Using Anki to learn Chinese

January 10, 2015

When learning a new language, one of the standard tools for students is to use flashcards to learn new vocabulary terms. On one side is the word in the new language (L2), and on the other side is what it means in the student’s native language (L1). Flashcards are incredibly useful, but in this digital age, there is a new type of software that does the same job, but more efficiently: spaced-repetition software (SRS).

There are a few SRS programs out there, but the one I use is Anki. I like it for a few reasons. First, it’s mostly free. For Windows, Mac, Linux/BSD, and Android, it’s free. There is a paid app for iOS (iPhones and iPads), which helps fund development. Second, it’s available on Linux. I mainly use it on OS X, but I also use a Linux laptop pretty often, so it’s nice to have something so cross-platform. Third, it’s customizable, which I’ll get to in a moment.

I’ve taken Japanese in the past and have taken Chinese for a few semesters and before I found out about SRS, I always felt flashcards were a less than perfect solution. For French, or any other language that uses the same (Latin) alphabet as English, they’re fine. Any native English speaker, who has never heard or spoken French can read Je suis on a flashcard and have a (very) rough idea about what it’s supposed to sound like. But what would happen if they saw 我是 on the front. A native English speaker has nothing to compare to understand how it sounds.

Like other languages that don’t use the Latin alphabet, Chinese has a method of romanization, which is called pinyin in Chinese. A native English speaker might not know what 我是 sounds like, but they would probably have a good idea how wǒ shì is pronounced. When using flashcards for Chinese, I always felt it would be better if there was such a thing as a three-sided flashcard. One side would be the Chinese characters (汉字), another side would be the pinyin, and the final side would be the English meaning. With Anki, it’s possible. Since Anki is customizable, I dug into the instructions and figured out how to do it.

Anki has some basic card types, but we need to add a new one. (These instructions are for [Anki 2.0.31 on] a Mac, so the steps for different Windows, Linux/BSD, etc might be a bit different.) Open Anki, click on the Tools menu and select Manage Note Types…. Click on the Add button. Select Add: Forward & Reverse and click on the OK button. Give your note type a name (FWIW, I called mine “nonroman, roman, translated”). Select your new card type from the list and click on the Fields button.

Setting up Anki

Click on the word Front and click on the Rename button. Change the name to “Non-Roman” and click the OK button. Click on the word Back and click the Rename button. Change the name to “Roman” and click the OK button. Click on the Add button and name the new field “Translation”. Click on the “Non-Roman” field, then change the Editing Font to something that supports Chinese (or whatever font is appropriate for the language you’re learning). I chose STFangsong and changed the font size to 36. Click on the Close button.

Click on the Cards… button. Near the upper right hand corner, click on the + button to add another card. To the left of the + sign there will be buttons for the three different cards. Click on the button for Card 1. It might look a bit complex, but there are only a few spots where changes need to be made. Words between the {{ and }} correspond to the fields for the card, and on each card the arrangement of the fields is a bit different. On each card, you only need to change the Front Template, the font-family under Styling (SimSun and Hei are two Chinese fonts), and anything below <hr id=answer> on the Back Template.

Edit Card 1 to look something like the image below.

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge


Click on the Card 2 button, and edit it to look like the card below.
Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge


Card 3 should be edited to look like the following.
Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

When you’re done editing the cards, click on the Close button in the lower right hand corner. Close the Note Types window and you’ll be at the main Anki window.

When adding a new card to your deck, you can change the type by clicking on the button labeled Type. Select your new card type, and click on the Choose button. Doing this rearranges the Add window with the fields of the selected card.

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

Adding new cards to Anki

Even with this “three-sided” flashcard, it took me a while to figure out the best way to use it. At first, I used to do just what the fields said, but I ended up up with a bunch of cards with shi (in all tones) and I couldn’t figure out what they were supposed to be without any context. The next logical step was to add context to the cards that seemed to need it, so the Roman field on one card might read shì (to be).

It still wasn’t perfect, but after some trial-and-error I now do the following:

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

I used to tag the cards, but stopped doing it because I didn’t get much use out of them.

Hopefully, this tutorial will help you use Anki while learning a new language.