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I tried Duolingo for French and Russian, and dropped both after a week.

Part of it is that I have nothing invested in either language and was just curious, but I also think Duolingo itself is a bit flawed; it repeats way too much material and makes you jump through too many hoops. I was busy and it was a hassle.

I think if you're going to study a language, a textbook + Anki is the way to go. If you tell Anki you know something, the algorithm believes you and shows it to you less often so you have more time to focus on what matters. It doesn't make you translate "the black cat" five times in one sitting.

Duolingo uses spaced repetition. It's like Anki, except that Duolingo will give you some time after you successfully remembered a word or expression in an answer.

Don't know if that is your case, but if you get the "the cat is black" sentence and translate it wrongly, it assumes you are having difficulty with this expression and repeats until you get it right.

When you come to the point of commiting some words to you memory, it uses them to incrementally build grammatical concepts over there (like adjectives and verbs).

It's a pretty complex system going on behind that simple interface.

I tried using Anki, but creating/formatting index cards was a total pain (especially for Mandarin), and I didn't feel like doing a graphic design project for every character I wanted to learn.

If there was an easier way to auto-generate flash cards, I could see Anki being more interesting.

Gabriel Wyner has some good strategies for speeding up flash card generation in his Fluent Forever book and website. The primary one for me being a simple AppleScript that took a word and opened up several safari tabs with google image search, pronunciation (forvo.com), a few online dictionairies, etc. You could take the scripting further, but manually picking the best image to represent an idea adds a lot. Another big help was a script for Anki that bulk-generated text-to-speech for words (which for German was incredibly reliable using Apple's built-in voice fonts). Adding an audio component to vocabulary cards gives another pathway for memory to become established.

The unfortunate truth is that the mental connections that come from building your own deck is a good portion of the benefit that comes from using Anki.

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