Anki: Best Software Ever, or Thing from Hell

I’ve used Anki for more years than I can remember.  It’s a great piece of software.  You just stuff your soul into an envelope and mail it off to the Devil, and in about four to six weeks Japanese ability arrives in your mailbox.  It’s convenient like that.

In case you’ve been studying Japanese under a rock, you should know that Anki is software that helps you remember stuff.  It’s what they call a Spaced Repetition System.  Kind of like electronic flash cards.  Anyway, I used to know more about it, but I forgot.  But where was I?  Oh yeah, so when you have a Japanese phrase that you want to remember, you just type it into Anki, and the software kindly reminds you to review it at just the right time.  Every day, you review your Anki flash cards and pretty soon, Presto, you’re a Japanese genius.  Well, that’s the theory, at least.

Yesterday, I rode my bike home from an izakaya at midnight, in the pouring rain.  And even though I’m holding an umbrella in one hand, every time I come to a stoplight I pull out my iPod.  Because you know I’ve got this Anki app so I can use it anywhere, and I’m stressing because I’ve got to review about a hundred cards today but of course I didn’t because I was out drinking with the old men again.

Even after I get home, I’m still studying as I’m climbing the stairs up to my place.  But once I get there the key won’t turn. So I’m outside my apartment hopping on one leg and dripping with rain and of course I’ve gotta pee super bad because I just drank about ten Japanese malt liquors, and I’m just going Damn, damn, damn, why won’t this door open!

This happens about once a month.  It’s like the lock just decides to be broken.  And after swearing and shaking the door and almost snapping my key off in the process, I realized I’m again trying to get into apartment 307, although I live in 407.  Well, that explains that.  I always wonder what the people in 307 are thinking, huddling in the middle of their dark apartment while some guy cursing like a Japanese sailor tries to break through their front door.  I really got to apologize one of these days.

Anyway, I have a theory about why this happens.  Of course, I could just explain it by saying that I’m a drunk, but that would involve taking personal responsibility for my actions, which I’ve found is never a good idea.  So I’ve developed an elaborate alternative explanation.

I first realized that Japan was doing strange things to my brain when I went to buy shampoo.  Like, you probably don’t think much about buying shampoo, and neither did I when I lived in the States.  I just grabbed the first bottle of pearl-green Prell I could get my hands on and made for the door.  No time for the cash register–I got places to go!  But when I tried to do the same thing in Japan, it was like my own personal JLPT being held right in the middle of aisle 3.  There’s like fifty different brands of shampoo, and they all look exactly the same.  Who the hell needs fifty choices for washing their hair?  How’s a guy supposed to choose one brand like it’s the best?  Why do the Japanese hate Prell and refuse to carry it?  So I’d pick up a bottle of Japanese mystery shampoo, turn it over, check out the label, and be like, Oh, right . . . it’s all in Japanese.  That again.  So it took me about 30 minutes to decipher half a dozen bottles and conclude that they all claim to make your hair clean and beautiful.  Yeah, thanks for the heads-up.  I finally picked one with a picture of all these flowers on it because it was half-off.  I’m a sucker for a bargain.

But yo, that’s just shampoo.  Everything’s like that.  Every train, every menu, every terrifying notice in my mailbox–it all takes about ten times longer than you ever thought it would.  Jeez, it’s exhausting.  All that thinking.  It sure makes a guy thirsty.  And then there’s Anki.

Anki’s the helpful older brother you never had, always standing behind you, making sure you do your homework, holding a broomstick.  Don’t study for a day, and whack! The number of flash cards doubles.  Don’t study for a week and whack!  You got to spend a full day reviewing cards.  It’s possibly the best software written for prison inmates ever.

Now, Anki’s written by some dude named Damien Elmes.  I’ve never met the guy, but I imagine he’s nice enough person, in the same way that Pandora was, like all happy and carrying around this crazy box and then uh-oh, dropped it.  Whoops.  He’s just like, la da dee, I’ll write some software that helps people remember things and they can carry it with them all the time, and review Japanese constantly, even when they’re in the bathtub and taking a whiz in the middle of the night and climbing the stairs to apartment 307.  Surely that could never be a bad thing.

So yeah, I got a lot to think about.  Today again, I’m walking through Japan, wondering why all those old guys at the bar were laughing at something I said, what this letter from my landlord means, and why my hair smells like a sakura tree just took a dump on it.  And the whole time I’m staring at my iPod, mumbling some Anki sentence.  Everywhere there’s Shinto shrines and beautiful girls and the sights and sounds of Japan, but I got no time for it.  I gotta study Japanese.  And talk to somebody?  Are you kidding–not while I got fifty flash cards left to do.  Anki:  It’s my deal with the Devil.  Remind me to buy those guys in 307 a fruit basket.


36 Replies to “Anki: Best Software Ever, or Thing from Hell”

  1. Ha, we are quickly heading that we! We use Memrise rather than Anki (the Anki app for my computer was HUGE, and I didn’t like the web version). They don’t yet have an iphone app, but after reading your post I think that might be a good thing! And I find Memrise is prettier (yeah, I’m a girl).
    More seriously, I think you are underlining a good point – sometimes we get so caught up in ‘hitting our goals’ with flashcards, or set lessons or whatever, that we don’t have time to actually put our language to use.

    1. Wow, first I’ve heard of Memrise. Maybe you like it because you’re a girl, but I like it because of its spellng.

      As for Anki being “HUGE,” I don’t know. Like, I put it on my Commodore 64 and I could still play Pong okay. Maybe try wrapping some tinfoil around the antenna.

    2. Great to read about alternatives for Anki. Until the start of 2013 it was a very solid product that I’d used and recommended to others for about six years. Unfortunately the author has rolled out a “new improved version” that makes substantial changes to the interface and structure of the data, and has forced users of the older version to switch within a month or so if they are to retain important features such as web access to their data.

      It’s not the first time the developer has gone about things this way, but it’s the first time it’s meant I’ve found myself unable to use a study tool I’ve put masses of work into customizing and populating with my own data. I don’t feel I can trust the product any more, even though I’d previously written glowing reviews of it.

      I will look into Memrise at the earliest opportunity!

      1. Yeah, Anki 2 is certainly a departure from the original, but all of my data ported over just fine. You should let the developer know if you can’t access your cards.

    3. Anki has a horrible interface but compared to memrise its much much more customizable.
      Its complicated and stuff but u will love it

  2. Anki, ah the fond memories I have with it. Every day it says to me, 100+ Kanji, 100+sentences to review! I cringed at the thought of that. Now I really don’t pay attention to how much I have that’s due or how much is piled up. I just do how much I want to in each day. For example , a quick 1 minute Kanji Rep ( I like to do 3 minutes) but for sentences, my attention span is less than a minute. I use Surusu now for my sentences and Anki for my Kanji. Since I initially used anki before Surusu. Surusu doesn’t tell you how much Kanji you have due. It’s the nice brother you have, who doesn’t punish you;)

    Please buy those guys in room 307 a fruit of basket or something;)

    1. Yeah, I put some whiteout over the part of the screen that tells me how many kanji I have left to do, and that seemed to help. Kind of makes the screen look funny, but oh well.

  3. I was also a loyal user of Anki but the $25 for the iOS version seemed like too much for a flashcard program. Most flashcard apps are around $4. There’s a program that I found called Flashcard Elite that has a free version (with some minor ads at the bottom) for iOS so I switched to that.

    The good: It downloads directly from Quizlet and Flashcard Exchange. The interface is fantastic. And it is using advanced SRS.

    The bad: No graphs or charts to monitor things (even though it’s using advanced SRS), not as many options as other programs, and sometimes if you miss your button you’ll launch the ad at the bottom (unless you pay $3 for the ad-free version).

    But the downsides don’t bother me. I figured that I would just pay the $25 for Anki even though that seems way overpriced but am just sticking with Flashcard Elite. If you want a change from Anki, check it out sometime.

    1. Thanks for the heads-up on that. It’s good to have options.

      Yeah, $25 for Anki is really a question of perspective. If you’re comparing it to other apps, then it certainly is expensive. On the other hand, if you compare it to the cost of buying textbooks, CDs, or—gasp—actually taking classes, then it’s pretty cheap. For something I use every single day, I have no problem with the price. But I understand others might not feel that way, so it’s nice to know there are alternatives.

      1. Yeah it sucks that Anki costs $25 for iphone users. The Android version of Anki is open source and free, like the PC version.

        1. Yeah, I don’t understand the pricing, that’s for sure. But I personally never minded paying for the iPhone version, since I’ve used Anki every single day for years and it’s really helped my learning. And knowing there’s basically one dude behind it, I’m happy to support him. So I don’t blame him for making a profit. But I agree that having the iPhone version be rather expensive while the Android version is free seems inconsistent. It certainly makes makes me jealous of Android users.

  4. Hilarious. Saw myself in this post. I was like you when I studied in Fukuoka as an exchange student in 2009. I studied Japanese constantly with Anki, and in China I studied Chinese constantly with Pleco flashcards (bc of computer issues I couldn’t add to Anki then)… but eventually you get to where you don’t have to study flashcards all the time. Just hang in there! Even if the reviews pile up to hundreds of reviews, it doesn’t matter. I’ve gone through piles of more than a thousand backed up reviews. Whatever… You just keep reviewing and you get through them, or you delete/suspend some crappy cards you didn’t really need, or you scrap your deck and start over. It’s a journey!

    Just make sure you are reviewing stuff that’s actually relevant to your life. Like, don’t bother memorizing 賞味期限 on the back of your cereal box until you can say おっす、飲みにいかない? to your friends.

    1. So then once you’ve memorized them, the conversation would go:

      “Hey let’s go drinking!

      “Sounds good, I’ll bring these beers that have been in the back of my fridge.

      “Wait, what’s the expiration date on those bad boys?

      “Hmm, let’s see, uh, 2004?

      “Eh, probably all right. And bring that cheese too.

      “Yeah, it says ‘2003’.

      “Well, let’s just say it’s ‘aged.’ I’m sure it’ll be delicious.

      Ah, the power of Anki . . .

  5. Stumbled onto this article from a Google search. Hilarious! I’m an Anki user and I can relate, but I’ve made considerable progress learning Chinese using it so can’t be too mad. As a rule I’ve only ever entered sentences that have an audio companion. In fact I put the audio in the question side and text in the back. So I’ve only used anki as a way to improve my listening comprehension. I plan to stop adding cards to my Chinese deck at the end of this year (that will make 2 years exactly) and to finally say goodbye to the deck June of next year. With the progress I’m making I can’t foresee needing it past that point.

    1. God, I tried to quit, I honestly did. The longest I’ve been able to make it was five days.

      The problem for me is Anki on my iPhone. It’s just that thing I do while waiting for a light to change or standing on the train platform. Basically, it fills dead time. Without Anki, what would I do with those moments—think thoughts? Jeez, that’d be horrible.

      Maybe taking up a less addictive pastime would be a good replacement, like smoking or something. Anyway, good luck quitting. If you can come up with a way to wean people off of Anki, there’s probably a market for it. I’d buy that cure.

  6. What happened with the 307 people? They didn’t woke up? Did you gave them a gift?

    I found Anki, months ago, but honestly? I was very lazy and i didn’t found the idea of that software. Downloaded the program and i found that it was empty (PC version, the iPhone one is expensive as hell). Then a friend lead me to a forum to download the cards but then i never checked again, how exactly Anki works? Greetings!

    1. Heh, no, I never actually met them. Just stopped by their door once in a while and gave it a thorough rattling.

      Anki . . . well yeah, it’s not the most user-friendly software. It’s really just electronic flash cards plus a scheduling system. So you put in the information you want to remember, and it presents that information on a schedule of increasing intervals. You can also download decks of cards that others have created.

      It’s better than paper, but not magic. You still have to sit down and review the words or phrases your want to remember, and the more the better. I use both the PC version and the somewhat pricey iPhone version. Whenever I have a spare moment, I can review some Japanese, and that makes it worth it me.

  7. Anki is SHIT. Pure and simple. Leave it to them to ridiculously over complicate something as simple as fucking flash cards! It’s got a user manual longer than that of the large hadron collider. It forces arbitrary limits that supposedly can be turned off, but do you think you can figure out how after a goddamn hour of reading and experimentation? I’d rather rip my fucking tongue out all together than learn ANY new language using this software. FUCK.

    1. I had the same experience, and I just don’t see what people see in it. The interval in review for new cards should be configurable down to seconds, not 1 minute/10 minutes. People whose short-term memory span is greater than 20 seconds must either be focussing on vocab they already know, or have alien photographic memories, in which case they shouldn’t need flash-cards at all: just pick up the textbook and learn it in one day.

      I use quizlet or cram, rather. It’s not automated, but I can go back and forth through a subset of 4-5 cards in a set with the arrow keys, plus it gives excellent, if not native, TTS pronunciation of some 20 languages: good enough for a first approximation.

  8. I used anki in the past but now I use JED, I give tag to each new word and review each tag group whenever I have time… The only downside is that I can’t import tag group (deck) like in anki

    1. I feel the exact same way. It’s useful, but agh, the interface. I have a really hard time recommending it to friends.

  9. I always did resent Anki, and learned Japanese almost entirely without it. I did use it along with Heisig’s RTK, but other than that, I never used it. I don’t understand how people can download a pack of 10,000 context-less sentences and just have at it ’til the cows come home.. and then claim that it will make you proficient in the language. Bitch please… you do need grammar explanations (as much as people may hate to admit), you do need more variety of content, and you ABSOLUTELY need interaction with the people/culture. In fact, one of the biggest reasons I quit Anki and never looked back was because I moved to Japan. Immersion is my spaced repetition system, and it does a good job reinforcing words that I actually need vs. words that I’m better off not focusing on. My old Anki deck had a card for 汽船, and do you know how many times I’ve ever needed that word? Much better off living in Japan and memorizing all the different phrases people throw at you when they ask if you want a bag. That alone would take like 30 Anki cards to get down.

    1. I feel you. My thing with Anki is not letting it impinge on other things in life. I review about 20-30 sentences a day, while standing on trains, waiting at stoplights, using the toilet. In other words, time I would’ve spent philosophizing, being happy, or similar wasteful activities. For that, I still think it’s worth it.

      But certainly, to make words stick, one meaningful interaction is worth a year of anki-ing.

    1. Whoah Joe,

      For starters, what is your current level of Japanese? Nobody can recommend anything until they know that.

      1. Well, apparently somebody can. I was looking at this book recently, and it looks promising: しごとの日本語. Be aware, however, that it’s entirely in Japanese, and for learners already fairly proficient in the language.

        Now, Veejay’s right, that everybody’s got different needs depending upon their level. My thinking is simply that, unless you’re fairly advanced in Japanese, you’re not going to be able to pull off anything even remotely resembling business-level language.

        As for apps, I wish I could find even one that’s both useful and interesting. Sadly, I’ve not been able to. If anybody has suggestions, I’d love to hear them.

        1. Thanks, I will check out the book. Sorry for not being specific. I am at N1 level in Japanese, but I am still strugling with business japanese, particularly writting business emails to clients. Since you have more experience with the language, I was wondering whether you know any good books or tools that you have come across.

  10. Anki is driving me insane. How do i add a deck? How can something so apparently simple be so hard??????????????? I just want a few flash cards with controllable audio and i cannot even create a deck????

    1. Yup, that sounds like Anki all right. You just keep pushing and clicking stuff until you finally accomplish what you want through sheer randomness. You are not alone.

  11. Ken,
    I saw a comment that you left a few years back on an article about how Jeremy Howard learned a gazillion Hanzi characters in 2 years using a combination of Anki and being a retired millionaire with a lot of free time.
    Focusing on the Anki side of the equation for now, you mentioned in your comment that you noticed an improvement in retention related to exercise.
    Please tell me more about this, as I am quite close to heading down to the hardware store to buy some electric cables and a metal colander in an attempt to force these evil chicken scratches into my mind at a more reasonable rate.

    1. I suggest going ahead with the colander purchase, as I don’t even remember writing that comment. Get one for me while you’re at it.

      So what really boosts memory—exercise, healthy diet, proper sleep, clean living? I’m gonna go with a big, fat Nothing. I mean, I’m sure all of those things help a fraction of a percent, but from what I can tell, nothing’s going to give you more boost than you’d get from pressing two D batteries to your temples.

      I’ve been using Anki for about 14 years now, and my conclusion is that it’s a pretty shit way to learn Japanese. Anki works well for memorizing a few hundred things, maybe even a few thousand. But not tens of thousands, which is what we’re talking about.

      Even if you could memorize all the joyo kanji, which is “only” a couple thousand, it still doesn’t give you the ability to read, well, much of anything. Not to say that it’s not a great building block, because it is. Only that it’s one very basic step in the entire process. And then while you’re reading, and thus memorizing other words, you naturally start to forget the lesser-used kanji, thereby negating the time put into acquiring them.

      Now, I still use Anki. It’s easy and fills spare time. I can study while walking and it gives me something to do while waiting to be hit by a bus. And it helps a little bit. But there’s just too much stuff to review.

      So yeah, I’d say keep doing reviews in your spare time, and yeah, make new cards for stuff you want to remember, but make sure your primary study methods include plenty of reading, watching Japanese movies with Japanese subtitles, and conversations with native speakers interested in helping you learn the language. In other words, immersion. That applied over a few decades should get you about halfway there. For the rest, I’d suggest being born and raised in Japan. And maybe a set of jumper cables.

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