If you're not using it already - this simple app will revolutionize how you learn forever! Part 1/2 Getting Setup

If you haven't heard of the program Anki, then hold on to your seat this is going to be a game changer for you and really level-up your Japanese learning.

Everyone is familiar with flash cards, on one side you have, say, a kanji or Japanese phrase then on the reverse you have the reading of the characters and a note in English or Japanese explaining the meaning. You pick a card off your deck, look at the front and see if you can remember the meaning and reading. Then you check the back for the answer if you didn't remember you put the card at the bottom of the deck. You'll get another go when you go through all the other cards. Any cards you get correct you put aside and you stop once your deck is empty. That's the basic recipe of how flash cards are used.



Most language learners are familiar with this way of using flash cards - I did it with kanji for Heisig's Remembering the Kanji, I wrote out around 2000 cards, by hand! Everyday I'd go through my flash cards until I could write down each kanji from the text on the front of the card - a little story that helped me remember the stroke order and meaning. If you're curious about this method of learning the kanji then you should check out my last post - How to learn the Japanese alphabets better than most natives in only three months!

Flashcards are pretty good for memorising facts, like kanji or phrases but the basic system can be improved. There's a way of using flash cards called the Leitner System. It improves on basic flash cards by adding four boxes! Four exciting boxes!

Leitner and his love of all things box related

The first box is cards to memorize today if you get a card correct you move it to the next box which is cards to memorize tomorrow. You study the second box every other day. If you get a card correct from the second box you move it to the third box which is full of cards you study every week. Basically the more often you get a card correct - the less you see it. Just as you're about to forget the card you'll be shown it again and have to recall it again; this helps form really strong - never going to forget - memories of the card. If you get a card wrong it goes into the previous box so you'll see if more often. It's a pretty good system, with one minor draw back - it's a massive pain in the ass to setup and maintain. Luckily we live in the 21st century and have computers!

Enter Anki

Anki is a free piece of software for your computer which lets you make virtual flashcards and then tests you on the using an improve Leitner system. Leitner could only have a small number of different boxes otherwise the system would become impractical, Anki has separate review intervals for each card depending on how well you've managed to remember it in the past.

Getting Anki


Anki can be downloaded from this website. There's a bar on the left and you can download it for whatever type of computer you have a Windows box, Mac or even mobile.


You might also want to install Anki on your portable device so you can do your flashcards on the move. In that case Anki is available on the iPhone here but it's a paid version, there is no free version for iPhone. If you're using an android mobile you're in luck - there is a free version go here or using the bar code scanner on the image below:
Anki Getting Started

Install and run Anki and you'll get something like this:
Before we make cards let me save you a massive amount of work - Anki has plugins and one of those plugins is especially made for Japanese learners. It will automatically add the reading for any cards you add and will add support for furigana - little hiragana or katakana readings written over the top of the kanji, which look nice and help you cement the readings and kanji in your head at once. It also has built in dictionary and several other features well worth getting to know.

To install the plugin go to the menu bar and click File > Download > Shared Plugins


This will open up a big list of plugins that can add extra features to Anki. The only one we want now is Japanese support.


Select Japanese support, click ok and it will install. You'll be prompted to restart anki. Before you do that - the Japanese support requires a special extra program!

Download and install this file: http://anki.googlecode.com/files/anki-reading.exe

If you're using a Mac you can skip downloading the above file. Linux people should read this.

Now startup Anki again. If you get an error make sure you've downloaded anki-reading.exe and installed it. Otherwise we're good to go!

Making your very first Anki card

There are lots and lots of ways to make flash cards and I'll discuss some of them in Part 2 including which ones I personally use. To get started we'll just make a super simple flash card. Press File > New and you'll get a prompt like below to name your deck.


I've chosen to call the deck "Japanese Words". Some Japanese learners have multiple decks for  - grammar, vocab, names etc so I've chosen this more specific name. This deck will just be made from simple cards the front will have a Japanese word the back will have the English meaning. We'll get into a better card layout in Part 2. Click the OK button to confirm your deck name.



This is your new deck! But at the moment it's empty, to start adding cards click "Add Material" and you'll be presented with the following.



This is the default card type, I don't think it's ideal but it's good enough for now until we cover making it better in Part 2. There's quite a lot of information on this screen but the most important thing are the two text boxes 'front' and 'back'. Front is what will be shown to you and back is the fact your want memorize - this is best explained with an example.

In Japanese the word ぬるぬる (nurunuru) means 'slimy'. Let's learn this word!


It's that simple! On the front of the card goes the Japanese and on the back the English. If you're still not sure about hiragana - then you can write the romaji on the back too - nurunuru. Really, you should ween yourself off romajo altogether asap!

Press the Add button at the bottom and bang that's you first card!

Though a deck isn't much of a deck with only one card, so perhaps add a few more? Here are my suggestions.

  1. Front: ロボット Back: Robot
  2. Front: ラーメン   Back: Ramen
  3. Front: さくさく      Back: Crunchy 
  4. Front:  ファイナルファンタジー Back: Final Fantasy
  5. Front: パイナップル Back: Pineapple
Ok, that's enough; with those six words you should be able to handle any situation! Now to review!
Press the close button after you've added the words.

The anki window will then look like this:



There are six cards in the deck. Can you remember all the words? It doesn't matter! Anki will make sure you remember everything ... forever! Click the review button and get started.

I think the cards are shown in a random order but my first one was ぬるぬる can you remember the meaning? If you can't don't try and force it just hit the spacebar and it will reveal the answer. 



[spoiler space]













[still thinking?]















[ok time up!]


Ok ぬるぬる, press space and you'll see the answer is "slimy'. Four buttons appear at the bottom - again, good, easy, very easy. These are mapped to the keys 0, 1, 2, 3.

If you didn't get the answer hit 0 on the keyboard - the card returns to the deck and you'll see it soon and probably get it next time. Don't worry if you don't get it next just let Anki take care of it!

If you did get the answer correct you can either grade how easy you though it was or just hit space for the default 1 - good.

Now work your way through the rest of the cards until you managed to remember each one once.


That's it. Use Anki again tomorrow and you'll be shown all 6 cards and if you keep getting them correct you'll see the cards less and less. If you use it everyday you'll quickly be able to build up your vocab.

That's the very basic entry level of Anki. Your now in a great position to start building up some vocab. It's easy to go crazy and start adding 100s of cards. I usually add about 10 a day or less, otherwise I get overwhelmed.  Before you start adding too many cards you should read Part 2 because there are more efficient ways to make cards - cards using kanji, cards with sentences, cards with blanks to fill in, cards with sound, music and even video! It's well worth getting the most out of Anki and I'll be letting you know some of it's power user secrets in the second part of the this article!



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