A Full Year of Anki - My retrospective and Advice

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I see people write these posts all the time so I thought, why not make one myself? I’m very happy I can say exactly one year ago I decided to stick to anki (after failing many times) and exactly today I managed to reach a 365 days streak.

As a way to celebrate, I decided to think back about a year ago when I started, how much it did (and did not) help my Japanese progress, where I was and where I am now, and share a word of advice with everyone else around here.

My circumstances

Just to give you an idea, I’m not the typical “first time” anki user, and I didn’t start using anki full-time as a full beginner, so my experience is a bit different from most people I see around here and it’s worth pointing it out. Long story short:

  • Started Japanese sometime in late 2016/early 2017
  • Only just wanted to read manga/watch anime, never cared too much about grammar or progress or anything
  • Did an anki core deck (2k/6k) for a couple months up to 500-600 words before burning out and hating anki
  • Never touched kanji nor bothered to study them before, I just tried to remember how the words looked like and how they sounded
  • Spent maybe 2 years just (badly) reading manga and watching anime (almost always no subs, JP or otherwise), stuck mostly to furigana stuff, never used yomichan at first

One thing to keep in mind, I’ll repeat: I never touched Kanji until 3-4 years into my studies. I know it sounds crazy to some people but all I wanted was watch anime and read manga (with furigana) and I just picked up maybe 200-300 common kanji by just figuring out common words (今日, 私, 僕, etc) and that was good enough for me at first.

My anki routine

I first started doing Anki “seriously” (remember, I burned out before) a year or so ago using my own mining deck and Better Anki Settings using the old MIA (now Migaku) anki extension to mine sentences with. I decided I “needed” anki because I realized that although my understanding of spoken Japanese and my vocab level was pretty decent, I was really lacking in ability to read stuff and a lot of games and most light novels were pretty much unapproachable to me. I later transitioned to using yomichan to sentence mine because it’s just that good, honestly. I love it.

All I wanted to get out of anki was being able to remember the sounds words make even when I read them in kanji without furigana or any phonetic aid help, since that has always been my Achilles heel.

When I started, I just made full sentence cards of pretty much anything I was reading. I started out with anime subs but quickly realized I don’t like mining subtitles, so I just stuck to light novels and some (not much) VNs. At the same time I started reading my first light novel and mined words from there.

At first I did 15 new cards a day, but later I decided to add a kanji-focused deck (more info in the next section) and to avoid burning out I lowered the amount to 10 new cards a day, sometimes I even kept it lower when I felt I was too busy or I didn’t feel in the mood. I even had it at only 2-3 new cards a day for a few weeks but I never stopped.

My approach to Kanji

If you want a tl;dr, this post (not by me) basically explains my general attitude with kanji. Anyway…

Once I was a few months into sentence mining, I realized that I wanted to try doing some more kanji-focused studies. People will tell you “don’t memorize onyomi and kunyomi” and while that’s a decent advice for a beginner, I felt I had enough words under my belt (and 4 years of Japanese) to be able to deal with kanji like a “Japanese native”. So I grabbed this kanji deck and went to town with it. My goal was to get all ~2000-something 常用 kanji but not by English keywords (or “meanings”), but by actually learning words that used those kanji. This includes learning the kunyomi (which is the “meaning” of the kanji in a traditional sense) and a few compounds with onyomi. I stumbled upon the idea of phonetic components (形声文字 - Kanji with a semantic and phonetic component) and perfect series which gave me a huge boost in being able to remember a lot of onyomi pretty much effortlessly/instantly.

With this in mind, I rolled up my sleeves, and with a hasty (imo) pace of 10 new kanji a day I completed all 常用 kanji in 7 months. After those 7 months I lowered the number of new kanji to 0 to give myself a bit of rest since I was close to burning out (you can see the dark purple blocks in the middle of my streak in the original picture) and kept up with reviews, and over the course of the following 1-2 months I slowly raised the number of new kanji back up to 5 and currently I’m at a total of 2410 (out of 6355) kanji learned. I’m not sure if I want to keep up and go for “all” 6000+ of them, but by now it’s just a nice routine so I don’t mind continuing until I get tired of it.

Note that I am not learning how to handwrite, so that won’t be a subject I’m going to touch.

My opinion of anki and how it changed over the year

Usually, I see people take one very strong position either pro or anti anki, or push for certain “good” vs “bad” methods based on what currently is working for them. I also often see a lot of people who are “only” 1-2 months into anki who think they have it all figured out (I was the same, not gonna lie) giving advice to other people on how to do things.

The reality though, in my experience, is very different. I noticed that as we go forward and learn/become familiar with new things, we tend to shift our perspective and we tend to learn some tips and tricks (consciously or not) that better help us remember words or phrases. As we do that, we usually forget how hard it used to be to learn new words, and our entire perspective gets completely changed and sometimes even flipped upside down. I’ve met several people in various JP learning communities vouching strongly for anki and doing stuff like 50 (or even 100) new cards a day, and then I see them again a few months later having a completely different view saying that anki is pointless and useless and they don’t like it anymore and now they just want to read etc etc.

The thing is… the truth lies somewhat in the middle.

When I started, I was of the idea that I’d be mining every single I+1 sentence that has a word I don’t know, no matter what word or what sentence. Following the typical sentence mining advice, I focused on having sentence cards and every day I would read (often out loud) the full sentence at the front of my card and grade me on that. That was a good start in my opinion, as it gave me some foundations of grammar/sentence awareness and I leveraged context to bring my memory up to speed and more easily remember words.

However, the more I went, the more I realized I was spending way too much time on anki every day. I was doing at least ~40 minutes of reviews because sentence cards took way too much time, I had way too many new cards, and I was close to burning out.

As I got more comfortable reading actual books, I realized that anki didn’t feel like such a “good idea” anymore. I felt like I was wasting too much time, and I didn’t need it. I don’t need anki, I can just read books, right? So I should just stop… but I didn’t. Instead I lowered the number of new cards (and focused more on my kanji deck tbh).

Later on, I decided to raise my new card count back up again, as I felt that my ability to read was getting a bit worse since I was slacking on the word mining reviews. But at the same time, I didn’t want to go back to full sentence cards. I’ve seen several other advanced learners make the same comment about how sentence cards take too long to review etc etc… so instead I decided to modify the front of my cards to have both the individual word and the sentence below it. This let me do faster reviews as I focused only on the word, but in case I had issues remembering the word, I could read the full sentence anyway and try to remember it like that.

I truly think right now that hybrid word + sentence cards are better than just only words or only sentences since they give you the best of both worlds, and if there’s some advice I can give to people is to do that from the get go.

Thanks to this, I was able to keep my anki session within ~20 minutes a day (this includes 10 minutes of mining deck + 10 minutes of kanji deck). I went from 10-15 seconds per card average down to 5-7 seconds, which is basically cutting down my review time by half. This was massive.

Conclusion + Advice TL;DR

If you think this post is too long and want to read just one section, I recommend you not skip this one.

Here’s a quick tl;dr and general tips/advice from my own experience (if you disagree, it’s fine too)

  • Hybrid cards (sentence + word) are better than only sentence/only word cards

  • Kanji study does help but you don’t need to rush it. Focus on learning words and experiencing the language first. With more intuition and cultural understanding of the language (thanks to exposure), kanji become much easier to deal with. Don’t frontload kanji as a beginner.

  • It’s okay to lower your anki load if you’re burning out. Instead of stopping anki altogether, you can just set new cards to 0 or even an incredibly low number like 1 or 2 new cards and keep going. It will make a difference, trust me.

  • Be aware of your IRL limitations and obligations. Knowing that one week from now you’ll go on a trip, take the covid vaccine and be in bed for a few days with a fever, new busy project coming up at work, etc etc… you should set your new card number to 0 a week beforehand to give your anki time to adjust the review load. You can bring it back up slowly as you get less busy. It’s better than stopping.

  • Be attentive to what you mine. You don’t have to literally mine every single word you don’t know. Be selective with the stuff you want to remember (or even just think might be cool to remember). /u/SuikaCider has an excellent post about it, go read that.

  • Throw away any annoying card or leech you don’t like. If it bothers you, just get rid of it and suspend/delete it. If it’s a useful word, you’ll see it again in another context. Be generous in the amount of cards you get rid of. It’s better to be in a good mood with a lot of easy cards than be fucked over and over by annoying/frustrating leeches.

And for closing… here are my two probably most controversial points that I decided to leave for last:

Monolingual transition is not a big deal

I still mostly use J-E dictionaries. I have both English and a Japanese definition for every word, but I don’t really care which is which. In my experience if you know the context you saw a word in (which you should!), just having the English equivalent will get you 90% of the way. You can figure out the rest by just reading more occurrences of that word in context. I’ve found J-J to be invaluable for a lot of words, and it’s definitely something you should be using, but you don’t need to avoid English dictionaries because they often will do the job as well (and sometimes better) and faster. When I flip cards, I just quickly glance at J-E translation to get a general feel of the card, I don’t want to spend too much time on it unless I’m nitpicking on a definition. I just let my brain take in the information from the context and move on. J-E is excellent for that, don’t underestimate it.

You do NOT need anki to learn Japanese

Number 1 language acquisition should happen in books (or any other input). Period. You can’t learn by just cranking anki cards to maximum. You can learn by not touching anki at all. That’s just a fact of life. Anki has helped me a lot and is a great friend if you don’t burn out on it, it made it so much better to retain some words or structures or expressions or whatever, but at the end of the day most of my acquisition just comes from reading books. Especially as you get more into intermediate and advanced learning, if you can read books on your own (with yomichan or whatever, that’s always good), you should prioritize that no contest. I just treat anki as a nice side help and an extra push in the right direction, but it’s such a minor thing in my language learning career that it honestly baffles me when I hear people spend so much time on it every day. Keep your anki time to a minimum. Go live the language. Get out there, build intuition, get cultural awareness.