My Process for Creating Anki Cards Is a Well-Oiled Machine

Card Creation and Decks for Solid Foreign Language Learning

As I went over in my previous post, I’ve been using Anki for 12 years, mostly to maintain my two core foreign languages: French and Japanese. In this post, I’ll be focusing on how I choose words and how I manage and structure cards to learn those words effectively. The process is generally the same for both languages, but I’ll detail any differences along the way.

Farming material for new words

I’m not a fan of pre-fab vocabulary lists (with or without a gloss done by someone else), even when I’m learning for something like a standardized test. First of all, you have to do the extra work to look up sentences that contain these words, and those sentences will also be islands of out-of-context material. Second, it’s just not that fun or engaging to me to look up a long list of disconnected words.

JLPT N1 study book

If I am studying for a standardized test or have a thematic goal in mind (“I want to learn car-related words”), I like to find a book or article on the topic. Published study guides for the test in question or Wikipedia articles are good choices. If I just want to generally improve vocabulary, I read something for pleasure. As I read, I write down the words I don’t know as well as the sentence they occurred in (if you use Learning With Texts , the sentence will automatically be added to the data when you save an item!). I don’t tend to look up a word while reading unless it occurs a few times or it’s key to understanding a whole section of text or two characters are having a conflict and I really want to know what’s going on.

Screenshot of Learning With Texts Program
A screenshot of Learning With Texts, a kind of clunky but very useful tool for L2 reading

Looking up words and creating cards

For each word I didn’t know, I create four cards:

1. Forward (Front: 絵師 Back: painter, artist)

Screenshot of Anki flashcard for word eshi, painter, with Japanese on front and English on back

2. Backward (Front: painter, artist Back: 絵師)

Screenshot of Anki flashcard for word painter, eshi, with English on front and Japanese on back

3. Sentence “Forward” (Front: まさかこんなところで絵師を発掘できるなんてね!Back: painter, artist)

Screenshot of Anki flashcard for sentence with key word highlighted
Screenshot of Anki flashcard for sentence with gloss for key word shown

4. Sentence Cloze/”Backward” (Front: まさかこんなところで{…}を発掘できるなんてね!painter, artist Back: 絵師)

Screenshot of Anki cloze flashcard for sentence with key word clozed
Screenshot of Anki cloze flashcard for sentence with key word shown as answer

This gives you good reinforcement of the word in isolation (which helps for recognizing it in new situations and producing it when speaking) and in context (which helps for understanding when it is appropriate to use, what grammar usually surrounds it, if it’s a set phrase, etc.). Over the years, I’ve found that not including one of these four types of cards bites me later. I have lots of cards I added long ago that don’t have sentence cards, so I try to go back and look up sentences that contain them, but it’s not as good as having used a sentence I farmed from longer reading material.

Tips for the cards themselves

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