The “SRS” in “SRS flashcards” stands for Space Repetition System (or Software). While SRS is the technical term which harkens back to the algorithm used by legendary developer Piotr Woźniak for Supermemo, nowadays many language learning systems/platforms incorporate some form of SRS, usually just calling it “intelligent flashcards,” “smart review,” or something like that.
In the 15 or so years I’ve been watching SRS evolve, I’ve seen its status go from “emerging exciting technology” to “over-hyped, over-used cliche.” And yet it’s still got a lot to offer, if you don’t treat it like a panacea of language learning. So, time to get right to the point and discuss: pros and cons of SRS (specifically, SRS flashcards for language learning).
Pro: You have a list of everything you’re learning
- It may be easy to add everything (one-click download and add?).
- Nothing falls through the cracks if your system is solid.
- Many study programs over-emphasize new content and don’t provide enough review. SRS is one way to make sure that the older material you learned doesn’t fade away but rather gets cemented into your long-term memory as you move through the course.
Con: You have to make a list of everything you’re learning
- It’s some work to build a list, especially if you’re learning entirely on your own. (For example, if you’re using Anki, you might not even know about the Pinyin Toolkit plugin, which is essential for Chinese.)
- As a beginner, you may have a hard time knowing what to add now and what to leave alone for now. To get really good results you have to choose the right words to add, and knowing what to add is a skill.
- The DIY factor: the more effort you put into making flashcards (or any learning activity), the better you’re going to remember it. Another way to put it is: “easy come, easy go.”
Pro: Regular review is all prepared for you
- Regular review is prepared, on a schedule that you choose!
- You can set the number of words in each review.
Con: Regular review is always prepared for you
- If you have a ton of flashcards, the amount of reps you need to do every day can be a burden.
- Setting the number of words you review every day may not work well if you’re adding way more words than you’re reviewing.
- If daily flashcard reviews become a chore that you dread (and the majority of the time that you spend “studying”), it can sap your motivation for learning.
Pro: You never forget anything
- ‘Nuff said! Never forgetting has quite an appeal.
- Some people even go so far as to think of their SRS vocabulary as an extension of their own memory. (Is that a pro? Not sure!)
Con: You’re not allowed to forget anything
- If you’ve added words of questionable usefulness, they will become “leeches,” showing up in your reviews again and again, but never showing up in your studies, conversations, or readings. (This can be obvious, in which case you might just delete it, but it can also be very subtle, and hard to determine if you should keep the word or not.)
- Not all words have equal value, and SRS doesn’t (normally) make any kind of value determination; it assumes that you need to master every single word, and each word is treated equally.
SRS Appeals to Certain Types of Learners
Over the years of working with lots of different learners of Chinese through AllSet Learning, I have noticed a very clear trend: analytical, programmer-types loooove SRS. It’s the efficiency of it, having the “checklist” where nothing gets omitted. These types of learners can find SRS a Godsend which changes their studies completely, and they often evangelize for SRS quite a bit.
However, learners much more interested in talking in Chinese, or reading in Chinese, may find the preoccupation with flashcards a bit off-putting and unnecessary. If you really are speaking Chinese all day, or reading for hours and hours every week, you may not need SRS flashcards as much.
Which type of learner are you? How useful have SRS flashcards been in your own studies?
Jared and I covered this exact topic in the You Can Learn Chinese podcast, episode #55. The main discussion on SRS takes place 07:00~31:50 (about 25 minutes).
Here are some of my past posts about SRS:
For most of 2020, it felt like COVID was slowly disappearing in Shanghai, even as the pandemic raged in the US and some other places. The cases that popped up in China (that we know about) all felt pretty distant. In January 2021, though, we experienced a small resurgence in COVID cases, first in other parts of China, and then in Shanghai itself.
The government response was swift and decisive. You can look it up online if you’re interested. Not a whole lot of information was publicly disclosed, aside from “we’re handling it,” so rumors were swirling.
I actually know someone who was affected by the recent cases (he had third degree contact), announced on January 24th, and then within a day I saw this image in a WeChat group (no, it wasn’t censored or deleted):
This message was not sent by my friend, but it described the exact same situation: son’s teacher’s son’s piano teacher got COVID. They were doubtlessly both students at the same international school in Shanghai. The kids had the third-degree exposure, not the dads, but the kids were too young to do quarantine alone, so the dads had to join in on the fun.
My friend (and his son) are set to be released from government quarantine (in a decent hotel) tomorrow, after 4 nasal tests and 3 blood tests (as of yesterday).
For us luckier residents of Shanghai, face masks are required on public transportation and in government buildings and hospitals just like the were through the end of 2020, but now requirements have stepped up. More buildings are taking temperatures at the entrances and/or requiring face masks for entry. (Pretty much all malls are). My office building is requiring everyone to show their “health code” upon entry (it must be green).
Many Chinese living in Shanghai that were originally planning to go back to their hometowns for Chinese New Year (Feb. 12, 2021) no longer are. It goes without saying that routine CNY holiday trips outside of China are all off this year.
Everyone’s hoping that as the weather warms and. the vaccine continues to be distributed, things will get better by the summer. We shall see!
(One year later, still unfortunately) Related: COVID Vocabulary in Chinese
They aren’t new; there are a number of these “Robot Coffee Kiosks” (机器人咖啡亭) around Shanghai, and more have been popping up lately. Here’s what they look like:
The little attached tablet is how you order and pay (AliPay or WeChat Pay, of course.)
Around 15 RMB (about USD 2.31) per cup is cheap for Shanghai. I just tried it the other day, and the coffee is… not great. I tried the hazelnut latte, and while the company deserves credit for not making the coffee too sweet, they made the bizarre choice of adding way too much crushed hazelnut topping. I was literally chewing my way through half the latte. That’s a first!
I never ever see people buying coffee from these kiosks. I don’t expect them to be around much longer.
Finally, a pun that learners of Chinese can understand (that’s kind of my thing now):
The text reads:
The world’s “first” cup of robot coffee
So the pun there is using 滴, meaning “drip” or “drop,” instead of 第. The word for “first” is, of course, 第一. The word for “drip coffee” is 滴滤咖啡 (literally, “drip-filtered coffee”).
I like this text art:
The text reads 迅合行. The shop sells little models and action figures for anime characters. The Chinese name for this kind of product is 手办.
Also, I should note that when I showed the name 迅合行 to Chinese native speakers, they were unsure if the character 行 in this context should be read “xíng” or “háng”. I always find that kind of thing gratifying!
I had thought that this year attending Christmas Eve or Christmas Day services would need to be in Chinese, since, as I mentioned before, English language religious services have not been allowed to resume yet in Shanghai. But Chinese services had strictly limits placed on the number of attendees, and there wasn’t enough supply to meet the demand. Foreigners were having secret “lunches” and “dinners” just so they could celebrate Christmas in a religious way.
I don’t like talking about politics much, and I’m not not one to be alarmist about the CCP, even as it becomes increasingly authoritarian in its actions. But this Christmas, I did feel something kind of like a vice tightening on foreigners’ already limited religious freedom here. There’s definitely been an increased sense of “we’re not really wanted here” in the foreign community in Shanghai this year.
We’ll see what 2021 holds… Once the vaccine becomes widely available, the situation will become clearer.
Still super busy, so keeping posts light. Saw this jacket yesterday, though:
I honestly don’t understand what the message is. Seeing it in China makes it more baffling. (And yes, those are little coffins.)
Stay safe! 2020 will end…
I always keep an eye open for interesting English on t-shirts and other types of clothing. Waiting in line at the office elevator this morning, I noticed this message on a guy’s jacket:
THE PLANET DOESN’T HAVE
TIME FOR THIS
This message felt so appropriate, during the time of COVID, during a time of ongoing environmental crisis, during a time I am unusually busy at work, waiting in line for an elevator. And it’s Christmastime, too.
Notice that everyone is wearing masks. We had a mini scare two weeks ago at the Pudong International Airport which resulted in more mask wearing again, plus now that it’s winter, people really don’t mind the masks (it helps keep your face warm).
Otherwise, life in Shanghai is pretty normal.
Yes, that title is a Ren & Stimpy “Space Madness” reference:
(I’m proudly showing my age.)
So for the latter half of November and the beginning of December, my staff and I are doing a ton of editing, covering all 165 B2 (Upper Intermediate) grammar points (that number still may change) on the Chinese Grammar Wiki. If you’ve ever noticed that some of those grammar points need a little editing, I suggest you take another look. And yes, this book is finally coming!
I actually have a number of blog posts I’ve been meaning to write, but I guess that can wait until I get some more books out…
A new Level 2 Mandarin Companion title is coming as well.
And the You Can Learn Chinese podcasts continue, unabated…
Oh yeah, also doing this winter promotion thing for online Chinese lessons.
OK, back to editing!
Understanding and conveying the proper tone of voice in a Chinese sentence isn’t easy. Some languages (Japanese comes to mind) allow you to “codify” levels of politeness or formality directly into the verbs themselves. Or there are super formulaic sentence patterns for certain levels of politeness. Even in English it’s somewhat formulaic (“Please,” “Can you…?”, “Could you…?”), but less so in Chinese.
I remember talking to an AllSet Learning client years ago about this very issue years ago. She was a mother trying to raise polite children, so of course she taught them to use the word “please” for requests, which in Chinese is 请 (qǐng). So she wanted her kids to use 请 (qǐng) for their Chinese language requests. Seems simple, right? Actually, it’s not at all, because while sometimes “please” can be translated directly to 请 in a straightforward way, in many cases it’s just plain awkward in Chinese, and even super polite people just wouldn’t use the word. To be natural in Chinese, you need a much more nuanced understanding of what polite speech in Mandarin is. And that takes time.
I really enjoyed editing the example sentences for Softening the tone of questions with “ne” on the Chinese Grammar Wiki. (We’re getting ready to release the third volume: B2 / Upper Intermediate.) Here’s a sample:
I’m curious if any readers out there have come across any books, textbooks, resources, etc. that are especially good at helping learners understand tone of voice in Chinese. It seems to me that it’s quite an underserved facet of the journey.
Oh, and for Upper Intermediate fans of the Chinese Grammar Wiki, at AllSet we’re currently working through every single B2 grammar point (we’re almost done with the “Parts of Speech” section of the big B2 grammar point list), editing sentences, adding/fixing pinyin, improving translations, removing “stub” tags, and even rearranging entire articles and reworking explanations. If you have requests or suggestions, now is a good time!
I’m often asked about the COVID situation in Shanghai. The truth is, things are almost normal now. We do have to wear face masks on the subway and in places like hospitals. But other than that, things are pretty normal.
There is one notable exception, though. English Church services for foreigners have still not been allowed to resume, even though church services in Chinese resumed months ago. (I assume it’s the same for Catholics as for other Christians, but I’ll correct this if I’m wrong.)
I hear a lot of foreigners assuming that this is the government taking the opportunity to “tighten its grip” on religion, and that’s certainly possible, but I’m not so quick to assume malicious intent. I think it’s just way easier for the government to control the situation when there are no foreigners or foreign languages involved, and it just doesn’t want the hassle. (Nor does it place great value or priority on any kind of freedom of religion, however.)
Anyway, I took some photos last Sunday at the Xujiahui cathedral, St. Ignatius. You have to sign in at the gate, fill out a form, and display your health QR code to get in. (The “pass” they give you is good for a month, so you don’t have to fill out the form every week.)
There’s also social distancing going on, marked with smiley face stickers instead of X’s:
Somewhat surprisingly, Communion is distributed at mass.
Life goes on…
2021 Update: English services resumed May 15, 2021.
I’m pretty sure I’m the only one that actually took a close look at this sign, but there’s a lot going on here:
Here’s what’s happening:
- G-Hub for “German Hub”? OK…
- Beer bubbles for the 氵 water component in 洲 and 酒
- In the character 啤, the word “BEER” replaces the mouth component 口
- Sudsy tops of characters and ice cubes or cheese cubes (??) inside 酒 (I want it to be cheese cubes, but I’m pretty sure it’s supposed to be ice cubes, sadly)
- The pun “HIGH啤“ which sounds like “happy” and uses the word “high” in the Chinese way to mean “excited and happy” plus the character 啤 from 啤酒
I was able to mail my absentee ballot in through the Shanghai Consulate via diplomatic pouch at the end of September, and then confirm last week through the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections’ website that it was received and counted. Whoo-hoo! (Much better than my 2016 “vote by fax” experience!)
I feel a lot of pressure as a Florida voter (key word: 摇摆州, literally, “swing state”), and this is actually the last election I’ll be voting as a Floridian. My mom is moving to Atlanta, so that will be my new address I’ll be using in the U.S.
Americans, please get out there and VOTE VOTE VOTE!
I was kind of amused by how much this ad comes across as a vocab list:
Here is that vocab list:
- 坐公交 (zuò gōngjiāo) to take public transportation
Note: this usually means a public bus
- 乘地铁 (chéng dìtiě) to ride the subway
Note: the verb 坐 is also fine
- 骑单车 (qí dānchē) to ride a (single-gear) bicycle
Note: nowadays this word often refers to a bike-sharing service
- 买火车票 (mǎi huǒchēpiào) to buy train tickets
- 打车 (dǎchē) to call a car (taxi or ride-sharing service)
Note: because of the rise of ride-sharing services in general (and Didi in particular), the word 打的 is far less common these days, most people using 打车 or 叫车
The point of this ad is that no matter what form of transportation you choose, all can be accomplished within AliPay (支付宝).
I saw this ad in the Shanghai subway. I’ve also seen an animated version before movies in the movie theater. I find this “land of meat” a bit disturbing…
(Americans consume too much meat, but the Chinese consuming more and more meat is not good for anyone either, much less the planet.)
The brand is called 双汇 (Shuanghui) and is a big brand you’ll find in any Chinese supermarket.
My family and I stayed in one of these places during the October holiday. The Chinese name for these kinds of structures is 泡泡屋, literally “bubble house.”
You’re inside a giant plastic bubble, inflated by a pump. So there’s a sort of “airlock” door. Interestingly, while you can easily see the bubble walls inside the bubble, they often don’t show up in pictures. (In the photo below, you can see the shiny plastic wall in the bottom left of the photo.)
This place is located out in Chongming Island, technically part of the Shanghai Municipality, but a two-hour drive from the city center. There’s not a whole lot to do out there, but “Space Forest” knows how to create a pretty cool atmosphere in the woods, especially at night.
Knowing that there’s not a whole lot to do, Space Forest provides bikes to ride, and there are ATV rentals as well. It’s a kid-friendly place. You’re also allowed to bring dogs, which was a big plus for us.
So you’re basically paying for the novelty, and I’m not sure I’d want to stay for more than one night unless I was really looking for a place with few distractions (there are no TVs in the rooms, and no WiFi).
They bubble houses look cool, though! I think I enjoyed this place more than glamping, for the novelty of it.
I’ve been meaning to go “camping” in Shanghai for a while, knowing that whatever activity I engaged in would probably be pretty different from what I know as “camping” in the USA. Well, on the October holiday, I finally did it… my first glamping experience. (And yes, they even call it “glamping” here in Shanghai, too… 精致露营 in Chinese.)
The campgrounds are located within a large park on Changxing Island 长兴岛 (near Chongming Island 崇明岛) called 长兴岛郊野公园 (Changxing Dao Jiaye Gongyuan). You pay for a park ticket (and dogs can get in too, if you buy their tickets), and then you can pay additional fees to rent out a tent for a night (complete with air mattresses), or for a space to pitch your own tent. (Guess which option most people choose?)
You can basically rent or buy anything camping related you might want: pre-lit hibachis to do your cooking, kebabs of food ready to grill, a cookout set that you set up yourself, picnic tables and chairs, etc.
I’m pretty sure no open fires were allowed, but there was a public bonfire lit by the park employees at night.
As expected, there weren’t many “experienced campers” there. I overheard one lady who was shocked to discover that there were no showers at the park.
During the day, you see a lot of tents in non-camping areas of the park. In China tents are often used as shelter from the sun during a relaxing day in a park, rather than shelter from the elements for sleeping in at night.
All in all, it was enjoyable. It just wasn’t the “camping” that I know.
See also: Bubble Houses in Shanghai’s Space Forest
My friend Aaliyah has created a video series called Known Rivers about the experiences of Black people in China throughout history. It’s created for a Chinese audience, but there are English subtitles. Check it out! Good original stuff.
- Known Rivers 河流 Episode 1: Agatha and Eugene Chen “Origins”
- Known Rivers 河流 Episode 2: Agatha and Eugene Chen “Love, Marriage and Revolution”
- Known Rivers 河流 Episode 3: Langston Hughes “St. Petersburg to Shanghai”
- Known Rivers 河流 Episode 4: Langston Hughes “Jazz in Shanghai”
- Known Rivers 河流 Episode 5: Black People in Ancient China “The Kunlun”
- Known Rivers 河流 Episode 6: Black People in Ancient China “Zheng He’s Westward Voyage”
I first met Aaliyah not long after she first came to China, and her Chinese has improved a lot! From an educator’s perspective, this is a great example of a learner getting to a level where she can use her Chinese to do something interesting and creative to connect with a Chinese audience.
“Known Rivers” is a reference to the poem by Langston Hughes.
I haven’t been writing anything over the Chinese October holiday. I’ve been coping with the loss of my friend Wilson.
It’s hard to believe that Wilson lived in China for only a little over a year, from 2002-2003, because his friendship meant so much and had such an impact on my own development. It wasn’t that he taught me any specific thing or gave me career advice (besides starting this blog). But his passion and his confidence were infectious, and they affected me. They affect me still. I think he is part of the reason that I’m still in China after all these years, running my own businesses, even though he left long ago.
I came across this very accurate quote about Wilson from my 2003 post:
While it’s true that some people come and go in our lives, sometimes you just know when friends have become permanent.
Until we meet again, bro.
I’ve been meaning to write a longer blog post on this topic for a while, a sort of distillation of common mistakes witnessed over the years. Because it can be hard to find time for a proper long-form blog post, I figured I should probably just start with a simple list and expand on it later.
So, here you have it: common mistakes you want to avoid while learning vocabulary:
- Don’t add lots of “kind of interesting” words to your flashcards. You know the ones I mean… the “maybe I’ll use this someday” variety. These add up, and they will choke your vocabulary review sessions. Stick to what’s immediately useful: the words you can use in your speech immediately, or the words you frequently come across when reading but keep forgetting.
- Don’t neglect practice. Vocabulary review is a good thing, but if all you’re doing is keeping a whole bunch of words in a “sort of familiar” state which doesn’t quite make it to the “I can use this word the next time I need it” state, what are you really doing? Are you collecting, or are you trying to get fluent? Value your vocabulary.
- Don’t study new words in isolation; study new words in collocations and sentences (especially if you’re studying on your own). This is not just because sentences give you a clue as to how a word is used. It also gives you a clue as to how useful a word is. If a word is sort of “iffy” already, by looking at the collocations and example sentences, you should be able to spot red flags (hey, all these sentences are super formal!) or spot the most useful ways a word can be used (hey, this is exactly the object I want to use this verb for!).
- Don’t study big long lists all at once. This is one thing that I think both learners and teachers struggle with, but if you try to tackle too many words at once, none of them are going to stick very well. This isn’t to say that vocabulary lists are useless. The point here is that you’re better off picking 3-5 words from a longer list and really getting a handle on those first, rather than covering 10 and forgetting them all the next day.
- Don’t study new similar words at the same time. Studying the difference between similar words is a big part of mastering any language, especially when you get to the intermediate stage or beyond. But you’re not doing yourself any favors by simultaneously trying to learn two or more words with the same English meaning and slightly different uses in the target language. You’ll just get confused. The better way is to choose just the one you most need first, and master it as it is used by native speakers. Later, learn another one of those similar words and master it as it is used naturally too. After you’ve got familiarity and working knowledge with both words, you’ll naturally start wondering what the difference in usage between the two words is (if your brain hasn’t sort of worked it out on your own already). This is the right time to address that.
These aren’t the only things NOT to do, of course, but I see these as the big ones that come up again and again. (See also: More Effort Means More Learning.)
An important concept here is ROI (return on investment): What will get me the best results for the time I invest studying and practicing?
These days I often default to the same foods I habitually consume, so it’s easy to forget the rich variety that’s out there in restaurants of Shanghai. These two dishes are not super crazy or anything; they were on the menu at a mid-tier restaurant at a mall in Shanghai. They were just kind of fun for an ordinary roast duck restaurant.
If this cucumber dish doesn’t look especially like a snake to you, let me assure you it does when the server picks up the cucumber by the “head” with tongs, holds it up in the air over the plate, and then proceeds to cut it into short chunks with a pair of kitchen scissors. (Sorry, I didn’t capture that part.)
OK, I have to admit… this one was super disappointing. The tofu, while not stinky, was just very bland, and the meat sauce and shrimp inside the “boxes” did little to change that. I like the concept, though!
I need to remember to get out to new places more and enjoy the show…