Master How To Learn

What I Wish I Knew When I Started Using Anki In 2013: Should I Learn a Second Language?

Draft: 2020-07-31
Published: 2020-11-15
Updated: 2020-11-16


Mini-series: What I Wish I Knew When I Started Using Anki In 2013 (language learning edition)

I. Should I Learn a Second Language?

II. Tools for Learning a Second Language

III. Sentence Cards

IV. Mass Immersion

TL;DR: I should have nipped the idea of learning Korean in the bud because I didn’t know the dedication and hard work required to reach native-like fluency.

Nipping the idea in the bud

With the power of Anki, I remember I wanted to become fluent in Korean and Spanish in less than 4 years before graduating college. That’s a lofty goal but I thought I could pull it off. Here’s a kicker: did I have what it takes to become fluent in two foreign languages?

When you meet someone who speaks a foreign language well, you may attribute her skill in the language to natural ability. This is probably because you don’t know about all the hard work that went into achieving this level of mastery. But with the exception of certain people we might call savants, anyone who has ever learned another language as an adult did so only as the result of real effort.

One reason for disappointment with foreign language learning is that the decision is often made without a realistic appraisal of what it will take to succeed—or without even knowing how to define success. - Becoming Fluent

So no, I didn’t know what it takes to become fluent in two foreign languages. The cost of maintaining language fluency is already huge for one language, not to mention two.

Foreign Language Training Language List (shortened):

Category I Languages: 24-30 weeks (600-750 class hours)
Spanish (24 weeks) Italian (24 weeks)
Romanian (24 weeks) French (30 weeks)
Category IV Languages: 88 weeks (2200 class hours)
Japanese Korean
Chinese – Cantonese Chinese – Mandarin

I remember when I came across this table I would scoff at those numbers because “duh no if you have Anki.” Yes, using Anki can accelerate my language learning journey by orders of magnitude. However, say I could master Korean in half the time, that’s still 44 weeks (1100 class hours). If I consistently put in one hour every day, it would still take me exactly 3 years.

If I only need half the time for both Korean and Spanish: Korean: 44 weeks (1100 class hours) + Spanish: 15 weeks (375 class hours) = 4 years

This is the ideal situation, without considering language interference (learning two languages simultaneously), my changing interests, or that I’d underestimate the work and dedication required to reach native-like fluency etc.

Besides, the time reference above is for highly structured settings with a lot of feedback and professional support. I haven’t checked but I think the 44 weeks is meant to be studying the target language every day as a full-time job. I was self-studying while in college, so you can see my expectation was highly skewed.

I read an article about the dedication, commitment, effort required to reach true fluency in a foreign language. My arrogant side would scoff again, “yeah yeah I understand the cost I got this.” NO I DID NOT. I think most don’t. When I started out, I watched a series of Hangul (Korean alphabets) videos. The first lesson has 1.6m views, second lesson 1.2m, third lesson 800k. What about the final lesson? 200k views. This linear drop in views means that most don’t even make it past learning the 24 Hangul alphabets.


Photo by Gilberto Olimpio on Unsplash

One illuminating story from Thinking, Fast and Slow

The inside view and the outside view

Daniel Kahneman was writing a high-school textbook on judgment and decision. He asked his team members how long it was needed to submit a finished draft. Most thought it’d take around 2 years. Then he asked his curriculum expert about the past history of similar textbook projects:

“A substantial fraction of the teams ended up failing to finish the job.”

This was worrisome; we had never considered the possibility that we might fail. My anxiety rising, I asked how large he estimated that fraction was.

“About 40%,” he answered.

The next question was obvious: “Those who finished,” I asked. “How long did it take them?”

“I cannot think of any group that finished in less than 7 years,” he replied, “nor any that took more than 10.”



The result? There were a lot of twists and turns and it took them 7 years to finish the textbook. This brings me to the following:

With the benefit of hindsight

When I started to learn Korean, I never thought I’d fail. I’d never considered the following:

- Not many people are truly fluent in a second language.

- The language-learning market is filled with resources for beginners. You don’t see many books or tutorials for intermediate, not to mentioned advanced learners. Yes, it may be that when learners reach the intermediate level, they don’t need resources beyond immersion. However, it can also mean that most don’t go beyond the beginner level.

- When I was in college, there were four classes (120 students) for Korean I but only one class (30 students) for Korean IV in every semester. Yes, not everyone wants to make it to Korean IV but still, if indeed everyone taking Korean I wants to at least reach the intermediate level, only 1 in 4 could make it. The course coordinator knows most won’t make it to Korean IV:

Planet Fitness had capacity to hold only about 300 people but had signed up 6,000 total members. Half of the Planet Fitness members don’t ever go to their gyms, Planet Money says. - What your new gym doesn’t want you to know


Side note: this is a worksheet from my Korean I class (please excuse my terrible handwriting). I think such worksheet format (fill in the blanks) is quite typical for any language classes. Purely for such grammar exercise, wouldn’t you say Anki is the better way to go?

My motivation to learn Korean was highly tied to its culture. I thought it was cool to become fluent in Korean so that I could understand all the Korean shows without effort and not needing any subtitles. At the peak of my “initial high”, I even planned to take the TOPIK (Test of Proficiency in Korean) and aspired to reach level 4 (highest being level 6). This is premature optimization at its core.

As my enthusiasm waned, so did my motivation. It was harder and harder to do my Korean card reps. I eventually led the reps build up. Ultimately, I even stopped watching any Korean shows, gave up learning Korean and spent my time on other pursuit. If memory serves, my whole Korean journey lasted around 2 years.

So I should give up too?

No. I’m not telling you to give up; I’m not discouraging anyone from learning any foreign languages. Rather, as suggested from the title, this is just “What I Wish I Knew When I Started Using Anki In 2013”. I don’t know about you and your reason(s) to learn a foreign language. The following are some questions or ideas I wish I’d considered when I started:

#1 True fluency: do I have what it takes?

Consider MattvsJapan. I’m sure everyone is very impressed by his Japanese fluency. If you came across his I Convinced Natives I’m Japanese in VRChat WITH Xiaomanyc, you’d be “wow his Japanese is amazing. I wish I could do that too.” But I bet you didn’t know Matt’s Original 2011 Room Tour and AJATT Room Tour - FINAL FORM, or haven’t seen his other videos to see how meticulous, methodical, thoughtful his approach was. The room tour was in 2011 and he was already that dedicated. The timespan from that 2011 Room Tour to that VRChat video is almost a decade. 10 years. Let that sink in.

His MIA approach requires a sheer amount of dedication and motivation. He mentioned in an old video that he’d carry a mp3 player with the Japanese radio playing in the background all the time. When he needed to be away from his desk (hence pausing the Japanese video on his desktop), he would put on the mp3 player to continue his passive immersion. This is a whole new level of dedication.

When you hear him speak you are guaranteed to be impressed. But all you see is the product of his hard work but never his countless Anki reps. Or consider the guy from How I Passed the Demanding […] Italian Language Exam Without Going to Italy – Here’s a Hint: the 326,538 Flashcard Reviews Helped a Lot. I never had the same dedication and motivation for Korean.

“If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it wouldn’t seem wonderful at all.” - Michelangelo

If you’re really good at something you’ll know how hard it is to become that good, whether it’s programming, drawing, photography etc:

The process of writing this book is a good example of what I’m talking about. Writing a book is hard work—far harder than most people imagine, and you probably imagine it to be plenty hard. How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big

#2 Adjust your expectation: what is your language level goal?

I wanted to reach true fluency, a level that’s comparable to native tongue. “If you go, go all the way” and I had this all-or-nothing mentality. I would never be satisfied with conversational level. So during my initial high I bought a tons of books (a few books just for pronunciation) and scoured the Internet for the best possible resources.


Then of course, with Anki, I’d made like two million vocab cards and sentence cards. With subs2srs, I’d made a tons of multi-media elaborated cards like this source:


“Adjust as you go” never came across my mind. I wanted to become “fluent in three months or fluent forever.” Again, premature optimization. This is obviously my problem. I had unrealistic expectation, even with Anki. Or it’s precisely that I know of Anki that prompted me to have such high expectation. I thought I could do it because I had Anki. Yes I was correct about Anki being a tremendous help but I didn’t consider whether I should learn Korean in the first place.

Not everyone shoots for native-like fluency. Your language level goal will determine the breadth and depth of language coverage (number of vocab you need to know, how “fluent” you want to be etc). After setting your language level goal, adjust your workload accordingly. I’m not sure how practical the advice “adjust your expectation” is. You are either like my old self: scoff and say, “You don’t have what it takes. I do.” or rationalize your way out of seriously adjusting your expectation:

Only a small minority rated themselves as below the median, and when all eight dimensions were considered together it was found that almost 80% of participants had evaluated themselves as being an above-average driver. Illusory superiority

But if you were like me, who has high expectation and learning goals, consider the following:

#3 Balance efficiency and motivation

I was all for effectiveness and efficiency. Doing vocab cards was extremely dry. Yes I could add images, audio, change the css styling, but at the end of the day it’s still retrieval practice, and retrieval practice with an ever-expanding interval is very difficult.

Anki is for efficiency and effectiveness but not motivation

For example, consider the article from 3 Reasons Why You Should Be Using Memory Palaces:

Let’s saying I’m trying to learn the Spanish word for “to rent,” which is “alquilar.” I might simply imagine pouring some alkaline milk onto a taxi (the first things I thought of relating to “alquilar” and “rent”).

By placing this milk-taxi on top of a table in my college dining hall (the position I was at in my palace when learning this word), I give it an extra hook. When I hear the word alquilar in the future, I find myself involuntarily teleporting to this locus, often without even bringing the milk-taxi visual to mind.

I didn’t use memory palaces for vocab (the spatial sequence is not needed anyway), but I did use a lot of imagery to associate word’s meaning with its pronunciation. It was fine for the first hundred cards, but imagine doing this for 5800 cards for this 5800 frequency list.

This ties back to the idea of balancing efficiency and motivation. I was rushing too much because “I wanted to be fluent now.” One should balance between efficiency and motivation. I still believe that doing vocab cards is the most efficient way to acquire vocabulary, but not the best way to go about learning a language as a whole. Maybe this approach of “Anki vocab with imagery” is the most efficient and effective way for vocabulary acquisition, but I doubt anyone would say it’s the most interesting approach. On the other hand, watching shows and looking up words occasionally might not the most efficient way, but it’s more sustainable and, most importantly, more fun.


Yerkes and Dodson, Hebbian, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons


Time is a finite resource. Opportunity cost applies. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. Truth be told, in my case, I wish I’d never started learning Korean. Two years of hard work just because “kpop’s cool” was immature: I didn’t know what it takes to reach native-like fluency; I never have to use Korean in any situations; watching videos with subtitles is far easier and enjoyable. I wouldn’t let go of the sunk cost and kept on dragging for months before finally and officially deleting all my Korean decks. However, learning Korean did inadvertently bring me into the arms of SuperMemo: I had too many Korean cards, causing me to tweak the Anki settings, which ultimately led me to SuperMemo.

I don’t know whether you will or should continue or give up studying a foreign language now after reading this article. Make of it what you will. I just write about my experience so please take it with a grain of salt.

In my next article I’ll share the tools I’d used for learning Korean.