If you’re fluent, why do you still use SRS? I mean, it’s not like you use SRS for English words 1“.
I get asked this question or some variation of it quite a lot, so I thought I’d answer it here. In twelve words:
“Before enlightenment: chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment: chop wood, carry water.”
When I first came to Japan, I started to feel a George W. Bushian sense of “mission accomplished”. So I stopped SRSing altogether.
Well, my core, daily-use, 日常 vocabulary remained more or less constant.
But what I like to call my 教養 vocabulary, my “cultural literacy” vocabulary, like knowing what 魑魅魍魎 means…that fell apart. Also, knowledge of somewhat rarer kanji and their readings — 夕凪 — that fell away. Even certain expert terminology — words like “輻輳” (a term you’ll come across in networking and queueing theory) — started to escape me.
And that’s just loss. My new acquisition and retention rate was more or less zero. So not only was I losing both active and passive vocabulary, I also wasn’t gaining ground 2; I wasn’t progressing; I wasn’t moving forward: I was shrinking. Whatever new words I learned or was taught simply did not stick.
In short, the knife still cut in the middle, but it was blunt and rusty along the edges. I wanted a beautiful, gleaming, dangerously sharp blade.
I stopped sucking at Japanese but I didn’t lose the ability to relapse into suckage. I didn’t lose the ability to forget. And I didn’t lose the will to and enjoyment of learning new words. It’s kind of a living testament to Carol Dweck’s work — skill is not fixed: it’s dynamic, alive, mutable.
So I started SRSing again and haven’t really looked back.
It’s been suggested that there is such a thing as a law of diminishing returns with respect to learning vocabulary. Certainly, this is true with regard to frequency of usage. However:
- The socioeconomic rewards that a larger, deeper, more precise vocabulary brings far outweigh any frequency differential. At least in my experience. In fact…
- The socioeconomic rewards that any given word brings 3 are distributed in inverse proportion to the frequency of that word.
- I’m not advocating the use of unnecessarily grandiloquent phrasing here; you’ve seen me talk; you know I speak and write quite plainly, regardless of the language in question. But when you need to know what 齲蝕, 領土的一體性 and 家事消費 are…you freaking need to know.
Pretty much all societies reward the articulate profusely and punish them only lightly (if at all). Those who communicate ideas and concepts in great volume and with great precision — those who have expressive power — enjoy many benefits. This is true not only of words but also of physical gestures — so, like, sport and dance.
In a very real sense, words are almost — perhaps not quite, but very nearly almost — a quantifiable economic asset, somewhat like stock or real estate 4: you don’t buy books for the paper, you buy them for the words. So words are literally assets. SRS, then, is a tool that helps you build and maintain your portfolio of assets.
When Pablo Casals reached 95, a young reporter asked him “Mr. Casals, you are 95 and the greatest cellist that ever lived. Why do you still practice six hours a day?” Mr. Casals answered, “Because I think I’m making progress.”
They Did Not Give Up
- Actually, lately, I do, but…that’s another story 😛 ↩
- Yeah, this ended up unintentionally sounding like a Yogi Berric tautology and for that I am sorry ↩
- not that it makes practical sense to discuss this kind of thing at a single-word level, but for the sake of the fake mathematics ↩
- Confucian (in mindset) proverb: “There are golden houses in books and there are beautiful girls in books“, quoted in Understanding Chinese Culture and Learning by Ting Wang of the University of Canberra ↩
- Don’t act like you didn’t see this coming ↩