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.