Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

Is your flashcard deck too big for your own good?

I didn’t use spaced repetition software for my first year of learning Chinese (I didn’t know what it was back then). During my second year, I sort of developed my own spaced repetition system. This is crazy when I think back, but I actually kept stats for vocabulary manually and tried to figure out how long I could wait with the next review while still not forgetting too much. Then I found out that there are programs that do that for all words individually, which was a relief. Reinventing the wheel (at least a good wheel) is both difficult and time consuming. If you want to read about what spaced repetition is and why you should use it, check this article.

Building my personal dictionary

Image credit: Patrick Correia

Image credit: Patrick Correia

Since then, I have recorded most of my learning in my deck of flashcards. At an early stage, I started recording other things than just vocabulary. For instance, if someone told me about the difference between two near-synonyms, I would record the difference on both their cards. If I found relationships to other characters that weren’t obvious, I added that bit of information as well. Later, when I started using Chinese-Chinese dictionaries, I added definitions in Chinese along with more etymology and other information I picked up along the way. My deck now consists of roughly 21,000 cards, some of them have small essays written on them.

Now, one of the basics of flashcard learning is that you shouldn’t add more information than necessary. Information that can be broken down should be broken down. However, the purpose with recording information about grammar, usage and cultural aspects isn’t necessarily to memorise this information, but to record it. This way, I can search through my deck and look up things I’ve looked up before. This is an invaluable resource I use all the time, especially when writing.

Big flashcard decks mutate and start living a life of their own

Then I read about people who nuked their decks, wiped everything and started from scratch. I was horrified; sacrilege! Some time passed and the discussion about deleting flashcard decks and starting over kept nudging me. At first, I thought: What if I lose any important words? What if I encounter a word I have learnt, but forgotten again because I deleted my deck? Then I rrealised that there is quite a bit of sense in the argument to start over again as well.

This article is the result of my own analysis of the situation.

In essence, this is why you might want to consider nuking your decks and start over:

  • You have lots of cards you don’t really need
  • You spend too much time with the deck (it has become a burden)
  • You no longer need to study the way you studied as a beginner

The first point isn’t relevant for everybody, but it is for me. I have (or had, I will come to that later) hundreds of cards which were very rare (i.e. not in common use at all). These came from various word lists and from my own attempt to add more words to learn specific characters. Getting rid of all these words that just drained time and energy without actually giving anything back is one good reason to delete your deck and start over, especially if these cards are draining both time and energy.

The second point is only relevant for people who spend too much time with computer programs instead of actually being exposed to the real language (reading or listening) or using it (speaking and writing). This topic is really too big for this article, but even though I think spaced repetition software is great, it’s a tool that you use to accomplish certain goals, it’s not a comprehensive method of language learning. Thus, this kind of studying should take up only a small part of your learning time.

The third point is very interesting and should be relevant for most people. In essence, we need different kinds of knowledge for different stages in our language learning. I deliberately focused a lot on recognition in the beginning simply because I believe that understanding is the most important aspect to enable me to learn more and interact with Chinese people. However, the goals I had five years ago don’t really match my current goals, so something needs to be done.

Reasons why you shouldn’t start again from scratch

However, there are compelling arguments against starting over. If you haven’t reached a level where you can read and listen to Chinese produced for native speakers, you run the risk of severely hampering your vocabulary acquisition. We use spaced repetition software in the first place because it’s such an efficient way of increasing vocabulary quickly. If you can read novels and listen to the radio, you don’t need spaced repetition to maintain common words and characters, that will come automatically. The same is true if you use Chinese to a large extent in your everyday life.

However, if you rely on textbooks and graded readers (which there are all too few of), deleting your deck means that you risk forgetting a lot of words you don’t see and hear naturally in your textbooks or in class. The fact that you don’t see or hear them doesn’t mean they aren’t necessary or common, it just means that you don’t see or hear enough words. In this situation, I strongly advise you against nuking your decks and starting over again. If you feel that your exposure to Chinese is enough to allow this, you can consider starting over.

The second reason you shouldn’t start over is if you have built up a personal dictionary. I keep my cards not only because I want to remember them, but because I want to be able to look things up. Rather than keeping notes about grammar and so on in a separate file or on paper, I keep it in my flashcard deck. Destroying the deck would destroy the dictionary. In theory, of course, it would be possible to keep the old deck as a dictionary only, but in practice, keeping two major decks for learning Chinese is bound to create problems.

The alternative to deleting is to actively trim and modify the deck

In the end, after long and serious consideration, I decided to keep my deck. This means that I have to handle all the problems listed above, including the one I haven’t discussed yet (the one about changing needs). Your situation isn’t likely to be the same as mine, so your conclusion might be different. If you decide to keep your deck, here are some ways you can deal with the problems I mentioned above.

You have lots of cards you don’t really need

This might be a major problem, depending on how many of these cards you have and if you keep forgetting them or not (it’s more likely since they by definition aren’t commonly used and therefore harder). I solved this by paying a native speaker do go through cards with an interval less than one year and highlight any cards that didn’t meet my requirements.

I then checked this list with a few other people and decided which to delete. I ended up deleting about 300 cards, which was much less than I thought. On the other hand, my requirements to delete a word was basically that it wasn’t in use in modern Chinese and that most educated native speakers wouldn’t use it in either speaking or writing. Still, 300 cards is still a lot considering that I kept forgetting them. Time adds up.

You spend too much time with the deck

This of course depends on how much time you actually spend. I spend around 20-30 minutes per day reviewing vocabulary and considering that I’m spending several times that amount on reading and listening. According to the time log I made last week, I spent roughly 67 hours with Chinese in some way or another, which means that I spend only about 1/20 of my time on vocabulary. I don’t think that’s too much.

Also, all the easy cards in your deck don’t take up as much time as you think. A rough calculation tells me that I spend around two minutes a day reviewing the 10,000 easiest card in my deck. Two minutes! It’s definitely worth that to refresh my memory and catch words I have forgotten.

You no longer need to study the way you studied as a beginner

This is perhaps the most important reason for starting over. In the beginning, I focused heavily on recognition, because I believe that being able to understand spoken and written Chinese is by far more important than being able to use it. Usage comes gradually, but massive exposure is a prerequisite for any kind of advanced level. My goal was to be able to handle native material as quickly as possible. However, once that goal is reached, it no longer makes much sense to focus heavily on recognition.

Instead, I wanted to put the emphasis on output, on correct usage and on expanding my active vocabulary. For this, cloze tests or recall is much more effective. Of course, when I see a new word, I determine whether or not it’s enough to understand it or if I want to be able to use it as well. If the former is the case, I still do recognition only, if the second is the case, I usually use cloze tests.

The reason nuking your deck isn’t helpful here is that you might as well do the same thing with your old deck. What I do now (and will probably keep on doing for many years) is to simply switch cards from recognition to cloze. When I review, I mark all cards I come across that I realise that I really should be able to use, but actually can’t. I then reset their intervals and change the card to cloze.

It’s not the size that matters

As we have seen, the size of the deck itself isn’t very important, but the time you spend working with vocabulary is. If you add up to tens of thousands of words over many years, you’re not likely to feel that a large deck is a burden, because most of the cards in it will be very easy. The reason you still want to keep them is that you will forget some easy words sometimes and it’s not worth the effort figure out which. If a card appears once every seven years, you wast more time thinking about whether you should delete it or not than you would reviewing it if you kept it in the deck.

However, I do think there are times when you should start over. If your deck is a mess, takes too much time and is boring to play with, you risk burning yourself out anyway and restarting might be a good idea. Similarly, if you have thousands of flashcards of a type you no longer need, deleting them is a good idea (a kind of selective reset). Furthermore, if you think flashcards are very useful but not fun, you should only use it for things that really matter, so keeping the deck small is important.

In the end, it boils down to what you use your deck for, how you use it and what you think about the way you’re currently studying. I didn’t delete my deck because I figured I could achieve the positive effects simply by being more trigger-happy with the delete button and finding other ways of removing unnecessary words. The key point isn’t exactly how you do it, but if you want to maintain a healthy attitude towards spaced repetition software, you need to have an active attitude to your deck. It’s a tool. If it doesn’t work, change it.

More about spaced repetition software on Hacking Chinese

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  1. Sara K. says:

    I also use my Anki deck as a database.

    Anyway, my regret is not that there’s too much, but that I’ve put in too little (for the database use, not the spaced repetition use). So when I have extra time I sometimes add bits of information to old cards.

    Actually, I’ve now divided the review and database functions of the cards, at least in my mind. When I review, I only focus on 2-3 bits of key information (because more than that doesn’t work for review), but when I use the deck as a database, I want more detailed information.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Great that you pointed this out. If you use your deck to record information that isn’t crucial, you should of course be aware of what you should review and what is considered extra information. This is pretty simple in practice, though, I just add extra information below the “answer”. If I have some extra time, I browse through that info, but most of the time, I just check if I’m right or wrong.

    2. Claire says:

      I realize this is an old thread Google sent me to, but it’s timeless. I always thought that the recommendations to nuke a deck were misguided, and Anki actually has everything built in to deal with the issues of a big deck.
      There are leeches to identify which words you spend too much time on. Take them serious. My most common action is to delete them, that’s my freedom!
      We can suspend cards we only want to keep for reference to look them up later. Suspended cards won’t take any time at all.
      And finally we have spacing to deal with changed needs. Sure my needs are different now, but words I know quickly get to 10 years or so and really won’t take much time. If they did take much time, they’d quickly turn up as leeches, and I find myself deleting words rather than marking them as wrong when I realize this is a word I no longer want.

      In sum, prune as you go along…

  2. Graham Bond says:

    Great post. Lots of food for thought.

    I have spent the last 15 months using flashcards intensively as a means to boost my vocabulary and put me in a position to be able to read newspapers and novels (as I can now do, albeit far more slowly than I would like). However, about two months ago I began to feel that the deck had become a burden, partly because of the frustration of never seeing my daily review time decrease (I am adding new cards each week), and partly because there are characters that I have never encountered ‘in context’ which I still get wrong routinely, despite having reviewed them more than 40 times. I put in between 60 and 75 minutes every day – more time than I spend reading or listening (writing hardly ever takes place these days) – and I definitely feel it is too much and hampering progress. Your insights will certainly assist in getting me out of this rut (though nuking my deck (of about 7,500 characters, words and example sentences) is probably not going to happen!).

  3. 21,000? There I was thinking my 900 word Vietnamese deck was a bit large! Maybe I’ll catch up to you in a few years.

    I use my flashcards like a database too, but I only display 2 fields on my cards (the word/sentence and a definition/description) and hide all the other fields so I can click for more info if I want. Hidden but accessible, and more importantly searchable. The latter is invaluable when I’ve forgotten the tone of a word cos it’s a pain to find it in the dictionary if you don’t know the tone. I have a sneaky English field that can be searched but otherwise I never see it. Totally not cheating, right?

    1. Olle Linge says:

      One of the things I regret is that I didn’t separate my information into more fields. That would have helped enormously when searching and organising the deck. Regarding the size, it used to be even bigger (max 23,000 or something), but I’ve removed quite a lot. I should probably remove even more, but I haven’t felt motivated to play around too much with my deck recently (this article was actually written some time ago).

  4. Hugh Grigg says:

    I kind of include “delete” and “edit” as response options in my mind to each card I review in Anki. So they’re potential responses along with “forgot”, “good”, “easy” etc. That way I just trim and modify my deck as I go along.

    I also have a “don’t worry about it too much” rule, where I just go with my first response and freely delete / edit / respond to cards just to keep moving rather than thinking too much about details.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Yes, that’s a sensible approach which is close to what I do nowadays, too. For some reason, I didn’t like deleting cards back in the days, probably because I felt that I might forget something important. That argument is kind of stupid and I wish I had figured that out earlier.

  5. rob says:

    I never used any software when I was learning at uni and I never kept any records of vocab at all – and I think I learned faster because of it (although my method’s maybe not for everyone, and I’ve never tried using software). I would take a piece of scrap paper, divide into an even number of columns, and write english in the left and chinese on the right. Once I’d filled down to the bottom of the list I’d go back two lists and try to recall entries that I had put an asterisk by. If I got them right I did nothing, if wrong I entered into the newest list as new vocab. Then I tried to recall everything in the next list. Entries I couldn’t recall I would put asterisk by for next time, then I’d continue filling the next list with words. So I basically reviewed every piece of vocab as many times as it took to recall it ‘two lists ago’. I would literally fill up bins of paper as I went along. I didn’t keep any of it – I convinced myself rather pompously that whereas my classmates had their vocab in their flashcard decks or anki, I had mine in my head (not always reliable tho…)

    1. Olle Linge says:

      What you are describing IS spaced repetition, you just skip the software bit. To each his own, I suppose. I think it’s incredibly valuable to be able to search through what I have learnt and at the same time be able to carry all that information around with me on my phone. The primitive SRS I refer to in the introduction to the article was very similar to what you describe, by the way. It works pretty well, but I do believe there’s no good reason to it by hand when a computer does it better. Then what each student likes to do is of course something else. 🙂

      1. rob says:

        I can imagine the advantage of being able to search would be valuable – but can’t you just search a dictionary anyway? Also writing it out by hand means you’re always practising writing characters and it gives you flexibility of format. Maybe I’m just a technophobe but I always recommend the paper method to new learners unless they’ve already started using software.

        1. Olle Linge says:

          I think there is a big difference between using words you have already studied and looking them up in a dictionary and choosing one at random. The first reinforces your knowledge of that word, the second is likely to go away again as soon as you hit ctrl+v.

  6. George says:

    About a decade ago, there was a popular book published in Taiwan of how famous people have learned English. It was a catalog of all the kinds of folly we tend to do when we are left on our own with only a few people that had real vision about mastering a foreign language.

    Studying lists is on the folly side. We can accumulate more and more without putting it to practical use.

    When I started teaching English in Taiwan I was very interested in grammar. And so it seemed logically to study Chinese grammar as well as English grammar. But my students merely claimed that Chinese didn’t have grammar… everyone just understood it.

    That led to my collecting several Chinese grammar books.. some good, but mostly awful and confounding. (It is the same with English grammar books… a lot of authors just recycle what others have written.).

    Fortunately there is one outstanding CHinese grammar book that I continue to return to. It is a second edition with a 1997 copyright English and I think I have been reading and re-reading it for 15 years. It is worth doing so.

    Take a look at “Mandarin Chinese – a functional reference grammar” by Charles N. Li & Sandra A. Thompson,1997 The Crane Publishing Company, Ltd., Taipei, Taiwan. It is all phonetic, so you won’t get hung up on characters. And it covers the whole range of issues about Chinese and a language and the all important function words that glue the language together. Flash cards are not going to help if you can’t exploit all the expectations of what Chinese should sound like and how details are clarified.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I bought and read the traditional Chinese version of Li & Thompson a few years ago and found it quite good. I’ve also read 《實用現代漢語語法》by 劉月華 et. al. recently and found it to be fairly similar to Li & Thompson. My problem with these books is that they are reference grammars that mostly look at surface structures. That’s important, but the course in Chinese grammar I’m taking right now (simply called 漢語語法) makes me realise that the really interesting stuff isn’t in any of the textbooks mentioned above. The course focuses much more on generative grammar and deep structure; it makes me realise that I really don’t know very much about grammar at all (in any language). 🙂

      1. rob says:

        …which is why it’s so annoying when people say Chinese has no grammar! It has grammar just as complicated as English or Russian etc. on a fundamental level, and just as easy to get wrong, especially since there are fewer easily available grammar books on it.

  7. BK says:

    Does anyone have any good cloze decks on Anki?

  8. Andreas says:

    Thanks for a great post Olle! Actually, I was thinking about this very question as I was reviewing my deck on the subway back home this afternoon. I have around 2000 cards in my Anki deck, and it starts taking up more time of my day than I’d want it to. Good advice!

    Bästa hälsningar från ett snöigt Stockholm

  9. The Deck Guy says:

    Thanks Olle, this was a good read!

  10. JHD says:

    OK, this is a practical, not a theoretical, question. I don’t know how to choose vocabulary from a ready-made deck by its tag and create a deck or sub-deck to study. For example, I saw that you already created a PAVC4 deck for all the vocab in the book. (Thanks.) But how do I just study one chapter at a time without seeing the vocab from the chapters I haven’t started working on yet? (I do agree it is better to make your own deck but I really don’t have time now. Four of my seven classes have 聽寫 and each class’ list is up to 45 words long.) I’ve read the Anki manual and it didn’t help me figure out how to study just part of a deck. Thanks.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I usually just suspend everything and then gradually unsuspend as I progress through the chapters.

      1. JHD says:

        What do you mean by suspend everything? Where would I do that, from what screen?
        What I ended up doing was using “custom study”, then choosing the study by tags. I specified which tags I wanted (Lesson 1) and told it which I didn’t want (the other lessons). If there is a better way, let me know.

        1. Olle Linge says:

          First, I assume we’re talking about Anki here? If that’s the case, go to browse cards, select all the cards you don’t want (you can select by tag, so select all chapters you don’t want to learn yet), click suspend. Done. If you want to study the suspended cards later, unsuspend them the same way. I’m quite sure this is in the manual, though.

  11. 武文山 says:

    “21,000 cards”

    Does this refer to cards or notes? Also, I curious as to where your deck is at now…

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I mostly used one type of card per note, so it was essentially 21,000 notes. I say was, because I haven’t used the deck for many years. I rely more on using the language these days and don’t feel a strong need for this type of reviewing. I do study character writings in Skritter though, maintaining the 5000 most common characters or so!

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