Do you agree there’s nothing more tempting than Anki if you’re looking for a magical way to easily remember new words in a foreign language?

There’s little effort involved, you don’t need to worry about which words to review, and you have clear stats to keep track of your progress.

I mean, who needs traditional memorization methods when you’ve got an app that takes care of all the nasty stuff for you?

But is it really that indispensable? 

Not to me.

In fact, I learned 15 languages without ever relying on Anki or any other spaced repetition system (SRS). And the truth is, many people are shocked when I tell them that I don't use Anki. 

Now, let me tell you why and how I learn new words in a cool way without using flashcards. But first, let’s see why SRS apps claim to be so effective and how they came to be.

The SRS Origins

(If you’re not interested in the founding principles of SRS apps, you can skip to the next section)

The story starts (believe it or not) with a 19th century German psychologist named Herman Ebbinghaus.

Ebbinghaus was fascinated by the human memory. In particular, he wanted to understand how learning and forgetting play a role in the memorization process.

So, Ebbinghaus devised an experiment. He would attempt to learn a set of completely new information, and then test his ability to recall learned items over time.

To make sure he couldn't rely on existing knowledge, Ebbinghaus decided to learn "nonsense syllables"—three-letter chunks of sound that had no significance in his native German. 

He would make long lists of these syllables—for example, "wid, zof, taz, bok, and lef", learn them, and then document his journey towards reciting each list perfectly from memory.

Crucially, Ebbinghaus tracked a number of important variables in the process, including number of repetitions, time between repetitions, number of syllables, in the list, and so on.

These experiments revealed to Ebbinghaus something that we now call "the forgetting curve". The curve is a graph that reveals the rate at which information is forgotten over time. Through Ebbinghaus' work, we know that information that is not reviewed is forgotten quickly, but information that is reviewed (or "repeated") shortly before it is forgotten gets a "boost" in your memory.

This reviewed memory will then be forgotten at a slower rate than it was before. If additional reviews are completed, this rate of forgetting will slow further and further until we can consider the piece of information effectively memorized. 

The forgetting curve reveals that the timing of repetitions can be hugely important for long-term memorization. It even leaves an enticing mystery: if we knew exactly when we were about to forget a piece of information, couldn't we then determine when to review it, for maximum retention power?

That mystery is exactly why software programs like Anki exist. 

Why & How SRS Tools Can Actually Prevent You From Learning

SRS apps use data and algorithms to supposedly pinpoint the ideal time to review a learned piece of information. 

Following that logic, if you learn with such software, you would then be memorizing information in "the most efficient way", because you're aligning your review sessions with your brain's natural forgetting curve.

Here's the thing: I have no gripes with Ebbinghaus, or his forgetting curve. I'm actually a huge fan of the concept of Spaced Repetition, and I use it all the time in my learning. 

What I do not do, though, is use Spaced Repetition software. I don't use Anki, Memrise, Supermemo, or anything like it. I never have. 

Why? Here’s five reasons why:

  1. Making flashcards wastes learning time
  2. Adding new cards can become an addiction
  3. Reviewing old cards can become a chore
  4. Flashcards take language out of context
  5. Brain-friendly learning strategies make SRS apps irrelevant


Let's dive right in:

1. Making Anki Flashcards Wastes Learning Time

One of the hardest parts about learning a language as an adult is finding the time to get it all done. The demands of work and family life often leave us precious few hours to devote to our target languages.

For that reason, I strive to spend most of what language learning time I have actually absorbing and using the language in a natural way: by reading authentic texts, listening to authentic podcasts, watching authentic films, and having authentic conversations with native speakers (affiliate links).

If I were to inject Anki into my language practice, I'd have to devote a chunk of that time to inauthentic tasks, most of which boil down to tedious data entry. 

To create a good-quality Anki card, you need to:

  • Type in what goes on the front of the card
  • Type in what goes on the back of the card
  • Add an image file (if you can find one)
  • Add an audio file (if you can find one)
  • Decide what other information you want to include, like tags, formatting, and different card formats.
  • Save the card

That's at least several minutes of work, and only just for one card! If you're creating a deck of tens, or hundreds, or even thousands of cards (as some people do), that's A LOT of time lost! Even if Anki does help speed up your memorization process on the other side, that's a huge amount of time spent up front just creating and managing your flashcards. And that's if everything goes well! From what I've been told, Anki isn't the simplest and most functional piece of software, so you'll probably lose even more time just figuring out how to get everything working the way you want!

Not at all worth it, in my opinion. Save that time, and apply it directly to using and absorbing your target language.

2. Adding New Cards Can Become an Addiction

Despite the work that it takes to put together a good deck of flashcards using Anki, a lot of that setup is front-loaded. Once you've planned the structure of the deck, configured the layout of individual flashcards, and then added enough cards to get started, growing the deck actually becomes pretty easy.

Assuming you know where all of your card data is coming from, adding a new card can take anywhere from a couple seconds to a minute. And while the ability to quickly add new cards might seem like a good thing (and often is), it's something that can quickly become addicting. 

The whole value proposition of Anki is that it can help you remember anything you want. Since Anki flashcards are entirely digital, this actually seems feasible—nowadays, modern smartphones make it trivial to carry card decks containing thousands of cards or more, anywhere you go. 

Essentially, Anki removes nearly all costs associated with adding new flashcards to your card deck. Assuming you have the time to make the additions, there's nothing else preventing you from adding every phrase you hear in your target language right to your virtual "memory bank". 

There's even software out there that can make this simple process even easier. Using programs like subs2srs and voracious, you can turn an entire movie or television show into an Anki deck of thousands of cards, in just a few clicks of a button.

You might wonder what I'm complaining about here. Certainly having a fast way to turn movies and TV shows into learning material is a good thing, right?

Yes, of course it is! But if you don't know how to do all this in moderation, the size of your Anki decks can quickly spiral out of control. 

This is because once you've got a deck of Anki cards, you need to actually learn them and review them. This, incidentally, brings me to my next point:

3. Reviewing Old Cards Can Become a Chore

If you recall my explanation of the forgetting curve, you'll remember that each time you learn or review something, there's an ideal point at which you should review it again. This helps you strengthen the memory and slow the speed at which you'll forget it in the future.

As a software program, Anki's job is to show you a piece of information (a flashcard), and then algorithmically determine when that next ideal review should occur.

So, for example, it might show you a card for the first time, and test you on its contents. Based on that result, it could then decide that you need to review again in a few hours, or a few days. When it comes time for you to actually do that review, Anki will show the card to you automatically; you don't need to do any extra work.

This is fine for one card. But as you go through and learn dozens or hundreds of cards, these reviews will start to pile up. Before you know it, you could be spending more than an hour each day going through your Anki reviews—and that's before you even get to learning new cards for that day.

And if that sounds bad, then you shouldn't even think about taking a day off. Because while you're taking your break (because you're busy, sick, or just unwilling to review that day), your Anki reviews are still piling up. When you come back to Anki (assuming you will, which is not guaranteed), you'll have a mountain of reviews to work through. And that's terrible for motivation.

People first become addicted to adding new cards, but then become opposed to actually reviewing them. This becomes a vicious cycle which ultimately causes learners to feel overwhelmed and give up their language learning. I've seen it time and time again, and it's not good for anyone. 

The tools you use should not only motivate you to learn, but help you stay on the learning path for as long as possible. Anki doesn't seem to do that for the vast majority of people, which is a major reason why I don't recommend it.

But I'm not done yet. Let's move on to the next reason.

4. Flashcards Take Language Out of Context

My next gripe against Anki is one that I have against flashcards in general: by definition, they remove the language you are learning from its natural context.

Just think about it. When you picture a flashcard in your head, what do you see? A simple card with a word or phrase in your target language on one side, and the equivalent expression in your native language on the back. 

For all its bells and whistles, Anki boils down to just that: a way to take foreign language content and chop it up into small, isolated pieces, so that each piece can be absorbed, reviewed, and tested individually.

Breaking down a lot of information into small chunks is a great way to learn in general, but it goes against how language inherently works. 

Language is not just a series of isolated words and phrases placed neatly next to each other in a row, like so many beads on a string. Rather, language functions as a network. Each word in a phrase, each phrase in a sentence, and each sentence in a paragraph or utterance serves to reinforce everything else around it. If you remove any one of those things from its network—the natural context that it finds itself within—it begins to lose meaning. 

In fact, the loss of meaning can become so great that in many cases, when you remove a word from its surrounding context, it becomes essentially meaningless.

You see this practically anytime you look up a word in a dictionary. Most words you know have more than one meaning. But to determine which meaning is actually being used in a given situation, you have to look at the surrounding context. 

To give a quick example, think of the word "light". On its own, light could mean the visible radiation coming from the sun, or the relative weight of an object. But if you put just "light" on one side of a flashcard, you'd have no idea which of those two kinds of "light" was intended—at least, not without more context. 

However, if you had never heard the word "light" before, and I showed you a video about the sun, you'd quickly learn one meaning of "light", and automatically connect it to dozens of words and phrases which can give you context for that meaning, like "sun", "star", "solar system", "radiation", "wavelength" and more. 

There are ways to mitigate the loss of context that comes with taking target language content and putting it on flashcards; however, that generally requires you to squeeze more information onto each flashcard, which can then make the whole flashcard creation more laborious, as I explored in my first point.

Given the issues that come along with creating and managing flashcards with Anki, wouldn't it be great if we could get all of the benefits of spaced repetition, but without the extra hassle?

We can! Which is why, in my next point, I can say that...

5. Brain-Friendly Learning Strategies Make SRS Apps Irrelevant

You might remember that earlier, I mentioned that I don't use Anki at all.

You may also remember that after introducing the concept of Spaced Repetition, I mentioned that I'm a huge fan of the concept, and that I use it all the time to learn languages.

So what gives? How is it possible to gain all the benefits of Spaced Repetition, without also using a program like Anki (and all the drawbacks that come with it)?

It's surprisingly not all that difficult.

Thinking back to Ebbinghaus' work on spaced repetition and the forgetting curve, the main idea revolves around the benefits of getting repeated exposure to a piece of information over a long period of time. 

Though software like Anki optimizes exactly when you do your review, there's not much benefit lost from just making sure you spread out your repetitions of a single piece of learning content over the course of a week, or even a month.

By reviewing regularly, and giving yourself time to forget between reviews, you can leverage the power of spaced repetition, without any of the maintenance that comes with creating an Anki deck, and without getting sucked into the endless cycle of adding cards and declining to review them. 

This is exactly how I structure my Bidirectional Translation method, which is the method I follow to learn new languages every year. I take a short piece of content, learn it deeply, and then review it in a variety of ways over the course of a single week. Then, after that week, I trust that additional repetitions will just come through learning and using the language. 

Here’s a short breakdown of how it works:

  1. On day 1, I read the content and listen to the audio, using the translation in my mother tongue to try to understand the text as deeply as possible.
  2. On day 2, I analyze the phonetic patterns of the text—the pronunciation, intonation, and word stress.
  3. On day 3, I review the content in a brand-new way—usually through just listening to the audio, just reading the text, or something else entirely!
  4. On day 4, I take the target language version of the text and make a personalized translation of it, in my native language.
  5. On day 5, I take my native language translation from the previous day, and try to verbally translate it back into my target language.
  6. And on day 6, I complete the cycle, by taking my native-language translation and re-translating it IN WRITING back into the original language. Then, I make note of any errors, forgotten words, or mistranslations.

This cycle of taking a piece of language content and “processing it” in various ways is incredibly powerful, and a lot more fun than sitting in front of my computer, creating digital flashcards every day. In fact, my team and I built an entire course around this method to help anyone learn any language from scratch

Conclusion

Alright, those are all of the reasons why I don't use Anki, and why I believe you shouldn't either.

For now, let's recap the 5 reasons.

I believe you shouldn't use Anki to learn vocabulary in a foreign language because: 

  1. Making flashcards wastes learning time
  2. Adding new cards can become an addiction
  3. Reviewing old cards can become a chore
  4. Flashcards take language out of context
  5. Brain-friendly learning strategies make SRS apps irrelevant

Now, if you’re not a beginner and want to take a deeper dive into my Anki-free strategies for Spaced Repetition, you might want to check out our course on how to Overcome the Intermediate Plateau

Happy language learning!

Written by Luca Lampariello

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  • Such a helpful article, thank you Luca! I’ve tried off and on to use flashcard apps, including Anki, for language learning without much success. I always felt like I’d used so much of my learning time and hadn’t progressed much. I’ve been using your method over the past few months and I finally feel like I’m getting somewhere! Thank you so much for sharing your methods and in such a relatable way! Best wishes 🙂

  • Hi Luca. Before I say anything, I’m hugely impressed with both your methodology and your personal accomplishments. I think that in this article you’ve mischaraterised the flashcard method. Yes, word to word translation is all but useless and artificially adding context to a given flashcard is costly in terms of time and effort. However, sentence to sentence flashcards could be way more efficient in that they support ‘linguistic context’, lexical chunking and have associations for maker of the flashcards. Providing that the target language is displayed on the ‘front’ of a given flashcard, and the user personally created the translation, how is that at odds with the bidirectional method?

    • Exactly. I make use of a audio language of sentences with a high accuracy rating which was gotten from anki shared decks (I didn’t do any work on it)

  • Hi, I just want to say that you expressed very well my thought about Anki. I actually spent numerous hours to perfect my Anki setup (for learning Japanese) then one day I just realized it was a waste of time and then I returned to my method that I used to learn English. I didn’t know the name of it when I was applying it but later I got its name. It is called free style reading. The method is simple: I just pick whatever novel, wiki article I like to read and have a dictionary tab besides it (I devided my screen to 2 parts) and then I just read, read, read it with the help of the dictionary, don’t take note any word, even if the word intrigued me a alot. And you know what, I really enjoyed this method and I am continuing to do it in my Japanese learning. But this method doesn’t allow me to improve my speaking and writing (I got really bad Ielts speaking score LOL) so just follow the method in this article if you want to be better in the whole 4 skills.

  • With the caveat that if Anki truly helps someone learn (and plenty of polyglots swear by it), this article sums up my thoughts exactly! I can’t do Anki or any of the flashcard systems; it ends up being a chore and then I forget the words or phrases when I hear them out of the context of my flashcard set. The closest I ever got to doing this in a way that was (somewhat) useful was back in 2014 when I took a Ukrainian class. We were required to make vocabulary lists but specifically identify which vocabulary was to be active and which was to be passive. It actually made sense in the context of an intensive course. But for self-study, I would never do it again.

  • what you write is not wrong, but not correct either. I am using a store bought Mandarin deck which is very well made and it helps me a lot especially native audio which I can listen to and then repeat and that is extremely helpful. In addition, and this corresponds to what you say, I read and hear more complex stories and use them as you write. Well I think Anki can be extremely helpful, but I wouldn’t make my own deck either, it takes a really long time. But there are very good ready-made decks.

  • Absolutely agree. We really need to move over to written and oral exams. Multiple choice is the worst of all worlds.

  • I have followed Luca’s posts for a few years and just don’t find him to be very intelligent. He doesn’t seem to realize that what may work for him doesn’t necessarily work for others. As for his bidirectional system, if it were any good, he would be researching it at a college instead of hard selling it here. Quite frankly I find him to be no different than a circus barker and I don’t take advice from such undereducated people.

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