Tag: memory


03

Nov 2011

How SRS Works (video)

Just saw this great video on SRS (spaced repetition system/software), which provides an illuminating visual explanation:

> The video shows a grid of factoids, where new factoids are being presented at a constant rate. Over time, the factoids begin to fade to black… the closer they get to black, the closer they are to being forgotten. However, if they’re “recharged” by being relearned, they advance up a tier (represented by the color and number of the cell). The higher the tier, the longer it takes for the factoid to be forgotten. If at any point, a factoid gets completely forgotten, it is sent back down to the lowest level.

Be sure to click on “Show more” under the video to see the full explanation.

Via @ajatt.


06

Jul 2010

Chinese Characters: not so magical

Mark over at Pinyin News had a great rant the other day reacting to a New York Times article which exoticized Chinese characters.

It’s funny, when you first learn anything about Chinese characters, you learn that they’re a “writing system.” Fair enough, seems simple, right? But you don’t have to study long before you’re bombarded with all kinds of ideas about how the characters are the language, or the characters are the essence of the culture, or the language could not exist without the characters.

And Mark is, of course, completely right to say that it’s all nonsense. He declares this so vehemently and at such length that the ordinary person might start getting suspicious, but it’s all true.

木

photo credit: DigitalFreak

Language is a fundamental part of the human condition. Writing is a technology. It’s an important technology, with a tremendous influence on culture and human civilization, but it’s still a technology. As Wikipedia puts it, “writing is the representation of language in a textual medium.” In human history, this representation always follows the representation we call speaking. Theoretically it shouldn’t have to; that’s just the way it works in practice. (If you don’t like it, turn to sci-fi.)

Could Chinese exist without characters? Yes. It existed for a long time before characters came along. I’m not advocating the abolition of characters; I think that will work its way out naturally in good time (accelerated by the internet). Mark feels quite strongly about this issue, though, which you can tell by reading the original article.


One of the comments in response to Mark’s post caught my attention:

> Nongandwong said,
July 2, 2010 @ 8:55 pm

> Wonderful post, pity lots of people will have read about magical Chinese from that NYT article.

> What they should have done is get her to try and explain the etymology of the character and how it relates to the meaning. This was the character that made me give up looking for character etymologies because the explanation made less sense than just memorising the strokes!

I had to laugh out loud when I saw this comment, because I had exactly the same experience myself. For me, the process went like this:

1. Try to learn characters by rote, as instructed by teachers. Hate it. Feel strongly that there must be a better way.

2. Discover Heisig’s method. Enjoy that breath of fresh air. But then start to doubt a little.

3. Try to abandon Heisig’s method in favor of learning actual character etymologies. Fail miserably, again and again and again (but starting with ).

4. Return to Heisig, but with a healthy longing for actual etymologies (except when they’re a hopeless, ridiculous goose chase).

For those of you that are wondering, the etymology of goes something like this (courtesy of Wenlin):

> 你 (nǐ): From 亻(人 rén) ‘person’ and 尔 ěr ‘you’.

> Etymologically 你 nǐ is a “colloquial variation” of 尔(爾) ěr; the two sounds nǐ and ěr both derive from ancient nzie (–Karlgren).

OK, so now all we need is something for “尔(爾) ěr” that makes sense, and we’re done, right?

> Which came first, 尔 or 爾?

> Wieger cites this explanation for 尔:

> “从入丨八, 会意。八者气之分也。”

> Then 爾 came from 尔 (phonetic), 巾 ( = 两 a balance) and 爻爻 weights on both sides, to give the meaning “symmetry, harmony of proportions”.

> Karlgren (1923) says of the form 爾, “…original sense and hence explanation of character uncertain”, and considers 尔 an abbreviation.

> The pronunciation was once something like nzie. This produced both ěr and nǐ, the latter written 你 nǐ, which is the modern word for ‘you’. Now 尔 is only used in a few adverbs and archaic expressions, and in foreign loan words.

Riiiight… This is the word for “you,” also the first character in the basic Chinese word for “hi” (你好), which is likely the first word you’ll ever learn. I guess it does make rote memorization look pretty good.


23

Jun 2010

Misgivings about SRS

Earlier this year the Global Times did an article on using SRS (spaced repetition software) technology to “Learn Chinese in a flash.” The journalist interviewed both me and Dr. Orlando Kelm about the issue, but most of what we said didn’t actually make it into the article. I’m going to use the content of that exchange to finally address my misgivings about SRS.

My SRS misgivings are grouped into three main points below, and I’ve added in some of Dr. Kelm’s input, with his permission.

SRS is a way to enhance your language studies, not a substitution for them

Back in the good old days, we students used to take our vocabulary lists and make flashcards out of them. As we amassed stacks and stacks of these flashcards, it was hard to systematically review them properly, and to keep track of which stacks of cards had which vocabulary. SRS completely solves this problem with a tidy little review algorithm and a feedback mechanism which you interact with as you review your vocabulary. This is great. Those of us who were too lazy to create stacks and stacks of flashcards can now feel vindicated; we will never have to, because technology has saved us from all that arduous flashcard management.

The problem, however, is that SRS is sometimes over-emphasized to the point that it almost seems like a “language acquisition method.” Especially for the analytical-minded, it can be easy to get lost in the efficiency of the review system and all the pretty stats, forgetting that memorization of vocabulary is only one part of language acquisition. If the SRS-obsessed student is not getting plenty of natural target language input and speaking practice, he’ll end up the linguistic equivalent of the guy at the gym with bulging upper body musculature but pencil legs.

Dr. Kelm warns against the “one method for everything” approach as well:

It seems like every time we discover something that is good in one area (e.g., SRS that helps in aiding rote memorization) the tendency is to try to apply it in every other area (e.g., speaking a foreign language). I have seen the same thing with lots of second language theories. For example TPR (total physical response) is a theory where people are supposed to physically use their senses while learning a language (actually open a door when saying “I open the door”, actually taste the food when they say “I am eating a banana). Great, TPR may be OK in some instances, but then people try to apply TPR to every aspect of language learning. It just gets crazy after a while. To me the same issue comes up with SRS. Just because it is good for rote memorization, doesn’t mean that it will be good for all aspects of language learning.

Dr. Kelm reminds us about what else is important that is outside the realm of SRS :

The biggest issue here, as related some of the limitations of SRS, is that of input vs intake, schema theory, and scripts. A gigantic part of language learning is related to CONTEXT. I’m sure there are times when you can recall the exact moment when you heard a new phrase in Chinese, learned a new word, or did something in another language.

For example, last month when I was in China a seller came up to our car and asked my guide if he wanted to buy something. All he said to the seller was “mai bu qi” (I can’t afford that). For me it was the perfect moment because I saw how a native speaker reacts to the sellers. Where I would have just said “bu yao” or “bu yong“, there was something cool about hearing “mai bu qi“. The phrase stuck in my mind and I’ll be able to use it from here on out. This is a great example of how context affects our learning. The more we can create context for learners, the better we retain the foreign language. Note that this is not related to frequency of occurrence or frequency of review (principles of SRS), but more to the impact of the moment. SRS doesn’t necessarily take this feature into account.

Second, language learning also happens in chunks and people learn these chunks in scripts that we follow. For example, if you go to a fast food restaurant to make an order, at some point the cashier will say “Is that for here or to go?” You know the pattern, you expect this question to come up, and so you are prepared to answer it. Even if you don’t hear the question exactly, you can still guess at what was said. It’s part of the “script” that we all follow when ordering fast food. When language learning relates to these chunks and scripts, it helps to make things stick. Note again that this is not related to the frequency of occurrence and isn’t where SRS will shine. (I should probably add that ChinesePod does a really good job of creating short dialogs that help provide this context and simulate these scripts. They recycle vocabulary in various contexts well.)

SRS and the DIY factor

Creating flashcards is a meaningful activity in itself. The act of creating the cards, with each word carefully scrawled by the student (and maybe even a picture or two!) contributes to the learning. Anyone who has ever used flashcards can tell you there’s a big difference between making your own and buying pre-made flashcards.

Ideally, the words and sentences added to your SRS come from your own experience, or from the material you are personally interested in studying. This makes the learning more personal and the results more satisfying. Many students, however, are reviewing ready-made vocabulary lists, pre-loaded into the SRS. This type of review isn’t worthless, but because the learner’s degree of involvement is so much lower, each word’s “memory imprint” is much fainter. It’s also much easier to simply toss aside and forget a digital “stack” of flashcards that took 3 seconds to download, compared to a personalized list one has invested time and effort into.

Using SRS well is a skill

This is the part that no one really expects, because it’s nice to think that technology has solved our problems. The truth is that using SRS effectively is an entirely new skill. I mentioned already that ready-made decks are less likely to be effective, but even an active learner carefully looking up new words and adding them to SRS (with some context) can easily go wrong.

I’ll give you a personal example. I was reading a Lu Xun story, and it contained a fair amount of vocabulary with which I was unfamiliar. After looking up the new words, I dutifully copied them into Anki (my SRS client of choice). There was a fair amount of vocabulary just from that Lu Xun story. Over time, I found that the Lu Xun vocabulary just wasn’t sticking. The words were semi-archaic, and I had virtually no chance of running into them in my modern daily life in Shanghai. I found they were useful only for reading Lu Xun (or possibly other Chinese literature of that era), and yet I wasn’t spending a lot of time reading that literature. The vocabulary was effectively “clogging up” my SRS review sessions as I had to repeatedly review those words, which meant I had less time to spend on review of more useful vocabulary, and I was rapidly losing motivation to use SRS altogether. When I found myself going a week or more without doing any review at all, I eventually realized that I had effectively killed my review sessions and needed an “Anki Reset.”

Including too much obscure “recognition only” material is not the only pitfall; other typical mistakes include lack of sufficient context, overly long sentence examples, and insufficient consideration of what is actually useful in one’s active vocabulary. It’s the memorization of vocabulary which one is able to actually use in conversation that is the most satisfying, after all. Failure to accomplish this essentially amounts to “vocabulary hoarding,” not proficiency in the target language.

Since using SRS properly is a skill which must be practiced, it demands time in itself. Learning to use SRS well and getting into the the habit of using it will take time, which could otherwise be devoted to listening or speaking practice. Is it worth it? For some, the answer is an unabashed yes, yes, a thousands times YES! but for many students the answer is not so clear-cut.


25

Mar 2010

Anki Reset (sometimes it’s necessary)

I’ve written before about SRS. I stated that I had my “misgivings” (a post still unwritten), but that I think it’s a good technology which will eventually become more pervasive. In the meantime it’s very DIY. It’s hard for most of us to like, and it’s easy to get it wrong.

Yes, it’s easy to get wrong. Khatzumoto frequently tells us about some of the mistakes he’s made and how to avoid them, and John Biesnecker has some tips as well. I’d like to share one of mine.

The mistake I made was big enough to destroy my enthusiasm for SRS and Anki (a great program). In fact, I’ve come to the conclusion that the only way forward, short of abandoning SRS as method, is a total Anki reset. Deleting all your SRS data is something you don’t ordinarily want to do (it builds on itself and evolves over time), but in my case I have no choice.

I made two major mistakes:

Mistake #1: Adding word lists

Yeah, this is kind of a newbie mistake, but I wanted to learn lots of obscure country names, so I just entered them all in. Only problem is I never talk or write about those countries in Chinese. I don’t even like politics or geography. I was entering data into Anki, which was dutifully passing it on into a “memory black hole.” And then I kept having to review those names over and over again, and then forgetting them.

Lesson learned: Don’t enter language you’re pretty sure you’ll never need.

Mistake #2: Adding all unfamiliar words in my readings

Around the time I was getting more enthusiastic about Anki, I was also reading a lot more Chinese literature as part of an effort to sophisticate my Chinese. So I added a bunch of semi-archaic vocabulary from Lu Xun stories. Mistake!

The problem was that these were words I would basically only see in writing, and many of them were fairly easy to figure out in context. Driven to totally master that vocabulary, I was trying to force into my active vocabulary quite a few items which really had no business being there. They would have been perfectly fine just chilling in my passive vocabulary, and simply continuing to read more would reinforce them enough.

Lesson learned: Don’t enter language you’re pretty sure you’ll never need.

What I’m doing now

So after learning my lessons, I’ve wiped my Anki data clean. Now the data I enter is vocabulary I can imagine myself actually using. This does wonders for my motivation to use Anki, becomes reinforcing these fun and useful terms puts me that much closer to better speaking ability. Rather than (potentially) improving my reading speed, I’m working on enhancing my human interactions. That is way more motivating.


06

Aug 2009

The Spaced Repetition Party

So you’re at a party. It’s not some crazy kegger, it’s just one of those social mixers you go to every once in a while to meet people. A homely guy walks up to you and introduces himself as Craig. He’s a financial consultant. He soon moves on.

Photo by Wallie-The-Frog

A few minutes later, he walks up again, and asks, “Remember me?”

“Uhhh, Craig, right?” you reply.

“Yes,” he says. “And what do I do?”

“Uhhhh,” you say intelligently as you draw a blank.

“Financial consultant!” he says snippily and walks off.

A few minutes later he’s back again. He walks up to you and looks at you. “Hey, Craig the financial consultant,” you say. He nods and moves on.

He shows up again an hour later, and then one more time before the end of the event. He’s satisfied you know who he is.


The scene described above is a fictional dramatization of how spaced repetition works. Just like you forgot unmemorable Craig’s profession only 5 minutes after meeting him, you forget most things you learn. That is, unless you’re reminded. And it turns out that there are optimal times to be reminded, and that the more you’re reminded, the less often you need to be reminded. This is the “spacing” of “spaced repetition,” and its rules been pretty well figured out.

The famous Pimsleur language learning system is based on the principle of spaced repetition. It was designed for a time when static audio recordings were cutting edge, however, and the latest adaptation of the spaced repetition principle is spaced repetition software (SRS), which has been refined quite nicely in recent years by a Polish man named Piotr Wozniak.

With SRS, you “join the party” by starting up the software. You’re presented with various “cards” or “facts” which you want to remember. Some of them, like Craig, aren’t particularly memorable, and when they come up again, you may falter. No matter; SRS is infinitely patient. The more you have trouble with a fact, the more often it shows up in your review cycles, until eventually you get it down pat and it gets spaced out to the point where you hardly ever see it again.

Sound like fun? In my experience, the idea of efficiently offloading the work of memorization to a computer program tends to appeal mainly to programmers. I was introduced to it by programmer friend John Biesnecker, who was seduced by SRS evangelist and blogger Khatzumoto (also a programmer). I’ve seen another programmer friend, Mark Wilbur, go fanatical about SRS. Meanwhile, linguists and language teachers tend to go, “meh.”

Photo by Tom Lin

Personally, while I have my misgivings about SRS (a topic for another post), I think it’s a fantastic concept. The idea that, through science, we can understand how we forget, describe it in algorithms, and then systematically counteract it through software and learned behaviors is nothing short of amazing. The problem is that most of us aren’t willing to simply plug in and “trust the machine.” We prefer to live our lives unplugged… or at least not to be ritually spoon-fed our knowledge.

Like any innovative new form of technology, SRS has its early adopters. Those people swear by SRS, daily executing their spaced “reps” with the leading software: SuperMemo, Mnemosyne, and Anki. At the same time, though, something bigger is happening. Behind the scenes, SRS methods are infiltrating other learning software, such as Pleco (a popular Chinese dictionary). Although perhaps not completely obvious, SRS methods are a cornerstone of innovative Chinese character writing service Skritter. Cerego, the company behind another learning system earning lots of praise, Smart.fm, describes itself thusly:

> Based on years of applied research, Cerego has built adaptive, web-based applications that accelerate knowledge acquisition. Cerego’s patented core learning engine is driven by algorithms that generate optimal learning schedules for discrete chunks of declarative learning content, called “items”. This intelligent scheduling is achieved by gathering metadata on individual user performance and modeling memory decay patterns at the granular level of every item.

Guess what? It’s SRS.

The fact is, the average person doesn’t need to learn to change his habits to adapt SRS. As various companies and developers realize the value that SRS integration offers any kind of learning system, they’re integrating it into their existing products and services. It’s starting to appear in more and more products we already use. In the next few years, you can expect the slower ones to join the party as well. SRS is coming to you.


04

Aug 2009

Making Family Vocab Personal

Learning Chinese family relationship words is a huge headache. It’s way too complicated and tends to come far too early in a typical Chinese course. Really, who wants to memorize the word for “father’s older brother’s wife” before you can even handle a basic conversation?

The reason Chinese family relationship terms are so complicated is because they can take into account (1) relative age, (2) mother’s or father’s side, and (3) blood relative or relative by marriage. In English, on the other hand, if I say someone is my uncle, none of those factors are addressed. The man could be my mother’s or father’s brother, or maybe brother-in-law, and there’s nothing about relative ages at all.

So for these reasons, learning a bunch of different terms to make all these relationships 100% clear feels entirely unnecessary to a lot of students. To be honest, it is unnecessary for them. Unless lots of their conversations in Chinese are going to revolve around family members, it’s just not that important.

I realized this fairly early in my studies. I had learned the family terms well enough to know which were male and which were female, but I didn’t bother with all the other distinctions. And guess what? It didn’t really matter.

There are a few times when it does matter, though. One is when you marry into a Chinese family and you have to know who all these people are. But that’s when a major new factor emerges: you’re no longer memorizing vocabulary, you’re memorizing real people and their titles. It’s the difference between a human face and a bunch of lines and circles on a chart, and your memory appreciates it.

Similarly, when I returned to the States with my in-laws this summer, I knew I’d have to be introducing them to various people from my parents’ side of the family. Rather than digging out the old Chinese family relationships chart, I went through the relatives I knew would be there and gave them Chinese names. For example, my Uncle Marty is my mom’s younger brother, so he’s Marty 舅舅, and his wife is Kathy 舅妈. My Uncle Jim is my dad’s older brother, so he’s Jim 伯伯, and his wife is Dot 伯母. Learning the terms by assigning them to real people makes them easier to remember and ensures that they’re actually useful to you.

When you think about it, it’s how kids learn these words in the first place. In fact, they learn to associate the titles with real people long before they even understand the relationships the titles refer to. Later on, they learn the relationships, and then learn to relate the relationships to other people.

To take it even further, here’s an example of a real conversation I had with my wife recently:

> Me: So my mom’s little brother is my…

> Her: Jiujiu (舅舅).

> Me: Right, jiujiu. So I can call him Marty Jiujiu.

> Her: Right.

> Me: So then my dad’s older brother Jim is my…

> Her: Bobo (伯伯).

> Me: OK, Jim Bobo. And then my dad’s older sister?

> Her: Uhhh… I forgot. My dad doesn’t have an older sister.

This isn’t the first time I’ve run into this kind of “vocab lapse” with native speakers. With a whole generation of only children, more and more personal links are missing, and the nomenclature system just doesn’t carry the weight it once did. You can decry the decline of family values and Confucian ideals all you want, but for the average Chinese student it means this: you don’t have to worry too much about Chinese family relationship titles until it becomes personal. And that’s also when the titles become memory manageable.