5 Problems with Anki for Language Learning

It’s not an exaggeration to say that practically everyone in the online language learning community uses Anki. For those who are unaware, Anki is a Spaced Repetition Program. What this means is that you have one side of an Anki “card” with a question, then click to find out the answer. This is done at pre-defined intervals. The idea is that you use Anki every day, and you’ll get harder cards more frequently until they are committed to memory.

Anki is a great resource. I use it myself on occasion. But it does have some inherent problems that you need to plan for. That’s what we’ll detail in this post.

Anki Problem #1.

There is no right or wrong answer. You really have to avoid saying, “Oh… I knew that one really.” This could be fixed in the software by judging how long it takes you to answer and whether you answered correctly. I say ‘could be fixed’ but I mean in a hypothetical sense, not in a programming sense. I have no idea how the Anki program operates in code terms.

Anki Problem #2.

Setting the intervals is a complex system. The standard is one minute, ten minute, one month, two months. Or something similar. This is a limitation for spaced repetition software in general. What you need to account for is that learning vocabulary and learning grammar and learning via pictures as opposed to text all require different intervals. A One-Syllable word is going to require a lot less memory on your part than a fifty syllable grammar example. Bear this in mind when building anki decks.

Anki Problem #3.

There is no randomness. Your brain will recognise intervals. It will recognise words when it’s expecting them. The question will become a prompt. This is miles away from the chaos of wandering around a foreign street with all its signs and people talking on random topics. A computer program can only do too much. Don’t rely on it to give you variety.

Anki Problem #4.

No active learning. Some would argue here, but it’s true. Anki is not active learning. It’s passive learning, and really only a mouse click above having target language music playing in the background. You do not learn to use the language, you don’t learn to speak it, or write it. You barely learn to read it. You probably don’t learn to listen to it in any meaningful sense unless you’ve got a very complicated deck.

Anki Problem #5.

Memorising =/= learning. This is a conclusion to the points above. There is a tendency to assume in language learning that there is a base vocabulary that accounts for 99% of conversation, and if you learn that base vocabulary, you can therefore understand 99% of conversation.

It’s true but not really. I see people with goals such as “Memorise the first 1000 words of Chinese by Christmas.” If you’re looking to win a memory competition, great. But that isn’t learning the language.

For example:

Cat road fat when the past car was a sat on came.

That is not an English sentence. All those words would be in the most commonly used English words. You could memorise them all. But still the sentence is completely incorrect.

So really, a problem with Anki isn’t down to the software. It’s down to planning and sticking to a method. Anki can be a part of the solution, but only a limited part. It cannot suffice as the main criteria by which you just your knowledge of a language for the reasons above.

Language Bug