Setting Up Anki for Foreign Language Vocabulary Fluency – The Fluency Project Way

By Dr. Monroe Mann, PhD, Esq, MBA, LLM, ME
Founder & Executive Director, Break Diving, Inc & The Fluency Project

Here at the Break Diving Fluency Project, Anki is one of the wonderful tools we use to help our students turbocharge their vocabulary building and retention.

Anki is both a web-based tool (FREE, available online) and a mobile phone app (~$25, available in most app stores).

Why do we use it?

a) It is a spaced-repetition tool, i.e. intelligent flashcards, but set up in such a way that if you show that you know a particular word, it may not show it to you again for a few years.  Yes!  It’s that awesome.  At first, the repetition is within minutes.  Then it becomes days.  Then weeks.  Then months.  And then yes, years.  If you consistently get it right, that card moves so far out that you won’t waste your time anymore studying it.  Why study a word over and over again that you have already mastered right?

b) It allows you to add your own vocabulary.  While yes, many people do not like Anki for precisely this reason, this is exactly why we at the Fluency Project use it!  We love that our students do not spend any of their precious time studying words they have already learned and mastered.  If you already know it, you don’t add it to your Anki!  It’s as simple as that!

c) It is free, downloadable on the web.  While most students end up paying for and downloading the app, having a free system that is SO AWESOME is wonderful, allowing anyone to benefit.

d) It offers wonderful statistics.  In other words, at the end of each week, and month, it shows you how much you studied–how long you studied, how many new words you learned, how many old words you reviewed, and most importantly, how many new cards are left!–for the key to success with Anki is constantly replenishing the trough!  In order to benefit, you have to be adding new words on a daily, or at least weekly basis (if you add them in bulk).

So, that’s the why of Anki.  Now for the how, i.e. how we set it up for use.  It’s pretty simple, if you know what you are doing.  I spent a lot of time making sure that the cards were set up properly for optimal learning, and for languages that use characters or non-western alphabets like Chinese, Korean, Russian, and Japanese, this is crucial, because the card setup is a bit more complicated.


  1. Visit and download the FREE software OR the premium phone app.  It is important that you download the software or app and NOT just sign up at ankiweb–ankiweb is not customizable in the way we want to use it.  Note: it is a LOT easier to set this up on your computer, and not the app, so the instructions below only refer to the desktop software.
  2. Launch Anki.
  3. It will probably require you to sign up for an account.  Do so.
  4. You will see a ‘default’ deck.  Leave that there.
  5. Click on “Create Deck”
  6. Type in the name of the language you are studying, as this will be the deck name.  Press okay.
  7. Click on the options dropdown to the right of the deck, and then select “Options”.
  8. A new dialogue will pop up.  Click on the options to the right of “Options Group”, and choose ‘Add’.
  9. Type: 10 new, 50 review
  10. In the “New Card” tab, type these options:
    Steps: 1 10  (make sure there is a space between the 1 and the 10)
    Order: Choose whichever you want
    New cards/day: 10
    Graduating interval: 1
    Easy interval: 4
    Starting ease: 250%
    Keep the option “bury new related cards” CHECKED
  11. In the “Reviews” tab, type these options:
    Maximum reviews: 50
    Easy bonus: 130
    Interval modifier: 100
    Maximum interval: 36500 days
    Keep the option “bury related reviews” CHECKED
  12. In the “Lapses” tab, do one thing:
    Change the “leech” dropdown from “suspend” to “tag”
  13. In the “General” tab, make no changes but verify that it’s: 60, answer timer UNchecked, audio is CHECKED, and when answer shown, audio is CHECKED
  14. Leave the description tab empty.
  15. Click “Okay”
  16. IMPORTANT: This deck now will introduce 10 new cards per day, and present 50 reviews.  I suggest that you create two additional option groups: “15 new, 75 review” and “5 new, 20 review” too.  This way, if you want to study more rigorously, or less rigorously, you can switch easily, without having to mess up the decks.  To do so, just click ‘add new options group’ again, and change the name, the number of new cards, and the number of reviews.  And make sure the other options are set up as outlined above.

NOTE: For languages that are easier to write, like French and Spanish and German, I suggest you start with “10 New, 50 Review”.  For hard-to-write languages like Chinese, Korean, etc, I recommend “5 New, 20 Review”.

Now, time to set up the actual cards.


  1. Click on the deck you want to add cards to
  2. Click on “type” in top left
  3. Click “manage”
  4. Click “add”
  5. Choose: Basic (& Reversed Card)
  6. Type the name of the language you are studying.
  7. Click “close”
  8. Now make sure that the language name is in the box marked “Type” in the top left
  9. Make sure that too that the deck in the top right is the language you are studying.
  10. Next, click on ‘fields’ in the top left
  11. You should see ‘front’ and then ‘back’
  12. Click ‘Add’
  13. Type “Audio”
  14. It should go to the bottom of the list.  If not, click ‘reposition’
  15. Click ‘okay’
  16. Now, click on “Front” and then click “Rename”
  17. Rename it as “English” (or whatever your native language is)
  18. Click on “Back” and then click “Rename”
  19. Rename it as whatever language you are studying.
  20. Now, click on “Cards”
  21. Select the Card 2 tab
  22. Click “Add Field”
  23. Choose “Audio” in the drop down.
  24. Click “Close”
  25. ADDING CARDS: Great news!  It is now all set up, and you can start adding cards.  How?  Easy: Just type in the translation in the first field, the target language in the second field, and then in the third field, press the little red bullseye in the menu to record the audio.  Leave the ‘tags’ blank.  Then click “Add!”  Keep doing this over and over.  Now, skip down below to learn about the statistics, and how to use them.


  1. The directions are all the same as described above, except that you will name the fields: Front, Back, Audio
  2. ADDING CARDS: Adding cards for you guys is a bit more complicated, because you have to create two cards for each word or phrase.  For example, me studying Chinese.  I need one card that has the English on the front, and the transliterated pinyin on the back, and then another card that has the pinyin on the front and the Hanzi Chinese characters on the back.  Why are two cards needed?  Because it’s the only way you can separate the three aspects of these non-traditional alphabet words: a) the translation, b) the pronunciation, and c) the characters/writing.

For example, for Chinese:

Card 1: English and the Pinyin, and Card 2: Pinyin and the Hanzi.  But you have to do it like this:

Card 1 Front: “Say Pinyin: Hello”
Card 1 Back: “Say English: Ni(3) Hao(3)”
Card 2 Front: “Write Hanzi: Ni(3) Hao(3)”
Card 2 Back: “Write Pinyin: 你好”

For Russian:

Card 1 Front: “Say Russian: No”
Card 1 Back: “Say English: Nyet”
Card 2 Front: “Write Cyrillic: Nyet”
Card 2 Back: “Write Transliteration: Нет”

You can do the same for Arabic, Korean, Japanese, etc.  If you eventually get to the point where your command of the characters or the pronunciation is so perfect, you can just make one card for each word: the front with the English, the back with the Chinese, Russian, Arabic, etc.

Finally, the Statistics (THIS IS SUPER IMPORTANT)

Now, once you add cards, you will (I hope) start studying them.  But remember, cards don’t get added by themselves.  By selecting a deck, and then selecting the statistics, and scrolling all the way to the bottom, you can see how many UNSEEN words remain.  These will be the black part of the pie.  If that black part of the pie starts to disappear, it means you are running out of new cards, and need to add more.  If you don’t see any black at all, then you’ve already run out.  Neither situation is good!  You need to regularly check these statistics and replenish regularly.  If you do not make it a habit to continually add cards, this is not going to work for you.  My personal standard is to start adding cards again whenever I get down to 15%, or to try to add 10 new cards before each session.

The other statistics are as equally helpful.  Under ‘Review Count’ you can see a helpful chart showing how many days in the last 30 days you have studied.  If there are not many bars there, that’s another big problem.  At the very least, you should have three bars every week, or about 12 bars for the entire month… MINIMUM!

It’s these two charts that our students post weekly in the classroom, to show their progress.  Every week, we expect to see three bars for the week, and more than 15% for unseen cards.  If not, then it means you’re slacking.

Next steps
A. You can use Anki on your own to improve your vocabulary, or
B. You can come join us at the Fluency Project, here at Break Diving!  Want to read more about it?  Click here, and scroll to the bottom of the post: Proof That Your Foreign Language Vocabulary Probably Stinks — Take This Quiz!

Come practice your foreign language skills in our free language chat:

NOTE: we are a new organization, so some of the rooms are not very busy yet.  But the more of you who join, the more quickly things will get hopping! 😀

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