Philipp Marxen

Mandarin Anki Challenge – 30 days 10,000 Anki cards

Mandarin Anki Decks Challenge: 30 days 10,000 Anki cards

Master Chinese Vocabulary with Spaced Repetition

It is March 31st 2024 and yesterday I started a Anki Mandarin Decks Challenge. In the next 30 days, I want to go through 10,000 new Anki Chinese cards. Some of these will have audio, others cloze sentences, others little dialogues and again others just words. Will say more about this later. 

Anki as a language learning tool

As a language learner myself, I’ve found numerous tools to assist with the process, but one that stands out is Anki, a spaced repetition software (SRS) that’s particularly effective for memorizing information. Anki’s system is highly regarded in language learning communities for its efficiency and customizable features and I will write a bit about the customization that I have implemented.

Mandarin is considered one of the most difficult languages around the world and there are shortcomings that might happen if somebody is deploying a pure Anki learning strategy.

What is Anki?

The program allows learners to create their own flashcards. Several cards form a “deck”. The free Anki software also provides access to a plethora of shared decks crafted by fellow Mandarin learners. By regularly reviewing these flashcards, I plan to consolidate my knowledge of Mandarin characters, vocabulary, and grammar points. Moreover, Anki’s algorithm adjusts the review frequency of each card based on my performance, optimizing the learning process by showing me information just before I would forget it.

Getting Started with Anki

When embarking on the journey of learning Mandarin with Anki, understand that this tool is designed to optimize your language skills through smart flashcards. Efficient and strategic use of Anki can significantly enhance your Mandarin vocabulary and character recognition.

Understanding Anki

Anki is a versatile flashcard software that relies on spaced repetition to aid memory retention. The algorithm adjusts to my learning pace, showing me cards I struggle with more often and vice versa. I find that this makes it highly effective for learning Mandarin, a language with thousands of characters and nuances in pronunciation. With Anki, I craft decks specific to my learning needs, whether that’s HSK vocabulary, common phrases, or character stroke order.

Prologue: Where I am at

Starting in Q4 2023, I have used Anki shared decks in several languages to systematically go through or get exposure to a core fundus of vocabulary that intermediate level learners should know. Doing so, I worked on Portuguese, French and Mongolian besides Mandarin. I initially also used shared decks in Spanish, but these were so easy and boring that I dropped that after a few days. More about that here in my article about improving several languages simultaneously.

My status in Mandarin

These were all my decks before I started the challenge yesterday. 40,000 cards in total. About a third in Mandarin and half in French, Portuguese and Mongolian and a few cards in Japanese and Indonesian. 

I studied a bit more than half of the Mandarin cards and finished one deck. 

Daily, I studied about 250 cards, roughly 70 new cards and the rest repetitions. About 50 new cards in Mandarin and 20 in all the other languages combined. 

Now, I uploaded several other decks. My goal is to basically work through all the Mandarin decks within 30 days. That might even be a bit more than 10,000 cards. My goal is to build a very strong foundation in Mandarin and then create my own decks. 

Things to note: 

  1. I don’t start from 0 but have a good foundation in Mandarin (self assessment: B1).
  2. Many decks have overlapping vocabulary, so the new words is much less than 10,000.
  3. Mostly, I do not learn new words, but I remember that I have come across that word or expression sometimes somewhere. 

What Chinese Anki decks do I have and where I am at there?

A collection of simplified Chinese decks

Mostly 2012 HSK 1-4 and Fruits and Vegetables, Food and Animals. There, I already went through most of the cards.
Now I added the 2012 HSK 5 deck. The HSK decks have spanish translations.

Simplified ChineseSingle wordsHSK syllabusSpanish translationSome have audio

Goal: I want to systematically repeat all HSK 1-5 words and also strengthen my Spanish-Chinese translation skills at the same time. The shortcoming is that this will not help me correctly apply these words, but I will hopefully have a strong confidence about all these words after 30 days. 

This is the current status of this combined deck. 4000 cards that I haven’t learnt out of 6000 total. That means 133 new cards per day in order to finish all these cards by end of this challenge. Plus probably there will be another 50-100 cards that I have to repeat. 

Looking into details, the 4000 new cards are mostly comprised by the 2012 HSK5 deck that I just inserted yesterday: 

3800 new cards are from that new deck. In other words, I finished the food, animals, vegetables, fruits, nuts, 2012 HSK1-4 decks that I worked on the last 3 months. And now it is mostly this new deck.

So, instead of celebrating my wins, a lot of sweat, blood and tears in front of me… but that’s not all: 

Dangdai Chinese

This is another deck that I just added to this whole mess… It is a relatively simple set but with a clear goal for me: Improving tones and being able to read traditional characters. This set is single words, but all with audio files in good quality and written in traditional chinese. The animation also helps recognize the tones: 

I just added this deck yesterday and went through 300 cards yesterday and today combined. Still, there are 4660 new cards still left. So 155 new cards per day if I want to finish these all. Actually, given that after two, three weeks a lot of repetitions will kick in, I will try to do 200+ cards for the first 10 days before a lot of repetitions happen, so that in 2-3 weeks I might be able to slow down to 150 or even a bit lower. Again, mostly these words are easy for me and I can mark them as easy which will lead these words to only come back in 20 days. 

So the last days of this challenge I will see an avalanche of words, basically there will be twice 150-200 repetitions to hit me in the last 10 days of this challenge from this deck alone and that assuming that all new cards will be marked as easy. Likely 20% of the cards will not be that easy and 250-300 card repetition will await me in the last 10 days in this deck! 

This deck has rather simpler characters and words that are part of sentences in other decks. So it is not that these words are completely new. Probably I have seen them in different context in other decks and almost all already in real life conversations, in youtube videos or podcasts. The beauty of this deck is that it hopefully helps me memorize the pronunciation and the longform characters. There is also a certain “Taiwan” feel to it, so it is particularly good for the Taiwanese version of Mandarin.

Jieyun is the word for the metro in Taipei. 

Zhong guo means China written here using traditional long form characters and the colors help memorize the correct tones. The audio is also rather good which helps memorize the tones correctly. 

I know many of these words very well, so I can mark them as easy. This means, the repetitions will only come in 20-27 days, as I have increased the intervals. Yet, as mentioned above, the last 10 days of this Anki experiment will see a lot of repetitions.

HSK 1-4 sentences deck

I have used this deck already in the last 2-3 months. The deck uses mostly vocabulary from HSK1-4 but also some additional words. What I like about this deck is that the vocabulary is presented in sentences that seem and feel natural and normal. But there are also a few sentences that just don’t make sense, probably because these are parts of larger sentences from some books and just having a meaningless first part of a sentence is a bit difficult. Another shortcoming is that the audio quality is not so good. But the speed is normal – in other words, the audio files are quite fast and that might help with comprehension down the road.

Total of 4368 cards. Still 2573 new cards since I already went through 1800 cards. My plan was to focus on these cards now, but now I have so many new decks. Daily, I should do 85 cards in order to finish all in 30 days. But again, since there will be a strong increase of repetitions, maybe better to increase the number of new cards initially. Still, probably 10% of cards need repetition in the very next days, as I will not be well aware and 90% of the cards will then be repeated after about 20 days.

I like that there are many idioms and nice saying, but not really Chengyus. It is really practical mini dialogues and sentences. 

Mandarin Chinese Christian Vocabulary

This is another new deck. I found it interesting and it is a shorter deck. Yet, most words here are new to me and I am not the most “christian person”. Plus, the issue with this deck is that it is probably from a certain christian group (sect?) and features that group’s specific vocabulary. Still, I find it interesting to widen my horizon and include Christian vocab into my language practice. 

Only 180 new cards left. So that will not be an issue. Probably I will try to finish this deck in the next days, so that there only will be repetitions, but no new vocab in the last 20 days of this challenge.

Major shortcoming is that there is only sometimes an audio file and that is not very reliable and the words are not presented in context, but as stand alone words.

ModernChinese Cloze

Another new deck that I just uploaded (and got from shared Anki decks). I like it a lot as it has blanks and full sentences. In other words, words are not presented in isolation but in their natural habitat surrounded by other words! 

So, 3216 total cards when I uploaded this deck yesterday and still 2916 new cards left for this challenge. That means, about 100 new cards daily. I will try to get more than that done in the first 10 days, in order to then have a bit more time for repetitions in the end of the period. 

This is a new deck but already my favorite deck. It has full sentences and very good audio files in high quality. There is a female and a male voice, both speaking Mandarin with a Taiwan accent. The characters are traditional characters – which I want to learn passively. I am not that interested in writing characters, but I want to be able to recognize both simplified and traditional characters. 

So far, the cloze sentences were rather simple and there haven’t been new words for me, but I am not very familiar with traditional characters, so it is a good practice to learn that and also get a better language feeling.

The answers are highlighted and the audio already has the full sentence. There is usually no presentation of the full translation in order to really focus on chinese-chinese. Another big advantage of this deck. In general, this is new, but already my favorite deck. There is only one drawback. They have included the ‘ER’ sound but it is completely unnatural when they pronounce that sound.

A simple, Pimsleur Mandarin Deck

This deck has less than 1000 sentences and it was very simple. Basically about studying Chinese and English, about Boston and Beijing and about work and food. But all with very very limited vocabulary. Hence, I finished that deck long ago and only will review and repeat about 5-10 cards per day. This has a somewhat stronger Northern Chinese accent. So good to add to the variety of accents, but the deck is not very interesting. 

936 cards and all are in the mature category. In general, there were 2-3 sentences with interesting grammatical structures and I remember there was a word that I sometimes forgot. “Engineer” – I won’t forget it any more.

Not that many repetitions in the next days, but in the last days of the 30 day challenge there will be about 15 cards to be repeated per day. That should be a thing of 1 minute. So not really an issue. 

Spoonfed Chinese

This is another deck that I just recently added to my Anki decks. My first reaction is shock. 7000+ cards means that this is the largest deck in terms of Mandarin. If I want to finish all these, I would need to go through almost 250 new cards a day. A difficult task…

The deck shows 60 as mature. In other words, so far I haven’t really broken it down in the first day into chunks that would allow me to finish all within 30 days. But do I really want to increase this to 250 a day now? The risk is that it might overwhelm me and that might lead to fatigue and I might drop this challenge altogether…. So maybe I do 100 cards first per day, and when I might have goten some decks out of the way, I will strongly ramp up this deck. But that is also not a real solution, as then I would have to ramp it up to maybe 400 new cards daily at a time when a wave of repetitions will also hit me. 

Other things to do

  • I will have to work about 5 hours a day. 
  • I might have to travel once or twice during the next 30 days. 

How could this all work?

OK,I will wrap it up from the above information: 

NameTotal CardsNew CardsNew Cards per day
Simplified Chinese collected decks60134034135
Dangdai Chinese49604660155
HSK1-4 sentences4368257385
Mandarin Chinese Christian vocab2261806 (but I will do more)
Modern Chinese Cloze32162916100
Simple Pimsleur93600
Spoonfed Chinese73837323250

The total is at 27000 cards and most of these are new. Almost 22000 new cards. That means currently, I only studied about 5000 Mandarin cards. Every day, I should do about 735 new Mandarin cards. There will be also about 150 reviews from existing Mandarin decks and 50 cards from other languages. In other words, it will be almost 1000 cards per day and that will require probably something like 2.5-3 hours daily besides 5 hours of other project work. I won’t have time for comprehensive input in other forms. So no Mandarin videos or reading. For 30 days, I think I can do without, but longer term, I am sure this is not the best way to study. One more thing: after the 30 days are over, over the next 30 days, there will be about the same workload as all the initial repetitions will hit. Only after about 60 days from now it will calm down and give me time for other things. 

Is that a good way to learn Mandarin?

I believe there are more efficient ways. It is likely better to involve tutors and real feedback loops. More speaking and language exchange will provide better grounding in real spoken Chinese and creating my own set of Anki cards will be then very useful.

Consuming more videos and podcasts in Mandarin as part of a comprehensible input strategy aspect would also be preferred probably compared to a pure Anki strategy. 

That being said, I have met plenty of people that reached a great level in Mandarin or other languages purely using existing shared decks with Anki. Something that I haven’t found with other learning apps. Plus, for me, it is my curiosity to see what happens in 30 days. 

This is a small experiment and maybe it is also of interest to other language learners. I will update probably once a week about my progress of the lack thereof. 

All the best!

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