Sunday, July 3, 2011

My long romance with flashcards

In my previous post on the topic, I recommended very strongly that you should be using flashcards as part of your Chinese-learning efforts.

In this post I'd like to write a bit about how my relationship with flashcards has gone, and why I find it one of the most useful tools available to progress one's learning.


When I started with flashcards, I used a program that was not SRS-based, which was a terrible mistake. A random-card system was fine in school when you were trying to revise the capital cities of the world, but not when you're using it as a tool to learn Chinese words. I would learn a word, and then it wouldn't appear again for weeks, by which time I'd have to learn it again. Or words that I already knew well would keep coming up - wasting my time. So I gave up on flashcards.

But it wasn't long after that I found Anki, which felt so natural that I haven't stopped using it since then.

Setting it up 

Some people load up pre-made decks when they begin - for example there are beginner's Chinese packs available that you can you download directly into Anki. However in my case, there were just a few dozen words that I wanted to learn (or so I thought!), so I chose to set up my own deck and start with only words that I cared about.

I built three fields for each 'fact':  English, pinyin, simplified Chinese. And for each 'fact', I built two 'cards' - one where the English was the question, and pinyin & Chinese were the answer; and one where pinyin was the question and English & Chinese were the answer.

To be honest, I didn't even look at the Chinese writing, I was a beginner and I stuck with English & pinyin.

Phrases & Sentences

Over time, knowing individual words wasn't enough. I needed to use sentences, and frankly my grammar was rubbish. Some of the words I was adding were coming from the daily words email, and ever-practical I realised it would take just as long to copy a word into my deck as to copy a sentence - and thus it began.

Again, although my deck is made up of words & sentences that I have added myself, you can choose to take the route of downloading a pre-made deck directly into Anki, one of which is called "20,000 Chinese Sentences". Whatever works for you.

I slowly got into Chengyu (I've written about that guilty pleasure before) and have also added a few into my deck over time.

(Here are two screenshots [1] [2] of cards from my deck, if that helps give you context.)


To make sure that I was learning words that I would be likely to use in future, whenever I looked up a word in my dictionary, and I felt that I really wanted to remember it, it became automatic to copy that word into my deck too. Took just a few seconds to make another card.

(See "Why a meal is worth more to me than my grandmother" for more thoughts on sticking to relevant learning.)

Earlier on I was just copying the word (including English, pinyin & Chinese), but over time I made sure that I found a sentence that used the word. This gave the word a context, made it easier to remember than just a lonesome word, improved my grammar, and sometimes included other useful words to learn too.

This use of sentences was so valuable to my learning that I wrote an article called Getting Sentenced in Mandarin, about how to track down good sentences.

I don't know if building up a deck from scratch sounds like a lot of effort, but if you're only doing a few a day, and since you're just copying & pasting, then it's really quick.

Do not let flashcards be your excuse. Do not spend so much time building up a deck that you never get around to using it to learn.

Chinese characters

Although I learned to recognise a few characters simply by virtue of the fact that my cards included the Chinese writing, this was incidental. It was only a couple of years ago, when I started to formally learn to read Chinese (here is Day 0 of that adventure) that I changed my flashcard practice. Instead of only using English or pinyin as the questions in Anki, I also set it to show me the Chinese version of the words & sentences I had already entered. In Anki, this change took about a minute to make - it's a great program.

And of course, having moved to Hong Kong late last year, I am now surrounded by traditional Chinese characters - but my deck was populated with simplified characters! Making some easy edits to my deck format, I added an extra field, and then any sentences that I added after that time would also get the traditional characters added too. I don't test myself based on the traditional characters, but I am still able to compare the two systems when looking at the card. And for now, that's enough.

Getting technical

More recently, rather than focusing on words from general conversation, I'm taking the time to build up vocab that I am likely to hear in meetings, or read in documents. Since I'm in the financial sector, these words include things like: assets, credit rating agency, cost of capital, assess, reserves, medical insurance, etc.

The process is the same as I've been doing - I find a word I want to learn, look it up, explore sentences of the various results to make sure I've got the right word in the right context, and then copy it into my deck. Usually it takes a few days or a few weeks before that new entry makes it into the queue for me to start learning.

So that's it for me and deck. I would love to hear about you and yours ...

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