When I first heard about a program called Anki, I wasn’t too interested. It sounded like a digital flash card program – something my friends did as little programming exercises in 8th grade. It didn’t strike me as if their finished creations had a major impact on their French exam results. That appeared to be in line with my belief that technology doesn’t solve laziness. Or so I thought.
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Anki actually comes in different versions – it’s available for PC, Mac, Linux, iOS, Android and even as a web application that you can open in most mobile or desktop browsers. The idea of the program in a nutshell is for you to create digital flash cards. You can then practice them like traditional flash cards, but with a twist: The cards to review will be selected automatically and shown to you in ever increasing time-frames as long as you get them right (and reset once you get them wrong). You can also download ready-made set of study cards for free, but let’s get back to that later.
How it works
Anki uses so-called notes, that have different fields (e.g. the front and back of a flash card). You can even have more than two fields (e.g. ‘English’, ‘Thai’ and ‘Thai Abbreviation’ – very useful if you want to study commonly abbreviated terms). Anki doesn’t limit you to text entries. You can use even use sound files or images. Personally I never bothered with anything but text, but if you need to practice pronunciation or can’t read Thai, this can come in quite helpful.
Anki displays one side of a ‘card’ to you and you have to guess the answer. If you’re so inclined, you can even activate a setting that forces you to type it in. After that you can choose whether you got it wrong (the card goes right back in the virtual to-review stack) or whether you got it right (the card won’t be shown right away again) or whether it was easy (the next showing of the card will be heavily delayed). This system is usually referred to as spaced repetition).
The actual delays with which the cards are shown depend on how often you got them right in a row. The first time it will show it again the next day, then in 3 days, then in 7, then in a month and so on. If you select that an answer was easy, it’s similar to skipping the next review.
If during review you keep failing a card too often after the initial learning phase (think 15+ times, but the setting can be customized), it gets marked as ‘leech’ and won’t be shown for review anymore. The idea being that some words you sometimes just can’t remember for the life of it and instead of taking up review time, they get suspended. Of course you can undo that, but the software is trying to help you avoid road blocks.
The PC Client
Anki’s desktop clients are free to download. While I only ever used the PC version, to my knowledge the Mac and Linux versions don’t differ too much. The interface of the PC version comes with a lot of functionality, but can be a bit confusing at first.
Personally I liked the little details that show the thought that went into the app. A good example is if you enter data in fields in English and Thai (using actual Thai writing – as you should). The software remembers which one you used for which, so you don’t constantly have to switch keyboard settings back and forth between Thai and English.
The Mobile Client
Having Anki on your phone is what makes or breaks it in my opinion. An Android client, AnkiDroid, is free. One for iOS will set you back $24.99 – ouch! However, considering the value you get out of it, it’s still a steal I think: You can practice while on the subway, waiting for an elevator or in the Big C checkout line on a Saturday morning.
So yes, it costs a bit more than your average ‘Angry Birds’ app, but considering that you can get hundreds of extra hours of practice out of it, that price tag is easily justified. Alternatively you can always use AnkiWeb which runs in your mobile browser and is completely free.
It still means you’ll need to make the effort to practice Thai on the subway instead of following your friends’ latest Facebook updates. However, you’ll quickly turn ‘waiting time’ into productive ‘Thai learning time’. Maybe the focus on using time more efficiently is the German shining through in me.
However, being able to improve your Thai while not having to cut down on free time or work holds a lot of attraction for me.
Why you should use both applications
As a general guideline I recommend using a PC or Mac version to enter new data into Anki, simply due to typing speed. The iOS or Android apps are perfect for reviews. This switching of apps works like a charm because Anki can automatically synchronize your mobile and your desktop devices remotely via their own server.
Every time you finish entering data (or complete reviews), your device can sync the updated status with Anki’s central server (via Wifi/3G/etc.). So yes, you can create new entries on your PC and then review those same entries on your phone right after without having to connect your phone to your PC.
Using ready-made sets
Anki has a tremendous amount of freely shared ready-made card sets available. You can even download them from Anki’s central server within the application at no extra charge. I have to admit, that most of the time this isn’t too enticing. The problem is that you tend to be better off entering words and phrases on your own, to which you know the context and which you are most likely to repeatedly use. A ready-made set often doesn’t have that kind of overlap.
There’s also some help if you already have your own ready-made deck of cards. Anki 2.0 offers an option to import sets from earlier versions as well as from Mnemosyne 2.0 or Supermemo. Theoretically there’s also the option to export from other programs to standardized text files and import those into Anki, but you probably want to Google for your specific software to see if that’s a workable option.
Anki’s combination of a desktop and a mobile client allows you to efficiently create your own set of cards on your PC that you can then easily practice every day during your commute. When using it with whole sentences instead of single words, you can easily improve vocabulary, grammar and language feeling during everyday downtime.
Anki isn’t the only SRS out there, but it’s the only I’ve tried and so far I haven’t seen a reason to switch to any others. I’d be happy to hear from others who are using other solutions and hear how it works out for you. Leave a comment and let us know!