SRS (Spaced Repetition software) has become very popular in language learning circles these days. Discussions about SRS, and more specifically, Anki (a certain brand of SRS) are seen everywhere language learning is discussed; in fact it’s pretty much impossible to avoid seeing them. In this post I’m going to give a simple explanation of SRS and why it has become so popular. I will warn against overusing it, and finally, suggest ways to safely incorporate it into your language learning plan.
Simple explanation of SRS, and why it’s so popular
SRS is flashcard software that is designed to have you review your vocabulary just when you need to.
With paper flashcards and word lists, you decide when to review your vocabulary. But some words you know really well, so you don’t need to review them as often. Other words you’ve already forgotten, so it would be better to review them more often. SRS remembers whether you passed or failed a card (you select “pass” or “fail” when you finish a card), and uses an algorithm to predict when you need to review it again. So in theory SRS will save you time, and use your time more effectively.
Now some people don’t like to do this type of additional vocabulary study; they prefer to learn vocabulary through context. For example, they might prefer to read for 1 hour, rather than read 45 min and do flash cards for 15 min. But for everyone else, you can probably see how attractive SRS is. It’s convenient; you can do it on your phone in your free time anywhere. And it’s efficient because of its intelligently spaced reviews.
And to be fair, SRS is more complicated than I mentioned, and can do much more that users find attractive. For example, you are not just limited to vocabulary. You can create your own cards with whole sentences if you want. You can use it to learn grammar, add audio, add video, automatically create “fill in the blanks” type cards, create cards that have multiple sides, etc. These features make SRS even more attractive to enthusiasts.
So with all the advantages and features mentioned above, how is it possible to overuse SRS? Here are some pitfalls of overuse.
Most people want to be able converse well, and to be able to read at a reasonable speed. Many would like to understand movies and TV, and write well. Goals vary from person to person, but most people agree that at some point they’d like to be able to do these things without needing props like SRS anymore. Yes, there are some who say they plan on using it for the rest of their lives, but those people are rare. So the goal is not SRS; SRS is merely a tool to help you achieve your goal.
Now let’s imagine a time in the future when you have reached your goal and are using the language well, as intended, without SRS, and work backwards. It should come as no surprise that it takes a lot of practice using the language without props like SRS before you become good at it. So you want to stop using SRS long before you reach your goal, or at least have weaned yourself off it to the point where you have the time you need to practice the real language.
Conclusion - if your goal is to use the language without SRS, it doesn’t make sense to use it all the time and drop it at the last minute, expecting to miraculously not need it anymore. Using it too much and too long works against our goals.
It’s clear to me that spending so much time away from what you really want out of a language leads to dissociation, makes you lose motivation and want to quit. I’ve read dozens of posts from people who have complained about this, met some of these students in person, and have suffered from it myself. Seeing a dream crushed after hundreds of hours of study can cause depression, believe it or not.
There are very few individuals that have what it takes to learn a language while using a method that is chiefly SRS usage. Case in point – the 10,000 sentence method, that is the method formerly pushed heavily by AJATT and thousands of Japanese learners. If I believe what I read on the internet from these learners, it was a massive failure for most people. It killed motivation, made people quit, and caused depression, on a large scale.
Conclusion – don’t use SRS so much that you lose contact with the thing you love and want most; the real language. You need time to converse, read, watch movies, etc. Otherwise you run the real risk of quitting and/or being depressed.
How to use SRS safely
According to what I stated above, we want limit the use of SRS enough to allow us sufficient time to practice and stay in touch with the pure language. There are many ways to do this, and I couldn’t possibly write about all methods here, so I’ll just share some of the principals that I follow.
• Limit your review sessions to 1 hour. This is a max, and it’s perfectly acceptable to do less.
• Limit your total SRS time, including reviews, card creation, etc, to less than 50% of your total study time in the beginning
• Limit your total SRS time, including reviews, card creation, etc, to less than 25% of your total study time after 2 months
• Do all your repetitions, but delete cards older than one month. This is how you keep your sessions from exceeding 1 hour.
• Don’t spend too much time making and manicuring your cards. You’ll only use them for a month, after all.
• Delete problem cards mercilessly
The point about deleting cards older than 1 month is what scares most over-users. Remember this – you don’t want SRS to take over your studies, so you are trying to get as much benefit as possible out of a 1 hr review. You will get more bang for your buck by sacrificing the old cards rather than the new. New cards are fresh and more fun. Wordbrain also recommends reviewing vocabulary for only 1 month. For cards that have been in the SRS for 1 month, if you know them well, they don’t need to be in there; better to replace them with new cards which do need to be there. For cards that have been in the SRS for 1 month, if you don’t know them well, leaving them in there longer won’t help; better to replace them with new cards. It’s very normal and acceptable to put cards in that you’ve already deleted from your SRS previously.
If you follow these principals, your SRS should be of great benefit to you. Limiting it’s usage will leave you time to work with the real language and help you avoid depression.
One final warning.
Even with the massive failure of the 10,000 sentence method mentioned above, SRS has become much more wide spread in the past few years. Although most use it in a reasonable way, there are many quite vocal fans who are what I’d call over-users. Unfortunately I fear we can expect to see another surge and large-scale fallout over the next few years, due to the release of Gabriel Wyner's book Fluent Forever in 2014. This book describes how to learn a language using (over-using by my way of thinking) SRS. The method is very similar to the original 10,000 sentence method in many respects, but has much more detail regarding creation of material for and usage of Anki, the SRS of choice for most language users.
Most readers are probably unaware of the fate of the 10,000 sentence method. The book is well organized, professional, cites several studies in support of SRS, and uses a lot of friendly colloquial language that younger learners can relate to. Basically, the book is very attractive for many reasons, which makes it hard to warn people about. I can only hope that this post will persuade people not to follow his method.