Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Farewell to Flashcards

So a couple of months ago I suddenly took a step I didn't really expect: I deliberately abandoned Anki.

I've been using Anki flashcards for around four years now, and paper flashcards for several years before that. I dutifully spent an hour almost every day going over first individual words and characters, and then (once I got better at knowing how to learn things in a way that suited me) entire phrases. It wasn't usually a solid hour of drilling, mind; I would end up needing to have quick breaks that spaced it out.

I think the flashcards really did help with cementing some key characters, words and phrases into my mind. I don't regret it.

Over time, though, the number of flashcards grew steadily into the many thousands, and I found it increasingly difficult to motivate myself to spend that hour. This was partly psychological, and partly down to practicalities.

At one stage I'd been able to comfortably schedule my Anki into my normal routine. I'd do them in quiet moments in one of my reception-style jobs. I'd practice flashcards over breakfast, or during my post-tea cuppa. When I went to Japan, I ended up waking early a lot of the time, and I could readily do an hour of flashcards at 6am, get breakfast, shower and head to school; or else I'd be unable to get to sleep in the heat, so would sit up late to practice. When I came back, I was unemployed for nine months (bar a bit of freelancing) so it was easy enough to maintain my flashcards, even though I was living with my parents so my mornings and evenings were not solitary.

Eventually though, life built up. I got a new job with less time in the morning, and busy enough to keep me occupied with actual work (which I prefer). I have fewer free evenings, partly for social reasons: as most of my friends now live hundreds of miles away, I have weekly Skype meetups and lots of emails, rather than simply going for a coffee. My new flat was too noisy to comfortably concentrate on drilling languages.

More importantly, a whole bunch of stressful things happened in my personal life that wrecked my focus and made it increasingly difficult to face going through hundreds of flashcards every day trying to memorise language. I wanted to do escapist, light-hearted things that didn't require much brainpower. There were a few periods when I didn't touch Anki for days and eventually came back and slowly toiled my way though the backlog.

I was growing resentful of Anki. I was also getting stressed when I did other things, like Skyping friends, in the knowledge that Anki wasn't getting done and it was getting late and I'd have them all to do tomorrow. I had quite a lot of nights where I stayed up much later than I should purely in order to get through my Anki. And then I noticed something definitely bad. When I was sitting down to go through my Anki, I realised that I was quite explicitly doing that instead of actually using my languages.

We tend to compartmentalise things in various ways. There's work, and housework, and social obligations, and leisure. There are different kinds of leisure too. Naturally, I couldn't spend time and energy on Anki in place of my job, or food shopping, or visiting a friend, so it had to come out of my leisure time. But I still needed some of that leisure time to chill with friends, or go running, or read something undemanding. So when I was picking Anki, I was picking Anki over reading my Japanese novels, or doing translations, or watching Chinese TV shows, or writing to my L2 friends.

I was sacrificing the chance to use my languages to do the things for which I started learning the languages in the first place, improving them in the process, in order to make sure I got my language drill in.

And that's when I stopped.

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