A poll I did a few years ago here on Hacking Chinese revealed that listening ability was perceived as the hardest skill when learning Mandarin. That might come as a surprise to beginners, who think that learning characters is surely the most difficult aspect of the language, but listening is probably considered more difficult because native speakers talk fast, with varying accents and without a built-in repeat button.
Identifying spoken words and phrases is also a very common element in formal Chinese language education: the dreaded 听写/聽寫 (tīngxiě, “dictation” or literally “listen, write”).
Practising dictation on your own used to be difficult. Sure, if you had a friendly native speaker who could quiz you or had access to the audio to your textbook and didn’t mind spending hours creating audio flashcards, it could be done, but there are obvious problems with both approaches.
Today, though, it is both easy and free. In this article, I will show you how to practise for your听写/聽寫 with Anki! If you want to know more about Anki and spaced repetition in general, I suggest you read this article first.
Free and easy audio flashcards for Chinese dictation practice with Anki
Before we go any further, let’s have a look at what we want to achieve. Here’s a video I recorded on my phone after going through the process described in this article:
As you can see (and hear), these are simple audio flashcards that will make sure you nail every 听写/聽寫 coming your way. It’s also great if you want to review Chinese without staring at your phone or for basic listening practice in general.
To achieve this, you only need a computer and a phone. You can probably get away without using the computer, but I prefer to create cards and manage my decks on a big screen. You can also do without the phone if you want to study in a web browser. Please note that Anki is free on all platforms except iOS, where it currently costs $25 (one-time purchase).
This guide was done on a Macbook (most screenshots) and a OnePlus 6 (the video above). The process might look slightly different on your systems, but it should be mostly the same. The Anki version being used is 2.1.9.
Please note that this article is not meant to teach you the ins and outs of how Anki works. It is an extremely powerful piece of software that can do almost anything you want in terms of flashcards, but that’s beyond the scope of this article!
Setting up Anki correctly
- Download Anki to your computer
- Create a new user if you don’t already have one
- Install the add-on Chinese Support Redux v0.10.00
- Tools menu
- Get Add-ons
- Browse Add-ons
- Find Chinese Support Redux v0.10.00
- Copy the number (scroll down, or 1128979221)
- Restart Anki
Adding vocabulary to Anki
As I said in the beginning, this is not meant to be a complete guide to Anki, so if you want more details about the inner workings of the app and how this actually works, please check the manual, which is very extensive.
Below, I will go through how to add cards, but Anki has a powerful import function and many shared decks that you can use as well. Please note that the auto-fill used here is a feature of the Chinese Support add-on, and is not a basic Anki feature.
I will cover the case of students who already use Anki later.
- Add (top menu)
- Make sure Type in the top left is set to “Chinese (Basic)”
- Enable Chinese support (toggle on the right; see picture above)
- Type or paste characters
- Press tab to go to the next field
- The remaining fields should now be filled automatically
- Check the result and fix any issues
- Make sure the field Sound is not empty
Before we go any further, let’s verify that there is audio. The easiest way to do this is to just start studying (go to the main screen, click the default deck and select study now). The audio will by default be part of the answer, not the question, so the automatically generated audio should only play once you reveal the reverse side of the flashcard. The next step is to fix that.
Setting up the audio flashcards
Anki is based on Notes, which refers to the facts you entered when you created your note above (character, meaning, reading and so on; all of that makes up one single note). Anki then generated one or more flashcards for you, based on that note. We now need to tell Anki to create the type of cards we want. As we saw, the default is to show Pinyin on the front side and the rest on the reverse side. We want audio on the front side and everything else on the other side.
Here’s how to do it:
- Tools menu
- Manage Note Types
- Chinese (Basic)
- Cards (on the right)
This will take you to a screen that will probably confuse you at first. Don’t worry; we only need to do a couple of things here. We need to add the spoken audio to the flashcard. Add…
…on a new line to Front Template and, optionally, to Back Template too. Adding it to the front template means it will play before the answer is revealed, which is what we want. If you want it to play again as reinforcement when the answer is revealed, add it to the back template as well. This set-up was used in the video above.
As we don’t want the Pinyin to show up on the front of the card, we also need to remove:
…from Front Template.
There are many more things you can do in this dialogue, but as I’ve said a couple of times already, this isn’t meant to be a guide to Anki in general. There’s plenty out there on the web for the curious.
Before we’re done, do:
- Tools menu
- Check Database
You probably also want to sync with AnkiWeb, both for backup purposes and to keep your devices synchronised. Click Sync to get started.
Congratulations! You now have audio flashcards you can study on your phone, your computer or even someone else’s computer. And good luck with your 听写/聽寫!
Below will follow some tips for students who use Anki, plus a discussion about text-to-speech engines.
Audio flashcards for students who already use Anki
If you already use Anki (and probably also the Chinese Support add-on), you can’t just go in and change the card generation, because it will mess up your existing cards. Instead, add a new card type. It can be somewhat tricky to understand exactly how Anki deals with notes, cards and so on, so I won’t go into details here as I’m no expert myself. Again, I refer to the manual!
However, I will say something about the add-on we’re using. Your notes need to have a field called Sound, Pronunciation or similar (check the plugin page). If you’ve added that field, but still have no audio in it for your cards, do:
- Chinese menu
- Fill Notes
- Fill Sound
This should return a dialogue that tells you that so and so many cards had missing sound and that it has been added. You might want to Check Database before you continue as well.
Text-to-speech engines in Anki
There are three options for text-to-speech (TTS) engines and you can switch between them by going to the Tools menu and selecting Set Speech Engine. The main point that makes this article possible is that they all work well enough to use for listening purposes (don’t use them for mimicking, though). That hasn’t always been the case!
The options are:
- Baidu Translate
- Google Mandarin (PRC)
- Google Mandarin (Taiwan)
The demo I made for this article was done using Baidu Translate. I have not conducted a serious comparison between these three, but you should check them out and see which one suits you best. There are other TTS engines available in Anki, too, but these three are the easiest to access because they come with the add-on. There is another add-on called AwesomeTTS, but it’s not compatible with Anki 2,1.
If you have other suggestions, please leave a comment! I would also like to hear what you think about the various TTS options.