Following last week’s look at Duolingo (the remarkable, free online language learning system), here’s another learning aid operating via a more traditional methodology that has been brought up to date. The program and app in question is Anki; a modern variation on the principle of flash cards. Again, I utilise it as part of my Russian language armoury and again: it is free.
Yes, flash cards are nothing new – they date back to the Victorian era (if not earlier), though their friendly intuitive and low-tech nature sees them readily in use today, particularly as learning aids for young children, and/or coupled with the Leitner system of learning. Essentially: the cards are double sided, with a question on one side and an answer on the other. The learner responds to the question and the card is flipped to compare the information on its reverse against his answer. It really couldn’t be simpler. Being printed on semi-rigid card, the ‘question’ could also take the form of a photograph or other visual prompt. Science journalist Sebastian Leitner would introduce an innovative methodology in the early 1970’s that allowed the process to become efficiently tailored towards each user, highlighting weaker areas of knowledge for intensive study.
Leitner’s method sorted the cards into several stacks according to learner accuracy, with the most correctly answered at one extreme, the least correct at the other and perhaps one or two grades in between. Attention could be directed according to learner weakness, with (in the case of a three-stack outcome) the most incorrectly answered cards subsequently studied for the longest session time, the most accurately answered for the least, and those in the intermediate stack studied for a length of time somewhere between the two. Cards would migrate to appropriate stacks as the process was repeated, until all were in the least-study stack and the learner had achieved understanding.
The method becomes smarter still through the incorporation of spaced-repetition, a process conceived and tested in the 1930’s by Prof. C.A.Mace and H.F Spitzer, respectively. It essentially maps out a schedule for the repetition of questions/tasks/information at ever increasing intervals; a pattern that optimises learning within the human brain. Since its inception, spaced repetition has silently exploded across the whole pantheon of learning aids. Duolingo has it, Anki has it and many others have it too.
Downloading Anki is in reality the downloading of a player, through which the various decks of flash cards are run. A multitude of decks on a various subjects are available online through the Anki site –there are over 250 in the Russian language section alone (some relevant to English speakers, others not). Decks can be created, uploaded and shared by anyone for free, with user ratings being the only guide to quality – so it’s a game of chance to some degree. Irrespective of the deck, the principle of use is the same.
So what about Anki and Russian? Well, I downloaded and installed a couple of massive, highly rated Russian/English decks and set to work; it’s a simple, fast and very immediate process. Anki throws up a card with a Russian word or phrase (possibly an image too) and I’ll either recognise the Russian word and know the English translation, or not. Pressing ‘space’ on the keyboard flips the card to reveal the answer. I then press a number key (1 up to 4) to rate the difficulty of the task, and in doing so determine when I will be presented with it again. This can be from less than a minute, up to several weeks. I am my own regulator in the process and the program responds accordingly. When I have effectively learnt and/or designated enough cards (the default per session/day is 20) the session closes down.
Anki is a useful tool and it has proven effective, though we should be wary of the often non-professional origins of the (free) decks. It’s not necessarily “gospel” the whole time: there is an element of chance/re-interpretation, but hey: I like it!
So does Tae Kim, who states on her blog: “I personally recommend the “firehose” method of dumping your brain with TONS of interesting content”. That’s what Anki is about!
[Photo by Maria Shvedova]