What is Anki and Why does it Work?

Anki. We talk about it a lot here. Many people use it and swear by it. I think it’s time it gets the proper introduction it deserves. Where to begin…

Anki is a popular flash card application developed in 2006.  Anki comes from the Japanese word 暗記 (あんき), meaning “memorization.” The app has significantly changed over the years, but at its core, it is an SRS memory flash card application.

Spaced Repetition System (SRS)

Spaced repetition is simple. After you learn something, if you review it over increasingly growing timed intervals, you will retain it longer.

Start off with the common sense way you think about memory:

Step 1: learn something
Step 2: review that something
Step 3: have the ability to recall/use that something

This is how people get smarter. The problem is how step 2 is approached. You know that to remember what you learn, you have to review. The question is when should you review.

Bad reviewing habits

When you are in school, the things you learned need to be recalled/used for a test. When you review something, it is fresh in your memory. The unfortunate path most students take is to review everything right before a test. This leads to cramming, which is a terrible way to work with your memory, despite so many people doing it.

The polar opposite of last minute reviewing has different problems. For example, in order to memorize a word, you repeat it 10 times in a row, then the next day you repeat it 10 more times. This is inefficient, because in an effort to cement it into your memory, you end up wasting time. You don’t need to repeat it 10 times right now.

Adding “spaced repetition” to your reviews

When you learn something and don’t review it, it will continually be on the decline over the upcoming days, weeks, and months, until it fades away.

If you didn’t review it slowly over time, and you try to review it much later (example, before a test), you often have to spend the time to re-learn it. It is less a review, and more a re-learn, which is a another major time waster. A re-learn then quickly heads back down the same path towards forgetting.

If you place points in time where you review that start off soon (a few days), and increasingly grow over time, not only will your ability to remember it not drop, but it will increase. The more you review something, the stronger your grasp of it is.

Keeping up those reviews requires minimal effort. Since it has never significantly been pulled away from your memory, you can review much quicker. Even though there will be a slight memory decline between reviews, it is minor, and not enough to cause you to forget it. This energy spent over several perfectly timed reviews will make it so you have almost no chance of ever forgetting it.

How to review on spaced repetition

The concept is easy, but the process used to be incredibly difficult to practice. Deciding when to review something is hard to know. Combine that with hundreds or thousands of other things you are trying to review.

The easiest solution that most students go with is to just review everything together. You take all your beginner material and review it in a few days, then in a few a weeks and so on. The problem is that every individual item of information you learn and are trying to remember will vary with time. When you first learned it,

1. Was it hard?
2. How well did you truly understand it?
3. Did you develop a personal connection with it?
4. Did you develop an emotional connection it?
5. Did you have a good mnemonic?
6. What was your physical state (tired?)
7. What was your mental state (stressed?)

These and more factors  all go into each and every card, and to how well you will remember the information the first time. If you learned 100 new cards, it might look like:

10 cards: have a lot of trouble remembering
20 cards: have a little trouble remembering
50 cards: can remember easily
20 cards: can remember very easily

You wouldn’t want to review all these cards at the same intervals.

The old solution

In the 1970s a solution was created known as the Leitner system.

You’d try to accomplish spaced repetition by physically moving cards into new timed intervals (boxes).

Your new cards start in the first box. When you learn them, you move them to the 2nd box. Then a day or so later, you’d review those cards. You move what you forgot back to the first box, and put what you remember into the 3rd box. You continue pushing cards you remember to the higher number boxes, and what you forget back to the lower number boxes.

This type of manual work was useful for a limited amount of information. But when you have thousands of cards, it’s impossible and prone to mistake.

The solution? Computerize it all. Create an algorithm. That’s what one of the first computer SRS systems did in the 1980s, known as SuperMemo. Then 2 decades later in 2006, Damien Elmes created Anki, taking SRS and just making it look and feel better. And it was free.

Anki’s growth

While Anki’s algorithm has evolved, and it’s features have grown, Anki is still all about SRS. Its main user base is language learners, but it has expanded to many other subjects.

Anki is great because it lets you focus on learning and reviewing, not the process behind it. However, Anki is only the platform. It doesn’t provide the actual language learning material. While there is a shared Anki deck community, with plenty of valuable resources, I wanted to come in and create something extremely high quality from scratch that works with the Jalup method. The result is the Jalup Anki series, and the thousands of flash cards to be used on the Anki platform to guide you towards fluency.

Then later I created Jalup NEXT, which follows a similar algorithm to Anki, and continues on the SRS tradition.

Final thoughts on Anki

I’ve used Anki for nearly a decade, and only have positive things to say about it. While not everyone loves it, it is a powerful learning force.

What do you think about Anki? How has it influenced your Japanese studying?

Related posts:

The following two tabs change content below.


Founder of Jalup. Spends most of his time absorbing and spreading thrilling information about learning Japanese.


What is Anki and Why does it Work? — 2 Comments

  1. My opinion on Anki has gone through a roller-coaster over my Japanese studies, but I can say that at level ~35-40 that I only have respect and thankfulness for the app and SRS in general, and I would not be this far in Japanese (or at least this fast) without it. While it’s not really my favorite part of the day (I’d rather immerse), it is easy to see it’s usefulness- definitely with the JALUP deck, and EXTREMELY useful for any Kanji review.

    I love that it lets me review those words I suck at much more often than the words I don’t – so while I sigh when half of my reviews are words I’m not good at, I have to remember that it’s because the other 80% of my deck I’m good at and that it intentionally biases towards my weaknesses. I think it’s this fact that can make Anki frustrating to some.

    I like Anki a LOT better now that I don’t grade myself so hard. I used to be extremely strict early on, when I made my own decks and then when I first started using the JALUP ones. I would mark so much stuff as failed (even if it was because the word just slipped form my mind), and my reviews were HUGE. Thanks to some comments on here I have moved towards a style where I only fail those cards I don’t remember the meaning of, and mark cards where I forgot or had trouble with the reading as “hard”. This has been an excellent strategy that is paying off because many readings I find I just need time to learn, or more words that have kanji using the same readings. A great example for me is that I never got the reading for 疑問 until the word 疑惑 showed up in my deck, now they’re both easy readings for me.

    But as most people who have used Anki for a while know, Anki is not the end all and be all. Anki is not a substitute for immersion. And in fact, the more you immerse, the easier Anki gets. We have to think of Anki as a launchpad into understanding Japanese. It will help us learn and maintain vocabulary, grammar, and kanji – but we only get to see nuances when we immerse.

    TL;DR アンキは最高!

  2. Honestly, Anki never worked particularly well for me. I’d fail words for several consecutive days, they’d eventually stick for a few iterations, maybe a month, then drop off again. This despite numerous experiments in card formats and tweaks to the scheduling algorithm and so on. Inevitably, usually around the 1000-card point, I’d hit what I came to call a “cascade failure” — my retention rate would plummet and I’d end up putting in increasingly more time for increasingly less benefit.

    I don’t want to disparage Anki, which is a fantastic piece of software! I also don’t want to disparage SRS systems in general or discourage anyone from using them, they are unquestionably immensely valuable for a lot of people, maybe even the vast majority. I just want to let anyone who may find themselves in my situation know that this kind of vocabulary drilling is not necessary. People can and do achieve high levels of proficiency in second languages without it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *