The limitations of Anki / Why extensive listening and reading is better

Steve was right - it’s boring to have some algorithm tell you what you should study, especially for a beginner, and especially for a highly motivated lazy language learner like me.

It’s funny, but even though I’ve used Anki and I know it helps me remember better (or forget worse;), I still find myself as a beginner resisting and gravitating towards more natural listening, rather than the Spaced Repetition Listening I’ve talked about on the forum and my blog.

I’ve got SO MUCH interesting content from ChinesePOD, on everything from ‘complaining to your waiter’ to ‘shopping in Shanghai’ to ‘gettting a date’ to ‘unexpected pregnancy’ (?). So why should I repeat any of this too many times? I’d much rather push on to new content and new situations, knowing that I’ll run into a lot of the same vocabulary in the lessons anyway and that my interest level will be higher, which, consequently, means that I’ll be more attentive.

I still think that Anki is effective, but only in small doses and primarily for more advanced learners to ‘shock’ their brain into raising its awareness of certain things. It is most certainly NOT suitable for beginners, as, by definition, it very quickly becomes repetitive (among other reasons), and, therefore, boring. And boredom is to a beginner as is Kryptonite to Superman.

It’s interesting, David. Does it mean Anki is not as effective for me - a Chinese beginner?

I’m reviewing my vocabulary here as well as with Anki. With LingQ, you can choose to study just the daily LingQs and/or any other material of your own choice (filtered by tags, for instance). Anki assumes that you (eventually) want to learn every saved word/phrase, and therefore test you at a seemingly random interval.

The major problem that beginners may encounter is that they save/import too many words at once, and that the words tend to pile up if they don’t do the daily repetitions. But Anki can of course be effective.


It depends on how you want to use it. If you want to use it for Spaced Repetition Listening, then I think it’s effective, as long as you’re motivated to use it and you use it consistently.

However, you shouldn’t use it to learn conversations without audio or to learn words and phrases outside the context of a conversation. And I think conversations are the most powerful content for beginners, as they follow a natural progression and it’s easier to visualize the ‘scenario’ than when just one person is speaking.

But even given this, I did not use Anki when I first started out in Chinese. I used Zhang Peng Peng’s ‘Intensive Spoken Chinese’, which has 40 dialogues of about 1 minute long, and I listened to 1-2 new dialogues each day, as well as all the dialogues from the days before, for a total of a month, so that by the time I reached day 30 I was listening to and understanding all 40 dialogues for a total of 40 minutes. Maybe I could’ve used Anki and done this more effectively, I don’t know, but it worked for me.


I’m interested to know how you use Anki. What do you put on the cards, and based on what criteria do you choose what to input?

For more specific vocabulary, Anki is better than intensive reading & listening. Some terms are very rare in literature, so by reading you will never remember the meaning of these words.

I do not necessarily agree Vincent, It depends on what you like doing.

I prefer to read, in books or on LingQ. When I read a book in Spanish recently I Add lists of literary Spanish terms to LingQ. They kept on appearing in the same book. Usually a book or series of books by the same author will contain more than one occurrence of these otherwise rare words. If the word is so rare that it rarely appears, I do not worry about it.

For technical terms I just google the term and import texts that contain a specific technical term. Often these texts will contain other specific technical terms of interest.

Learning systems that we like using are the most effective, because we are likely to continue.

Don’t misunderstand me, Steve.

I prefer to read too, rather than using Anki. But sometimes I keep forgetting words, even though I encounter them a lot in my reading. I have experienced that, when I put them into Anki, I could remember them.

I don’t use Anki that much. I have my own word list on Google Docs. I go through this list a lot. I think it’s like your lists at LingQ?

I especially use Anki for technical terms (in my case, medical terms). It is very effective, for they aren’t very frequently used in literature. (not including very specific articles about technical issues).

I think this is different for every person. It depends on what you like to do, and what you are used to.

I put everything I save here at LingQ on my Anki cards, but not always the other way around. To “make sure” that the words stick, I need a lot of reviews, and I think Anki is better for that. OK, I can select the exact same words here, even “status 4” words (with or without changing the status before review), but I can just as easy select words in Anki and “cram” those.

Now, back to reading. I do prefer reading to any “vocabulary focused” activity, but it depends on the language. My main flashcard activity (LingQ/Anki) is in Mandarin. I learn/review most of my German just by reading and listening, and for Russian I have a look at the daily LingQs once a day.

The big problem I have with spaced rep is that it takes a pretty good amount of time to actually move the words and the answers into the program. I’ve caught myself wasting loads of time preparing my language material, cutting pauses out of Assimil dialouges and getting perfect translations for flash cards and typing them all out. Eventually it just gets simpler and more production to read and listen, not because it’s necessarily better, but because you don’t have ‘set up’ so much.