Aug 282008

I want to talk about SRSing today, because it’s the one item that is overemphasized and underutilized at the same time. Using an SRS is a process that demands some care and feeding. It’s sort of like having a sick plant. Some people will nurture the thing for a while, it’ll start to get big and beautiful, then it’ll get sick again, and they’ll say “Screw it!” and throw it out because they’re tired of the effort.

An SRS isn’t a magic box that will make you smarter without any effort at all. You need to put quite a bit of work into its care and feeding. But it’s not like you won’t get anything out of it. You’ll get exactly out of it what you put into it. And here’s where I think some people (myself included) make mistakes.

Don’t expect an SRS to teach you something you don’t already know. If you don’t understand something, putting it the SRS won’t help you understand it better. If there’s a bit of grammar you don’t get, SRSing it won’t help you one bit to magically get it. All the SRS does is shove old data in your face, ask you to process it, and tell it how well you can process it so it can decide when to shove it in your face again.

Be thorough, systematic, and strict in evaluating how well you processed the data the SRS just shoved in you face. I know I’ve fallen into the trap where I’ll pass a sentence full of kanji I can read (hey! I nailed all of the readings!), hit the space bar without thinking about what the sentence means, then wonder why I never did get the hang of the vocab in it later on. Now I try to chew over every sentence, make sure I get it in all of its little bits and chunks, and understand what it means. I’m also a lot more likely to rate a sentence as difficult than easy or just right these days.

An SRS will not directly improve your active vocabulary. An SRS will improve your passive vocabulary, so more words will eventually bubble up to your active vocabulary, if you use them! Your active vocabulary is usually only a fraction of your passive vocabulary. (And a small one at that.) So an SRS will only indirectly improve your active vocabulary. The way I see it, the SRS is tool to review what you already know, and keep it loosely in your brain, so when you see that grammar point or word you wanted to remember, you can say, “Oh yeah, that. I remember that.” I think what it does really well (if you use it regularly) is keep you from having to go back and re-review stuff all the time. Learn it once, then don’t forget it. But not everything you remember will go into your active vocabulary right away, so be patient.

Don’t just use one sentence to learn a concept. The way I approach a concept I want to retain is not to just stick in one example sentence and move on, but rather to stick in a bunch of them, to make sure that they’ll keep popping up over time. If there’s just one sentence, you may see it in 12 hours, then 4 days, then 2 weeks, then 2 months… that’s not much time to see it or to let you brain mull it over. But if you have more than that, your brain will keep encountering it, and say to itself, “This must be important. I’ll stick this someplace where I won’t forget it.”

Keep the sentences easy to review. Not necessarily easy, but easy to review. That means that they contain material I know to a certain degree, and I’m only including one or two new ideas to memorize at a time. A mistake I made in the past was to try to put whole dialogues in, in order to preserve context, and that’s just tedious. In those cases where I have to put in a tough sentence or two with a lot of new stuff, then I’ll add a LOT of what I call “support sentences” on separate cards that are short and sweet that cover a lot of the stuff in the bigger one, to make it more manageable when I see it. Over time, they’ll get separated, but in the first few weeks, they’ll generally be reviewed within a few days of each other, so they’ll reinforce the vocab or concepts in the tougher sentences.

Manage the amount of new material you add daily so you don’t get overwhelmed. I limit the number of new sentences I put in at a time. I want to put in 1,000 at a time, but I understand that that way madness lies. I usually never put in more than 50 at a time. 100 if I’m not going to put new stuff in for a few days… but that’s a stretch. The more you put in, the more you have to review, so for me the key is keeping the number I review per day down to a manageable number (for me) of about 250-300. As some cards mature, they’ll make room for new cards. The better your memory, the more room you can make for new cards. So it becomes a question of how well can you pace yourself, and how much SRSing can you stand per day.

While interesting sentences are always the best ones to put in, realistically it’s just not possible to do that all the time. This is especially true when you’re a beginner, and you’re just trying to remember the basics. There’s no sin in grabbing a bunch of dry, soulless dull sentences from a textbook, so long as they help you remember the grammar and such that you’ve been learning. Are they dull? You bet. But do they help you remember how to put sentences together? That’s the important function.

That said, if it’s not fun, it’s harder. Okay, I just said it’s not necessary for it to be fun, and I used to wholeheartedly believe that fun didn’t matter. I still don’t care either way, but if you need fun to keep you motivated, go for it. Whatever keeps you studying is the most important. Just make sure you’re picking good, grammatically correct examples.

The SRS isn’t everything. Go talk to people in Japanese. Read books/manga, surf the web, listen to podcasts, watch Japanese TV… go nuts. And when you run across something you want to remember, SRS it.

In a nutshell:

  • Don’t abdicate responsibility for directing your studies to the SRS. If you don’t know it, you won’t learn it by SRSing it. It’s a review tool, not a learning tool. Drop the doughnut and crack a book if you don’t know.
  • Don’t bite off more than you can chew at a time. n+1 for the win.
  • Overwhelm the enemy of forgetfulness with sheer numbers. Don’t rely on one sentence to teach a difficult concept, instead give your brain a decent number of examples.
  • Have clear and strict standards for what counts as a pass, and what counts as a fail. Be willing to call something “difficult” if it doesn’t flow off of your tongue and into your brain. Don’t forget what it means to “know” something cold. Be honest with yourself.
  • “Fun” isn’t as simple as “Am I having fun now? How about now? Now?” If you’re willing to put up with some un-fun things, you can make some good progress. (But if you need fun in your Japanese, then add fun as needed.)
  • The SRS isn’t everything. Read a book, watch a movie. It’s just one piece of the puzzle. Don’t lose perspective. It’s only one tool in the box.

Anyway, that’s my take on it.

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