now though it’s an empty one, there are no words (cards) inside. let’s go ahead and click on the deck itself, then on “Add” there at the top.

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This is the “Add” prompt. The way a flashcard session works is: Anki shows you the front, then you try to remember the back; done that, you click on “Show” and it shows you the answer (namely, the back). Keep this in mind while creating cards. Let’s input our first word: let’s say we want to learn the Italian for dog, “cane”.

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What will happen during the review is: it will show us “dog” and we will need to think about the Italian for it. You can also obviously do the opposite, if it suits you better. As you get more confident with Anki, you can also input not only words, but images and/or audio instead of text. This helps you associate the word directly with the object and not its translation. You can add images or audio to “front” or “back” by clicking on the paperclip in the top right corner. For now, let’s go ahead and input our English word, “dog” in the front and its Italian counterpart, “cane”, in the back.
As you might have seen, towards the bottom area of the window there’s an input box named “Tags”. Exactly as it says, it allows you to tag cards in order to allow an easier later retrieval and to do custom study. Briefly, if we, for example, tag all of our animal-related words “animal”, we will be able to afterwards study only animal words one day, if we feel like it. While this might seem trivial now that we only have a few cards, it will be crucial later on, so it’s definitely a very good habit to pick up early from the start, to avoid having hundreds and hundreds of untagged cards in the future. I’m gonna tag this as an animal, because I believe one day I might want to
Now we click on “Add” and that’s it, we have our first card! We can choose to add more but for now let’s close this window and get to the actual studying.

The Actual Studying

We are prompted back to the main window. This time, there are some coloured numbers there: it’s important we know what those mean.

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  • “New” are words that we haven’t even touched on yet. We’ve added them, but never reviewed them even once.
  • “Learning” are words that we have reviewed once, and are set to appear again during the same day. Basically, they haven’t upgraded to the “Show tomorrow” status.
  • “To review” are words we’ve already reviewed in the past days and are scheduled to reappear today to strenghten them.

Let’s go ahead and click on “Study Now”.

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This is it, this is the real thing! We are studying! So, that’s our dog. Do you remember what was the Italian for it? When you feel like you remember it (or just gave up), let’s click on “Show Answer”.

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Of course, it’s cane. These three new buttons at the bottom are exactly what they mean. If we didn’t remember it at all, we click on “Again” and it will show it to us in less than one minute (you can check the time span on top of the button itself). If we remembered it well, we click on “Good”. This is the default answer, so you can tap the spacebar to say “good”. Particularly useful when you are reviewing hundreds of cards a day. And if we remember it with extreme ease (use this button seldom though, if in doubt, use “Good”), then, we can click on “Easy” and it will ask us again in four days. Now, we go through the remaining reviews, if you’ve added more cards, and we are done! This was the basic way of studying and adding cards in Anki.
The only problem right now? Every time, when you want to squeeze in a little practice, you need to be at your computer. Let’s fix that by synchronizing your cards between all of your devices.

Practicing on your phone/tablet/browser too.

What we’re going to do in this section is make sure you can practice even when not at home, by having your cards, decks and study progress synchronized to your other devices. In order to do this, we will need a free Anki account. Let’s head over to ankiweb.net.

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After clicking on “Sign Up” and having inputted your email and password, you will be redirected to a legal agreement. Once you’ve accepted it, your account will be created.
Let’s head back now to Anki and click on that little “sync” button on the top right of the window:

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You’ll be prompted to sign in and either upload or download your collection to AnkiWeb. Since our AnkiWeb is empty, prompt “upload”. Done! Now, when you download Anki in your other devices, simply sign in and sync: your cards will be there waiting for you.

Up to you now.

I’ve set you up and given you the tools to remember vocab efficiently: now make sure to use it! Not only by studying everyday but also by adding new and new words constantly. Don’t you worry, you’re not going to have to learn all of the words you’ve added the same day, there’s a limit to the amount of new words you can take in every day. As this is just a beginner’s guide I haven’t touched on that but I will do it in the following posts. By default, you will learn a maximum of 20 new words a day, even if you’ve added, say, 980888.

Feel free to leave me feedback: if you think I should add, remove, change something or pretty much anything else, let your voice be heard in the comment box below. If you want to be notified of my future posts in this blog, feel free to subscribe to it via WordPress, email or by using the RSS feed. I will focus on Anki for the next one or two posts but generally, this will be a language-related blog. I will post on Tuesdays and my language-nerdy-savvy friend Jag will post on Fridays.

To the next one!


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