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SRS and Kanji Study: What Is An SRS? 2

OK, so I decided to write an extension of this explanation, which you might want to read first, if you’re not already familiar with it.

Here’s the deal. What’s the usual way you try to remember, say a Chinese character (kanji, hanzi, whatever)? Write it out a kajillion times, right? Brutal, medieval, ineffective. That may have worked for Frances Xavier with oodles of time and church money, but it won’t work for the kid like you or me who wants to actually learn something to a high level in a practical amount of time. By practical I mean “only a fraction of the number of years you have been alive”.

By now you’re asking: “what snake oil are you selling, Khatzumoto?”. Shut up and listen.

That kanji that you’re trying to break your arm with by writing over and over again? You’re probably going to forget it tomorrow. By next week, that sucker will be gone. Not because of some wicked, intentional long-term social engineering project to make kanji difficult and keep the masses illiterate (a load of bull, by the way, especially since some of the most literate societies in the world were and are kanji-using societies), but because of the nature of human memory. Besides, you don’t truly need to remember that kanji tomorrow, but in 6 days, and 6 months and 6 years.

Why do you remember your own name? Because your mother sat you down one day and said it to you a thousand times until it had been indelibly etched into your little toddler memory? Because your name is special and powerful and beautiful and unique? No, and, no.

You have heard, read, written and said your name many times, not all at once but spread out over time. That’s the key to remembering something. Not cramming–not concentrating repetitions, but spacing them. Basically, if you hear or read something at the right spacing over time, you will remember it better and better. And the cool thing is that this spacing grows over a time. After a while, this space of time can grow so long as to go beyond the duration of your natural life. Put simply, even if you stopped writing, saying and hearing your own name today, and didn’t hear it again until the day before you died, you would probably still remember it.

How do you get something repeated to you over time until it’s as natural to you as your name? Well, you can do all the time and spacing management/calculations by yourself, or you can get a program to do it for you. That kind of program is called an SRS (spaced repetition system). It will choose when to show you (test you on) information.

If you want to remember that kanji, you need to review it today…tomorrow…in a week…in 2 weeks…in a month, and so on. You need to practice gradually over time, not binge on it. Writing out kanji hundreds of times is good for practicing your form and stroke order, it will help you get nice-looking kanji (it helped me), but it’s l-o-u-s-y for memorization.

Which SRS should you use? It doesn’t matter. They all basically do the same thing. Just use one.

  37 comments for “SRS and Kanji Study: What Is An SRS? 2

  1. Rob
    May 18, 2008 at 14:50

    Thank you for this post Khatz. I’ve been using an SRS (Anki) for around 7 months now, and I think I may be harder on myself in terms of grading than I should be. For example, even when I remember something easily, I rarely will grade myself with a 4 for “Easy” thinking that it will be more beneficial if I just grade it “about right.”

    I guess my question is, with your experience, do you think that I’m slowing myself down in doing so? You’ve remarked before about being somewhat of a perfectionist; did you also encounter this self-grading dilemma?

  2. Chris
    May 18, 2008 at 18:22

    “Shut up and listen”…?

  3. Savara
    May 18, 2008 at 20:43

    Just yesterday I told a language teacher (greek and latin) about the whole SRS thing. He said “I knew about word-practicing software, but I’ve never heard of something like that!” and he was amazed… I really hope he’ll try it out, and maybe recommend it to his students.

    It’s just so difficult to understand that it isn’t more widely used, because it works so well.

  4. mzmz
    May 18, 2008 at 23:56

    So far my favorite srs is the khatzumemo (which I’ve found here) because it has a very basic and clear interface and is accessible from pretty much anything. 😉

    Only three things were bothering me about khatzumemo up until now:

    * delays – even if I press 5 immediately I still need to wait a few seconds for the next question to load (and after going through hundreds of reps it gets a little bit annoying). Maybe if the user could specify if that page between questions (with stats etc) should appear or not would possibly speed things up a little bit? Or an AJAX interface?

    * exporting the data – it would be nice if “view all items” had that info we can see between questions (lapses, easiness, interval, added, etc) which would make it easier to rip the data if one has to later. You said you plan implementing an export feature so I don’t worry that one so much now. 😉

    * even when learning Japanese-related info there are different categories one may want to divide the questions into. Like kanji, sentences, trivia etc. Not to mention other laguages. It would be really cool if questions had categories or “tags” like on youtube.

    Many of us are trying to program our own srs (based on the sm2 algorithm) for fun so if you could write a short article about srs-coding pitfalls and some tips on how to do it properly we would really appreciate it.

    That’s all, sorry about the long wish list. All the best. 😉

  5. Chiro-kun
    May 19, 2008 at 09:00

    Is it just me or does an SRS work better for 単語 over sentences? :O

  6. May 19, 2008 at 23:18

    Have recently been trying to explain the usefulness of an SRS to some fellow Japanese learners. This post was very succinct and clear. Well done. Now I can just send them directly to this post. Thank you.

  7. Frances Xavier
    May 20, 2008 at 01:14

    “6 days, and 6 months and 6 years”

    This blog… it is heresy!

  8. sarius24
    May 20, 2008 at 03:02

    Somtimes I just want to get on top of a soap box and tell people in my school in Québec on how they shuld be using an srs to improve their french. Basicly most kids suck at it especially in english schools.

  9. Drew
    May 20, 2008 at 13:55

    Great post Khatz!
    I started with my Kanji studies about 2 weeks ago, and have used Anki to memorize all of my Kanji thus far. I am a little confused as to if I am doing it correctly although, I’ve been using Heisig’s “Remembering the kanji” as my source of learning the Kanji, but so far i can only associate the Kanji with the english word and was wondering if I should be learning the japanese verbal equivalent as well.

    Anyways, I am very grateful to this blog, it has inspiried and help guide me to start my Japanese learning, Keep it coming!

  10. May 20, 2008 at 22:01

    A quick question, Khatz:
    Somewhere you wrote that after 1000 sentences or so you should switch over to Japanese-Japanese sentences. My question is: did you put these sentences in the Japanese-English database or did you make a new one?

  11. May 20, 2008 at 23:44

    Hey Khatz: Repetition (though not SRS’s) gets a nice shoutout here: (in the memory section, where he has some proposals about improving schools as well).

  12. sarius24
    May 24, 2008 at 22:05

    Lets get some audio or video now Ù_Ú plz XD

  13. khatzumoto
    May 26, 2008 at 22:56

    I had them all in one DB.

  14. ~
    August 19, 2008 at 06:23

    Haha, I used to hate writing out characters over and over again, which was what I was encouraged to do during Chinese school. I still do, at least when it’s doing the same character 320948230594242395 times in one sitting/day/week. But when I started learning Chinese again (note that these are traditional characters since my mom is from Taiwan… she always says that “simplified chinese is not real Chinese!”) I started to actually like practicing writing them. What I used to do was just learn to recognize them, maybe write it a few times for my memory. Now when I learn a new character, I get out the good old writing sheets and repeat it throughout the day until I’m satisfied with my handwriting. Just so I don’t forget it, I then write that character out on every whiteboard in the house every week or so. I just love showing off mah skillz, yeah? 😛 But I definitely agree with not getting a cramp from writing the same character for like… hours… and then expect to have it in your memory.

  15. Lorenzo
    September 28, 2008 at 06:16

    Hey Khatzumoto,

    Thanks a lot for this site, I’ve discovered it a few days ago, and although I’m studying Chinese (Mandarin), it’s really helpful, with a few changes here and there because of the differences between Japanese/Chinese of course.

    Although I know you’ve said a few times that it doesn’t matter which SRS you use, as long as you use one, I am still wondering if you could write how Khatzumemo compares to Anki (and Mnemosyne).

    I was first using Mnemosyne, but now I also want to use SRS on other PCs and on my phone, so I was searching for an alternative, which brought me to Anki.
    Which looks really cool and all with the nice interface and all extra options.. but many extra options always make me wonder if it’s making up for something if you know what I mean. I like simple things. So maybe KhatzuMemo is the good middle way to go?

    I saw in one of the articles that you’ve started using Anki to study Cantonese because you can use audio files, have you totally switched to Anki? or are you using it next to KhatzuMemo?
    Maybe some pros and cons between Anki/KhatzuMemo would be nice to read.

    Thanks a alot for your time 🙂


  16. Rae
    February 20, 2009 at 23:21

    Oh my goodness! I’ve been searching forever for a system like this! I just didn’t know what it was called. Thank you so much!! Now I can stay more on top of my studies…

  17. Jim
    August 19, 2009 at 00:29

    Thanks for this post, Khatzumoto.
    I hope I can learn faster and better using your advice and also others’.
    This blog has inspired many people including me.
    I love how what you say about SRS.
    It’s so efficient to learn Japanese in SRS system. You don’t have to type or go into this website again and again.

    Thanks again. 🙂

  18. Walid
    September 22, 2009 at 06:09

    Hello Khatzumoto!

    Well before everything, a HUGE thank you is the least I can say, especially if you know that I tried billions of sites or/and techniques to learn japanese, and linguistic immersion happens to be the most simple, yet, the most effective. I don’t really know if you have already been asked this question, nor if there is an answer for it somewhere in the site. But when it comes to learning kanji, which of those orders would be the best to follow:
    Learning kanji by key, or strarting from the most simple to the most complicated, or starting from the most used words, or learning the kanji of every new word I learned? The last would probably be the best, but your confirmation is always welcome!
    P.S: I actually randomly learn them, which means: I learn the easiest from the new words I learn.

  19. drhormon
    April 1, 2010 at 19:56

    Hi khatzumoto! Thank you for your blog. It is inspiring, no doubts.

    A technical question regarding the SRS software. Can you address the source of flashcards with kanji’s? I understand that there are resources of kanji’s on the net, no matter commercial or for free. Am I right?
    I do not believe that in order to use SRS I have to enter each kanji into the software. Could you advice on that please? Can anyone help withthis access?

    Thank you.

  20. May 7, 2011 at 09:11

    Khatz… two years ago you changed the way I look at language learning forever. Being immersed in the language, having fun, reading, playing videogames, watching TV, talking and listening to people… you know, that’s how I learned English (I’m from Colombia), and that’s also how I want to learn Japanese!

    Muchas gracias por todo Khatz!! 😀

  21. Suisei
    December 28, 2011 at 08:06

    I’m actually still on Hiragana ( I know most of the basics one but not the combinations and Ten Ten..ect)
    I tried using the Remembering the Kana with the Hesig method and I don’t understand it. Maybe just using the SRS will help then. 😮

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