Mar 212009

Those few of you who’ve been reading since the early days might recall way back in 2005, when I first started studying Japanese in Kyoto. It wasn’t long after my arrival that I discovered a revolutionary method for effectively learning Kanji: namely, the Heisig Method (referred to in posts here and here).

In brief, the Heisig method ditches traditional rote-memorization, instead teaching the student to utilize each character’s constituent parts along with a mnemonic device he calls “imaginative memory.” By sorting the characters in a very deliberate order, and by assigning each with a unique keyword (that approximates its scope of meaning as best as possible), a scene or story can be constructed to connect its meaning with the meanings of all the elements used to write it.

Then, only after mastering the meanings of all 2,000 or so “general use” characters does the student go back in a second iteration to learn the pronunciations. The task is much easier the second time around, as he or she is already able to identify each and every character.

This method proved incredibly effective for early stages of study, when my kanji knowledge was limited to only a couple hundred characters. Unfortunately, it doesn’t play nicely with most traditional approaches, so once my classes at Ritsumeikan University began I had to drop it in favor of following the school’s regular curriculum. By the time I looked at resuming, I already knew too many characters for it to really work.

Anyway, I mention the Heisig method now because I just recently learned of yet another revolutionary approach to memorization: and not just for Japanese, but anything at all.

It’s a piece of software called Anki. While Anki is ostensibly little more than a digital deck of flashcards, what makes it so extraordinary is how these cards are presented: it uses an intelligent scheduling algorithm to present cards to the learner at just the right intervals to maximize his or her long-term retention.

Interestingly enough, throughout my years of learning Japanese vocabulary I’d inadvertently developed my own methodology that isn’t all that dissimilar from Anki’s – it was just far more labor intensive. Using an Excel spreadsheet – with columns for characters, readings, meanings, and “tags” (aka categories) – I’d create a list of i.e. 20 words. As I went through the list, each time I felt comfortable with a word I’d bump it up into a next “Level 2” list, for less frequent review. Words that I consistently got correctly in list 2 would be moved into list 3, and so on. The lower the list, the more often I reviewed them, so difficult words would be reviewed more often than easier ones. Internally, each list would have their items resorted randomly to avoid accidental memorization by order – sort of like shuffling flashcards. This method worked quite well for me…except that as the lists started growing to thousands words, a simple “level 3 review” soon became a pretty massive task.

What makes Anki so great is that it essentially does all this for you, without you having to think about it: it keeps track of how well you know each “fact,” asking only what you need to be asked at the time you need to be asked it. There’s obviously a lot more science to it than this, but that’s the basic idea.

In addition to this intelligent scheduling, Anki has loads of other features that streamline the process of making and maintaining card decks. It allows cards to be tagged so you can choose to prioritize or limit only certain types of material (i.e. there’s a test coming up, so only schedule in words from “Chapter Three”; I’ve got to find an apartment, only schedule “real estate” words). It allows cards that test recognition (character->meaning) to auto-produce cards that test production (meaning->character) and vice-versa. It allows you to customize the fields on each card (i.e. Kanji on front, reading and meaning on back; Image of a map on front, name of country on back; Pinyin on front, audio recording of its pronunciation on back). It allows decks to be shared online, so if you’re studying for a well-known test (i.e. JLPT) you can download pre-made decks and get studying right away. It allows decks to be synchronized online, so you can work on multiple computers while still maintaining the correct scheduling algorithm (i.e. it’ll remember exactly what you’ve been asked and when, regardless of which computer you happened to be studying at – work or home). You can even study directly from a web browser interface – on a cellphone or iPod (sitting in a doctor’s office waiting room no longer has to be a total waste of time).

You can probably tell that I’m pretty excited about Anki 🙂

It’s a bit of a shame that I only learned of this fantastic tool now – after so many hours spent sorting and resorting my own Excel spreadsheets, needlessly reviewing facts I already knew as they got merged into larger and larger long-term lists. But I am grateful that I found it just in time for starting a whole new language: Chinese.

Thanks much for the tip, Herb – and to Damien for coding up this impressive piece of software 😀

While I’m on the topic of language, an interesting little cultural/linguistic difference: I was mailing with a friend in Israel the other day and noticed that he writes his smileys backwards, for example (: I’d never seen anyone write them like that, and decided to mention it after two or three times.

Can you guess why?

The Hebrew language reads right-to-left! So it makes sense that their smileys would go right-to-left too.

I thought it was pretty interesting (;

  10 Responses to “Anki: Memorization Reborn”

  1. Anki is indeed a great piece of software. Another site you might want to check out it (previously They’ve got huge lists that you can create/add/subscribe (basically study lists that others have created).

    There’s a huge number of features with the site, including Anki like algorithm, podcasting your lists, stroke order for kanji etc…not to mention a developer api 🙂

  2. That seems like a cool tool. I will have to download it and play. Does the windows mobile client require an internet connection? (The site to download it for some reason is blocked here in China and I haven’t gotten around it yet).

    I just found a cool other website for learning languages that you might like….it is called livemocha and allows you to submit text, recordings, etc. and have it reviewed by native speakers. There are also some pretty extensive lessons. It is all free. I am not sure of the Mandarin one is, but I have been playing around with the German one and it is quite useful.

    Also, that (: thing with hebrew is really cool. I didn’t notice it at all while I was over there

  3. It is also very funny that there is a flash card pack made by Mystery 🙂

  4. James: Cool, thanx for the tip 🙂

    Andy: Unfortunately there’s no really good WM solution yet – the wm client itself (which requires a separate install of python) is a VERY stripped down version of the interface, and iAnki, a browser interface that allows offline caching of cards, requires Google Gears, only supported by the newest beta version of Opera. So I haven’t really used it mobile-ly that much yet. Both are under active development, though.

    LiveMocha looks awesome. Ur learning German??

    Hahaha a Mystery flashcard pack!!! I never even noticed that 😆

  5. That sucks…..a good winmo client that could sync with the desktop would make that program killer!

    I have started playing with German, mainly because Aaron speaks it and helps me while we lift

    The Mystery pack looks useless, I just thought it was funny, and that you would appreciate it 😉

  6. I couldn’t agree with you more…

    Good to hear you’re back at lifting! Does that mean Aaron finally moved into your building?

  7. Yup….he is not only in the same building, but the same part of the building, 9 floors up and on the other side. It is convenient and fun….and nice to have someone to lift with whenever

  8. Sounds awesome 🙂 That was a pretty quick move!

  9. no prob bob. My next immediate use for Anki: poker pot odds. $$$

    haha, mystery flash cards.

    I’m gonna have to try that LiveMocha site when I get into Chinese…

  10. I wasn’t that big a fan of LiveMocha…still using Anki on a daily basis tho 🙂

    Once u do get started, make sure not to miss – it’s like the of Chinese, only better!

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