Vocabulary. It’s like the meat and potatoes of language learning. The stuff that gets you from point A to point B; the bread and butter; the building blocks of communication; the ingredients of a fine cooked language meal.
But, learning vocabulary can sometimes be like eating a dry spinach salad that your mom made for you. You know the whole time that it is good for you, but that still doesn’t help the fact that it tastes like farm grass and takes you forever to chew it up and swallow it.
It doesn’t have to be that way my friend. We have this new thing called the internet, (or as some prefer to call it a series of tubes) and you can find some fancy tools to help you make your life a lot easier. So, don’t make the mistakes that others make, get smart about your studying.
#1 Mistake: Use Paper Flashcards
Back in the day, when you were studying a language, I bet you, if you were even a remotely good student, you made some flashcards. You studied them earnestly whenever you had free time, yet the words didn’t seem to stick in your head. And as punishment your language teacher made you sing, heads, shoulders, knees and toes 5 times.
It’s enough to give me nightmares just thinking about it.
The problem with these old types of cards is that unless you shuffled them thoroughly every time, you would be remembering the words in sequence. This is absolutely useless.
Even if you did give them a good shuffle, you were spending equal time on each card. So that meant a really easy card got the same amount of time as a really difficult card. This resulted in a bunch of wasted time on your part.
That’s no good; you’ve got places to go; tests to pass; you don’t need any of this paper flashcard junk.
Enter the Spitz-man
Back in 1939, a dude by the name of Spitzer started goofing around with a new learning technique called spaced repetition to help students in Iowa remember some facts. Unfortunately the Spitz-man was a bit of a boring chap and so nobody paid that much attention (besides it’s Iowa).
Later in the 1960s, Pimsleur (of language learning fame) came up with a slick way of remembering vocabulary using spaced repetition with their famous audio tapes. It essentially involved repeating vocabulary words at certain intervals to help you recall the words easily.
By 1973, Sebastian Leitner invented an all-purpose spaced repetition system based on flashcards. This is what a lot of spaced repetition systems of SRSs are based on today. You may sometimes here this referred to as the ‘Leitner system’.
The Leitner system accelerated learning by showing you difficult flashcards more often and easier flashcards less often. This allowed you to study a lot more efficiently because you weren’t wasting time recalling words you already knew.
Sebastian was also later honored by having a crab named after him in a major motion picture. The benefits that come with success!
How technology made Leitner Cool
Leitner’s system was a bit complicated and too geeky for the average Joe. Mostly because it involved having 5 boxes that you had to keep moving cards around in. So unless you wanted to tote 5 boxes of vocab cards with you everywhere you went, you were a bit out of luck.
Fortunately for the world, we got computers and with computers we got programmers that made our lives easier and cooler. Now there are many applications out there that are free and can help you unleash the power of the Leitner system without having to get a pocket protector.
Solutions to the Problem
One of the most popular and widely used SRSs is Anki. Available at http://ankisrs.net Anki has a lot of useful features and has the ability to download decks of vocab directly into the program. It also has a handy iPhone app that you can synchronize with so that you won’t lose your progress when you switch between the desktop client and the mobile app.
There is also another webapp called smart.fm. Available at http://smart.fm Smart.fm helps track your progress and also gives the whole studying thing a social aspect. It also has apps for the iPhone and Android that are absolutely free (in the states, I heard it’s a paid app in the Japan store).
The one drawback of smart.fm in my opinion is that it is multiple choice. This can be helpful, but I feel like it makes it a little bit too easy for you. The other systems force you to recall the word out of thin air. This is a lot more difficult and will help you to retain the information longer.
Supermemo, a shortening of “super memory”, has its own version of spaced repetition. I haven’t tried it personally, but some people swear by it. There is a commercial program available at http://supermemo.com. With this program you can create readings from online sources and then from those generate questions and answers (basically flashcards). This is done all within the program.
There is a free alternative to the paid application at http://supermemo.net This is a site put together with assistance from the European Union and has a lot of free language decks. Unfortunately, Japanese is not one of their main languages though.
That’s it for the first part of this series. I’ll be addressing some other mistakes people make over the next few weeks so stay tuned. In the meantime, I’ve got some action steps for you:
- Have you tried Anki, smart.fm, or SuperMemo?
- How were they? Have you ever made any decks for these? Share your favorite decks with us.
Let me know your answers in the comments below. I look forward to hearing from you and wish you ultimate success on the test!
EDIT: Since publishing this, smart.fm has become iknow.jp, a paid service. Still a pretty slick service, though.