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

Part 1 covered what Anki was, how to make cards and how to use it. In part 2 the details of making an awesome Japanese learning deck are revealed.

The Golden Rules of Flashcards

  1. Always go Japanese → English, never English to Japanese.
  2. Read the Japanese out loud when you do your review
  3. Each card should only test one thing
  4. Try to add Japanese → Japanese cards as soon as possible
English words to do not map exactly to Japanese. Japanese words to do not map to English. That's why automatic translation of Japanese ⇔ English is so awful. When you're reading English do you suddenly want your brain to start throwing Japanese words at you? What you want to happen is when you read Japanese the meaning comes to you immediately, not filtered (and distorted) through your native tongue. The best way to start that happening is to only review Japanese to English.

I usually colour the English text in white so I can't read it. Then if I know I got the question right I don't have to be exposed at all to the English word.

The Basic Form of a Flash Card

A card has two sides front and back. The front usually poses some type of question and the back gives you the information to check you answered the question correctly.
In Anki the front and back of cards can be given extra parts to make them more effective.

My Flash Cards

My flash cards tend to be sentence cards. A sentence on the front and I have to say it correctly out loud. I based my cards on the early days of All Japanese All the Time.
The front has two parts and the back has three parts it's pretty easy to get Anki to use these types of cards. A card type in Anki is known as a Model. Open your deck in Anki and choose Settings > Deck Properties.

Click on this and a new dialog window will appear.

Here there is a small listbox with one row in it: Basic [6 facts]. This means I have a model (card type) called basic and I have 6 cards using that model. These are the six cards from Part One and the basic model just means the cards has a front and back and nothing else! You can ignore everything else in this window for now. Anki has a lot of options and most of them time I ignore 90% of them!

We want to make a new model so click the Add button on the right of the dialog. This will bring up the window below.
If you don't have the Add: Japanese option that means you didn't install the Japanese plugin from Part 1. Choose the Add: Japanese option and press ok. Then the dialog box will look like below.

That's it. The Japanese card is very well setup for our needs and we don't need to edit it. (Eventually you may want more control and then you should go ahead and meddle with the more complicated options!)

Click close and now we can start adding more complicated cards. You'll be taken back to the deck dialog, click the big green cross to add a card.

You'll be shown a window with more fields than before. In the first box, Expression, you should add your Japanese sentence and a picture if you have one.

Pictures can be added by dragging the picture and dropping it in the box or by clicking the little palette icon and choosing one from you computer (or press  F3). When you finish typing the Japanese - because Anki has the Japanese plugin - it will try and guess the reading. Usually it guesses the reading correctly and is a great timesaver - but it can get it wrong - so always check!

Fill the card out like so:

The Expression will be the front of the card the Meaning and Reading will be shown on the back. Sounds files can be added by dragging and dropping or by pressing the little speaker button and choosing a sound file on your computer.

And that's it! That's my basic sentence card. I think this probably naturally leads to some questions that I'll try to answer.

How do I know the readings?

Until you're sure don't just guess the reading or rely on the Japanese plugin. The more you study Japanese the more you'll just know which are correct.

Use manga - shounen manga usually have furigana so you'll always have the correct readings for your sentence. Be cautious as sometimes furigana is used for an alternate meaning or to portray what a character is really thinking (Bleach does this a lot!).

Yotsuba is a good starting manga. With popular comics there will often be a fan translation you can use to help you get the jist of the meaning too!

Ask a Japanese person, they're all over the internet! Try lang-8 lots of people will be willing to help you there.

Take it from a text book or reputable website. If you're starting out then text books are great, just don't overload yourself with boring sentences "How are you Mr Brown?" can get old fast! Try A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Sentence Patterns.

Use audio - if you have a transcript available listen carefully, write down what you think it is and then look it up in a dictionary or Wikipedia. Wikipedia usually has the reading right after the term or word. 心理学 means psychology but how to read it? Wikipedia to the rescue! 

How many should I add a day?

As many as you want until it becomes burdensome. When I was starting out I added 50 to 100 a day but it soon becomes unmanageable, now I limit myself to 10 a day.

Should I do 10,000 cards?

It's good to have a goal so sure why not! You won't magically be fluent just because you add 10k of cards. (You will undoubtedly read better though.) If the thought of 10k of cards makes you uncomfortable then don't do it, it's not a silver bullet.

Where do I get a sound file?

Use video, anime, drama a lot of these have transcripts.

Find dialogs with transcripts, Japanesepod101, Japanese podcasts.

Rhinospike has natives reading in their own language.
Text books cds / primselur type stuff.

iknow / smart.fm both these sites used to be free and have thousands of Japanese sentences read by native speakers and a picture but now they're pay only and quite expensive. Still worth considering!

If you're wondering how to cut the sound files up or get them on your computer - here's how I do it.

What if I don't know the meaning?

Don't make the card.

What if I keep getting it wrong?

Delete it. In Anki when you come to the card press and hold the ctrl key and then press delete - poof! - problem gone! You'll learn that word / sentence eventually - you're just not ready for it now.

Wouldn't the example be better if the picture and sound file had their own fields on the card?

It definitely has advantages to break the card up like this. If you do you could easily automatically create Sound → Japanese, Reading, Meaning cards. But it's also a little more effort to maintain and I'm lazy more fields makes making cards more complicated.

Additional Card Types

The card shown previously is a basic sentence card. You're shown a sentence and usually you know all the words apart from one (or you're trying to learn a grammar point) - and that's the one you want to learn, you use the picture as a prompt, try to say it outloud and then check yourself against the soundfile, reading and meaning. These types of cards are quite popular but they're not the only cards out there.

Heisig Kanji Cards

Heisig is a great way to learn the kanji and you can make flash cards for it too! The most important thing about this card is having the keyword on the front and the kanji on the back.
When I went through Heisig I actually had the story on the back but I think it would be easier just to keep it on the front. This is also mentioned over on AJATT. The picture is of course optional! but I find my memory is quite visual so a picture really helps.

Vocab Cards

I use vocab cards too - a single word → meaning. This makes it easy to quickly learn new words. If I have sentence I'm having trouble with I add the words as separate cards. I'm also fond of two word phrases like "slippery slope", if I see a word I don't know modified my an adjective I usually add both words I find this makes it easier to learn and gives me a little more context.

Vocab cards are best when you're having trouble remember a certain word or want to beef up your vocab quickly. Knowing individual words does aid understanding but you don't get all the context cues and learn where the word naturally appears or how it's used. Nouns, people and place names all make excellent candidates for vocab cards.


Sentence cards are great for reading and good for speaking but rubbish for listening. Listening focused cards can help here! The card goes Sound → Meaning and Reading.

Cloze Deletion

Similar to the sentence cards but when writing the sentence you leave out one word and then you have to [...] the correct word. Anki can be setup so you have to type the word but I don't usually bother when I make cloze deletions. The general rule is only remove one word per card, try and make it so there can only be one possible solution - well known phrases, movie quotes are good candidates.

There's been a bit of a hub-bub about MCDs which stands for Mass Cloze Deletion. From my understand this is taking something like a paragraph from a book or text of that size and then making maybe 10 cards from that one paragraph. Each card focusing on a separate word or phrase. The advantages are you get a much better feel for how sentences are structured and you get a lot of context for your words.

I find the only down side with MCDs is that there's usually too much text to have a sound file I'd be willing to listen to. So I think they are best used mixed in with other card types.

Multiple decks

Should you use multiple decks? Some people find it useful to have a kanji deck, a grammar deck, a word deck etc but for me I just use the one, it seems easier to keep on top of.

Some final tips
  1. Keep your anki deck in dropbox (it's free)
    1. It's backed up on the cloud and all machines you use
    2. You can access your deck away from your main computer
    3. Maybe one day the Android Dropbox app will let you sync folders and then you can easily use ankidroid too.
  2. Don't let anki take over your language learning - it's only one aspect
  3. Set a limit to how many new cards Anki will show you a day (I use 10). Then add as many cards as you like they'll be stacked up and ready to be added when you're ready for them.
  4. A Japanese Junior Highschool Dictionary is a good way to make Japanese → Japanese cards. Take the definition and put that on the front, put the word on the back. The only draw back is this can be dull!
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