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SRS Is the Intellectual Equivalent of a Video Game “Save Point”

Over the years, some amazing comments have been left here at AJATT. But they get lost in the fog of posts quite easily. All-Star Comments is a segment where I share the best of the best. Today’s comment is from a heartbreaker who goes by the monicker “SRS Addict”.

The original post was about using the SRS to remember the best parts of the best examples of personal development literature.

Anyway, enjoy!

SRS Addict said,
November 24, 2009 @ 00:40 · Edit

This is a LONG comment, here it goes:
I find this post very interesting. Here’s why:

About 3 1/2 years ago I began to use the SRS program “Supermemo” (which I will refer to as “SM”). Since I began using SM, other programs have emerged that specialize in language study, but since I’ve been using SM for so long and have so much time invested in it, it is far too late to think about jumping ship. No doubt the other SRS programs out there work great, so don’t think that I’m knocking them. In the end, use SOMETHING: it’s better than nothing.

Anyways, I began to use SM about 3 years ago to retain Japanese vocabulary. Despite living in America, uncommon words that one does not use very often (such as “round-trip”) continued to remain in my memory, and it required very little thought to recall them. This feeling of satisfaction was very addictive, and I began to integrate more and more of my intellectual life with Supermemo.

I can now speak, read and write Japanese fluently. I passed the JLPT 2Q a couple of years ago without even going to Japan. And the reason that I’ve progressed this much has little to do with my abilities (I am really quite average, I think), but I believe that it is purely because Supermemo has helped to augment my abilities and to focus my efforts so that as little time and effort as possible is wasted (at least when that time and effort is being spent on Supermemo). Here is why:

Humans need a variety of food to remain healthy. Similarly, no SINGLE specific method will gain you fluency in a language. Language study requires a balance of different methods and inputs.

SM seems to have become my intellectual equivalent of a video game “save point.” While up until that time, I might have seen/read/heard many interesting or useful things, but until I “save” my intellectual progress, such information only occupies a temporary place in the mind. While SM is not the only thing I use, it is part of my ‘balanced diet.’

I began by putting Japanese sentences into SM, with the word I wanted to memorise written in English (It was easier than trying to describe the word in Japanese). This created context and usage hints. I would usually enter at least two flashcards for each word (like firing multiple bullets to ensure I hit the desired target), thus ensuring that unless I made a big mistake in structing the material (Poor word choice), the algorithms would ensure that I would remember the word in due time (After about a week or two it would stick very well in my mind).

This worked for vocabulary words, so I thought “Would this work for idiomatic expressions, also?” So I began to experiment, and as time went on, when the appropriate time to use such an idiom presented itself, it required as little time as it took to remember a simple vocabulary word. Now it was easy to rack up idioms (As well as 4-character idioms) in my head. Using James Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji volumes one and two (Although I went my own way with book two), I learned all of the ON yomi for the kanji, which made learning most vocabulary words much, much simpler (Most being a combination of two kanji using the ON yomi). In the end learning Japanese simply came down to shooting fish in a barrel, racking up more and more vocabulary that was easily accessable and would be forever retained using SM.

Japanese has now passed on from the “I need to study” phase to the “I speak it fluently” phase. If I were playing World of Warcraft, my Japanese character would be at level 80 (Although I do not play that game, as I want to defend my time from such bandits). I still add Japanese words to SM, but it is like killing low-level monsters at this point, although I would like to eventually take JLPT 1Q, the “final boss.”

But since Japanese is, for all intents and purposes, done, I am moving onto Chinese.
Knowing the kanji has helped out a great deal, and the ON yomi bears a strong enough resemblence to the actual Chinese reading of the character that it is helpful. But each language poses a different set of problems, and I am always experimenting with variations of methods to try to make it a step further in my Chinese progress. Like you mentioned, keeping a foreward thinking, open mind about how to do things helps to ensure progress. Once you find something that works, exploit it until it stops working or you find something better. Currently I’m experimenting with the flashcard format used by the web site “” I’m trying to impliment it in SM to see if I learn words better than my present flashcard format for Chinese. You might want to give that site a try, if you haven’t already.
We soldier on.

About a year after I began using SM to learn Japanese, I began to expeirment with using SM on non-Japanese desirable knowledge. To learn something FOREVER required such a SMALL investment of time (Less than a minute for the next 30 years of retention). Therefore, one hour of “entertainment-consumption time” could be converted into “self-enrichment through knowledge” time; the long-lasting benefits are so obvious that it makes many other tasks and pursuits seem trivial by comparison (But one must find balance in life, you have to eat some candy every now and then). But rather than simply being a useful study tool, SM has opened up a new way of life for me, where tangible knowledge consumption and retention is well within the grasp of everyone, regardless of anything else. All that is required is a small amount of time and motivation.

As another commenter mentioned above, the process you describe is very similar to incremental reading, a feature advertised on the SM web site. Traditional reading is very much the equivilent of listening to a long speech by someone, and your ‘input’ is limited: Start, stop, or highlight. Incremental reading is basically a process of taking raw electronic reading material, extracting the useful information, and processing for long term retention (Making something into a flashcard is the end-goal of this process). It is the same as digesting food; take food in, extract neutritious parts, get rid of what you don’t need. Since the world has yet to go “fully digital” when it comes to reading material, it seems that we must suffer for a while without having “buy/borrow as a .txt document” as an option for our local libraries or book stores. On the bright side, books are very small compared to mp3s, and music is pirated very often. Therefore, the potential to download books that you buy is very possible, although spotty. For example, I purchased “Atlas Shrugged,” but found that reading it incrementally on SM was more fun than carrying the big book around with me. I was able to find Atlas Shrugged online with little trouble, now I’m currently reading it through SM.

Where traditional reading is more of a lecture, incremental reading is more of an organic dialgue. Granted, the text no longer retains its form, it gets “chopped up” rather quickly (Like clipping out parts of a magazine article that you like), but we want knowledge in our head, not pretty looking words on paper. This philosophy has made me enjoy reading much, much more. (I recommend you read more about incremental reading, it echos the sentiments expressed here. Also, I don’t want to write what has already been written).

But another expriment that I started about a year ago (That I believe conclusively works) was to see if semi-knowledge put into Supermemo could create subtle changes in my personality and thought-process. You mention putting inspirational quotes into Supermemo, and this is pretty much what I did, but I went about it in a different way. Everyone makes decisions based on principles. Someone might see someone else in need, if they are raised as a Christian, they might think “Do unto others…” so they decide to help that person out. Others might operate on a different principle, which would lead to a different action. The question was “could I take those different principles, put them into SM, and just like the idiomatic expressions, when that principle would come into play, would such principles come to mind, and give more options when making decisions?” I believe that the answer is ‘yes.’

For example, one could take key phrases from various philosophy or religious books (That are deemed useful and beneficial by the user, of course), put them into SM, and over time would have such views of the world at their disposal; whether or not they are adopted is up to the user. Therefore you do not have to adopt the philosophy to undersatnd it and have it at your disposal. For example, I have a number of quotes from Hitler in SM because his twisted mind demonstrates a certain cunning and manipulative evil, which it does good to recognize when seen elsewhere (Even in subtle ways).

So basically SM has become a tool with which I program myself. It has grown to encompass my entire life, and has become my primary means of retaining information about the world around me. I spend about one hour using SM every day. Right now I have about 33,000 active flashcards in my big flashcard “deck.”

  23 comments for “SRS Is the Intellectual Equivalent of a Video Game “Save Point”

  1. あんど
    August 22, 2010 at 00:25

    Well he wasn’t kidding. That was a long comment. 😛 It was really good, though; I just HAD to read the entire thing. 😀 Love that analogy of SRS as save point. I’m gonna have to start thinking of it that way now. The idea of “programming” yourself via the SRS is interesting as well… Hmm…

    Great read, SRS Addict! You’ve got me thinking! 🙂

  2. August 22, 2010 at 05:49

    I’m a Junior in High School who just started Heisig on my road to Japanese fluency.

    I was thinking of using Anki to bolster my other stuff though, such as AP US History or AP Biology.

    It would be insanely convenient to just do SRS every day adding in some new facts and at the end of the year final, remember all the names of the expeditions and what year slavery was abolished with no effort at all.

  3. August 22, 2010 at 06:08

    @Zach: Check out my website for how I used SRS to study in college with ridiculous success. Feel free to e-mail me or post comments with questions.

    This comment gives a fantastic point. Integrating SRS does change perspective on life. It showed me how silly it is to call someone a genius because they are better at memorizing information.

    Awhile ago someone called SRS ‘outsourcing memory.’ That is an accurate description. There’s no longer a worry about IF you can learn material, it’s only about working up the motivation to put it into the SRS. Whenever I was faced with making a stack of 200+ cards for a single class period (anatomy and physiology usually) I thought of myself being the information into my head in the library over many, many hours – then gladly fired up Anki.

  4. August 22, 2010 at 07:55

    Thanks for the great website, Jonathan. I’m checking it out right now, it’s gonna be really useful for my studies.

  5. アメド
    August 22, 2010 at 12:00

    I remember reading his post a while back, really motivational. When I first read this I was so happy/surprised. But now that I’ve gotten far, it’s possible and it’s simple. All you need to do is keep going and don’t look back.

    I plan to apply the srs to my studies this year, In confident now that the srs if capable of so much things.

  6. アメド
    August 22, 2010 at 12:04

    I’ve been meaning to put this up as a comment. Here it is, here’s my own little success story:

    When I first found this site a while back, I was happy that there was someone out there who had success in learning a language. I’ve tried in the past with other languages but to no avail. My past experience with learning Japanese was only from anime(subtitled in English), music and a few books(you know these books, all written in romaji) and 1 class I took a year and half ago. When I took a level 1 Japanese course, I started questioning myself. Will this honestly get my fluent? After careful thinking and going through the entire class from start to finish, it hit me. This wouldn’t get me to a good level, let alone fluency. After my semester finished, I started researching people who have gotten fluent in languages or at least to a good level. A good majority of them said they had to take a lot of classes and even after all those classes they still felt they were lacking in the understanding department of Japanese. As I kept searching for different methods and how did some people get fluent. I eventually found the AJATT site. At first I was in denial, did this guy actually get fluent in the 18months as he said? And if so, how did he actually do it?
    I honestly read your blog from beginning to end; I wanted to see what type of things you did to get fluent. Although very long, it did prove to be very useful. When I read up on the srs, I immediately was interested and after using the software (anki is my choice) I never stopped using it.

    I first got Remembering the Kanji Volume 1 and 3. It took me around 2-3 months to finish. This provided the ability to recognize and write a handful of kanji with ease. Doing the RTK books helped me so much once I reached the monolingual stage of learning Japanese. After finishing RTK, I started on the immersion. At first I didn’t feel any huge improvement. After doing immersion for a while and with the addition of the srs, I started noticing that I can pick out words and then it went to sentences and eventually pretty much the whole thing. When I went onto the monolingual phase, at first I got to admit I wasn’t used to it. But after a while I loved it, it enabled me to understand J-J sentences without any translations. It also enables one to basically understand J-J stuff in general on its own, without ever seeing an English translation!

    I’m not too sure why, but after doing immersion, I eventually started improving with ease. It wasn’t hard, but I did do it daily. I understand why khatz says it should be fun. If it’s fun it will make you do loads of immersion, reading, etc but in Japanese. And you won’t want to stop. But if it becomes work, you’re going to put it down.

    So to put it short, I learned kana, did RTK volume 1 and 3 and then straight onto sentences and vocabulary. Where am I now in Japanese? I’d say not fluent but I’m confident to say that I can pretty much read/understand/listen 90%+ of what I hear now in Japanese (Officially have reached the 1 year mark of learning). I finally understand, you learn by having fun not by “working”. Fun get’s done, work is usual put aside. I’m confident now that fluency is achievable; it’s not hard folks, just keep doing something in Japanese.

    P.S.(90% isn’t as huge, as the language itself contains so much info. It’s impossible to know everything but it’s possible to know a lot)

  7. タイラ
    August 23, 2010 at 03:15

    Great comment/post! Inspirational and informative. How exactly do you put a book .txt file into Anki or another SRS program? I would love to finally finish War and Peace and a few other novels.

  8. terra
    August 23, 2010 at 11:59

    I’d agree with whoever said the SRS is equivalent to ‘outsourcing memory.’ If you think about it, even if it wasn’t the computer shouldering the responsibility, you could use (in theory) paper cards, or even lines in the sand if necessary. I mean, that’s what normal flash cards are — as long as they’re accompanied by a properly calculated retention system. The reason we’re using .exes and not reams of paper is just because it’s far easier and more foolproof to let the computer handle the math.

    For whatever reason, the brain’s ability to retain even information we’d desperately like to hold onto forever naturally degrades. It’s just a fact we have to accept if we’re going to move forward, at least until bioengineering reaches a state of applicable maturity. The SRS is honestly one of the best ways you can use a computer because it’s almost organically multiplying our mental capabilities by a massive, exponential degree, despite being a deceptively simple idea.

  9. August 23, 2010 at 13:28

    Our brain probably does that because well, if we’re not exposed to the info a lot (immersion, repetition), well, do we really need to retain that memory as well as being able to eat and drink or converse?

    That’s why immersion is really important and probably why Khatz always suggests talking to native speakers – aside from the obvious fact that talking to someone Japanese will benefit your Japanese, it also forces you to need to speak Japanese. Necessary things -> become more important -> more rep/practice -> remember things better.

  10. terra
    August 23, 2010 at 14:58

    That’s true. In a way, immersion is taking advantage of the same logic the brain developed to adapt to the development of language tens of thousands of years ago — there’s a kind of evo-psychy component to it, in that language in a society where language is expected becomes an evolutionary advantage. You can survive without being able to speak or understand language, but that’s just it: you can only survive (I think Khatz has actually made something of the same point before.) The magic sauce that puts all the disparate elements gathered from immersion together is the same neural equipment used to learn language for every human being ever; that’s why Khatz stresses that millions of babies learn languages flawlessly, and why we really have to do it the same way as them. We don’t know what the logic of this neural equipment consists of, but that’s probably in part because it delves into metaphysical questions of what language actually is and all other sorts of thorny issues. And we don’t need to, either — babies don’t, they just do it.

    It’s sort of funny the way everyone goes about learning language, because they’re trying all kinds of methods but the one they themselves used to learn their mother tongue; the one everyone uses to learn their mother tongue! It’s really a “…d’oh” moment when someone like Khatz points it out to you, because it’s like, been right there in front of you the entire time… I dunno.

  11. TripleJ
    August 24, 2010 at 15:02


    I remember this post too. If anyones interested, the author has a blog here: which gets updated very infrequently. I’d suggest checking it out if you liked this post.

    @ アメド

    That’s awesome for you man. I quit Heisig and deleted my deck, and then went on to sentences. It’s been a year and a half and I’d say I’m only at 80% comprehension or so. It’s usually enough to get by in any conversation, but i’m definitely not fluent yet.


  12. SRS Addict
    August 24, 2010 at 23:42

    I’ve experimented with the use of Supermemo in various ways (And still continue to do so); I’m always finding new ways of using it to enhance my intellectual life. Once I find something that seems conclusive, I make a post about it in my blog.

    I don’t update my blog frequently because I don’t want to get in the habit of posting stuff for the sheer sake of posting stuff. My policy is: “When I feel that I have something important to say, I’ll say it. Until then, I won’t waste other people’s time.”

    The next post will be about the iPod/iPhone Application/Game “Epic Win,” a to-do list that has a reward system similar to an RPG.

  13. TripleJ
    August 25, 2010 at 00:13

    @SRS Addict

    I think your policy of only writing pertinent information is the best way to go. What I meant to say in my comment was “infrequently updated but awesome blog”

  14. アメド
    August 25, 2010 at 03:40

    Thanks, for me I’ve basically divided my work into different decks. 1 is vocab, 1 is sentences and 1 is production deck(contains hesig kanji, plus production cards going from kana to kanji). I tend to do a lot of srsing and a lot of immersion. And so far it’s been paying off a lot. I think the beginning was the hardest part of this, now it’s pretty much about going forward and succeeding more.
    I’m not fluent as well, but I know now it’s possible and it’s easy actually. But people just tend to make it seem to complicated/difficult.

    For me I can understand the majority of japanese now(things like anime,manga,news,dramas,movies,sons,ett), obviously if you gave me a history novel about pre-war kanji. Then I’d have difficulties, but I aim to know a lot of kanji so it shouldn’t be too bad if i just keep going

  15. SRS Addict
    August 25, 2010 at 11:40

    Yeah, I didn’t take offense to it. I just realized “Wow, it has been more than a month since the last post… it might be good to explain why…”

  16. TripleJ
    August 25, 2010 at 12:55


    It’s actually still important for me to hear that, it’s hard to believe that I’ll be truly fluent some day, but it’s not like I’m going to stop anytime soon. It’s kind of ridiculous, not believing though. Comments from Japanese people have gone from “You’re very good” (上手ですね, which actually is a polite way of saying, “good effort there lil’ buddy!” aka. “wow, you suck but it’s cute that the foreigner thinks he can learn our amazing impossibly mystical language!”) to “you’re normal” to “wtf?!? hold on, hold on, hold on, you weren’t this good two months ago, wtf happened?!”

    So I guess at some stage you just reach boiling point (you could see it as a linguistic version of the technological singularity) and actually can’t improve that much more.

    @SRS Addict

    I’m psyched for the next post. I don’t think anyone would mind if you split from purely SRSing and intelligence, and just wrote about anything you thought was interesting. I mean, what is it 40,000+ cards by now? you must have a come to a ton of crazy ideas and conclusions by now.

  17. アメド
    August 25, 2010 at 14:48

    lol you know I got that same exact thing happened to me. But now when I mention I can pretty much read/understand japanese to that 90% mark(basically means,majority of everything I can understand) and they say “What happened? how did you get that far?!” In the beginning they are polite but that means “you suck” but when you are reaching a level that is close to there’s or ahead, then they will start criticizing you(but this means, you’ve gotten really really far!)

    I questioned myself if I could really understand/read japanese(in the beginning), and at 11months I basically could understand/read sooooo much japanese without ever looking at an English translation!

    If I doubted myself for reading/understanding, the same will happen with speaking/writing. But if I just keep going/improving those, then it will be the same as before. I doubted what I could do, but eventually I succeeded. So fluency is doable, just keep going and keep looking forward!

    Once I become fluent in japanese, mandarin is the next language I will strive to learn.

  18. SRS Addict
    August 25, 2010 at 22:00


  19. アメド
    August 26, 2010 at 13:55

    @SRS Addict

    You sound like me, I tend to add a lot of cards and therefore each of my decks are pretty huge(expect production). Pretty high numbers, close to yours and some even higher. So I’ve also become an SRS Addict, can’t stop using it. Never missed a day(while just 2 but does that really count? lol)

    Finally I know I have gotten far when 常用漢字 have been almost all learned (pretty much 90% percent of it) and now I want to learn a lot of 人名用漢字, maybe all of it if possible(wait that isn’t possible, i think)

  20. terra
    August 27, 2010 at 18:32

    Does anyone experience slowdown if they add so many cards? Anki can be a bit of a slog at the best of times, and my decks rarely break ~1,000 as of late.

  21. August 27, 2010 at 21:30


    Are you using a solid state drive? When switching between my desktop (regular hard drive) and laptop (SSD) there is a significant slowdown. I’ve had a deck with over 2200 cards and tons of pictures without any noticeable slowdown on my desktop.

  22. SRS Addict
    August 28, 2010 at 04:51

    To study kanji I used the book “Remembering the Kanji,” a very useful method. I wish the “Reviewing the Kanji” site existed when I was studying… I believe the first book covers about 2,000 characters, which includes the Joyou kanji. I plan on finishing the third book (RtK 3), which adds 1,000 more kanji to the mix… I just have too many things to do…

    Supermemo doesn’t have separate “decks” or databases, just one big pile of flashcards that are fed to you at random. You can calculate how many cards you have for a particular category (Japanese = xxxx, Chinese = xxxx), but I don’t really keep track of it. Just shovel information into Supermemo, it spits it back out when I need it.

  23. Kimura
    February 2, 2012 at 14:27

    (Two-year necropost go!)
    If Anki is basically the quicksave button in my Japanese Quest, then I think I have a corrupted kanjisave.dat file… I’m about 500 kanji into RTK (the Japanese Level Up deck, which omits little-used kanji and doesn’t account for 6th-edition ones), and while I can remember the first few hundred or so, I’m consistently bombing the more recent ones I’ve done. I look at the keyword, go “wtf is this”, and when I see the answer I facepalm.
    Not sure what I’m doing wrong, besides subconsciously avoiding the もう一度 button (which resets the interval timer) for any card with a “難しい” time of a month or more (aka all of the kanji I’m rolling ones on my Remember checks)…

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