Learning Chinese with flashcards: Anki vs Pleco

Both apps have been around, but which one is the best spaced repetition flashcard app and why? The ongoing debate about the best flashcard system for learning Mandarin seems to point towards the dictionary app Pleco.

What both Anki and Pleco deliver:

  • Organize and review vocabulary with less effort
  • Relieve your brain with spaced repetition software that helps you to remember large quantities of words, while allowing you to focus on new or hard words
  • Download or import ready to use flashcard decks
  • Review “whenever, wherever”
  • Customize decks to your needs

What makes Pleco different:

Pleco is – as you probably already know – the most downloaded English-Chinese dictionary app for Chinese learners all around the world. It’s actually more than a dictionary, because Pleco provides a built-in flashcard system. If you’re already using the dictionary, it’s just a small step to create your own flashcards and use the Pleco app as an all-in-one solution for learning vocabulary.

What’s more, Pleco flashcards can be combined with the Pleco clipboard reader: it allows you to directly create flashcards from any given text, from the latest Chinese tech news to the Chinese version of Game of Thrones.

The flashcard contains the complete dictionary entry, including example sentences. Since it’s Pleco, audio is integrated and doesn’t need to be added. You’ll also find ready-made lists of HSK-flashcards categorized by level, both new and old HSK levels. And last but not least, lists of flashcards can be imported and exported between different users and devices. This means you can profit from flashcards created by other users and share your own with the Pleco learning community. The current US-price for this add-on is $9.99 for Android and iOS (singular payment).

What makes Anki unique:

You might have guessed: Anki is a flashcard system that’s not limited to Chinese. It can be used for different languages and subjects like medicine or history. The Android-version is better known as AnkiDroid and the iOS-version is called AnkiMobile Flashcards. The desktop- and android- version of the software are both free, the iOS-version costs 24,99$. You can find a number of knock-offs, but only one original which has been around since 2006.

Anki has lots to offer for Chinese learners. For example: you can create a set of Chinese grammar points with example sentences. But just as easy you can create flashcards for the 52 taiji moves you’re currently practicing. Anki is highly customizable.

However, you don’t have to do everything on your own. Anki allows you to import lists from the Anki community which offers all kinds of decks for and by Chinese learners. More than merely HSK-vocab, by the way, and not limited to English-Chinese. There is one ‘but’: not all of these community resources have been quality-checked, so some may contain errors. It’s also worth noting that sound can be included (you can add or record your own sound), but not all flashcard sets have sound.

How Anki and Pleco can improve your learning efficiency

These flashcard apps obviously won’t solve all your life problems. They won’t be of much help learning completely new words for example, or improving your conversation skills (I’ve discussed the sense and nonsense of flashcards elsewhere). That being said, Anki and Pleco are solid flashcard tools to organize your reviewing and keep track of things, especially when you’re starting to feel lost and new vocabulary just keeps adding up. Create the decks you need and both apps will help you to structure the reviewing process (and actually cultivate an effective reviewing habit which is easier said than done). “Difficult” cards will resurface again and again, while “the easy ones” won’t bother you for days. That’s where Anki and Pleco are most helpful.

Anki or Pleco flashcards?

Both apps take some getting used to and have their pros and cons. Much depends on which devices you are using and how much money you want to spend.

The reason many people prefer Pleco is because they are already using it as a dictionary. When you are looking up words for homework or when watching a Chinese TV-show, it’s only a small step (or sum) to create flashcards and review what you are learning. This learner used both apps, for example. At the end he clearly preferred Pleco:

I started out using Anki because I had heard of it first, and also because it was free (and I was a poor student). It was fine when I was just using one of the ready-made downloadable decks. But when I started learning words other than from decks, I found it too much of a hassle to add all those new words into Anki manually. Pleco let me add words much more easily, and I usually had to look those words up on Pleco first anyway, to get the meaning right. (Incidentally, Pleco does have a function that allows you to export your flashcards so that you can use them in Anki, but they don’t look as nice with the tones and don’t come with the pronunciation.)  So if you’re still deciding between the two and you’re serious about wanting to learn Chinese, my advice is – spend the US$10-15 and buy Pleco’s flashcard program. It’s easily the best money I’ve spent on learning Chinese so far.

https://discoverchinese.tumblr.com/post/63902496202/which-flashcard-program-pleco-vs-anki (October 13, 2013)

For me this sums up my own experience quite nicely. Although other learners may prefer Anki for the many options it offers. In case you’d like to create your own deck of grammar points for instance, or make a set of particular phrases to prepare for your Chinese oral exam. Maybe you prefer your own examples to those Pleco offers. Maybe you want to use your personal notes (this is also a Pleco feature). Once you’ve discovered how to make proper use of Anki, you can make any deck you want:

Other programs may have functions Anki lack (such as creating flashcards directly from dictionaries or automatically adding sentences), but no other program beats Anki when it comes to versatility. You can use it for anything you like, you can customize anything you like and if you aren’t a programming maven yourself, there will be others who might have already written the plugin providing the extra features you require.

https://www.hackingchinese.com/anki-a-friendly-intelligent-spaced-learning-system/ (January 8, 2011)

That’s also true.

I have noticed though, that in this ongoing debate the Pleconians have gained the upper hand. The main argument is convenience. Like I said before, Pleco is the “all-in-one solution”. Many people value the fact they can update their flashcards and review characters they looked up yesterday when they are on the bus or whenever they have time to kill. The Pleco flashcard system is straightforward, whereas Anki can be a bit overwhelming for first-time users.

Feel free to let me know what you think about Pleco flashcards and Anki. Have you tried other apps that work just as well? Please comment below.

Graded Chinese readers

Graded Chinese Reader 500 Words: Selected Abridged Chinese Contemporary Mini-stories
Graded Chinese Reader 1000 Words: Selected Abridged Chinese Contemporary Short Stories
The Rise of the Monkey King: A Story in Simplified Chinese and Pinyin 600 Word Vocabulary Level
The Sixty Year Dream: Mandarin Companion Graded Readers Level 1 (Chinese Edition)
The Dwarfs 小矮人 Xiǎo ǎi rén (HSK3+Reading): Chinese HSK Graded Reader
The Prince and the Pauper: Mandarin Companion Graded Readers Level 1,
Chinese Breeze Graded Reader Series Level 1(300-Word Level): Wrong, Wrong, Wrong!
Graded Chinese Reader 3000 Words: Selected Abridged Chinese Contemporary Short Stories

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