Using Anki to study Chinese

I’ve been asked a couple of times to outline how I use Anki for studying Chinese. I’ve so far held off because I’ve been experimenting (also known as playing) and wasn’t sure I’d found the way that works best for me. Truth be told, Anki works just fine as it is and I need to stop searching for the best set-up and get on with the studying. So here it is, my guide to Anki.

Flashcards in Anki are organised into decks. I keep two decks, one for vocabulary and another for Mandarin phrases. For the vocabulary deck I use the default Mandarin model, but for the phrases I had to create my own simple model, Mandarin on one side, English on the other.

Whenever I study a new Chinese lesson, I create a text file containing all the vocabulary for that lesson. I also create a file of example sentences or key phrases. I then import these into Anki and delete any duplicates. My deck preferences are set to show me 10 new cards a day and I have set myself a study session limit of 15 minutes. This tends to make the study sessions bearable and still cover new vocabulary on a regular basis.

By syncing my Anki deck to the server I am able to run Anki on my laptop at work. This is ideal as it means I can spend 15 minutes each morning (or lunch break) running through vocabulary. For anyone looking for a source of vocabulary, I am more than happy to share my deck keys.

Anki cards support audio and pictures however, bulk import of facts which include audio has proved ellusive. I just can’t get it to work. There was a time when I took the time to hand-craft each card and include an audio sample but it just takes too long. Until I can find a way to reliably import audio for each card, I’ll stick to text only.

Anki has the ability to tag facts as you import them. I’ve been tagging my vocabulary with lesson numbers (for words added from ChinesePod, I use the lesson ID). The aim of this was to study the vocabulary before completing the expansion exercises. However, I haven’t been able to get this working well and is often more trouble than it is worth.

So, in conclusion, keep it simple. Anki is a great tool and the ability to sync between installations is a real god-send for those of us that are forever working on different computers. Focus on the study and let Anki do the heavy lifting. Don’t spend a long time tweaking all the options and investigating hidden features, your time is far better spent running through the vocabulary.

Anki can be downloaded from here:
My deck key (vocab): 5953491e98925fdd [update Aug 2011: this deck is no longer available]
My deck key (phrases): e3a21b20de9c4420 [update Aug 2011: this deck is no longer available]

Do you have any advice or tips for using Anki? I would love to hear them and I’m sure others would also benefit. Feel free to post deck keys in the comments so that we can build up a list of good sources of study material. I’d also be happy to try and answer any Anki related questions you may have.

  • John

    Thanks for the writeup! I’m curious why you use two decks instead of one, and why not use the Mandarin model for phrases as well?

  • Cesar

    Hey, thanks for the post! I’ve been looking all over the place for this.
    I notice you say:
    “My deck key (vocab): 5953491e98925fdd
    My deck key (phrases): e3a21b20de9c4420”

    Does that mean I can somehow download your public Anki stack?

    • Bill

      You should be able to download cards from my Anki decks. But I have a confession to make, I haven’t updated the decks in a while. This isn’t because I’ve found anything wrong with Anki, but because I’ve been swamped at work recently. Will be back on the Chinese soon though.

  • Lily

    How do you get the tone marks to show up on your flash cards? Is there any easy way to create a text file with the tone marks or do you somehow use a plugin to convert it in Anki? Your help would be greatly appreciated. Thanks Bill, great topic!

    • Bill

      There are multiple ways of doing this, and I’m more than happy to help you find a way that works for you. It is possible to type the tone characters directly, but this can be fiddly. There are also a number of sites that will convert numerical tones into the tone characters. These are generally quite good. There is an Anki pluton that will convert hanzi into pinyin, but I’ve found it to be more trouble than its worth.

      How do you normally create your cards? Drop me an email, comment here or call me on Skype ifnyou need more help.

  • Jasun

    Hey Bill. I have a question. How did you get the characters to come out so clearly? What settings do you use?

    • Bill

      For the questions, I simply upped the font size to 20pt. Does that help?

  • Jasun

    Maybe it’s not the font size because my font size’s default was 20pt.

    Could it be the Chinese font?

    Because what happens is that in a word with two characters, one is like in bold and the other isn’t. Or for instance, in the character xin(新) it doesn’t make the hook and the stroke just goes straight down vertically.

  • Bill

    Chinese in Anki

    The image above shows 新 in the default font with the size increased to 80pt. Is this not what you are seeing?

  • Jasun

    Yes it looks exactly like that, which is the problem. The 7th stroke is suppose to be a vertical hook, not just a straight line. But it looks like this might not be solvable.

    • Bill

      It seems to show up the same on this site as it does in Anki. Perhaps it is the default font used to draw the character that has issues?

  • Jasun

    I have found the solution. You are correct in conjecture that the default font is the problem. After changing the default font to one of the character fonts, everything worked perfectly. Sorry for the problem.

    • Bill

      Which font would you recommend? Not knowing better, I tend to stick to the defaults.

  • Jasun

    The Simsun works pretty well. I haven’t had any problems with it so far.

  • Bob

    On my Mac, the “Kai” font looks beautiful

  • Victor

    Hi Bill!
    I´m trying to download your decks, but I couldn´t make it.
    Could you please tell me how to download them? I must be doing something wrong!
    Thanks a lot!

    • Bill

      Apologies Victor, I no longer use either of these decks. I’ve updated the post to reflect this. I do still use Anki, but I am using the shared Remembering the Hanzi Book 1 deck. Please let me know if I can help in any way though.

  • Victor

    Thanks a lot anyway Bill!
    I guess you need some previous knowledge on chinese before using the deck you´re using right now. Am I right?
    I started yesterday with the HSK Basic.
    Can you give me any advice?
    Thanks again. Great site.

    • Bill

      The deck I’m using is for testing myself on the characters learned in a particular book, Remembering Simplified Hanzi 1 – Book 1. You don’t need to have prior experience, but the deck would only be useful if you are following the book.

      How are you studying Chinese? Are you following a particular course or book? The best way I’ve found to use Anki would be to add words to your own personal deck as you go. That way, you are studying them in context.

  • Victor

    Hi Bill!
    I followed your steps and I have just bought the book.
    I hope that works for me too, but I´m a little bit anxious about learning characters pronunciation too…
    I´ll keep you informed!
    Thanks again.

  • Steven

    Excellent and clear post. One question: I have just started using Anki to study vocab from my text book here in China (Renmin University). I know how to make cards, but I do not understand how to make a “text file” with all the vocab and import it. I am a mac user and I know of the “text edit” word processor app but I don’t understand if I can just type all the words in there at once and ANKI will sort them into different cards… or ..? thanks!

  • Bill

    Good question. The only reason that I can think of is that I don’t have pinyin for the sentences/phrases. It was simply taking too long to convert them to pinyin. I’ll try converting the deck to use the mandarin model and see what happens.