By Guest Author 28/11/2017

Guest post by Louise Stevenson, Linguistics, History and Chinese language student at the University of Waikato

Those who study Mandarin Chinese are familiar with the question, “But isn’t that one of the hardest languages to learn?”

Usually, I like to challenge this question by pointing out how wonderfully straightforward the grammar is – no case-marking, no articles, and no inflection for tense! “But what about all those a zillion characters you have to learn!” they often retort. Until about six months ago, I would have conceded defeat – character-learning is more often than not a mightily depressing task, especially for native English speakers with no background in non-phonetic writing systems. For those with any hints of doubt about this, Chinese Linguist, David Moser’s brilliant piece, Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard, is a must-read.

However, this was all before I started using Anki.

The challenge of Chinese characters

I’ve been fortunate, in my two years studying Chinese at the University of Waikato, to have quite a few friends ahead of me in the game. One friend in particular, who has been learning Chinese without any formal training for the last three years, spoke very highly of an app called Anki, which helped him learn, well, just about anything, but especially Chinese characters. Despite his urging me to use it, and the obvious ease (and joy!) with which he was able to write characters, I had never seriously looked into the app.

Up until this point my approach to character learning, and specifically learning to write characters, had been like many students I know – writing a character over and over until it sticks. Before exams I would test myself on each character to see if I knew how to write it, and each time I would find I had forgotten at least a quarter of the total number of characters I was supposed to know. Stressful situation. Eventually learning characters not only dominated my language study time, but became an utterly loathsome task. In despair, and fearing that I would thoroughly hate the language I was dedicated to study, I thought again of my friend’s joyful character-writing abilities and this app he harped on about, Anki.

Spaced repetition

Anki is an open-source SRS (Spaced-Repetition Software) program that, through the use of flashcards, allows you to learn, and remember, pretty much whatever you want – medical definitions, your children’s birthdays (seriously!), or importantly for me, Chinese characters. The genius of Anki is its unique spaced-repetition algorithm which optimises a learner’s memory by only showing a flashcard just as the learner is about to forget it. This greatly boosts the efficiency of study time, as the learner is only studying what truly needs to be studied.

Anki allows you to check your efforts (left) against the correct answer (right), but the real magic lies in how the app spaces out the cards to review based on the performance of the user.

Spaced-repetition algorithms are used in other apps specifically tailored towards language learning, such as Duolingo, but unlike these apps, Anki gives a learner absolute freedom as to what they learn because it allows a learner to create their own decks of flashcards. This means that just as I can make one deck to learn how to write Chinese characters, I can make another for character recognition, and yet another for grammar. I can also add and delete new cards in these decks at will. Making your own flashcard deck on Anki may at first seem an unproductive use of study time, but as Gabriel Wyner has argued in his book Fluent Forever, creating a flashcard actually plays a part in making the content of that card more memorable; the creation of a card is a way of learning that card.

I began using Anki for character writing by creating a deck using a template made by the same friend who had recommended the app. With really only a relatively short snippet of time spent learning every day, I soon found that I could easily remember how to write even the most complex characters at will. Not only this, but when it came to study for an exam and I tested myself on all these characters, I knew all but three correctly, and of the incorrect characters, only one component was forgotten, not the entire character. This meant that I could now spend most of my study time learning grammar and new content, and walk into exams without fretting over whether I could write the characters I wanted to use.

In other words Anki entirely revolutionised my study of Chinese, turning character-learning from a mountain to a molehill, which in turn resurrected my joy for learning characters, and made the prospect of gaining fluency in this language (and maybe others one day!) seem much more attainable. It is easy to begin studying a language – and Duolingo certainly is fantastic for this – but it is much more difficult to persevere with it. Anki helps in this by removing the barrier of memorisation and making the most productive use of study time.

And having basically championed the advice of the friend who first introduced me to Anki, I should probably pay more attention to his latest suggestion and try out Chinesepod


This post is part of the Sciblogs Consuming Science series, exploring the science behind everyday consumer items and services. Read more here