SRS-less Learning

“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.

  24 comments for “SRS-less Learning

  1. Erik
    April 13, 2013 at 00:28

    Hmm this is interesting, it is true that because of adding mcd’s every day I don’t get as much time to read manga as I like. Maybe I’ll take an SRS holiday (still do reviews though) and try it out. I’m also at the intermediate stage (I think?) so I can relate to the feeling of no longer being able to tell if your getting better. Without the feeling of growth it has started to feel like a chore to me. Since I went monolingual it takes more time trying to understand what words are and it adds up to a lot of cards defining other cards. Sometimes the cards get so complicated with words I don’t care about I end up dumping them. I can definitely understand the frustration with srs at the intermediate stage.

  2. Pingfa
    April 13, 2013 at 01:45

    “It might take me well over an hour to find suitable sentences to add to the SRS, create the cards and review them.”
    “Adding 30 cards a day didn’t seem like it was helping any more.”

    This looks to be the problem, methinks. Forcing oneself to add so many cards within so much time is unnecessarily restrictive. The best way to use the SRS is, as Khatz has said before, delete more than you add. Add whatever you want, however many you want. If it becomes a burden, delete. Heck, delete the whole deck if you want.

    For intermediate learners particularly, the SRS is best used as maintenance and not for learning. I do believe the SRS can be of use for everyone if catered to the person – in my case, I SRSed throughout the day while maintaining the immersive environment. Always adding and deleting. I never really ‘reviewed’ the flashcards, just more or less got a glimpse of them and then pushed them back a day, a few days or whatever depending on how quickly I recognized them and wether I had to second guess (which calls to mind: I never used a scoring system. Don’t really see the use myself).
    If you’re reviewing 30 a day and that feels like a burden, try 5, just for mere seconds a day. The rest of the day is freed up to slack off with L2 media.

    I find where SRS is most useful, however, is at the advanced stage when one is more or less technically fluent but still has a lot of catching up to do to a native. Which is why I still have words like 絕緣=Insulation, various commonly known animals like 貓鼬/狐獴=Meerkat, 鯰魚=catfish, and things of various cultural significance in my Chinese flashcards.

    All in all it doesn’t really matter. If you stay interested and keep doing stuff in the language you will get fluent. Just remember there’s always options.

    PS. I just noticed there’s a little smiley face at the bottom-left of the page. Nice. 🙂

    • フレヂィー
      April 13, 2013 at 08:28

      I was about to write something but then read your comment and completely agree.

      When I first heard about the 10,000 method I completely refused it, why, well because I’ve reached fluency in 2 other languages and SRS never had anything to do with it. The only real reason I use SRS in my japanese is for Kanji. With Kanji I am working with something that is more radical than just a different word in a different language, it’s a character that takes multiple meanings depending on the combination.

      I still don’t know what is so hard about understanding that if you just keep at it you will reach your goal. How fast depends on a lot of variables and everyone has a different lifestyle so everyone will reach a goal at different intervals. But… the point is, you will get there.

      SRS I use for quick review and Kanji. Immersion is really the key to reaching the goal.

      Take one thing away from The Real CZ’s article and that’s “INDIVIDUALITY.” He is an individual and his method works for him. Maybe his method works for you too, maybe not, etc. Just try something, anything, if you don’t see progress after some time move on to the next thing.

      I’ve changed my Japanese method 3x since starting and this discarding of methods is really what makes me advance faster and at a pace I like.

    • Livonor
      April 15, 2013 at 06:35

      Lolz, I thought that SRS was rice and beans, now it’s being more polemic than creatine and marijuana. I always used Anki, and I’m currently learning +60 words a day with almost no effort despite having just 1 “free hour” per day. I really can’t understand why this guy was so frustrated while learning just 30 sentences, I usually just spend the weekend popping random sentences with random amount of new words while reading random stuff and learn those sentences in the 5 other days of the week

      • H4
        June 3, 2014 at 23:51

        I hated Anki when I started learning: it looked so basic and boring. And the 10000 sentences method looked like hard work to just find my learning material! 2 things changed my mind: I started using Anki to scramble my kanji just to prompt me to write them down; I found a deck someone had made from Death Note. Then I started finding text dumps online from games I wanted to play (still can’t find Persona 2 though) and mined sentences from that. And I found an add on that can make flashcards out of subtitles and audio from videos (need to try that out).

  3. April 13, 2013 at 12:38

    Great article. I’ve been getting in a rut with Anki SRS as well when it’s a language I’m more familiar with too.

    I can read Japanese well enough now to enjoy comics and the occasional book so Anki now is a hindrance for me. I spent too much time on SRS reps and not enough on making and reviewing cards.

    One the other hand I’m learning Korean and Latin as “dabbling” languages. Anki is still useful for me to learn the basics. At some point I probably “graduate” from SRS university someday. 😉

  4. April 13, 2013 at 13:09

    Correction: ” I spent too much time on SRS reps and not enough on reading things I liked. “. :-p

  5. Cai
    April 13, 2013 at 13:33

    This is really good.

    Now that I’m upper intermediate level, finding and adding enough sentences to make significant progress takes too long, and it’s also like a chore.

    I’ve been vaguely thinking about it already. Now I’m certain that I’m going to switch my focus to reading manga and stuff like that.

  6. b4d0m3n
    April 14, 2013 at 10:19

    Oh, for sure I can see this being frustrating in Korean after a while. I am beginning to take my Korean journey seriously at the moment, but I could see this system being a hindrance at Intermediate levels of learning. I would say it is still the best method for learning Kanji. Once you get to a stage when you can comfortably browse a website or read a comic, you’re picking up those words automatically.

  7. 魔法少女☆かなたん
    April 14, 2013 at 15:19

    I like using SRS flashcards because I know I’ll be getting reading material I mostly understand and can “win” in a few seconds. That feels good and lets me keep a little bit of what I’ve seen before. However, it’s not worth investing too much time into building, and may not even be good for some personality types. Definitely worth trying though.

    This brings me to a thought I had. I’ve committed a certain act of sacrilege by not using Saint Heisig’s Ultimate Method of Kanji, instead learning in a more … ah, inefficient order. I turned out just fine, of course, and enjoyed it quite a bit. But the point is that I think Anglo-American culture in particular is so focused on visible efficiency that inefficient processes are derided, even when they lead to long-term results. For example, employees who spend some of their time on the job talking instead of working are on average more productive then those who just work, but just talking is discouraged. Probably because of that Protestant sadomasochism…er…work ethic.

    The point is, ladies and gentlemen, that inefficiency, for lack of a better word, is good. Inefficiency is right. Inefficiency works. Inefficiency clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.

  8. El
    April 15, 2013 at 02:51

    Why I think including SRS is more efficient than using a method that is SRS-less:

    1) You can’t always lug a book around. But you can always lug your iPhone around.

    2) Today I was watching Back to the Future with my friends, and interpersed that with some reviews. Try reading when Back to the Future is on. This helps you to stay consisten to the principle of always exposing yourself to the language and maintaining momentum for active, more intensive study.

    3) My brain is not always primed to read a book. It takes concentration to read a book and look up words in the dictionary. With SRS, it is just a simple of game of saying the sentence, and then intuiting its meaning. Well it’s simple, but it is still a deep practise of “getting physically used to the language”. That is, it is through this simple, not only do I work out my mouth muscles to get used to smoothly saying things in Japanese (and Hebrew, which I am learning alongside Japanese–I am fluent (not native level thoughー-and I would say I am in the first rung of fluency. I still find it difficult to understand some animes like Hellsing Ultimate (which uses a lot of 専門用語 from the military) in Japanese so I figure what the heck, I’ll learn another language while my momentum in studying Japanese is unstoppable at the moment), recognizing Japanese with my eyes, and even hearing it (albeit imperfectly–I do not have near native fluency in Japanese yet!) and practising recognition of the sounds of my target language as I sound out sentences after sentences.

    I do this with my reading sessions (that is I sound out sentences as I read), but it is definitely a different kind of monster, as reading requires a lot of concentration. It does not have that same kind of simplicity that SRS reviews have that allow for deep practise of getting used to languages physically (this is an idea I built off Khatz’s idea of getting used to languages).

    4) The importance of dead time: a lot of my studying Japanese/Hebrew gets done during the “dead times”. That is, when I am sitting on the train, when I get the runs and have to sit on the toilet, when I am waiting in the line at H and M to buy something, when I am walking to work. You cannot always crack open and a book and walk and concentrate and look up things in your dictionary. Anki and iPhone absolutely changes the game. You just pop up your iPhone, rock out anki, and rock out 20-30 reviews and time box for 5 minutes (I actually rocked out 10 minutes while I was in the can today..had the runs. It was prolly the past I ate). The principle is to get used to your target language physically, and you want this to be as simple, winnable, and frequent if you are striving for longevity and efficiency in your studies.

    5) SRS is simply a net, and sentences/expressions/words are just fishes that you dont want to lose. There are some words and expressions that you will never come across again. For example, you will be hard pressed to find an expression like 付和雷同(following blindly). But with a couple of reviews (with visual–by visual I mean cards that have pictures to associate the expression with an indelible image–aids and dialogical aids to help contextualize the expression and to also give a rough feeling of how to use the expression in the appropriate situation), that expression will stick forever. 付和雷同 is now in my head. Another expression that I can memorize now is this: 元選手は走っている車のドアを開けて道路の上に転がり出る。Too many goodies in this sentence. If I didnt lock this into my brain, I would have said something undescriptive/awkward like 元選手は車のドアをあけて道に落ちた。But since cloze deleting every word in that goodie sentence above, I don’t need to make awkward sentences. I seriously lock that in my brain. Another good one is: 従来であればなくなっていたはずの患者さんは蘇生するようになった。No way will you be able to remember that kind of sentence …because you will never see that again, even if you read a million kajillion books. There are grammatical tricks in that sentence that textbooks or reading normal Japanese sentences will never teach you. This can only be done through the SRS…and the more you do this kind of practise, the more you get familiar with even more complex grammar that you find in Japanese books.

    In the end, we do not have the luxury to do everything in your target language. Face it, you have to work in English, you have to talk to your friends in English, you have to study in English. Japanese native speakers did literally EVERYTHING in Japanese. Talking to their parents, reading manga, watching cartoons, talking to their friends, doing social studies in Japanese, doing Karate in Japanese, using Japanese at work, etc. So naturally an expression like 付和雷同 or Kenichiro Mogi can make a sentence like 元選手は走っている車のドアを開けて道路の上に転がり出る. Sheer exposure and practise for the mouth, ears, eyes and the rest of the body (gestures). They naturally remember words and expressions through their environment (which is more superior to ours for language learning). You need to admit that you do not have that luxury even if you listen to Japanese music, have your OS in Japanese, ahve your facebook in japanese, have yoru iphone to Japanese, watch anime everyday, read Japanese books everyday, and even write a Japanese blog. Its not even half of what they have. SRS mixed with immersion and the momentum that is generated by immersion is the only way to get close to their level.

    • gunner
      January 30, 2014 at 16:01

      Eh…it really just depends on the person. I’m only using Anki for Kanji at this point after being so stuck on it for so many months and I just hate it now. I quit reviewing sentence cards a little after a month of starting and I find the reviews overall to be so dry and boring. It’s simply counter-intuitive to how I learn. I don’t want to build and review cards constantly or mind-numblingly sift through hundreds of out-of-context sentences. It just doesn’t work for me. I find it far more rewarding to just practice speaking, watching shows and anime raw without subtitles, and reading whenever I can. By doing that, I’m doing what the natives are doing, I learn at a much faster pace, and it’s just more fun this way. As for more complex expressions like your examples, I find expressions I hear and then shadow become much more natural and easier for me to use than if I were to just have it drilled into my head with cards. SRS-ing just isn’t for everybody and I can understand how Chuck feels when you bump into SRS elitists who think it’s the most efficient way to learning a language and anything else you’re doing is “inefficient” or wrong. At the end of the day, SRS is only one of the many ways to supplement immersion learning and a spaced-repetition environment can easily be recreated without its usage since it’s just how we naturally learn anyway. Overall, SRS isn’t for everybody. Just my two cents.

      Oh, and books will always be more portable than iPhones. You never have to charge them and they’re a lot cheaper too 😉

  9. Jim
    April 15, 2013 at 05:11

    I can relate so much to this post :O, I’ve also dropped SRS recently. Thank you Khatz for sharing and thank you Chuck Z for writing this.

  10. Rob
    March 11, 2014 at 21:23

    Funny, I said pretty much the same thing as this guy did in a comment on January 17, 2009 on this site. Ironically though, I love using an SRS now more than ever. I use it every day for not only mine, but my kids education as well. Ebbinghaus might not have been right on the money with his curve, but even if he were relatively close, it would be hard to argue against the benefits of spaced repetition.

  11. christina
    May 28, 2014 at 20:18

    I so agree with this post. I don’t think SRS is for me. Yes, it helps me remember a lot of vocabulary, but at the same time its so boring it makes me not want to review anything lol. SRS is maybe good when I have absolutely nothing to do and I’m feeling in the mood to do it, which is once in a while, but not every day.. Reading has been more effective more me I think. Although there is less vocabulary learn, I enjoy it more.

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