“Your only principle…should be to have no principles.” ~ Robert Greene
SRS changed my life. I love SRS. Read Nutshell, and you’ll find that a third of the material (at this writing) is about SRSing. But as much of an SRS Flatlander as I am, I know, intellectually, that not everyone has to love it or need it. That’s why when an AJATTeer named Chuck Z (whose intellectual close friends get to call him The Real CZ — providing it’s with dignity) intimated that he was learning without an SRS — in a comment on a post about going your own way, no less — I had to hear his story.
SRS is a bit like a rice cooker — used correctly, it guarantees you good results — good rice — on a consistent basis with very little effort on your part. This is especially true when using a “psychoergonomic” SRS — like Surusu — that presents your stats to you in such a way that you can’t feel guilty or overwhelmed. Yeah. Sexy, I know. But it is possible to cook rice without a rice cooker; we ate rice without rice cookers for most of history, and many people swear by the manual way.
As Bob Proctor once said: “It’s not a matter of what’s right or wrong; it’s what works“. More than one thing can work. Rice can be cooked with or without a rice cooker and both ways are “right” and neither way is wrong. Ultimately, what matters is that you have some delicious rice to eat, not how you cooked it.
Anyway, here he is in his own words: The Real CZ, everybody!:
I believe that some language learners treat SRS like people treat the Bible. There are great aspects about both of these things, but if you happen to say something negative about either one, prepare to have people down your throat for going against them.
Once upon a time, I used to be a believer in Anki. However, after time, I felt like Anki was hindering my progress rather than helping it. I started using it in the summer of 2009, when I had just started out learning languages. I came across AJATT as trying to learn by textbooks bored me. I knew that I needed a different way to learn so that I would start learning regularly instead of trying to do exercises in a textbook.
For the first few months, I enjoyed using Anki. It helped me solidify the basics of the language and the very common words. However, I had reached that “intermediate stage,” that stage which seems like you’re on it for eternity. Adding 30 cards a day didn’t seem like it was helping any more. Instead of being the V8 engine that propelled me to the intermediate stage, it became that 1.3L engine with 70 horse power that was keeping me back.
Once you reach the intermediate stage in a language, it becomes so much easier to retain information compared to when you are a beginner. Once I reached the intermediate stage in Korean, I stopped using Anki and changed my method, which has helped me improve at a faster rate than I would have using Anki.
Let me explain why I believe this. I was using Anki when Khatzumoto was pushing the 10,000 sentences method. Let’s say I was adding 20 new sentences per day, all of them with one or two new words and some of them with a new grammar point. Let’s say I was learning 30 new words per day and five new grammar points. It might take me well over an hour to find suitable sentences to add to the SRS, create the cards and review them.
On the other hand, in that same hour, I could have read 500 sentences, looked up 100 words and be introduced to 8 grammar points that I still needed to get more used to. If you try to be “perfect” on those sentences, you spend a lot of time trying to be as correct as possible. However, by simply reading, you come across a lot more words and structures. You may only retain 60% of those words after the first time, but 60% out of 100 words with less effort → 100% of 30 words with more effort.
I treat vocabulary like friendships. You can meet a lot of people, but you won’t know everything about them after one “meeting”. For example, those 60 words that you learned will be reinforced if you keep reading (and listening) a lot. Those other 40 words still have a “connection”. When you look them up again, you’ll be like “Oh yeah, now I remember seeing this word a couple of times before”. It will be easier to remember those words after looking them up a few times.
Some words may only need to be looked up once or twice, others eight to nine times. I know SRS thumpers are probably like “AHA! WE GOT YOU NOW!” However, I still always had leeches when I reviewed sentences in Anki, and those sentences would contain those words that I would have needed to look up eight to nine times anyway.
To reinforce these words, intensive and extensive reading both help. Intensive reading is a natural SRS, as you will see the same vocab and structures over and over again while looking up words. However, it’s very boring unless you’re an upper intermediate learner (B2). Looking up 70% of the words on a page for the first half of the book does suck. However, I have done it for a book and it really helped me.
I also use extensive reading, where I don’t look anything up. That is also like a natural SRS as you are seeing many words and structures in a short period of time, allowing your brain the solidify the knowledge you have already learned.
I also use a method which I call the “Half-Assed Intensive Reading (HAIR)”. It’s the best of both worlds between intensive and extensive reading. With the HAIR method, I look up words that either show up multiple times or if it’s the only unknown word in a sentence I don’t know. You can still read about 80% of the material you would have if you had done extensive reading. You won’t be learning as much vocabulary as you would through intensive reading, but it’s a much more manageable load and since those are the important words in the story, they will be reinforced as you keep reading. You can apply this method to web articles, provided that you regularly read articles about the same topic (ex: entertainment, sports, politics) as much as you can.
I use all three methods of reading, depending on the situation and my mood. I‘m not going to do intensive reading while reading a paperback novel 95% of the time. If it’s a short article on the internet with a few unknown words, I will do intensive reading. If it’s an article where I can only understand 60% of it due to it being something I don’t read regularly, I’ll use the HAIR method.
Just because I don’t use SRS, it doesn’t mean that I don’t follow any of Khatzumoto’s advice. Whenever I’m not reading the Wall Street Journal, crunching numbers in excel, looking up 10-K reports of companies due to being a finance major, I apply Khatzumoto’s other advice. I try to keep my environment “foreign” as much as I can. I am learning Korean, Japanese and Mandarin right now, with Korean being my main focus and the other two being “dabbling languages” that I keep in contact with every day. I have many Korean books around the house and I usually bring one with me to school. I visit a lot of Korean websites when I’m done with the stuff I have to do in English. I watch Korean dramas a loooooooot. I mean a lot. I listen to Korean music all of the time.
I also use Khatzumoto’s other advice, such as working in small chunks (15 minutes a lot throughout the day, or even several 15 minute chunks back-to-back) while doing relaxing things in Korean in between. For example, I may do intensive reading of an interesting article for 30 minutes, coming across many new words and some new sentence structures, spend some time listening to a couple of Epik High songs, and then go find some more articles to read that are interesting and use the HAIR method for 30 minutes. Then I may go watch an episode of a Korean drama. Then I’ll probably do some finance stuff for a little while before going back to Korean.
To conclude this post, I believe it’s good to try someone advice, but if it doesn’t work out for you, discard it or adapt it. Anki just didn’t work for me. Anki may help you and that’s great. However, AJATT isn’t the medieval Catholic Church and Khatzumoto isn’t going to banish me because I don’t worship SRS. SRS made me dislike learning languages, which is why I didn’t make much progress until I ditched it once and for all in late 2011. I started learning more effectively without the SRS and actually started surrounding myself with the language every day, as much as I could in late 2011.
Seeing as how I’ll be entering the world of finance in the future, I can’t say that I can be “fluent in Korean 18 months” because of needing to spend so much of my future time working with statistics and researching companies, but I believe my method will help me attain fluency (C1) within a couple of years in Korean and reach the B2 level or so in Japanese and Mandarin by then. Like Khatzumoto said in his article, it’s just advice. Don’t treat AJATT as a holy scripture. Treat it as an idea factory and try them and continue using the ideas that work for you.