Graham’s SRS Method

Sinosplice commenter Graham Bond recently left a lengthy and interesting comment on my Misgivings about SRS post. (“SRS” refers to spaced repetition system like Anki; I explain how SRS works in an earlier post.)

I quote Graham’s comment here, almost in its entirety, adding in a few links and just a little emphasis:

I have become a hopelessly-addicted SRS user in recent months. This decision came at something of an impasse in my (nine year-long) Chinese language-learning journey, and was made largely on the back of blog I came across, the author of which was positively evangelical about the possibilities of the technology.

By now – nine months in – I recognise all of the problems and limitations cited above. I was mistaken to think, as many others have, that SRS was a cure to all language-acquisition ills. It is bound to unnaturally skew one’s priorities and lead to the kind of imbalanced result you allude to in your post (ie. I have bulging vocabularly pecs, and puny grammatical legs). That said, it has proved useful in certain respects, not least in introducing a competitive element to language-learning (albeit one in which I compete with myself) and imposing quite a hard-edged discipline (ie. I gotta get through my character sets every day, regardless of how I feel, otherwise the ‘overdue cards’ count mounts very quickly….this can verge on the pathological).

My current set up attempts to address some of the deficiencies mentioned above. Though it’s probably very, very boring, I’ll set out my current arrangements, as briefly as possible, in the hope of explaining how they work for me (and occasionally, how they do not).

I have four decks of cards which, in total, I spend around an hour trawling through daily.

Only one of these, the HSK deck, was downloaded and, as such, contains many words and (at Level 6) idioms which are completely devoid of context for me. Because of the sheer size of the contemporary Level 6 HSK category (1,400+ words), I have had to introduce new cards slowly – I try for 10-20 new words per day – in the hope that by the end of this year, 2012, I will be juggling all cards (about 2,500 for Levels 1-6), while never having to face a single daily session of more than, say, 150 words at one time.

I download daily audio from YouTube clips of 美国之音 TV news broadcasts and listen to them as MP3 files whilst commuting, or taking a stroll. I attempt to listen to at least 20-minutes worth of broadcast material daily. Additionally, I force myself to read at least one Chinese news article (I occasionally substitute this with a page or two of a novel) per day, regardless of subject. These two activities have allowed me to locate the usage of a lot of the fairly formal words or obscures idioms that I have come across in my HSK drills (especially when I read Chinese newspapers, as these are the most likely to feature the more obscure, Mao-era, political terms often used in the HSK). I don’t always have time to dwell on their exact usage – and there are many words/phrases I have not yet heard in any real-world context – but I do get a little thrill when I hear a word or phrase which I have previously only known in the HSK context, being used out there in the real world.

In short, I try to undertake the (largely written) daily SRS drills in tandem with attempts to exercise my listening and reading skills.

My second and third flashcard decks are drawn manually from I listen to lessons at the Intermediate and Upper Intermediate levels (keep up the good work, btw!:)) and, after each lesson, draw down new words/phrases into files which I transfer to my SRS system (Pleco, for what it’s worth). Thus I have an ‘Intermediate’ set, and an ‘Upper Intermediate’ set which are both increasing in size on a weekly basis, as new lessons are made.

My fourth flashcard set – and the most recent, and possible useful, addition – is a list of complete sentences which locates some of the most common/useful/interesting words/phrases in real-world context. I tend to take these sentences from the dialogues at, thereby ensuring that they are reliable in terms of how people really speak. This is an attempt to address the most obvious failing with SRS that it allows you to expand your vocabulary without requiring any understanding of how words are actually used in context. In this test, I look at the English translation and read out the correct Chinese sentence. The act of verbalising, if only to myself, seems to make certain patterns stick.

In terms of the specific tests that I undertake, I oscillate fairly systematically between, on the one hand, viewing the English translation and responding with the written Chinese translation (input using hanzi), while simultaneously verbalising the word in the (hopefully) correct tones; and, on the other, reading the Chinese word and verbalising the correct English translation out loud to myself. Regardless of the exact test I undertake, I try to be disciplined and have a rule for myself that if I could not, on request, write the hanzi that appear in the word, or if I get the tone of a character wrong (even if I knew how to write it), I mark the card as wrong. In some ways this is a vanity project – I want to be able to say (as I have been known to in the past) that “I am able to write everything that I am able to say”. On the other hand, as some other commenters have noted, writing a character over and over again does tend to make it stick in one’s memory banks.

As I mentioned, all of this takes me between 60 minutes and 75 minutes per day.

Despite all of my labours, I have concluded that while daily SRS work has enlarged my vocabulary and improved my reading skills (and to a lesser extent, listening skills), it has done absolutely nothing for my general conversational fluency. If anything, this is in a worse place now than it was nine months ago. I lived in China for several years in the Noughties (apologies:)) and, thus, feel confident in terms of my basic pronunciation and tones. But, here I am, nine years in, still finding myself jumping through all kinds of mental hoops and using torturous (and probably way overly complication and clunky) sentence constructions when it comes time to actually have a conversation at anything over a basic elementary level. Similarly, I have little confidence in composing a Chinese sentence in writing. I may be able to write the individual characters accurately, with the correct stroke order etc.etc, but I cannot necessarily link them fluently in a proper sentence, let alone a paragraph.

In summary, SRS is rubbish for improving fluency, but is great for developing vocabulary and thus (depending on precisely how it is used), improving one’s reading and listening comprehension. Luckily for me, right now I am most concerned with improving my Chinese reading skills, so this works for me. And I am (semi)confident that this is great foundational work for when I do, eventually, get back to China and find myself speaking with real people again (you currently find me residing in a sleepy English village – which, over and beyond everything I have said, is my biggest problem of all – the general ambient sounds in my everyday life are not those of Mandarin Chinese!)

Thanks for the detailed comment, Graham! At the time you didn’t know you were writing a guest post, so… surprise! I appreciate you going to the trouble of writing such a detailed account. Other learners will benefit from your ideas.

I like the way you diversified your SRS review, and your confirmation on the shortcomings of SRS as a study tool is helpful. There’s no silver bullet for mastery of any language…


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. So how does one, in this case, go from this wallow of “asic-elementary” conversational to at the very least, competent level of conversation?

    Yes, SRS has a lot of drawbacks in relation to that.. lots of vocab, little grammar.. but what do I do instead?

    • One way: Talk to yourself in Chinese. No joke. I speak at a fairly advanced level and have met many who speak at even more advanced levels (I taught Chinese for six years and know lots of non-native Chinese teachers). I used to think I was strange, but having asked many others, it seems that this is a common habit of effective language learners. Note: I’m not claiming it’s the only thing or something every effective learner does–but it is something lots of good learners do.

  2. I think the major goal of SRS is to boost reading and listening comprehension. It’s by far the most efficient way of expanding vocabulary, which in turns means we can read and listen. This, in combination with practice, will lead to fluency. Practise is mostly helpful to turn what we know passively into active knowledge, so if we don’t know very much, I think vocabulary should be our main focus.

    My own philosophy has always been to learn as many words as I can as quickly as possible in combination with as much immersion as I can stomach (so this is very similar to what Graham suggests). I then pick up word usage and connotations from the material I read or listen to. Then when practising, I slowly turn this into practically useful Chinese.

  3. Peter Nelson Says: August 31, 2012 at 1:45 pm

    Great guest post!

  4. An SRS-based (I think?) method that is more grammar-oriented is Rosetta Stone. While a bit pricy and aimed at beginners (at least back when I bought it, I think they may have more advanced levels now), I personally found it extremely solid. It was the first thing I used (and for about nine months, pretty much the only thing) when I started learning and I really believe it provided me with the foundation of what is now (if I may say so myself) quite fluent and natural Mandarin.

  5. Happy to contribute, John! And thanks for re-posting (though it does mean that I probably need to apologise AGAIN for the length of the comment; succinct writing was never my strong point). Just thought I’d mention that, as luck would have it, the fates have decreed that I will return to China in – count ’em – just 11 days time (albeit for a very short 10-day stint), so I finally have a chance to get all that pent-up SRS pressure released into the wild (the only flaw to this plan being that I will be residing in one of Guangdong’s more ‘authentically Cantonese’ corners:().

  6. SRS might be more flexible than y’all are giving it credit for. Although I agree wholeheartedly with the “don’t make it your only study mode” position, I’d still say you can use SRS for more than just acquisition of translated vocabulary words.

    What I do now is cloze questions taken from things I read. Here’s a random example:

    So the back of my card says 数落, which is the word used in 《黄金时代》, the novel I was reading when I made this card.

    I’ve found, unlike Graham’s experience, this method of vocab study puts words into my conversational vocabulary pretty readily, and it puts them in in a way where the usage is correct. I’m much more likely to use a word in a native-like situation and manner.

    When I’ve explained this system to other folks, sometimes they get worried about the blank having more than one possible answer. To this I say: create your own cards; don’t use anyone else’s. If you create your own cards, from things you’ve read or conversations you’ve had, you remember the context of the sentence and (if you choose your sentences carefully) never have a problem remembering the exact word that was used. And then don’t worry about whether another word would have fit or not. Just go with the word used.

  7. Although on a certain level I sympathize with what Graham writes, my main thought is: of course! If you train vocabulary a lot, your vocabulary will get better. If you never converse with anyone, your conversation skills will not improve. It seems pretty obvious to me: you improve at the skills which you practice. It is good for folks to no that Anki will not make them a language god, though, and in that sense it is good that have this kind of reflection available online. The myth that you can rely only on SRS needs to be corrected.

    John, when you write “there’s no silver bullet” you are 100% correct. The only way to gain competency in a variety of skills (reading, writing, listening, speaking) is to use a variety of methods. I would ding that.

  8. This just confirms my theory that success in language learning requires a multi-faceted approach. There is nothing wrong with the SRS appraoch, but if you rely solely on one method, it results in unbalanced learning and may even hinder other skill sets (ie: conversation).

    As a chinesepod learner, I took a 3 year hiatus from CPOD in order to: (i) review old lessons and (ii) practice with real people in every day conversatons. In terms of my premium subscription, I saved $240 per year for 3 years.

    Did I lose any language ability as a result? No. My Mandarin level actually improved. But my reading ability and character recognition certainly suffered. And so I will be re-enrolling in CPOD soon, and hope to catch up on the lessons I missed, and then practice with Chinese colleagues in real-time.

  9. My SRS approach is using AnkiDroid and my own chinesepod deck.
    I refrain from using single words but rather learn the example sentences. So I read the chinese sentence and have the pinyin, the english and the mp3 on the answer. If I can read, understand AND pronouce the sentence correcty (which I verify by either listening to the mp3 or read the sentence to my wife) I mark the sentence as learned, else repeat.

    My vocab does not progress fast enough (as every new word comes with three example sentences), but I get grammar and spoken fluency as trade-off.

  10. All the comments here have validity and every learner who has embraced technology should take them into account. On the whole, I agree with Graham, in particular his joking about SRS becoming an addiction. With that, I always tell myself to slow down and not to do too much – half an hour a day is very good going. Also, I am not afraid to delete decks which are not working. For me, chinesepod and a junior reader are enough for input. But one thing that nobody has mentioned: when I discovered SRS through antimoon and AJATT, I began to form a very strong belief that learning Chinese to a professional level was indeed possible.

  11. I should qualify the last statement. I mentioned belief as a major point because Chinese is notoriously difficult, in particular the characters. Sinosplice links to an article which argues that learning Chinese is a 5:1 proposition, that is, the 5 represents effort and the 1 represents result. This is a terrible ratio for the language learner; they must put in so much to gain so little. However, with SRS (if used wisely) the ratio drops dramatically and the effort required to learn is minimized. I would argue it is now a 3:1 proposition. When you consider the Herculean effort required to learn Chinese in the past, that’s not too bad.

  12. I do sentances with an optional computer-mandarin mp3 file to play optionally when i forget pronunciation. I find it great for prounciation and learning the tones of characters (overlooked skill).

    The mindset i apply to switching between SRS and spoken is to try and mash sentances together, rather than recite them whole or perfectly, hoping more for fluid delivery than a huge degree of accuracy (i’m still learning).

    Background helps: i read obsessively as a child and consequently grew up being rewarded by my parents for aping the language of literature from a young age. Perhaps a background as a computer nerd in highschool helps. A close friend who had great success with SRS and Japanese was unashamedly nerdish in highschool.


  13. I’m also in a daily SRS routine (5,000 cards in six months so far).

    IMO There are two mistakes that almost every person starting with SRS seems to do:

    1) Think that SRS can teach you a language.

    2) Focus on pre-made decks as HSK that introduce tons of useless vocabulary and thus turn the SRS daily practice in a nightmare.

    In my opinion SRS are a wonderful tool as long as you keep your daily practice interesting and on topic, that is developing your own deck with cards that contain sentences you wish to use in a daily basis.

    I disagree with this Graham’s quote:

    “In summary, SRS is rubbish for improving fluency, but is great for developing vocabulary”

    If you use SRS for memorizing sentences that are meaningful for you (as an example I just introduced on my deck a card with the sentence 把酱分开放吧 that allows me to get a salad without that nasty sauce Chinese people like so much) you will improve your fluency.

    Also, it’s true that when you memorize new words it’s sometimes difficult to introduce them into your daily routine. So they seem useless.

    However with the time I notice that, even if initially I don’t use these words, I can understand them when Chinese people are talking to me. After this happens a couple of time a gain confidence and I start to use the new words myself. But this can only happen if I previously saw the words on my SRS

    My conclusion is that SRS are useful as long as you don’t introduce on your deck a ton of words you will never use.

    But if I remember well this was also the conclusion of John’s post about SRS.

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