Some Thoughts on SRS

Spaced repetition systems (SRS) have become hella popular in the last few years. When I was first checking out Anki in 2009, it was nearly impossible to find information about SRS anywhere but on the All Japanese All The Time blog or on the SuperMemo website. And even then, there certainly wasn’t a lot of hand-holding, and I had to figure out what I was going to do pretty much by myself. But today? They’re virtually everywhere. Duolingo attempts to use one, Memrise makes terrific use of it (though the user-made flashcards mixed with the algorithm make the whole thing clunky). Tons of other language sites have it embedded into their system, like FluentU. And even if you don’t plan on using one of these websites to learn, most language blogs emphasize SRS as the best thing since sliced bread.

To explain SRS briefly, these programs use an algorithm based on studies on human memory. It’s a flashcard program that presents you only with cards that you haven’t memorized yet, or ones that you have a hard time memorizing. So, for example, if you’re handed a card that says le chat, and you don’t remember that it means “the cat,” in English, then you grade yourself lower, and the program will have you review the card in only one or two days, rather than a longer period. If you keep getting the card right, and you keep giving yourself higher grades, then the card gets spaced further and further into the future. It’ll have you review the card in a week, then a month, six months, etc. etc., until the cards are spaced longer than your lifetime. And at that point, you can probably comfortably say that you know the item damn well 🙂

Personally, I use the program Anki, and I only use it with sentences, not with individual vocabulary or grammar items. I think this is far more efficient, and it teaches grammarn intuitively. You also gain a specialized vocabulary much quicker than with rote memorization.

So, what are my opinions on SRS? Well, I used to be an avid Anki user. I had over 2000 cards in my French deck. French was the language with which I used SRS most heavily and most religiously, and I still would say that French is my strongest language. A couple months off of French doesn’t do nearly the same damage as when I take a couple weeks off Spanish. But, my 2000 deck got deleted (agh!) and I had to decide whether to start over with a French deck. I tried a couple times, but after The Catastrophic Deletion, Anki just didn’t hold the same appeal.

I think Anki works great with languages you’re just starting. I began Spanish with Anki, and I worked up to about 1500 cards. In my experience, there’s a critical threshhold at about 1000 cards, when you stop struggling so much with the language, and when it really starts to become intuitive. At that point, though, Anki became boring again. It wasn’t fun anymore to define the words in a new sentence. I wanted to use the language, not spend an hour a day with my flashcard deck. So, I decided to quit Anki and only use reading and and listening to learn Spanish (with some pinpointed vocabulary study).

The results? I would certainly learn more vocabulary and learn it faster if I was still using Anki. However, what use is a learning tool if it makes you hate studying? By reading Spanish and listening to podcasts, Spanish is fun again, and I’m still learning and improving. And honestly, if you can keep up any sort of immersion environment, the environment itself will act as a spaced repetition system, and you’ll review vocabulary words regularly (especially with reading, which uses more words).

Dutch is a special sort of experiment, because I have barely used Anki at all. I did  have a 400 card deck from 2013, and I made around 200 cards this time around, but I wasn’t consistent, and I don’t think I hit that critical threshhold at which the SRS really helps you see results. I’m learning Dutch with only reading and listening, and it’s way more sustainable. It’s very important to recognize if a language tool is poisoning your studies rather than helping it. SRS is fantastic in theory, but if you hate it, then your entire endeavor is jeopardized!

Another negative of SRS is the fact that some languages can be difficult or tedious to input. Japanese, for example, uses the Microsoft IME (if you don’t have a Japanese keyboard). Making cards with full-on Japanese-with-kanji on the front, and then kana plus English translation on the back was exhausting. And then, with languages like Russian or Korean, you need to buy keyboard sticker or mark up your computer in some way before you can comfortably type with them. I flit around a lot in the languages I’m learning, so having to purchase stickers just to start SRS-ing becomes a roadblock. (If I was hellbent on Russian or Korean, though, the stickers are quite inexpensive, and it’s not that big of a deal– these are just my thoughts!)

If you love SRS or you’ve never heard of it and want to try it out, I recommend working with it until you have about 1000-1500 sentence cards. At this point, keep doing SRS if you still like it, but try to make the shift over to real books as the main source of your input. Living the language is a great motivator!

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