Spaced Repetition System: The Secret Weapon for Language Learning

A spaced repetition system is a good way to complement your studies. Not more, not less!

As a language enthusiast, I have tried various techniques to improve my language skills, and one method that has consistently stood out is the Spaced Repetition System (SRS). In this article, I’ll introduce you to the concept of SRS, discuss its benefits in language learning, compare different types of SRS, and share my personal experience using this powerful tool.

I. What is a Spaced Repetition System (SRS)?

A Spaced Repetition System (SRS) is a learning technique that optimizes the timing of reviews to maximize long-term memory retention. The idea behind SRS is straightforward: when you first learn something, you need to review it frequently to keep remembering it. Over time, you can review it less frequently, as the ever-increasing intervals between repetitions allow you to retain old material while learning new information. Now, not every word will require the same attention. You might learn some vocabulary immediately while it takes longer for other words. An efficient SRS takes this into account and you will mostly repeat those words that you haven’t fully mastered yet.

II. How a Spaced Repetition System Can Help You Learn Languages

SRS can be a game-changer in language learning, as it helps you to efficiently manage vocabulary acquisition and retention. By reviewing words and phrases at optimal intervals, you can prevent the “leaking bucket” problem, where you only remember recently learned material. With SRS, you can forget about forgetting, as it ensures that both old and new vocabulary stay fresh in your mind. 

Obviously, it is a deviation from the pure comprehensible input approach made popular by Krashen. And while Kungfucius believes that comprehensible input is the most important part of the equation, it can be successfully complemented by adding a spaced repetition system to it as well. 

Chinese and Japanese are special cases in that words can be reviewed or single characters. A SRS can help create the basis and foundation before comprehensible input is possible and before full immersion is helpful. To start reading material in Chinese or Japanese, a core of 1000 characters might be a good start. Even for graded readers, 500 characters seem the absolute minimum to start with not only comprehensible input but also interesting and compelling material.

III. Cardboard vs. App-based vs. Online SRS

There are different types of SRS available for language learners:

  1. Cardboard: Traditional flashcards can be manually arranged to follow a spaced repetition schedule. This method is low-tech but can still be effective if you’re diligent in maintaining the system.
  2. App-based: Many language learning apps, such as Anki and Memrise, incorporate SRS algorithms to optimize your learning experience. These apps are convenient and customizable, making it easy to track your progress and adjust your study routine.
  3. Online SRS: Online platforms like HackChinese offer web-based SRS systems specifically designed for language learning. These platforms often include additional features, such as integrated dictionaries and audio pronunciation guides, to enhance your study sessions.

IV. Pitfall: Get Pronunciation Right

One potential pitfall of using SRS for language learning is neglecting pronunciation. While SRS can help you memorize vocabulary, it’s essential to ensure that you’re also learning the correct pronunciation. Listening to native speakers, working with a tutor, or using apps with audio pronunciation guides can help you avoid fossilizing incorrect pronunciation habits.

To get it right, it is best to get your new vocabulary from Chinese podcasts or videos so you get acquainted with the pronunciation first and get across the word in a natural setup first 

V. My Personal Experience Using SRS

In the past, I have incorporated SRS in my language learning journey, but never made it the main focus. Especially in the last years, I revert more towards comprehensible input, but sometimes getting a fever rush and a episode of a few weeks in which I review characters. 

Mostly, I used simple, old, cardboard system for that:

This has become outdated though! I’ve found that app-based systems like Anki have been particularly effective in helping me retain new vocabulary and phrases. By incorporating SRS into my daily routine, I’ve been able to learn and remember thousands of words in multiple languages, making it easier for me to communicate with native speakers and understand authentic materials.

VI. Conclusion

In conclusion, a Spaced Repetition System is a powerful tool that can significantly improve your language learning experience. By incorporating SRS into your study routine, you can optimize your memory retention and make the most of your efforts. 

“Give SRS systems like Anki or HackChinese or even cardboard systems like the one above a try. But don’t forget: The best path to mastery is to listen to Kungfucius and read his wisdom!”