April 18, 2019 edit: Now rebranded as iKnow, the service is no longer completely free.
In a nutshell: Smart.fm is a free, web-based flash card service. If you crack the nutshell open to get a look at the details of how it works, though, it’s far better than that. Here, let the official Smart.fm video introduction explain what I mean.
Note: The video was taken down after the rebrand. They don’t seem to have a video anymore, but the company has a features page.
Smart.fm is not the only software based on spaced repetition. It does, however, have a few advantages over the other ones I’ve tried.
The first is that it’s web-based, instead of being a software program you have to install. That means you can access it from anywhere with a decent internet connection and reasonably updated browser software. Your progress data is saved on their servers — no need for frustration over the fact that the computer available to you has no clue how far along in your studies you are.
The second is just as wonderful, and can save you time. Since everyone’s data is stored on the Smart.fm servers, you have access to every flash card item anyone has created. These can be added to study lists you create. I recently created a Japanese vocabulary study list for terminology that’s been popping up in news articles related to professional Go, and most of the words I needed were already in the database. It’s actually simpler to add an existing item to your list than it is to create a new one, though not all items are created equally.
The service is very well-suited to learning vocabulary in another language. It seems useful for pretty much anything you can make physical flash cards for, too, though, with the added advantage of managing your study time for optimal learning efficiency.
A Couple of Downsides
It’s difficult to study the writing of kanji on a computer. This is a downfall that all computer-based kanji studies share, and Smart.fm is certainly no exception. The system throws kanji at you as rapidly as you can go through them. I find no fault with Smart.fm for this; it’s unavoidable. I mention it to be thorough.
No, the only real problem I have with Smart.fm is that there is currently no way to avoid having to transliterate hiragana to roman characters and vice-versa as part of your studies. While a fantastic feature for beginning Japanese students, someone who’s advanced well past the point of learning hiragana is really only hampered by having half of the quiz questions asking you to transliterate kimono back to きもの. I spent a good hour or two yesterday trying and failing to manipulate the Smart.fm item creation system to avoid this problem.
Any card with kanji in the vocabulary to be learned requires furigana input as well. While that’s a good thing, since most kanji have multiple possible pronunciations and some kanji compounds just have irregular phonetics, the system automatically includes hiragana-romaji quiz questions for all furigana. The furigana input you use when creating the flash card item can be changed to anything but blank. At first I planned to just use – in place of the furigana input, but I quickly realized that the result of that would be a whole lot of missed questions. When you have 5 quiz questions in a row ask you for the proper spelling of -, you’re gonna be in trouble.
Setting the meaning “side” of the flash card item to the furigana in an attempt to avoid English altogether crashed and burned as well. When shown a multiple-choice prompt for the English meaning of a Japanese vocabulary word, the correct answer is the only one displayed in Japanese. There’s no opportunity for learning there — you don’t even have to read it to know it’s right.
Attempting to create the flash card item with both “sides” in Japanese instead of one “side” in Japanese and the other in English worked almost as poorly. In my trial, the furigana I’d put in for the “meaning” of the word stood out just as horribly from the kanji-ridden meanings that took up all the other multiple-choice slots.
Fixing the Smart.fm system to allow advanced students to avoid transliteration exercises is the single biggest change I can think of to improve the Smart.fm students for Japanese students. I don’t know if the same is true of, say, Chinese and Russian language learners. I do know that Smart.fm — perhaps because the company that created it is based in Tokyo — already has a huge base in Japanese language studies.
If you’re a Smart.fm user and agree with me, please visit my post on their feedback forum and vote it up so they’ll pay attention.
iPhone/iPod Touch App
There is an official Smart.fm iPhone app. It is pathetically simple, compared to the web site quiz applications. It shows you one “side” of the flash card item and you have to match it to the other “side”. No kanji-furigana pairings, no sentence usage. And I’ve never seen it give me new material. Whether that’s on purpose or not, it’s only good for review at best, and for my purposes it’s practically useless. Goes right back to being great for beginners.