Anki – Flashcard App for Language Learning

Flashcards for memorization is often welcomed by a chorus of yawns from both teachers and students alike. They can take an age to create and have a reputation of being boring, forever associated with the pains of rote learning and fact drilling. However, if used correctly they do have a useful place in the classroom as a complementary study aid particularly when it comes to language learning, helping learners to build and memorise their vocabulary quicker and easier. Technology has done much to improve and speed up how we create, use and share flashcard resources. With the help of apps such as Anki and the addition of embedded media files, flashcards are no longer static the static learning prompts of old, but can offer a more immersive and memorable learning experience.

The Anki open-source app is available for Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS, Android, and can be used on any device with a web browser. It supports text, images, video, audio and even scientific markup so has huge potential for a wide range of subjects. You can even synchronize your flashcard decks across multiple devices. In terms of function, Anki is on the surface very simple. It’s a digitized flashcard platform which learners and educators use to create flashcard decks on any subject and then use to memorise and practice their subject of choice. Flashcard Decks are made by the users themselves and can be shared online using tools provided within the app or online. Decks can be surprisingly detailed, able to carry audio for use in language learning, or image files, for example, to improve identification for medical students. Users can mix multiple decks together, or pick and choose cards from multiple decks to make a custom study deck. The key point here is convenience: making digital flashcards is far quicker and much easier than the physical equivalent. Anki also automatically shuffles decks for you.

However, the real strength of Anki is the card dynamics itself. Each card has a front and back, essentially functioning as question and answer. During a study or drill session, the front of the card is revealed first, i.e. the question, and the user is prompted to answer. In the case of language learning, this could be a word or a complete sentence or phrase, and the required answer is the correct meaning. The user then “flips” the card thereby revealing the answer. Users are then posed with up to four options: Again, Hard, Good and Easy. Choosing “Again” will shuffle the card back into the deck for that session, to be checked again a few cards further into the deck. The other options put a scaled time delay on the reappearance of the card. This is designed with the consistent user in mind, with the Easy value on regularly used decks increasing in difficulty over a certain time period. Users can also edit the length of the study session, and choose how many decks to use. Anki will choose a selection of cards from the deck; by default balancing between cards the user has found Easy, Good and Hard. So the app is learning about you and your abilities as you use the deck producing a more adaptive learning experience.

The app is particularly popular amongst students learning Asian languages such as Chinese and Japanese; with the word “Anki” being the Japanese for “memorisation”. In fact, that’s how I came across it as it was recommended by my son who uses it regularly to keep building his Japanese vocabulary. However, it is well-suited for language-learning in general, and is also popular among medical and law students for fact drilling. One user of Anki used it to rapidly memorise facts in order to make record-breaking wins on the American quiz show, Jeopardy!

It should be noted, however, that Anki provides little in terms of actual guided learning. Unlike Duolingo or equivalent language learning apps, Anki decks don’t provide any structure that the user or creator of the deck doesn’t create themselves. Anki’s strength lies within supplementing learning in a classroom or bolstering existing knowledge. Beginners may find the app complex and unhelpful, or they may be put off by the multitudes of official and unofficial guides available online whilst trying to create or use a deck. Dedicated users, however, will ultimately find it a valuable tool that can be slotted into any study session. Definitely worth downloading from your chosen app store and trying it out.

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