kake: The word "菜單" (Chinese for "menu") in various shades of purple. (菜單)
[personal profile] kake

As previously mentioned, I realised fairly early on in this whole project that I was going to need some way to make sure I got regular practice and reinforcement of the characters I'd learned. I got some of this from actually reading menus, and making translations to put up on Flickr, but I wanted something I could use every day.

I started off making physical flashcards, but because my writing skills are not great yet, I needed to print them, and it ended up being tricky to get everything lined up properly on both sides of the cardboard.

So I went looking for flashcard tools on the internet. Although I found some, I also found out that there is a more modern (as in, developed in recent decades) alternative — spaced repetition tools. These programs are intended for long-term use to fix stuff in your brain for practical use, rather than to help you cram for a test. They're generally intended for use every day, and they use your feedback on the difficulty of each card to figure out the optimal time to retest you on it.

Screenshot of an Anki window with a toolbar across the top, a status bar at the bottom, four buttons (Again, Hard, Good, and Easy) above the status bar, the 'question' '芝麻油' in the top half of the main part of the window, and the 'answer' 'zhī má yóu - sesame oil (also 麻油/má yóu)' in the bottom half.

Anki is the one I eventually settled on. It's available for Windows, OS X, Linux, and FreeBSD, and there are also ways of using it on various mobile devices. I use the OS X version. It was trivial to install and it was fairly easy to figure out how to work it. I had no trouble importing my existing vocab list from a text file, and it stores flashcards in an SQLite database, so I know I can get them back out again in any format I like. It was easy (see below) to increase the font size (important for me, as my eyesight is not brilliant), and the documentation on their wiki seems quite good.

I've changed a couple of the options — specifically, I changed the thing that shows you failed cards again, to make it show them at the end of the session instead of putting them before cards you've not seen in that session yet. I found the default setting annoying.

I also tried Mnemosyne but the font size was too small and I couldn't work out a sensible way to increase it (this comparison of Mnemosyne and Anki says there's a global option, but I couldn't find it). I didn't get as far as trying an import, since the font size thing is a dealbreaker for me.

Both Anki and Mnemosyne allow you to share your decks with others, and download decks that others have shared. I should point out though that I found the process of making vocab lists, looking things up in online dictionaries, and entering flashcards in Anki to be very useful in cementing stuff in my brain. I'd generally advise against using other people's flashcard decks — it's better to build your own. Other people's vocab lists are useful for looking things up or confirming things, but be wary of importing vast swathes of them into your own notes — do it one character/word/phrase at a time.

Update, July 2010: Here's another good article on Anki.

Update, March 2011: The method of changing font size in Anki has changed since I wrote this post. As of Anki 1.27, you need to be viewing an individual card in the deck to do this — so open a deck, start reviewing, then instead of clicking on "Show Answer" go to the Edit menu, choose Card Layout, choose Fields, and then under Size change the number in the Reviewing box. Click "Close", and your changes will be applied to all cards in that deck (but not other decks). (Tested on OS X.)

Update, May 2011: OK, it seems that changing font size is even more complicated than I thought. The method I describe in the previous paragraph works for freshly-created decks, and continues to work for a while after that. However, at some point (which is not immediately after you change your settings, nor is it after you quit and restart Anki, so I have no idea what triggers it), Anki uses your field settings to make a new template for your deck, and once it's done this, it ignores the sizes you set in the Fields tab, and you have to edit the Card Templates tab instead.

So when you're in Card Layout, and it's showing Card Templates, there should be something like this in the "Question" box:

<span style="font-family: Arial; font-size: 20px; color: #000000; white-space: pre-wrap;">{{{Front}}}</span>

Increase the font-size number in there, and you should be good to go.

If you have any questions or corrections, please leave a comment and let me know (or email me at kake@earth.li). See here for what these posts are all about.


December 2012


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