One of my biggest frustrations with reading in one of the few foreign languages I’ve dabbled in is how long it takes to look up all the words I don’t know (which, admittedly, is a lot of them). It’s disruptive, and I’m likely to quit before I get all the way through an article or chapter or page.
For anyone learning Chinese, there’s now Chinese Prestudy, an Anki add-on that builds vocabulary flashcards for improved reading speed and comprehension. Ideally, you’re always studying words several pages ahead (hence the “Pre”) if you’re working on a book, so you’ll experience minimal disruption to your reading progress.
Whether you want to chat with the locals on your next holiday or stave off dementia later in life, being bilingual is unquestionably handy. If you're just getting started on learning a new language, knowing where to begin can be a daunting prospect.
The Anki flashcard system, which is used in developer Jack Kinsella’s Janki Method for learning code, essentially involves using spaced repetition flashcards that show you a word, phrase or image the minimum number of times you need to permanently retain it.
Before you can use the add-on, you’ll have to download Anki itself. Follow the instructions on the page for your operating system — and note that Chinese Prestudy is only compatible with Anki 2.1, so if you already have Anki 2.0, you’ll have to upgrade to the newer version.
Once you download and launch Anki, you’ll be asked to choose and confirm the interface language. This should be your preferred or native language, not the language you’re trying to learn.
If you’re new to Anki, there’s a long and detailed user manual, as well as introductory videos on YouTube, to help you navigate and customise the program. Once you have the basics down, you’re ready to install Chinese Prestudy.
- Go to Tools > Add-Ons in the menu bar.
- Click the “Get Add-Ons” button.
- Paste the code for Chinese Prestudy, found here, into the pop-up box, and hit OK.
- The add-on should appear in the Add-Ons list in the previous window and as an option at the bottom of the Tools menu. If not, restart Anki.
To use Chinese Prestudy, you’ll need text you can copy and paste — a news story or a book PDF, for example. As a complete beginner, I chose a BBC article about a story I was already familiar with: Serena Williams’ US Open loss. Once you have your text:
- Create a new deck using the Add function to house your flashcards. Otherwise, Anki will add cards to a Default deck. This is fine, though it’s helpful to have a specifically named set to study if you use Anki for other things.
- Go to Tools > Chinese Prestudy.
- Paste the text you’re trying to read in the dialogue box and hit Continue.
- The next window allows you to pick your target vocabulary size. I went with the recommended 3500 most common words, because why not? Hit Continue.
- Select the deck you created earlier, and hit Add Notes.
That’s it! To study, click on the deck name and hit Study Now. Each card will show the simplified character, pinyin, definition(s) and example sentences once you click Show Answer. Per Anki’s methodology, you’ll see the word again at a frequency that’s based on how well you already know it.
There's an age-old myth that says full-grown adults can't become fluent in a second language. And lately, the media has been pointing to a new study that seems to suggest as much, saying that the fluency age cutoff is around 18. But that's just not true.
The add-on currently only takes simplified Chinese characters as inputs, so if your chosen text has traditional characters, you’re out of luck for now. However, it does create traditional character cards for you to study. They’re suspended by default, so to unsuspend, go to the main Anki window on desktop, click Browse, and type “card:HanziTrad” into the search box. Select all using Ctrl+Alt+A (Command+Option+A on Mac) and press Ctrl+J (Command+J) to unsuspend.
There are companion Anki apps available for both iOS ($38.99) and Android (free). Chinese Prestudy only works on desktop, but you can sync the decks you create to your mobile app using a service called AnkiWeb.
Finally, Chinese Prestudy probably works best if you already have some Chinese language experience — or if you use it alongside other study methods.