Those who know it either love it or hate it. And those who hate it… are wrong. (JK!) I’m talking about one of the most powerful learning tools currently available, Anki.
Not only is this one of the most useful, effective, and versatile ways of boosting your learning (not just for languages either), it has a great community of users out there and—drum-roll—it’s free!
Well, except for iPhone users for some reason, but even then it’s well worth the expense.
What is Anki?
Anki is a flashcard app. It sets itself apart by allowing you to add multimedia, providing tools for high-level formatting, and uses an algorithm to supercharge the speed and efficiency at which you learn. The name comes from Japanese. 暗記(あんき), meaning “memorization.”
It was developed by Damien Elmes and first released in 2006. It’s written entirely in Python, and the whole code is open-source, viewable on GitHub.
To learn more about this awesome tool, we’ll check it out bit by bit.
Who is Anki for? What’s it best at? How does it do its thing?
Anki is for everyone and for almost any subject that requires brute-force memorization.
That means it’s useful for language learning, of course. It also aids medical students, math test-takers, memorizers, art enthusiasts, and history buffs—you get the idea.
If you can be tested on it, you can put it into Anki.
But that doesn’t really tell you what sets it apart from all the other flashcard apps out there, or even what sets it apart from just jotting things down on index cards.
Anki most closely resembles other learning products like Memrise or SuperMemo in that it uses a “spaced repetition system” aka an SRS.
But that’s where the similarity starts and stops. Anki offers more flexibility and versatility than anything else out there, paid or free.
So, what exactly is an SRS?
An SRS is designed to automatically optimize your learning. It’s a sort of set-it-and-forget-it algorithm that will when used right, help you memorize things in the quickest possible way.
Research shows that the best time to review something is right before you are about to forget it.
When we use traditional flashcards (or sub-optimized apps), we end up with cards thrown at us haphazardly without regard for the psychology and neurology that goes into the best way to learn.
Anki’s standard algorithm is based on the SM2 model first built for SuperMemo in the 1980s. The way this works in practice is that you’ll be presented with a question and three or four buttons.
If you don’t know the answer at all (i.e. you got it “wrong”), you’d hit the “again” button. That means you’ll see the card again within a minute.
If you knew the answer, but it took you a really long time, or perhaps you forgot an accent mark or something small like that, you might hit the next button, the “hard” button.
Depending on the card and your history with it (how many times you’ve gotten it right in the past), you might not see that card again for 1, 2, 3, 10, 20 or more days. Sometimes months.
If you’ve had this card in your deck for a long, long time and this is the first time you’ve had to hit the “hard” button, you still might not see it again for almost a year.
After that comes the “good” button. This is the equivalent of simply getting it right.
You had to use a little brain power, but you got there and it wasn’t too difficult. You feel reasonably confident. You won’t see this card for a greater interval than the “hard” option.
Then comes the “easy” button. This means the information comes to you effortlessly, like your own name, or the sum of two and two. You won’t be seeing that card for quite some time.
The idea here is to use a bit of self-assessment to put the study material into a queue that will challenge your brain just enough to put the data into your long-term memory.
See something again too soon and your brain hasn’t had to use its neuro-muscles to remember it.
This means a weak future recall. Wait too long to see that material again and chances are you’ll have forgotten it, setting you back.
Of course, we all learn a little differently. You can adjust the settings to your heart’s content, crafting a personalized learning-algorithm just for you.
Now, it’s way easier than I’ve made it sound. I’ll use myself as an example. For me, Anki’s built-in timings are stretched a bit too wide. They’d have me put off difficult cards until the next day.
Have it your way
I know that unless I see especially challenging cards at least three times in a single day, I’ll never remember them. So, I just added what I wanted. My “hard” review interval looks like this: 1 10 60 360.
Those are minutes, with each interval separated by a space. See?
Anki allows for minute-based granularity, giving you an incredible amount of control over what works best for you.
So, when I answer “hard” to a question, I’ll see that card again in 1 minute, then 10 minutes, then 1 hour, then in 6 hours. Then a day later. Then it goes back into the normal queue.
If you wanted, you could make it: 1 5 13 26 56 1289.
Not sure why you would, but you could.
If you can remain consistent, dedicating a few minutes daily to clearing your “stack” of Anki cards, you’ll be amazed at what you’ve learned.
What makes Anki useful for Japanese?
Anki was built with Japanese in mind originally. It has full support for Japanese characters and it is super simple to add beautiful furigana to your cards with no hassle.
Additional add-ons have been created that greatly expand the Japanese functionality, but we’ll check that out in the add-ons section of this review.
So why is Anki so good for languages in general, then?
Anki has a lot of features built-in that the language learning community at large needs and enjoys.
For languages like Japanese, you might want to have three or more cards for each vocabulary word. You might have one card that shows you the English, one that shows the kanji, one that shows the kana only, and one that only plays the audio of the word.
Do you need to create four different cards by hand for each and every vocabulary word?
You set up a template for your deck telling it what to test you on for each “note.” Notes are where all the data for each card goes.
So, for the word 食べる you might have four pieces of information in your “note.” 食べる, たべる, to eat, and the audio saying “taberu.”
You type that out just once and the template you set up for your deck will automatically create four cards for you.
Best of all, Anki will make sure that it staggers these cards.
So, while they all get created simultaneously and show up in the queue one after the other, you’ll never get tested on more than one card from a set of notes in a day (that said, in keeping with Anki’s customizability, you can turn this feature off).
This also helps to maximize the efficiency of your learning.
Are you a fan of cloze deletion? Anki is your friend with built-in, easy to use tools to create your own cloze deletion cards.
And when I say easy, I mean easy.
Make one note, pointing out which words to “cloze,” and Anki will automatically create as many cards as there are clozes in a note.
Want to simplify things even further? There are extensions which will automate almost the entire process for you.
I’ll take Japanese as an example again.
If you type in 食べる using a combination of add-ons, the entire note will be filled out with the reading, meaning, sample sentences, kanji drawing diagrams, and more. Or less. You’re in control.
Are you struggling with listening? There’s a fantastic piece of software that works in tandem with Anki called subs2srs.
If you can get your hands on the video or audio file of your target language, plus the subtitles in either your target language, your native language, or both, you’re all set.
90% of the time everything is timed correctly and all you have to do is press a button and PRESTO! Instant Anki deck of cards.
You can customize it, of course, but my favorite set-up is to feed the audio (even if I have the video) and two subs into the software and have it pump out a deck with a single card for each line of dialogue.
That’s right, with a single button you’ll have one card for each line spoken in a show (or movie, or song, or whatever).
When you open the deck you’ll hear the audio and then quiz yourself on if you understood what was said in the target language as well as what it means in your native tongue.
Check your answer and you’ll see the two subtitles next to each other along with the option to replay the audio as many times as you want.
On top of that, tons of decks have been made for just about every language you can think of. The community of Anki learners is massive, active, and helpful.
You can make your own decks or just download pre-made ones and tweak them to your preference if you like.
How can you use this for other subjects?
I’ve seen Anki used to build perfect pitch. There’s pre-made decks out there where a tone will play and you try to guess what note it is. You “flip the card” to check your answer and it’ll say what the note was. A good way to strengthen your ears.
Tangentially, you can put in clips of music. Want to learn how to identify all of Bach’s concertos by ear? Just put a clip in and test yourself. It’s that easy.
Do you want to learn to identify art styles? Just drop in image files of the art you want to test yourself on. Picture on one side, the information you should know about it on the other.
You can do this for birds too. Or flowers, or trees, or clouds. You can learn the layers of the atmosphere, the ages of the Earth, or memorize the entire periodic table of elements.
I’ve personally used it to study geography. I’ll put in a map of Japan with one prefecture highlighted and quiz myself on what the name is.
I’ve also used it to study history, though I suppose that’s a rather obvious example. I’ve made my own deck to help me convert metric to Imperial units and vice versa. Honestly, the limits are your imagination.
There’s a large community built around using Anki to study for medical school.
I’m not in that field, so I can’t say much about it, but having peeked at their decks, I’ve been really impressed at the creativity of the deck-builders and how they’ve harnessed the power of the software.
Make sure you have lots of room on your phone or computer—these decks tend to be huge. Everything from gross anatomy to pharmacology to the sound of the heart under different circumstances is available—free. It’s pretty damn incredible.
Alright, roll up your sleeves—we’re about to get granular.
Let’s quickly go over the structure of Anki. At the top level you have the app itself. This is the interface. It’s simple, clean, and offers probably the least customization options, though it’s so simple (and unimportant, relatively speaking) that it hardly matters.
Then we get our decks which we can organize at will.
Each deck has cards, with each card type being customizable.
Each card pulls its data from notes, the configuration of which is built off of note types where we can decide what kind of information we’ll input.
And each note has a series of fields where we input the data (text, images, audio, etc). Even these can be individually customized.
Alright, let me take you through each of these levels so you get a sense of what your possibilities are (though certain possibilities are different between the desktop version and the different phone versions).
At the top, you have the option to download extensions that will let you change the appearance of your app.
For example, the desktop version has extensions built that allow you to set up a dark mode, or put a github-style heatmap on the main screen so you can see at a glance how consistent you’ve been.
You’re also given control over the algorithm. You can change when cards appear and how often. you can make things easier or harder for yourself.
You can make it so that cards are automatically flagged if you get them wrong five times in a row. Or seven. Or ten. Whatever you want. And you can set this differently for each deck.
You can create as many decks as you want, each one with its own configuration. When you fill up your deck with cards, you have the option to organize those cards however you want.
You can also add tags (I highly suggest you do!) that will allow you to search for cards if you need to make changes or whatever.
It’s also worth noting that each deck can include cards of different note types (which will hopefully make sense by the end of the next couple paragraphs).
Cards and notes are tightly linked. Luckily, you can make as many “note types” as you like. Anki comes with a handful of note types built in, but you can either modify these, or craft your own. Note types control quite a lot of things.
Your note type will dictate three primary things: What fields are available, how many cards are created for each note, and what those cards include and how they are formatted.
So, when you create a note type you tell it what fields you want. For example, if you’re learning Japanese, perhaps you want a note type just for vocabulary.
So, you’d have fields for the English definition of a word, the full kanji-based Japanese form of the word, the kana-only form of the word, the romanized version of the word, an example sentence, and an audio recording.
Perhaps you’d create another note type for your Spanish language cards, which would only include English, Spanish, a sentence, and a recording. Perhaps you’d create a separate note type for Spanish verbs, allowing you to have an extra separate field(s) for various conjugations.
Alright, so now you have your fields laid out. When you put info into them, you can press ctrl+shift+x which will bring up an HTML editor. If you know some basic HTML, you can customize whatever is in the field using tags.
The next and last bit is where some really cool stuff happens. Now, each note type has cards that are created when you make a note. You can keep this simple, or go crazy complex. So, let’s say you’ve got your Japanese vocab.
Imagine you want to go simple. You can have it so that your note type only creates one card per note. Perhaps it’s a card that shows you 食べる on one side and then all the rest of the info on the other.
But maybe you want to get quizzed on both the Japanese and English. So, for each note, two cards would be automatically created. One that shows 食べる and another that shows “to eat.” Perhaps you want to get tested on the audio also. Then three cards get made per note. Automatically. Whatever you want.
Maybe when you get shown the answer you want to be able to tap the word and be taken to your favorite online dictionary’s entry on that word. Easy peasy. Maybe you want to add hideable hints.
Maybe you just want a colorful background. Maybe you want some old-school scrolling animation for some god-forsaken reason. Almost anything you can imagine doing with HTML and/or CSS you can do with your Anki cards. I’ve seen some really impressively formatted cards.
However you want to customize your studying, Anki allows it and then automates it. All it takes is a little tinkering. Plus, the tinkering is pretty fun! And if you get stuck, there’s an awesome online community of Anki enthusiasts who will happily help you.
Anki — The community and add-on extensions
Whether you have a question about formatting, want to know if someone created a type of deck you’re looking for, or just want to find a useful extension, the Anki community is there to help.
One of the most incredible advantages of the Anki community is that it cranks out incredible extensions. I’m not even going to go into much detail here. Just search for it and take a look around.
I’ve nearly perfectly automated my Japanese card creation process. I can plug my desired vocab into a spreadsheet and with just a few taps the whole thing gets dropped into the deck of my choice along with definitions added, furigana written, sentences offered, external links created, and kanji diagrams drawn, with three cards per vocab item. Au-to-ma-ti-ca-lly. Magic.
And if you’re good with coding, you can always customize the add-ons as well since they’re all open-source and the code is easily visible in the desktop app with just a click.
Keeping track of your learning
Anki also automatically (I use that word a lot because I want to drive home just how easy all this is) draws up beautiful graphs and charts and other various data for you.
At a glance you’ll know how far along you are in a deck. How many cards have you seen? How many do you know well? How many are you still learning?
You’ll see how many reviews you have coming up and how long it’ll take you to complete them based on your past performance. You can see your percentage correct. You can see how often you press the again, hard, good, and easy buttons. You can see when you study the most. The least.
And you can do this for each deck, or for your collection as a whole. Endless granularity to help you optimize your learning.
Or keep it simple.
You can always keep it simple. Anki comes more or less ready to plug-n-play. Add your vocab and start studying. No hassle. And the options are always there for you if you ever feel like tinkering. Or not. Even on its most basic settings Anki is the cleanest, most effective tool I’ve ever found for studying.
Just don’t forget to do your reviews. Anki doesn’t have a “vacation mode” so you can’t pause it. If you don’t do your reviews, they pile up. Fast.
I got busy for a couple of weeks and I went from a manageable 30 minutes of reviews a day to … (checking my Anki) … Oh dear god. 3061 cards due for review, which Anki estimates will take me 589 minutes to complete. Uggghhhh.
Price-Performance Ratio: For PC, Mac, and Android users it’s unbeatable. 5/5. If you use iPhone I’d personally say it’s but at almost $20 USD, I know others will disagree. 3/5. Average: 4/5
Difficulty: Whatever you want it to be! 5/5
Usability: It has a bit of a learning curve, especially if you want to do the more complicated stuff. But it’s by no means insurmountable. And it’s pretty good out of the box. However, I know that many people have turned away from it due to its supposed difficulty of use. 3/5
Fun Factor: If your idea of fun is efficiency, then it’s a solid 5/5
Completeness: No other product out there is as complete. I don’t think it could possibly be more complete. 5/5[wp_review]
What is the Anki Manual?
As great and helpful as the Anki community is, you’ll definitely get a lot of “RTFM” responses. A quick google for “Anki Manual” will give you what you’re looking for.
The manual is pretty darn comprehensive and will answer nearly all your non-HTML/CSS questions. If you want to know more about controlling the algorithm or special built-in formatting, the manual is the place to go.
What is the Anki Vector Robot?
It’s totally unrelated to the learning app. It seems to be some sort of home robot companion. The company that created it shut down in 2019 though.
Are there any Anki templates?
Oh yeah! Thanks to that great Anki community I mentioned, there’s tons out there. A quick google search for “anki template” will offer you lots of interesting stuff to peruse.
There’s some incredible stuff out there. Even templates that will mimic Memrise’s colorful multiple-choice interface. Go explore!
“I’ve lived in Japan on-and-off for the last five years, travelling to (almost) every corner of the Land of the Rising sun. I’ve deepened my love of the language with big hauls from Sapporo book stores, by chatting in Shinjuku coffee shops, drinking in Osaka “snack bars,” exploring distant Okinawan islands, and hitching rides with monks in Aomori. Japanese is a wide and deep language, and I’m always eager to dive in deeper.”