Build ⇒ Learn ⇒ Maintain

I know I sound like a broken record, but reviewing your flashcards is something that you must do every day.

There are going to be days when you are hungover, or sick, or depressed, or at Disneyland, or on a tropical beach, or up in the mountains far from civilization. You should still be doing (at least your review) flashcards on these days. (There is a way to cheat at this, which we mentioned while discussing the Almighty Study Chain.)

Sometimes I hear people say that SRS programs (like Anki) are overrated. They say that memorizing vocab can only take you so far. Maybe that's true. But all I know is that back when I was writing the first version of this guide back in 2015, my Anki decks looked like this:
  • Japanese Flashcards:
    • 17,357 Mature Cards (i.e. cards that were completely memorized)
    • 245 Young Cards (i.e. cards that I was still in the process of memorizing)
  • Spanish Flashcards:
    • 3,374 Mature Cards
    • 399 Young Cards
  • Portuguese Flashcards:
    • 1,071 Mature Cards
    • 1 Young Card
  • Total Flashcards:
    • 21,792 Mature Cards
    • 645 Young Cards
There is something so reassuring about Anki. It's crazy to look at that list and realize that I have memorized around 22,000 vocabulary words spread across three languages. The main reason that this seems so surreal is that I don't feel like I'm studying a lot. I just wake up in the morning, spend about 30-45 minutes doing flashcards, then get on with my day. And before I knew it, doing that every single day led me to this situation I am in now.

For me personally, studying flashcards was the key to learning Japanese. It is the only way I have every managed to accumulate a massive foundation of vocabulary, which is perhaps the most valuable thing you can do when attempting to learn a language.


There are three aspects to learning vocabulary with flashcards. That is, you are always doing one of the following things:
  1. Building
  2. Learning
  3. Maintaining
Building refers to adding new flashcards (words, grammar points, example sentences, etc.) to your Anki decks. We usually do this for you because we provide flashcard decks for you to study, but you could also create your own flashcards using words you've encountered in real life.

Learning is what happens when you first encounter new flashcards. After you first encounter them, they will become “Young" flashcards, and you will see them relatively frequently. In time, Anki will determine that you have completely memorized these flashcards, and they will be categorized as “Mature" flashcards.

Maintaining refers to keeping these “Mature" cards in our memory by periodically reviewing them (in a systematic manner).

If you look at that image above, it says that I have 5,776 Unseen Cards. These are cards that I have already built (because they're in my decks), but I still haven't learned them, because I've never actually “studied" them in Anki. That is, Anki has not yet shown me these cards and said, Hey, learn this!

There are also 645 “Young" cards. These are cards that Anki has shown me recently. I have already started studying them, but it's still too soon to say that I've memorized them. These make up the bulk of my daily studies because Anki shows them to me frequently (because I'm still prone to forgetting them).

Finally, I have 21,792 “Mature" cards. These are flashcards that I've finished learning and totally memorized. They make up a small percentage of my daily studies, because Anki only needs to periodically check that I still haven't forgotten them.

When I wrote the first version of this lecture, I was trying to learn 30 new Spanish words, 12 new Japanese words and 0 new Portuguese words. Because of this, the number and proportion of young cards in my Spanish deck was higher than the number and proportion of young cards in my Japanese deck and much higher than the number and proportion of young cards in my Portuguese deck:

  • Spanish deck: 399 Young Cards; 11.8% of Studied Cards (399/3374)
  • Japanese deck: 245 Young Cards; 1.4% of Studied Cards (245/17357)
  • Portuguese deck: 1 Young Card; <0.1% of Total Cards (1/1071)
A great example of the power of Anki is that 1 Young Card I have in my Portuguese deck. It takes me about 1 minute to do my daily flashcards for Portuguese. Usually they are all very easy, because they are all Mature Cards. However, I must have recently forgotten one of those Mature Cards, so Anki dropped it down to “Young Card" status. Anki is making sure that I don't forget any of those 1,071 cards. Long story short, I am maintaining my 1,000 word vocabulary by doing 1 minute of flashcards per day.


Maintain Your Vocabulary by Reviewing
The reason I say that flashcards are so important to focus on in your studies is, first and foremost, that they can help you retain words and kanji at an extremely accelerated rate. However, there is also another reason we need to give them extra attention: It's very easy to fall behind on your Anki flashcards.

You pick an ambitious number of new cards to study each day. You keep up just fine, but then you start having a hard time keeping up with all the cards that Anki is telling you are due for review on a daily basis, and before you know it you have 5,000 cards due for review today, a number you'll never reach, and you've removed the intelligence from your 'intelligent flashcards.'

Do not fall behind on your Anki flashcards. It is a very painful experience. So, if you notice you're starting to fall behind on flashcards, you'll need to make it your #1 priority to get caught up at whatever means necessary. That probably means you stop adding new cards, temporarily. Review cards are always more important than new cards. By reviewing, we maintain the database of vocabulary in our brains, never forgetting it.

At some point in your studies, you may have a couple hundred cards that are due for review on a given day, which could take an hour or more to get through. If you happen to break the chain on that day, then the next day you'd have an even higher number of cards due, maybe enough to take a couple of hours, even. Then, if you miss a couple more days, you've got over 1,000 cards due today, and you simply stop studying them… which means you stop learning at an accelerated rate, which means you stop making progress to Japanese fluency.

This is why we make our flashcard quotas our #1 study priority.

Be Careful Not to Overload New Cards
The default for Anki flashcard decks is usually 20 new cards per day. There will probably be some days when you have a lot of free time or are feeling very motivated, and you might want to study 50 new vocabulary cards. You're totally welcome to do this, but be careful not to overdo it with the amount of new cards that you add each day.

As you'll probably notice over the course of your studies, consistently studying large numbers of new cards on a daily basis really stacks up in the amount of daily review cards. If you find yourself getting overwhelmed by the amount of daily review cards, then take a break from new cards for a while. It's fun to have lofty goals (I'm gonna learn 50 new words a day!), but those goals can be counter-productive if they end up overwhelming you and causing you to fail to study your daily review cards.

There are a lot of people out there who hate on SRS programs like Anki. A computer program can only help you so much, they say. And, to a certain extent, I agree with these people. Looking at words on a computer screen is not the most effective way to learn individual words. However, it's the best way I know of to systematically retain large volumes of words, which is what we're trying to do.

But let's look at some other ways that we can really get these words to stick…


Set Aside Focus Words
As you study, you'll come across some words that you'll want to be able to use in conversation, along with words that seem to always give you problems.

If you're doing flashcards on your phone, you can always take screenshots of these words, then look at them in a photos folder when you're bored and have nothing to do. It's like double Anki!

You can also set them aside in a list of “words I want to use," and you can try to use them the next time you have a Japanese conversation with your teacher... or your cat.


Use It or Lose It
Learning and memorizing are quite different concepts.

For example, I have over 17,000 Japanese flashcards (Note: I actually have quite a bit more than this now, but I can't keep updating this number every time I learn a new Japanese word! ^_^).

Of those 17,000, I'd guess that around 14,000 are vocabulary words. I feel pretty comfortable saying that I know and understand at least 14,000 Japanese words. However, there is no way that I can use that many in conversations. There is a huge difference between being able to understand a word and being able to use a word. Just because you study a bunch of vocabulary on Anki does not mean that you'll be able to use those vocabulary when interacting with Japanese people.

Granted, there are times when I suddenly blurt out a word that is in my flashcards, using it for the first time, and I feel quite proud of myself, but usually when I gain the ability to use a word in a sentence that I've created, it's thanks to a bit of extra attention and effort... which basically boils down to attempting to use the word in a conversation.

This is most helpful if you're talking with someone who will correct you, because there is nothing that will help you remember better than a stupid mistake. And trust me, we are going to make some stupid mistakes, and people are going to laugh at us. And we'll laugh along and play nice, but deep down we'll feel shame and self-loathing, which are two great tools for memorizing vocabulary.

Regardless of how often we practice using words, one truth remains: If we can manage to stick to our Anki flashcards consistently over a long period of time, our comprehension of Japanese will skyrocket.

The higher our comprehension, the easier it gets to expose ourselves to Japanese content (e.g. TV shows, video games, conversations, etc.). As this gets easier, we gradually reach a point at which very little effort is needed to put new Japanese in our brains.

So, let's stick with it!
Complete and Continue