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This question is motivated by this Reddit comment where the author has had success learning Spanish via Anki:

I've been using Anki for about a year (the time it took me to reach C1 in Spanish from zero).

Assuming their self-appraisal is accurate, that's remarkable. However, it makes me wonder if Anki is more beneficial for Spanish than other languages. This might explain why I encounter some students saying Anki is amazing, while others saying it's too much trouble and not worth it (just read instead).

I'm at the stage in learning Chinese where problems arise from knowing too many words without being able to use them fluently. E.g. the other day I wanted to say "fence" in Chinese, and I thought up 栅栏, 围栏, and 篱笆, and didn't know which to use (turns out, they're all okay). And I've had problems with knowing there is a precise word to use (I've studied it), but not being able to recall it quickly, which hurts my fluency. Thus, I feel expanding my vocabulary (such as one typically does with Anki) would not help me, and could possibly make things worse. But maybe this problem wouldn't arise if I were learning Spanish, which is much closer to English (my native language).

Question: Does the usefulness of Anki vary between languages?

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  • The usefulness of Anki varies between people and it varies based on how you use it. For me it's most useful for memorizing very specific facts, e.g. what is the gender of a word, where do the accent marks go on this French word, what is the correct tone for this word, what is the correct Chinese character for this Vietnamese syllable, etc. But until you actually use those learned facts in a natural setting (e.g. by saying those words, writing those characters, pronouncing a whole sentence, etc.), the learning experience is incomplete, no matter how many times you've drilled it in Anki.
    – Brandin
    Oct 10, 2022 at 7:22

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Anki is a tool and it should be seen solely as that. The reason it works better for some people than others may have multiple reasons, I will exploit two:

  • Anki is not being used properly. There many ways to use Anki and that is language dependent. In the case of languages such as chinese, it could be good that for every note you generate multiple cards: e.g. script on one side and sound on the other, script and translation, script and transliteration, etc.. In the case of languages that use the latin alfabet, it is not necessary to have the last example I gave, hence the idea of adapting slightly to the language. Additionally, the frequency (interval modifier) the cards appear after the student fails them should be adjusted. Personally, I shoot to have an interval modifier that allows me to get right 80-90% of the cards, but that can be quite personal.
  • Anki is great to learn vocabulary and not so good to improve writing/listening. I am guessing that students that have trouble memorizing words will find Anki great and students that learn vocabulary with ease will find it annoying, useless and/or time-consuming.

In the end, each student should find several tools that allow the student to improve on all levels (writing, listening comprehension, grammar, etc.) of the language.

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Caveat: I don't speak Chinese.

That said, yes, it does. Consider a non-written language. That is, some language which is only used in spoken form. But that is probably not what you are really asking.

While there are fundamental differences in Chinese and Spanish, I would argue that the more important than difference between ESP and CHI is their relative difference from your own native language.

However, your issue here with the vocabulary that you have "learned" in Anki seems to be something else. Namely:

  1. You are unable to organically produce it at will in a real language use situation
  2. You are unable to disambiguate between use cases of the synonyms

I would recommend rephrasing the title of your question.

My guess is that you have:

  1. Over-relied on Anki – it is not a good substitute of practicing the language in a live situation.
  2. Mistook successful input-output association as successful vocabulary acquisition.

That is, you haven't actually fully learned these vocabulary items. This has probably happened to everyone who have used flashcard for vocabulary acquisition :)

My suggestion is to get use the language as much as you can in live situations. I understand that this is not always possible. I would also revise the the process of how you create your cards. What I find useful to counter the issue of not being able to produce an item I have "learned" is to use cloze deletion for phrases or sentences. It's not ideal but can help create a richer and wider semantic web which is what you need for fluency.

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