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Anki Flash Cards

By Dr. Jon Aske

Flashcard software

There is nothing wrong with old-style flashcards, made with scratch pieces of paper or index cards. However, in this day and age, the advantages or using flashcard software for this purpose are so great, that once you learn about them, there is no going back to the old way of making cards.

One of the first flashcard software program was SuperMemo, first released in 1985, for use in personal computers, which were then still a novelty but were starting to become common. Since then, flashcard software has evolved tremendously and are available in basically any computing device. This includes the smartphone, which is nowadays becoming ubiquitous and in almost any language learner's pocket at all times. Nowadays there are also many different software options, besides SuperMemo.

The flashcard software that we will be featuring here is called Anki (the Japanese word for "memorizing"), an open source software that is available for several platforms: Windows, Macs, iOS devices (iPhones and iPads), and Android devices (most non-iPhone smartphones and non-iPad tablets). Anki is currently in version 2 (released in October 2012) and it is free of cost for most platforms (all but iOS devices, for which is a commercial product).

Flashcard software has several advantages over the old-style flashcard, besides the fact that you can carry your whole flashcard collection (or decks) in your pocket at all times. These are some of the main ones:

  • Creating a card is as simple as typing the text in the two sides of the card on your computer
  • You can use templates for different types of cards, including boilerplate text
  • Cards can have more than two fields (L2 word + English translation: you can add fields with audio and images to your cards (images that you can easily download from the web)
  • You can create different versions of the cards, choosing which fields to show in the front and which in the back
  • Once you create a deck of cards, you can easily share it with others (or for others to share them with you)
  • It is extremely simple to sort cards by difficulty level so that they are repeated at different intervals
  • Easily convert imported text files into cards: any simply formatted text file containing fields separated by semicolons, for instance, can be converted into flashcards
  • Use your cards in different platforms: desktop computer, laptop, tablet, smartphone

In other words, although there may be a steeper learning curve for making e-flashcards than for regular flashcards, the effort easily pays for itself in the power awarded by the former.

What is Anki?

Anki is software for PC's, Macs, iPhone/iPad, and Android phones and tablets. A more technical definition of Anki:

Anki, a free "spaced repetition system" (i.e. flashcard-style memorization tool), offers a gentle learning curve, a pared-down software interface, and online access and synchronization. Once you install and launch Anki, you can easily spend hours discovering all its neat capabilities and tricks—like an HTML editor for manually designing your "cards," audio embedding, tagging, and many more—but setting up a basic "deck" and "cards" is hardly rocket science. Hit the big "plus," choose a basic deck style (or use a pre-templated style you created), and write the front (question), back (answer), and tags of your cards one after another.

There are several videos that explain the features of Anki. The first two that are out for version 2.0 are the following:

Anki 2: Shared decks and review basics

Anki 2: Customizing card layout

Anki 2: Switching Card Order

Anki 2: Styling Cards

Anki 2: Typing in the Answer

To see if there are any more videos available, go to YouTube's AnkiSRS's channel.

To really get a handle on using Anki, it is recommended that you read the Anki 2.0 User Manual:


Where do I get Anki?

Choose your platform:

Where do I get my flashcard decks?

You can make your own decks of flashcards, of course, and you will probably do that once in a while (there are instructions in this video). Making your own decks is highly recommended, since you make the cards according to your own understanding of the information. However, one of the great things about Anki is that people can share decks with other people and thus the wheel doesn't have to be reinvented.

One way to share decks is to share the file that contains a deck. Anki files have the extension .anki and they are saved in a folder named Anki (in Windows it is in the My Documents folder by default). So let us say your friend has created a deck for the vocabulary for a chapter of your textbook. Your friend can just email you the file and now you can use it too. (To share decks that contain multimedia, such as image or audio files, a folder of the same name as the anki file needs to be shared as well.)

One very powerful and easy way to get a deck that someone else has made and made available publicly at the Anki site, is to connect to the Anki web site from inside the application and search for the title. To do that in Anki for Windows:

  1. Go to File
  2. Select Download,
  3. Select Shared Deck
  4. At the top of the window search for the deck you want.

This same thing works like this in Ankidroid (for Android phones and tablets):

  1. Press Menu button > All Decks
  2. Press Menu (again) > Download Deck > Shared Deck
  3. Search for what you want
  4. Click on the selected item and wait patiently to download
  5. After download: Click the Return button; you will see the new deck on your list of decks
  6. To start using, press "Start Reviewing"

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