Kicking your SRS Habit

Kicking your SRS Habit post image

A SRS or Spaced Repetition System, is an ingenious way of memorizing new information.  Essentially, they remind you of something, like vocabulary, the moment you are about to forget it.  They are a key tool in rapidly learning and remembering new information.  If you have been learning a language for any length of time, you have without a doubt heard of or seen one in use in programs like Anki or web services like Memrise.

When I first discovered the wonders of SRS, a loaded up a massive list of N2 vocabulary and started chomping through it every day.  I drilled, drilled and drilled some more.  I have knack of being able to endure such things for much longer than most other people would and that’s exactly what I did.  Day in and day out, I drilled.

And I learned a lot of vocabulary.  I now have a great big dictionary in my head.  And that does speed a lot of things along for me.  I can comfortably read a good variety of material without having to reach for a dictionary, which is very encouraging and motivating.

But, I also had to barrel through a mountain of updates.  I think toward the end, I was digging through 200 cards/words a day or so.  And what happened if I skipped a few days for, say, vacation or something similar?  Those cards piled up.  And that was not something you wanted to see after you got back from vacation.

So, SRS is great and it can be leveraged to help you effectively learn a new language or just about anything for that matter.  But with everything in life, it is better used in moderation.  Eating chocolate cake all day is great, but it will also make you fat.  On the other hand, eating spinach for every meal will make you hate life.  You need to balance it out.

Some people recommend using no SRS at all, and instead use a variety of materials to gradually upgrade your language.  Although this may work for some, that seems like too big of hurdle to jump over.  Of course, only doing SRS might be just as bad as it is crushing for your motivation.

You can use SRS.  Indeed, you should use SRS.  But you need to follow a few simple rules:

1) Rule of 10%ish

Your total time doing SRS drills (with Anki, Memrise or something similar) should be around 10% tops.  SRS is a way of loading up the dictionary in your head so that you don’t have to reach for a real dictionary when you want to express yourself.

But, SRS usually just links English to Japanese, so you have to do a quick translation in your head to actually use it.  You want to avoid reinforcing the link between English and Japanese.  You should be linking the word to other Japanese words, and this can be done a lot of ways, but one preferred way is to simply use it and figure out on your own where it fits.

Another way is to expose yourself to a massive amount of material that has the kind of vocabulary that is right for your level.  At first this might be material that is meant for learners, like material from JapanesePod101.  But, eventually, you will want to graduate to native level material, like material from FluentU.

You should do both really, input and output exposure.  Input helps you learn, but output helps you refine and lock it in.  You need both to master the language and the sooner you dive into real native material the better.  There are a ton of materials that can help make this process a lot less painful, so there are no excuses.

You might argue that you can create cards in SRS that are linked Japanese to Japanese, that is a Japanese word on one side and a Japanese definition on the other.  These are handy, and something that I encourage you to experiment with, but you still need to see the word in different situations so you get a feel for it, and not just a definition.

2) Kill your Dead Weight with a Vengeance

Are you still drilling that same N5 level word, while you are starting on your N3 words?  You need to kill it off.  Don’t be afraid to drop old words or sets of words in favor of new words.  Hopefully, if you have been following rule #1, you are going to be exposed to those words through use and input.

Don’t drill something just to artificially keep it in your head.  If you aren’t seeing it outside of SRS drilling on a regular basis you either don’t need it, or you aren’t getting enough exposure.  In either case, keeping in your deck isn’t going to help you.

If you have leeches, words that for whatever reason just won’t stick, you need to pull them out of rotation as well and take a different look at them.  Instead of trying to beat it into your head, try a different method of learning it.  Create a different mnemonic, write it down in a vocabulary notebook, look up some sentences, do a Twitter search for the word.  Whatever you do, don’t keep it in your deck.  That is going to cause you frustration and heartache.

3) Make Liberal use of Ignore or similar function

We humans tend to be such pack rats, especially if it doesn’t seem to cost us anything to keep something around.  But, if there are some words in your deck that you know by heart, and you are still drilling them, it might be hard for you, but it is time to let them go.  Memrise has an ignore function that you can use, and you should use it liberally.

Also, if you are confusing two words a lot because they have similar English definitions, just ignore the one you know better.  I know, it’ll hurt.  It might feel like you are leaving a little bit of yourself behind, but it is best for your mental sanity.  If you do feel like you really need to know the difference between two words, you should post in the forums to have the course creator add the (not X) tag to the English definition so you don’t keep guessing it wrong.

You could also pull out the two words and add them to another list, ignoring them both in the main deck.  I know this is inconvenient, but that is kind of the point.  80% of the words you drill will just slip nicely into your head, but the other 20% or so just won’t.  Do some extra work that involves your brain like making another list, creating a mnemonic, writing it on your hand, tattooing it on your arm, etc… will provide a ‘hook’ in your mind for that word to latch on to.

4) Have fun

SRS can become drudgery really quick if you let it.  It is easy to pile it on and pile it on until you realize that you are in SRS hell, trying to catch up with your massive deck until finally you collapse exhausted and so sick of Japanese you never want to study it again.

So don’t do it to yourself.  Step away from e-devices for awhile, use it, get your fingers dirty and switch up your study patterns often so that your brain doesn’t fall asleep.  Keep surprising your brain and it will remember a lot more.

I personally go through binges of vocabulary where I’ll consume 500 or more words and then an immediate fast where I go do some reading or something.  It might not suit everyone but it seems to work pretty well for me.

And it is also okay to ‘cheat’ sometimes and use an iPhone app that just makes you tap the answers like the Memrise iPhone app.  The idea is to remind you of the definition.  You will still need some other exposure for you to really know the word.  Chances are pretty good that you will not be able to master a word just from SRS. You will need to use it, hear it, or do something else with it.  So go have fun with it.

How about you?

How much SRS do you do?  Do you over do it?  Let me know in the comments.

{ 3 comments… add one }
  • Sophie July 11, 2015, 4:45 am

    I would agree, especially right after the JLPT, it’s nice to have some fun.. My personal way of learning while not burning myself out is watching Japanese movies and listening to Japanese songs.. Here are my personal favorite films 🙂 –

    • Lucía July 12, 2015, 11:01 pm

      What I do to improve my Japanese is watching anime without subtitles, I also try to listen to a lot of songs in Japanese. I learned English that way, by playing video games and reading and listening stuff in english. My favorite anime is 名探偵コナン i also have watched デジモンアドベンチャー. I’m very far to being fluent in Japanese, but I hope someday I’ll get there, since I learned this language that way. Greetings!

    • Andy July 13, 2015, 7:42 am

      Hi Sophie, thanks for the link! I just subscribed to the daily kanji, grammar and vocab lists for N2 on that site as well; I reckon it will be a great addition to my study drill.

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