How to use Anki to supercharge your Japanese learning
Learning a new language invariably requires you to remember a lot of new information.
Over the past several decades, a lot of research has concluded that one of the most effective ways to memorize things and ensure they remain in your long-term memory is a technique called “Spaced Repetition”.
In this article, I’m going to explain what exactly spaced repetition is, and show you how you can use a particularly popular app called Anki to incorporate spaced repetition into your Japanese study efforts.
I’ll also give you some ideas for how you can use Anki to enhance your Japanese learning, beyond just the typical uses of vocabulary and kanji.
Make no mistake, this technique is extremely powerful, and Anki is the go-to app for people in a variety of fields, particularly those that need to memorize copious amounts of information such as medicine, law, and of course, languages.
Let’s supercharge your Japanese language skills!
What is spaced repetition?
Spaced repetition is a technique whereby, after learning something for the first time, you review it later at increasingly spaced out intervals to ensure that the thing you learnt sticks in your long-term memory.
For example, let’s say you learn the Japanese word, “kenchiku / けんちく”, which means “architecture”.
If you see that word once, and then don’t see it again for weeks or months, there’s a good chance you won’t remember it. However, if you encounter it again a few minutes later, and then again a few days later, then a week later, and so on, it will quickly find its way into your long-term memory.
Spaced repetition exploits our brain’s preference for remembering useful things by forcing us to re-encounter information we are trying to remember at just the right time to help us permanently remember it.
This helps us overcome some of the biggest challenges of learning a language, such as information overload, being unable to keep up with the pace of the language in the wild, or simply not having enough direct exposure to the language in the first place.
There are countless tools and programs that incorporate spaced repetition, but one of the most popular and versatile is Anki.
What is Anki?
Anki is a digital flashcard app that uses spaced repetition to make remembering things easy.
When you study with Anki, the app automatically cycles through your flashcards and shows you a mix of new and old material each day.
So, one day, a flashcard saying “kenchiku / けんちく” might show up for the first time. At this stage, you probably wouldn’t know it yet, so you would reveal the answer to find out it means “architecture”.
Then, a little bit later, you’ll see it again, only this time you’re more likely to know the answer. Anki will then show it to you again and again at increasingly spaced intervals until it’s etched in your memory permanently.
Basically, Anki shows you what to study and when in such a way that maximizes the amount of information you can memorize.
Anki isn’t used exclusively for languages, though that is one of its most common applications. The app itself is highly flexible and allows you to make any kind of flashcard you can dream up.
For the remainder of this article, I’m going to show you two things:
- How to use Anki, including how to make your own flashcards
- The types of flashcards you can make specifically for Japanese (hint: it’s not just vocabulary)
At the end of the article, you’ll also find a sample set of Anki flashcards that you can import into Anki and get started.
How to use Anki
First, if you’re going to use Anki, you will obviously need to download and install it.
Follow these links to get the mobile app for iOS or Android, or the desktop versions for Windows, Mac and Linux. There is also an online app that you can use in your browser (no download required) called AnkiWeb.
The only one of these that is not free is the iOS version, which is a paid app. Purchases of the app support Anki’s future development.
Once you’ve downloaded and installed the app on your device of choice, the next step is to fill it with flashcards.
The Anki app itself doesn’t come with any flashcards built in, so you have two main options for dealing with that:
- Create your own
- Download one of the publicly shared sets available on AnkiWeb
Let’s look at how to do each of these. The steps I will show you are for the Windows version of Anki, but they are much the same for the other platforms.
If at any point you get stuck or want to do something a little different, check out the official Anki manual – it’s extremely thorough and easy to follow.
How to make your own Anki flashcards
Creating your own flashcards can be done one of two ways:
- In the app
- Creating a list externally and importing it
The latter is far more efficient for creating larger flashcard sets, but we’ll look at both nonetheless.
Before we get into that, however, there’s an important concept I need to explain.
Anki was designed quite cleverly to keep “Cards” and “Notes” as separate things:
- Notes are the question/answer pairs with the information you want to learn
- Cards are the flashcards that show the information contained in the Notes
This separation is beneficial because it means you can have a single Note and display it in multiple different ways.
For example, let’s say you have a note like this:
Front: kenchiku / けんちく
This single Note could be turned into two separate Cards – one as described above, and one with the front and back reversed like so:
Back: kenchiku / けんちく
Thanks to this, we can create, for example, vocabulary Cards for both recognition (“what does this Japanese word mean?”) and production (“how do you say __ in Japanese?”) by creating just a single Note.
Now that that’s cleared up, let’s get look at how we can create Notes and Cards inside the Anki app.
Creating a new deck in Anki
A fresh installation of Anki includes a Default deck, but to create a new deck, simply click “Create Deck”, give it a name, and press OK. Easy. You should now have something like this:
If the Default deck is empty, it will disappear from the home screen.
Creating Anki flashcards in the app
Step 1: On the Anki home screen, click “Add”. You will then be shown this screen:
Step 2: At the top, you can see “Type”, which refers to the type of Card(s) you will create, and “Deck”, which is the deck that this Note will be added to.
For “Type”, we’re going to change it from “Basic” to “Basic (and reversed card)”. This will automatically create two Cards for each Note we add – one exactly as we’ll enter it on this screen, plus one with the Front and Back reversed.
For “Deck” also, you will likely also need change this, so click on the deck button (“Default” in this case) and then choose the deck you created.
Step 3: Now, we just type in what we want to appear on the “front” and “back” of the flashcard:
Of course, if you prefer to use hiragana or kanji, you can do that instead. If you want multiple character formats, you can put them on separate lines by just pressing “Enter”, the same as you would when typing anywhere else.
Step 4: Click “Add”, and that’s it!
That Note – with two Cards – has now been added to our Japanese Vocabulary deck. We can now add more as necessary – just be sure to click “Add” after the last one before hitting “Close”.
Adding notes this way works fine, and can be good when, for example, you learn a new word for the first time and want to add it to your deck right away.
However, if you want to create a big list of words (or other things) to learn, it’s easier to create a list in a spreadsheet program like Google Sheets or Microsoft Excel and import them all at once. Since it’s free, let’s do it using Google Sheets.
Creating Anki flashcards using Google Sheets
Step 1: Create a new Google Sheet, and rename it to something meaningful. If you don’t have a Google account or use Google Sheets, you will either need to create one, or use another program that you do have access to. Either way, most steps will be the same or very similar.
Step 2: Next, we simply add all of the words we want on our flashcards in two columns – one for the front, and one for the back. Let’s do that with the days of the week:
We’ll put the Japanese word in the first column so that, when this is converted into a Note with two Cards (one for each direction), the recognition Card (ie. Japanese to English) will be first. This is better, because recognition is easier than production and can therefore work as a stepping stone to production.
And again, if you want to use hiragana or kanji instead, you can do so.
Step 3: Next, we want to export this sheet in a format that Anki will accept. From Google Sheets, we can do this by going to File → Download → Tab-separated values (.tsv, current sheet).
The sheet will be downloaded and saved somewhere on your computer, usually your Downloads folder if you’re using Windows.
Our list is now ready for importing to Anki!
Importing Notes made in Google Sheets into Anki
Step 1: Open Anki and click on Import File
Step 2: Navigate to the folder containing the TSV file we downloaded, select it, then click Open. You will then see a screen that looks something like this:
Here, we want to make sure of a couple of things:
- Make sure “Basic (and reverse card)” is selected for the Card type, or set it to Basic if you only want to use these Notes in one direction (eg. Japanese → English only).
- Make sure that the correct deck is selected. In our case, that’s “Japanese vocabulary”.
Step 3: Now click “Import”, close the import results screen, and your list of words is now in Anki!
We now have the number 16 under New, which represents the 16 Cards we have created – two (regular and back-to-front) for each of our 8 Notes (“kenchiku = architecture”, plus the 7 days of the week).
We’re ready to study! Just click the name of your deck, and you’re away. Anki will take care of the rest.
Downloading publicly shared flashcard decks
Rather than make your own flashcards, it’s also possible to download decks that others have made and publicly shared.
To do so, click the “Get Shared” button on the Anki home screen, then search for the deck you want and download it. To import it, you will just need to click “Import File” and choose the file – no extra steps necessary.
Beware, however, that downloading and importing unknown decks can be problematic. The content included may not be particularly good or relevant, or it may not be suited to your current level or learning goals.
I’m not saying don’t do it – not at all. Shared decks can certainly be helpful, but proceed with caution.
Syncing your Anki decks to other devices
Everything I have shown you so far I have done using a computer. This is often easier for creating your flashcards, but when it comes time to study, you will more likely want to do this on a mobile device. Fortunately, Anki makes that easy. Here’s how:
Step 1: Click on Sync on the Anki home screen.
Step 2: You will be asked to log in, or to follow the link to sign up. Click the link.
Step 3: Now click Sign Up in the top-right corner.
Step 4: Follow the instructions to enter your details, accept the terms and conditions, and verify your email address. Your account will become activated.
Step 5: Return to Anki and log in using the account you created.
At this point, you may get a message saying that your decks can’t be merged to those on AnkiWeb. If this is a brand new AnkiWeb account, there’s nothing to worry about – just click “Upload to AnkiWeb”. If you have other decks in AnkiWeb already, carefully select the option that’s right for you.
Step 6: You can now open the Anki app on another device and sign into your account to sync the decks that you uploaded to AnkiWeb. Booyah!
Now that we know how to make flashcards for Anki, let’s look at the different types of flashcards that you can make to dramatically enhance your Japanese learning.
Flashcards to make for learning Japanese
Most people probably imagine that vocabulary and characters (especially kanji) are the two main things that you would use Anki for, and they’d be right.
However, there are other things you can do that can really help you build your Japanese skills. There are also some pitfalls to watch out for when creating your own flashcards.
Let’s look at a few of our options, including the obvious ones, and what we can do to make our flashcards as effective as possible.
Flashcards for vocabulary
For vocabulary, we absolutely want to make sure we make flashcards for both directions – that is, for recognizing Japanese words, and for producing Japanese words based on (usually) the English word we want to say.
When doing this, however, it is important to keep in mind that both languages have many homonyms – words that sound the same but have different meanings.
This is not an unsolvable problem at all, but when making your vocabulary flashcards, be sure to take these into account.
Flashcards for learning hiragana and katakana
It’s more difficult to test your ability to write characters with Anki, since the app doesn’t have stroke recognition capabilities, but it can certainly be used for character recognition.
For hiragana and katakana, I recommend two types of flashcards:
- Individual characters (including small ya-line combinations like “kya / きゃ”)
- Whole words written in hiragana and katakana
The former is obvious, but the latter is just as important.
When we read (in any language), our brains don’t process letters individually; we process words as a whole. Practicing doing this exact thing will help speed up your ability to do it.
This can, of course, be achieved simply using your vocabulary flashcards, but I recommend focused kana reading practice to improve your ability to parse words written in these characters more quickly.
Flashcards for learning kanji
For kanji, you may worry that you can’t really practice writing the characters in Anki, but in my opinion, this is a non-issue.
Handwriting of kanji is nowhere near as useful a skill as it used to be. In a digital world, for most purposes – even writing (ie. typing) – you only actually need to be able to recognize kanji, not write them.
It therefore makes more sense to focus almost entirely on recognition, as this reduced workload will allow you to learn more characters quickly. Anki is perfect for that.
In terms of flashcards, I recommend focusing your study on whole words written in kanji, rather than the individual characters and their multitude of readings and English meanings.
Why? Because if you see a kanji in the real world, it won’t be hanging out by itself asking you to list all its readings and possible uses; it will be as part of a word.
Learning individual kanji and all their readings is a bit like learning Latin when your goal is to learn Italian. It’s a worthy endeavour in its own right if it interests you, and certainly beneficial to your understanding of Latin-derived languages in general, but you’ll learn Italian much faster if you just learn Italian directly.
In other words, if you want to be a kanji expert that can recite all the readings and details of each and every kanji, go ahead and learn them.
Otherwise, learn kanji as words, because that’s the only form in which you will ever need to actually read or write them.
My recommendation therefore is to make flashcards with something like this on the Front:
And with an answer that looks something like this:
This flashcard will teach you how to read a useful word, and without thinking about it you will also learnt the on-yomi (“Chinese” reading) of two separate kanji, as well as their rough individual meanings in English. Everything you need, with no waste.
Focus on reading, and focus on words. That’s how kanji are used in real life, so that’s what you want to learn.
Flashcards for mastering verb conjugations
Usually, the first verb tenses people learn are the polite ones, and these are very easy to conjugate since they all end in a simple variation of 「～ます」, like 「～ました」 (past tense) or 「～ません」 (negative).
Later, however, when you learn informal verb tenses and the te-form, things start to get tricky.
There are very clear rules for converting to these tenses (all covered in my book), but ultimately, you need to be so familiar with these verb tenses that it is better to memorize them as if they are new vocabulary.
This may seem odd, but it’s not new to you – not even close. Consider this…
What’s the past tense of “play”?
Did you think, “oh, well this is regular English verb and it ends in a consonant, so we just add “ed” to get the past tense”.
Of course not. You just knew, because you’ve memorized it. Just how you’ve memorized that the past tense of “go” is “went”, not “goed”.
That is the trick to mastering Japanese verb tenses.
Learning the conversion rules is important, too, as it allows you to convert new words you may not have memorized (yet), plus it allows you to self-correct if you find yourself mis-remembering or unsure of a particular tense. Don’t skip this step.
But ultimately, when you are fluent in Japanese, you will have remembered most verbs you know in a variety of verb tenses whether you actively try to or not. Just like you have done for English.
Verb tense flashcards in Anki can speed that process up dramatically, and get you over the hump from fumbling for the right conversion to just knowing the right verb form every time.
Here, like vocabulary, both recognition and production are important, so make flashcards for both.
There are any number of flashcard configurations you can come up with for learning the various verb tenses. Here are some that I recommend, shown as question-answer pairs:
- Polite present/future tense (masu) ↔ Informal present/future tense (AKA plain/dictionary form)
Example: asobimasu ↔ asobu
- Polite past tense ↔ informal past tense
Example: asobimashita ↔ asonda
- Polite negative form ↔ informal negative form
Example: asobimasen ↔ asobanai
- Polite present/future tense (masu) ↔ Potential “can do” form (polite or informal)
Example: asobimasu ↔ asobemasu
- Polite present/future (masu) ↔ Te-Form
Example: asobimasu ↔ asonde
(For more on verb tenses and forms, check out my Japanese Verb Tense Cheat Sheet)
Once you’ve completed the above for a decent number of verbs, all of the other verb endings out there will be a breeze, and you’ll instinctively be much better at conjugating new verbs you don’t know yet too.
A few things to watch out for here:
- As with vocabulary, beware of duplicates/homonyms.
- Avoid using kanji as a way to cheat. Knowing a kanji will allow you to recognize a verb based solely on the kanji, even if you don’t recognize the verb in the given tense, so recognition flashcards should use romaji or hiragana only.
- Make sure you know what form you are converting to. A flashcard that just says “shimasu” means nothing, so be sure provide hints telling you the target tense or form.
Flashcards featuring whole phrases and sentences
This is an area where I believe Anki can really be used not so much for memorization, but for another purpose:
Automated, integrated grammar and vocabulary exercises to practice building and understanding sentences.
If you can create flashcards that include complete sentences, then you can effectively test your ability to recognize and apply any and all grammar concepts in a practical way, as well as use the vocabulary you know in context.
This is much more effective than simply memorizing grammar rules. Like with verb tenses, remembering the laws of the language is valuable, but taking a fundamental understanding and then practicing it a gazillion times will do much more for your ability to apply those laws on the fly in conversation.
It’s important, however, to have enough sentences that you don’t find yourself simply memorizing the sentences as a whole. The goal is to practice applying grammar concepts – using the right particles, verb tenses, combining words to form more complex phrases, etc. If you have too few sentences testing your knowledge, you run the risk of simply memorizing the answers, rather than the grammar concepts applied within.
If you are to create flashcards using sentences, here are a couple of suggestions:
- For production, beware of multiple possible answers. Many things can be said several different ways, so even if you don’t include the alternatives in the answers, be aware that your answer may be right, even if it doesn’t match exactly. This in itself can be a good test of your knowledge.
- At least partially learn vocabulary separately, or avoid adding too much new vocabulary all at once. Ideally you only want to be learning or testing your knowledge of one new thing at a time, so loading up sentences of unfamiliar vocabulary will make it much more challenging and distract you from the real goal – sentence building and interpretation.
Compiling sentences to use in your flashcards is relatively more difficult than other types we’ve discussed, but well worth it in my opinion as it tests one of the most difficult-to-practice, yet vitally important skills – sentence building.
There are no doubt other creative ways that you can make flashcards for Anki, and Anki also has a lot of options and features I haven’t mentioned, but hopefully the above has shown you enough to get set up and start using it yourself.
Now it’s time to actually do it!
Your action items
- Download and install Anki from this page.
- Make a deck for the things that you are currently trying to learn. You can just start small and add to the deck as you learn more. To get started, click here for a free Anki vocabulary deck with 100 of the most common Japanese words.
- Study your flashcards whenever you have a spare few minutes. Or better yet, MAKE time to study a little bit each day.
It really works. And if you have any doubt about the effectiveness of spaced repetition, let me just ask you this:
How do you say “architecture” in Japanese?Want an easy way to get started? Click here for a free Anki deck with 100 Japanese vocabulary flashcards.
Looking for a more comprehensive set of flashcards that covers everything from hiragana, katakana and kanji, to vocabulary, verb conjugations and full sentences? Check out the 80/20 Japanese Anki Pack, built specifically for use with the 80/20 Japanese book and other resources, available here.