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Spaced repetition: Never forget vocabulary ever again

| 81 comments | Category: learning languages, Tool and Resources

On Monday (17th) I’ll be releasing the Language Hacking Guide [Edit: it's available for download now!] with a detailed account of the unconventional methods I use to keep my progress and positivity up when starting to learn a strange new language, speak it my first week, and the techniques I use to reach fluency quickly and get along with native speakers while doing so (either travelling or from home), all of which can be applied by anyone. The guide includes over 30,000 words and hours of fascinating audio interviews with some of the Internet’s best known language learners, as well as worksheets, transcripts, tons of free resources, e-mail updates and more!

But it will be growing and getting updated. I’ve learned a lot in the last 7 years of trying to rapidly pick up new languages, but what has always helped more than anything has been openness to new techniques.

In today’s post I want to share with you a technique I started using just a few weeks ago that has totally transformed my vocabulary learning approach!

SRS: Spaced Repetition System

SRS is a presentation method that gives you the information before you would forget it and makes sure that it stays constantly fresh in your mind. So, you might see a word a few minutes after the first time, then a few days later, then a few weeks later etc. always at the time you need to see it most to make sure it is constantly fresh in your mind.

It’s a more complex version of the flashcard system where you have a word on one side of a card and its translation on the other. You look at the word, test yourself to see if you know it and turn over the card to see the translation. You couldn’t get more low-tech than that even if you tried, but SRS uses 21st century technology to make this possible while considering the time dimension.

So how would a guy like me who hates studying indoors, definitely dislikes flashcards and already has a pretty good learning strategy, be interested in software for improving recall of vocabulary?

Finding the time to study

Like many people, I’m a busy guy! I’m trying to work, write a book, dramatically improve my level of a language, have a social life and grocery shop/clean/sleep/eat/write blogs & e-mails/exercise etc. every day. But there are ways to make time – get it back from the time spent waiting.

Note: the next paragraphs are taken from the Language Hacking Guide

You wait for the bus/metro/train to arrive, you wait in it while going to work/school or home, you wait in the supermarket queue/line, you wait in a traffic jam in your car, you wait when ordering coffee in the morning, you wait for your water to boil if you prepare it yourself, you wait for your friend to arrive, you wait at the doctor’s/dentist’s, you even wait for a minute or two in lifts, elevators, at traffic lights, when waiting for something to load on your computer, for someone to answer the door after you knock etc.

In most of these situations you may be alone – so if you can’t talk to someone, what do you do? Stare into space? Read advertisements around you? Twiddle your thumbs? Press the pedestrian cross or lift button again in frustration that nothing has happened yet? These little segments of our day fly by unutilised and actually add up to a huge amount of time wasted. You can’t avoid these situations – they are natural parts of your day.

For most people, these little segments are annoyances – why is the other person so late? Why does there have to be so many people ahead of me in the supermarket? Why did my computer have to crash to be rebooted now of all times? Waiting in frustration is simply what we end up doing – considering how much time per day we spend doing this, this is an unneeded source of stress!

I actually don’t mind when these occasions arise! Seriously – if someone is arriving a little late, or if I just missed the bus and the next one won’t come for 15 minutes, or the Internet goes down and I can’t work – rather than cursing at my “bad luck”, and adding stress to my life by being angry during this time, I think to myself – great! Another chance to study some vocabulary!!

Improving on the old-school method

For several years, in these situations I would take out my phrasebook, or pocket vocabulary book for these moments, open it up to a random page and learn whatever I saw. Sometimes I’d see a word I never did before and sometimes I’d see something I needed to review and had already long forgotten and need to relearn rather than just remind myself. It did the job but to be honest, in retrospect it was inefficient and sloppy. (Although, if you learn by listening, these moments are good times to take out your MP3 player and press play!)

Randomly or even systematically going through vocabulary in order like this means that you might not review the hardest words when you need to, or you’ll keep seeing the easy words too often, or you’ll forget words because you didn’t review them for a very long time.

SRS answers all of these issues by letting you decide when you should see a word again based on certain criteria (usually, how hard you felt it was). So the easy words are pushed way off into the future, the hard ones keep constantly reappearing until you are finally happy with them, and the middle-difficulty ones will reappear just when you need them most, to refresh your memory.

Deciding when to study a word again when you see it in a printed list is too hard, but that’s where technology comes in!

Anki

Anki is an application developed by Damien Elmes for reviewing things you need to learn, using SRS. Not just vocabulary, but city/country capitals, medical terminology, a script for a play etc. Anything you need to apply to memory really!

It’s a completely free download (or low-bandwidth website) and works on Windows, Mac, Linux and even on mobile phones!

On the surface, the program does more or less what you would expect from a flashcard – it shows you a word with no translation (the word can be either in your native language or in the target language) and you can decide if you know what it means. Then press “Answer” and it will show it to you.

If you thought it was super easy, press the button on the right (which includes a distant time factor, depending on how you reacted to the word in previous attempts), if you had absolutely no idea press the button on the left (it will reappear very soon), and otherwise press one of the other buttons. I like having 4 levels to decide how “easy” I thought it was, and I use each one accordingly.

If it sounds drastically simple, that’s because it is! The most important part of the interface is actually pretty much just that (as you can see on the iPhone screenshot I took; similar on other systems) – the impressive part of all of this is actually the algorithm working in the background to decide precisely when to show you the words.

You don’t really have to think about that aspect though, since the system covers it for you. All you have to do is think about the word and then grade it on difficulty (hardest one if you’ve never seen it before).

Using the program

There are broadly two ways to use this application and they depend mostly on the resources available to you. Everyone can use it for free on their computer, and you can simply decide to devote 30 minutes a day to using it and make sure to set aside that time every day.

A huge amount of people have been recommending this program to me since I started this site, but I dismissed it as “not for me” without really trying it, because of how I dislike flashcards and generally don’t like sitting down to study. If you have that focus, you will get a lot of use out of this program!

Based on the time-wasting description above, you can guess where I do my studying! On the go! You can see in the post’s main picture that I even swipe it out for 2 minute waits before crossing the road!

I happen to have an iPhone (invested in it just before my laptop broke and replacing it meant I suddenly couldn’t afford to have bought an expensive Apple device, and still can’t, but that’s a sob story for another day) which is jailbroken, but if you have an Android device or Nintendo DS you can also use Anki offline (no Internet access required). If you have any other portable device that can access the basic webpages (modern mobile phone, Palm device, Sony PSP etc.) either by wifi or 3G/Edge (mobile phone network), then you can use the Anki system that way too (on a very low bandwidth website).

The way I did this was as follows: Install Anki on your computer, then download “decks” of prepared vocabulary sets to study in the language you are working on (on the Decks screen click Download – there are lots already waiting for free download!). You can also prepare the vocabulary yourself based on words you want to study, as explained in this video. If you don’t have the right mobile device, then stick to this computer interface and use it to study the words whenever you have time. Its use is pretty self-explanatory, but here are some videos of how it works.

If you can make it more portable, next thing to do is to create an account on Ankionline and then to synchronise your computer’s Anki with the online version (File –> Sync). Then install Anki on your mobile device and synchronise with the same account (you only have to necessarily do this once, then just use your mobile device and ignore the computer version until you need more material to study). If you don’t have the particular devices that allow for offline access, but can access the Internet on your mobile device, just go directly to the Ankionline page and use its low-bandwidth interface to learn from.
The set-up takes a few minutes but then you just have to open the program and use it whenever you can! All the little minutes add up very quickly. Since I haven’t found some websites too helpful for learning vocabulary, I’ve done most of my “studying” over the last weeks in Berlin’s U-Bahn, on buses and in cafés/supermarkets etc. without ever carrying any books with me!

SRS must be used with other learning strategies

Despite how obviously enthusiastically I’m sharing this system with you, it is important to be aware of the fact that it is just one way to acquire new vocabulary. The best way by far is to hear and apply it in context with native speakers. Even if you “knew” all the vocabulary in the world you still wouldn’t be able to actually apply it in actual conversations if you didn’t work on other skills important to language learning (which I discuss a lot in the Guide).

Since you are usually hearing words in isolation (although it’s possible to include example sentences), it means you have no context and this is quite an artificial way to learn words, as simple translations of something from your mother tongue, rather than understanding how to use the word itself. You can’t learn any language just by learning translations. Someone using too much SRS would not necessarily be any further along compared to someone using other strategies.

On top of this, just looking at the word is not enough and SRS can turn into nothing more than a fancy version of rote learning by pure repetition if you don’t think harder while using it. If you are exposed enough times you will be forced to remember it, but what I prefer is to try to make an image association of the word and/or to think of an example to use it in and say that to myself, so that I use it in its right context. This way I’m much more likely to remember it next time.

SRS by itself is far from perfect, but if you use it while thinking independently too, its potential is much greater. I’m sure lots of you know the feeling that you have learned a word, and you are sure of it, but you just can’t say it. This may simply be because it’s been too long since you reviewed that word, and using SRS a few minutes a day will make sure that all words you use in the system will never be neglected if you use it right.

Another thing to take into account for learning words efficiently and avoiding forgetting them is to avoiding learning the vocabulary only one way: foreign language to native language, focusing on recognition rather than production. This focus means a lot of people understand languages but are at a loss when the time comes to speak them. In this case, it’s important that you see words appear in SRS for translation to the foreign language too.

When used on a computer, you can acquire single-word vocabulary very quickly (it works easily with the keyboard 1,2,3,4 & space keys for quicker navigation than with the mouse) if you set aside 30 minutes a day to review words. And in its mobile form you can take advantage of time that you would otherwise waste, to improve your vocabulary!

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I interviewed the Anki developer Damien as part of the audio for the Language Hacking Guide, to understand SRS better, and he is going to continue to develop different versions of this open-source software for people to enjoy. Give it a try!

If you have experience with Anki or other applications that apply SRS let us know! Has it helped, or do you prefer other systems for vocabulary? People also use it for learning scripts such as Kanji, and you can add audio and pictures if you feel that would help!

Wish me luck for Monday! I’ll have an extra bonus for the first people to get a copy of the Guide. I’ve been working for about 6 weeks full time total to produce this and share it with the world! You can see that I haven’t been posting regularly to the blog because of that, so hopefully that will change soon! I’m looking forward to releasing it into the wild :)

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  • http://twindie.net NielDLR

    I use Anki for studying Chinese as an on the side thing after my University work. Haven't got the time recently to keep up with it. But it is really useful!

  • http://rhinospike.com Peter (rhinospike.com)

    A way to help keep the words in context is to mostly put sentences in your Anki deck rather than individual words. You're right in that you still need to use other techniques, SRS alone won't do it, but with SRS you will retain the words you study better.

  • 漢語學生

    I used Anki for Chinese (now more than 1,000 sentence items, all with audio).
    It works really great, but as you say: you don't want to sit in front of your home pc to make this SRS stuff, you want to use you idle time while you are on the go! And if you are on vacation and do not have internet (quite normal in Southern Europe), after return Anki piled up hundreds or more than 1,000 items for review. This is quite discouraging. The problem is that all mobile solutions are not able to play audio or need to jailbreak the device or need mobile internet access.
    So I switched with all my sentences to “Flashcards Deluxe”, a cheap, but very powerful iPhone app from http://orangeorapple.com , it has everything: SRS, editing, categories, browsing (!), audios, images (without any web access!). Now my SRS usage is much higher than before: during breakfast, in the park or café, in bed, on vacation, in the supermarket queue… And with audio, you sometimes wake up and you start saying these SRS sentences, it's also a way of more immersion – the more sentences the better!

  • http://www.fluenteveryyear.com/ Randy (@Yearlyglot)

    This sounds like something I came up with on my own when I was learning Russian last year. I found a frequency list of the 5,000 most commonly-used words in Russian, listed (naturally) in order of frequency. I arranged them all into a three-column format and printed them out. (If you're wondering, 5000 words fit on 28 pages.) Naturally, this wasn't as easy to carry with me as an iPhone, but it fit into my computer bag so I usually had the list when I was going to and from work, etc.

    Every time I studied the list, I started at the top. This worked well, since those words at the top are more likely to be encountered. I would look at a word, and if I KNOW that I know it, I'd cross it off. If I think I know it, but I'm not sure, I'd put a mark next to it. And if I just didn't feel confident at all, or if I had no clue what it meant, I would leave it alone. Next time I was near a computer, I'd look up the ones with the marks next to them, and verify that I was right — but I wouldn't cross them off until my next pass through the list.

    I managed to learn over 3,500 words of Russian vocabulary in one year this way, which is a number I was quite satisfied with, even though I fell short of my goal, which was to learn all 5,000. I can see a lot of similarities between that and this SRS idea. In fact, it sounds like basically the same thing, with just a few minor differences…

    I didn't include definitions anywhere in or on the list. If I don't know the word, I refuse to learn it in a flashcard manner. That creates more work, of course, because I have to take the time to look words up and get context and extra definitions… but that's all easy to do from my iPhone.

    One final note, which you didn't mention in your post, but which I think is extremely important to keep in mind with systems like this… it is essential that you are honest with yourself when you use it. If you lazily claim to know something rather than letting it repeat, you can cheat yourself out of learning it properly.

  • http://twitter.com/jkthos Guillaume Danielou

    I've been using Anki since January to learn Japanese Kanji and I've already memorized 750 with the help of Remember the Kanji by Heisig.
    Anki really changed my vision on how to learn a language. The best way is to add full sentences so you learn vocabulary, grammar and conjugation at the same time, and audio to get the pronunciation. Never add sentences when you don't know more than 2 words. It will gradually get more difficult with time.

  • Quokka

    I'm using Anki for weeks. Great piece of software!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Yeah, I'm really enjoying it!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Good advice!! Thanks Guillaume :)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Yeah, your system with paper seems somewhat similar to SRS (only the algorithms force you to see a word at exactly the right time, otherwise marking them as easy/middle/hard is a good alternative if you use paper!)
    It's true that the biggest problem with any system like this is the user actually implementing it :P

  • Bruno Oliveira

    Obrigado pela dica, Benny! Estou estudando alemão e tentarei utilizar essa ferramenta para aprender mais vocabulário.
    Abraço!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Good point! I've been using a lot of the downloadable Anki decks, but I should start creating my own now that I'm familiar with how it works :)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Thanks for pointing that out! Damien Elmes also told me that he's developing an iPhone app (not just for jailbroken phones as is the current situation), so that might include some of those features.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Nada! ;) Eu aprendi bastante com Anki, espero que te ajude!!

  • http://molista.blogspot.com/ Glavkos

    Awesome post Benny ….I have heard about Anki , but never tried to use it actually. I use Smart.fm , which I find quite helpful. But now I am thrilled about Anki and I already joined the Greek translation team in Launchpad, so we can have soon a Greek version of this program….

  • http://twitter.com/tetrisruso Darya Shashkova

    Hi Benny!

    I also use the Anki application but only at the computer. You gave me the great idea to pass it to my mobile device!!!
    Well, studying chine I prefer my paper cards :), made by my own cause it seems more helpful for me. But it's very useful for romanian language that I'm studying too.
    And I didn't know that you can create your vocabulary there. Thanks for the information!
    Good luck with your guide! Waiting for it!!

    Saludos!! :)

  • http://bakunin-learns-thai.blogspot.com/ Bakunin

    I hate SRS and the whole idea of learning words or phrases by force-feeding them into your brain. I did flashcards and Anki for years with French, and it has resulted in stilted, unnatural speech. It has also resulted in strong associations of French words and phrases with my mother tongue, German. But French is not German, and French words are not translations of German words. Neither are French sentences mere translations of German sentences. French sentences are French sentences, and their way of saying things might have no direct counterpart in German at all. Translating back and forth results in unnatural speech.

    Some people might argue that you could use SRS in a monolingual way. But then you're much better off just reading and listening and watching TV in order to get exposure to the language areas that interest you. The mix and repetition of words and phrases in native material is just perfect, there's nothing to improve upon.

    As a last point, I'd like to suggest that our adult desire to nail the exact meaning down at the first encounter of a new word or phrase is at odds with how language works and limits our ability to acquire second languages in the long run. Words and phrases are embedded in a dense semantical web. It's almost impossible to define all the connotations and usage patterns for individual words accurately, and mapping this web from, say, French to German, just doesn't work. What you have to do in order to acquire the meaning, connotations and usage patterns of words is to observe them in the circumstances they are used. Over and over again. The meaning has to grow slowly, making all the complex connections in the semantic web. The subconscious part of your brain will sort everything out in due time, and eventually the words will just pop up naturally. If you shortcut this by using SRS, you're anchoring the L2 web in your L1 web, making wrong connections to start with.

    (Softening note: As a piece of software, Anki is very well designed, and I respect Damien for his programming skills and his generosity in developing a free application that makes a lot of people enthusiastic. In particular, the support for non-latin scripts in Anki is just great!)

    • Clayton

      Reading this, your issue seems to be more your application of srs rather than the technolog itself. I remember reading Khatzumoto at AJATT – all Japanese all the time and he has shared various techniques and methods that he has personally employed to use SRS ONLY in the desired L2 language- native media, like songs and movie clips as well as sentences input from native sources, such as news articles online, etc. I don’t recall the most effective learners relying solely on set phrases or individual vocab after the basic level.

      I am starting to try to insert particularly interesting clips -audio only – from televion series I enjoy and either with OR without accompanying transcript. I would make each clip no longer than 15 seconds and only do so if I found a personally interesting usage; one that I know, immediately upon hearing, that I’d want to take the time to input and use and internalise. I find TV is a pretty good indicator of natural speech as far as fictional enterprises go. Also, I am doing an interview project and want to begin to take audio samples from that and use both audio and my own – German native audited- transcript, but I have just left Germany for six months so it will be harder to search for Native speakers.

  • Warp3

    I've been using Anki for about 2.5 months now (for Korean) and I honestly regret not starting with an SRS much sooner. Using an SRS has notably cut down on the “wait, I know I've seen that before…hmm…but I don't remember what it means now” moments.

    Also, since I use Anki on 3 different computers, I love the fact that it can easily keep the decks synchronized. (Well…except for media content, which Anki doesn't sync for bandwidth and Anki server storage reasons, so I just sync the media folders manually via a USB drive whenever needed. Fortunately, only my Hanja character cards currently use media (so I can include an image showing the proper stroke order), so I don't have to do this very often anyway.)

  • bakuninzh

    Clayton, you're right: I question the 'standard' application of SRS to learn vocabulary, as shown in the picture above in Benny's post (“der Aufbau” – “structure”).

    I can see what you suggest. But why would you need to put movie clip sequences or songs into an SRS? If you like a song, listen again; if you want to watch a movie clip again (because you like the content or you want to repeat the vocabulary used or for whatever other reason), watch it again. Do you need Anki to tell you when to listen to what song? That seems to me a rather strange arrangement :)

    The idea that you hear something and you just need to put exactly this piece of audio or video into your SRS is also not quite clear to me. If it's general usage (maybe restricted to a particular area of interest like biochemistry or gangster rap) you will encounter it again and again, and you will pick it up soon enough. If it's not used widely, why would you want to 'internalize' it?

  • http://friedelcraft.blogspot.com/ chris(mandarin_student)

    Wasted time agreed, definitely use it no doubt. Don' t stress also agreed a while ago I stopped watching clocks, I glance at them for sure to give a day some regularity but if stuck in traffic and I will be late for work or similar I do not look at the clock (I can't make the traffic jam go away) and yes language study or open a technical book on my Ipod to fill in time etc. Or do mental excercises. Need to be at an interview or something then I arrange to get there 45mins early, find a coffee house nearby and study for half an hour nice and relaxed. Clocks no longer RULE my life even though they may think they do, somebody somewhere would call this a life hack ;).

    Get your brain sorted enough and you can use dead time to solve problems for upcoming work, outline a report in your head so when you get to a computer you can 'regurtitate' most of it, do this right and you can do some of your work in your head on the bus or the tube or in the supermarket and have a less stressy time at work. Many professionals do this also I have even met some people who have a systematic approach to it (I am kind of sloppy but I can write on and place sticky notes in a few places around the inside of my head and I can store a fair few paragraphs of dictation in my medium term memory and spit them out when I get the chance) I guess most people can learn these type of things with practice and you don't need a device. A fair number of people already utilize dead time. So dead time is not just for language learning, in fact I remember being given dead time strategies as part of my training long long ago when working in a sales role.

    For languages, memorize poems or songs or jokes or sayings, but don't memorise them by rote, just the gist. If you understand the thing you are interested in then when dead time comes go over it again think about it, make your own version, memorise your own version by rote in dead time, get more dead time keep working on it, refine it, when you get a chance check it against the original, can you make it better. Tell it to a speaker of the language when you meet them, write in in an email, get feedback, is your version natural, is it funnier etc. etc. You can take input and convert it to output in dead time. Lots of options.

    I like the SRS idea, but for me if I get the time or inclination Chinese characters give me enough to play around with on an Ipod in themselves. Whilst shopping though I would have Chinese or Thai playing all the time, hit the checkout queue and it just gives me a chance to concentrate a little harder, my turn in the queue and I just pull out one earphone and let it in one ear for a bit (in a Chinese shop of course I would ditch the the earphones, far more interesting things potentially to listen to).

    I don't discount the phrasebook any longer though talking phrase books on an Ipod or Iphone are terrific, audio and text at a finger tap, I find it is important that they have a search facility though, then in the early stages you can look up a common word and get all the phrases that contain it (start learning about sentance structure and make guesses about how to hack bits into your own sentences).

    Dead time usage is an import step towards effortless language learning for me, effortless does not mean you don't have to do anything it simply means that you have found a way to make it happen, a way that largely keeps going of its own accord, occaisonal bursts of joy, occasional despair, occasional review and redirection but basically it just rolls on.

  • boaby

    @Benny
    This probably ain't the right place to do this, but I found the perfect title for yer Language Guide (or at least a chapter of it) – “Leave me alone! Can’t you see I’m learning your language?”.
    It's the title of an old article by field linguist Greg Thomson @ http://www.languageimpact.com/articles/gt/leave… . I think you'll get his irony and his approach, even though it's all pre-internet and focussed on remote languages for which there are zero resources other than people.

  • http://friedelcraft.blogspot.com/ chris(mandarin_student)

    bakunizh, I agree see my comment below about dead time, I tend to use my dead time more for listening. Also I should have said that when I try to create my own versions of stories etc. I do what I can with the language I am learning, it is easier to do this in your head. What I find completely useless is composing something in English, my native language and then attempting to 'translate' into the target language (resulting in heavy dictionary use and/or more unnatural language).

    I don't discount SRS as a useful tool but I tried it and hated it, I don't care what I may have forgot, that is stressful. If you mostly acquire words rather than learn them then you never forget them, if you can't use a word or understand it then you just haven't been exposed to it enough or you don't need it.

    I find that a combination of new materials mixed with revisiting favorites every now and again provides a natural SRS that is “near enough” for no effort, it may even be better because you have to think about what to put into your SRS and you may get it wrong.

    You can even SRS conversation, make an effort to try to have some of the same conversations with a bunch of different people and over time a natural SRS happens you find out which words you need to understand and to express yourself over that subject.

    Some people do seem to need an affirmation of progress in black and white though so fair enough. I am more than happy with simply observing that over time I can understand more or that conversation becomes easier or more interesting etc. etc. I have no idea how many English words I know, I don't need to know how many Chinese words I know I just know that my Chinese sucks somewhat, some things seem to make it get better faster.

  • http://thewordcollector.wordpress.com chriss

    I feel like you should be one of the people far ahead of all of us in language learning and learning techniques and here you are showing us the thing that we all know and have known for years and treating like you just struck gold and would like to share it with us…

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    I share all useful resources with people even though most of what I have discovered, that you might not know, has been focused on social aspects of languages, so I will continue to share anything new to me that others might find useful ;)

    It's silly of you to say that “we all know” what SRS is. I didn't really know what it was until a month ago and I'm not quite living in a cave you'll notice. This will be new to most of my readers who haven't done their own deep research into non-traditional language learning techniques.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Clever title! Love the post concept, I might just use the title myself if I want to share my output-input thoughts in a post ;)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Yeah, it's great to reduce those annoying moments! You can't avoid them entirely (using efficient varied systems, you are bound to learn vocabulary in other ways), but it's good to make sure it's still fresh in your mind!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Hope it works well on your mobile device :) I enjoy it and use it way more frequently than I would on my computer (and kill the dead time as suggested).
    The guide is almost ready… :)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Great to hear it Glavkos! There are alternatives of course, but I focused on Anki because it's free and cross-platform ;) Although I've heard good things about smart.fm! I also tried the mobile version of byki for a short time

  • http://languagebubble.com/ Andee

    I've had Anki installed for a while now. Before that I used Mnemosyne, which works on the same principle. I switched to Anki mainly because there are more 'ready-made' decks and making your own decks is too tiresome for me. I went through a phase of collecting sentences.. but just took too long to actually get everything set up. Like, not literally too long, more like I didn't think it was value for time.

    Anyway, I do like Anki overall… and I try to use it daily when I first startup my computer, but the decks stagnate a bit when I can't be bothered adding new content. I'd rather just be reading and even though it's considered a little less efficient, I find it more enjoyable. Anki always feels like a chore to me when it comes time to input new vocab and sentences.

    As for the wasted time.. I wrote a post about that some time ago ('Borrowing Time')… you forgot about the shower and in the toilet hehe ..both excellent study areas ;)

  • bakuninzh

    Agree. It's easier, less stressful and more sustainable to just follow your interests and let natural spaced repetition happen. SRS-ing conversations is a trick you've described earlier in one of your comments or posts, and I believe this is what Benny is doing as well when he gets off the plane in a new country.

  • http://friedelcraft.blogspot.com/ chris(mandarin_student)

    I don't think it is fair to call chriss silly specially as he has such a cool user name ;).

    There are probably a couple of reasons he posted what he did, firstly reacting against the low level of marketing style writing (why is it that almost every blogger that 'shares' something with me is ultimately aiming to sell something?). Share raises certain connections in many peoples mind, we share secrets, we share a meal, share a room, many are very personal and to some extent imply a small sacrifice or imparting of rare knowledge or favors. I don't care what dictionaries say probably most dictionaries don't tell you that we usually say “salt and pepper” rather then “pepper and salt” it is just a feeling you get and observations that as stated above most (not all) blog posts that use 'share' are ultimately about to sell something. As SRS is effectively in “Internet” time already part of traditional language learning for many of us then Chriss probably feels (consciously or sub-consciously that the tone of the post doesn't match this). I won't comment either way but that is why someone may react this way.

    This does beg the question if you discovered SRS a few weeks ago, then how do know that that most of what you have discovered that Chriss might not know about social aspects is not already fairly common knowledge. Off the top of my head I have read interesting posts on social aspects on John Pasden's Sinosplice blog, Edwin's Tower of confusion, the Global Maverick blog, Albert's Laowai Chinese, AJATT blog (you admitted Khaz had addressed social apects) and many more. These are largely Chinese related, I can't imagine that other languages don't have them. Then of course if you read Dr Browns book, the guy behind the ALG method you will find that there is a huge amount of emphasis on social interaction but you may not read it perhaps as this method is often summarised as “the one where you” don't talk for ages”. Then there are guys like Stuart Jay Raj a bit of a wierdo (he can hear colours ;)) but I definitely picked up some good social stuff from him. I pulled this list off of the top of my head and I know for a fact that most if not all have posted on SRS before, and all have had a fairly decent following at least.

    An important part of learning anything these days for me is the huge amount of reading and views that the Internet provides, another dead time activity via Google reader on phones and rss feeds that I have been doing for years to keep up (along with many other IT professionals). You know that of course you even have a video about it.

    I guess that the likes of Chriss might not be the target audience for your book which is fair enough. There is nothing wrong in using marketing (apart from it being the evil behind the ultimate destruction of the modern world ;)), or in selling a book, but you have to accept that it changes the way people react to you (ask Bill Gates). Everything affects the way people react to you online. Try this Steve the LINGUIST, Benny the Irish POLYGLOT. Chris(mandarin_STUDENT), I gaurantee that on average, all things being equal my name will get me a bit more leeway on a language forum where people know nothing about us, click the links and they find that both you and Steve are selling something I get more leeway still, my blog has a much lower following of course so I get more leeway still (sometimes though I have got a good kicking even then).

    These are social aspects of the web and to some extent English language and culture.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    There's nothing in his comment that suggest any ill-feeling towards “marketing”. That's just you Chris (with one 's')… marketing and the introduction are totally irrelevant to the above comment. I've seen you comment elsewhere that I deserve more negativity because I am going to sell a product to try to get out of debt and to give people what they want (more details about my approach). I'd appreciate it if you got of your moral high horse on that please.

    “I guess that the likes of Chriss might not be the target audience for your book” <— better rephrased as “not the target audience for your BLOG”. This is a post on my blog. If you talk about the matter at hand then yes he is not my “target audience” just for this particular post. I'm not writing necessarily for experienced language learners. They are welcome to comment but the “target audience” for this blog is anyone interested in learning a language, and most people doing so are starting off. I can't write a topic that nobody will ever have heard about every time. You simply skip over topics you know about and don't need to be taught. I do it all the time on many blogs.

    Please think in future about such comments – not everyone thinks that I'm a used car salesman. You have an unrealistic view of how blogging works. Your blog is on a free host and you write twice a month. I pay for domain names, hosting to compensate for the huge bandwidth required for traffic and invest several hours a day in this blog (design, research, article writing etc.)

    Don't put your words in other commenter's mouths and stay on topic in future please.

  • http://friedelcraft.blogspot.com/ chris(mandarin_student)

    I was guessing, the same way you guessed my thoughts regarding the AJJAT blog on another post ;) And yes I know how to spell my own name????? I am not actually called (mandarin_student) I was kind of keying off of the first few letters. I would guess that chriss would have not made the same comment if you posted about SRS in the way that those other bloggers I mentioned posted about it. I can only imagine that it is the tone of the post (chriss mentions how you treat the topic). But hopefully chriss can let us know himself.

    The issue in the comment as I interpreted it wasn't whether anybody had heard of it but why you hadn't.

    To my knowledge blogger has no traffic cap, I have heard of up to 100,000 uniques a day, Google is a pretty robust platform but perhaps someone can correct that if I am mistaken and domain names are cheap as chips I buy them regularly.

    The book is on topic it is a significant part of the start of the post, as you point out before titles are not to be taken literally and are often written for search engines etc. so I tend to derive the topic/s from the content.

    Your debt problems are irrelevant to the issue I never ever referred to them before (did I?) perhaps I had a senior moment and did let me know where and I will try to get it removed. Also point out where I said you deserved negativity, I think my point was that anybody selling and marketing a product deserves and should expect critique. Not really fair of me to argue that here though if you wish I will happy post is somewhere where you can comment and discuss.

    Don't worry I won't comment on this blog again (promise) although if you decide to remove this comment I would appreciate if you remove the preceding two comments also. Of course you are also free to comment on this one I won't start a huge discussion here.

    And yes I am of course a small fry blogger (by intent), but that is true of the vast majority of bloggers and is where it started, is the grass roots, some blogs got big some got merchandised and on some accountability raises along with size. Some got hijacked by the corporates, some aren't really blogs they just pretend to be, some corporates and brands experiment with pretending to be small fry etc. etc. is it a complex business. I still believe that a regular guy learning a language deserves more breaks and lenience when critiquing especially if he has no blog at all, than someone who makes bold confident claims and is selling a book about it, but perhaps I am crazy. Even the fact I blog lays me open to criticism that I would not expect someone just on a forum to get.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Another option in Anki is to import databases (like in Excel format). This might make it easier to set up if you have a lot to import at once :)

  • Tricia

    I'm going to be teaching a beginning vocabulary class for ESL students, and I'm wondering if anyone knows of an SRS system that allows for a teacher to monitor students' use and progress? I know Anki keeps records, but it doesn't seem to have an easy way for someone other than the individual user to see those records.

  • Damien

    Their progress (or lack thereof) will show up on any tests you administer – just make sure to give a week or two between introducing the material and testing it to allow it to sink in.

  • http://www.cannovan.com Jonathan Cannovan

    Looking forward to getting the Language Hacking Guide! I plan on learning Japanese soon, so will try following your books recommendations.

  • http://thewordcollector.wordpress.com chriss/blindside70

    Lebron James is a very famous basketball player here in the States. He's among the best ever as far as talent goes, and during the regular season he has played to an incredibly high level. Here in the States though you have to prove yourself in our sports on another level called the playoffs and Lebron has not done well there. He has not looked good.

    The truth is I am a fan of this blog and I do want to read Benny's Language Hacking Guide. I just don't expect Lebron to pop out one day and say “Look I just discovered how to bounce the ball through my legs while running.” Benny having one of the more read blogs on language learning, writing about SRS when supposedly he's a fan of AJATT (who can't read more than two posts that don't mention it) surprised me, and his tone was that of amazement like he'd just discovered gold, and I noticed it, that's all.
    With all that said in hindsight I also regret the tone of my original post.

  • http://www.headingthere.co.uk Tom Volpe

    Hi Benny, Thanks for all the great tips on learning a language. I am struggling with Spanish at the moment and hope you blog might just be my silver bullet! I voted for you in the top language blog poll, good luck!

  • Katie

    I swear by SRS, but I rarely use it to learn single vocabulary words, but words or phrases within a context of a sentence. Typically, for each new phrase, I'll make two cards: one with the question card in L2, and the answer in L1. I just want to make sure I understand it.

    The second card will include first the sentence in L1, with a fill in the blank sentence for L2, and the answer card will show the answers. Here's an example:

    Question:

    You risk having someone drown.

    On risque d'avoir une ______.

    Answer:

    – noyade

    So something I have noticed is that SRS alone has not expanded my active vocabulary. That is, once I have a word or phrase in there, it doesn't suddenly become a part of my vocabulary. But I become much more aware of it when I see it in the future, and then I find I might use it more. But at first, no, not at all. I find you still have to spend a lot of time listening and reading.

    • Chavi Beck

      Sounds like you really have a great system there, sentences with blanks. How about uploading your deck to Anki?

      • master of hate

        I 2nd your request!

  • jeanpaulsetlak

    I use Anki for Mandarin. I only use full sentences or phrases so I get a new complete piece of language every time. It is also a great system for remembering characters you have learned. I find great sentences that I need or I''m interested in and slip them in. It is, as you mentioned, deceptively simple but effective.
    I've been using Katzumoto's “New-language to Mother-tongue only” flash cards (L2 to L1), as an experiment. I've always been a heavy grammar/output kind of guy and I decided to check out the “let the output be generated from the input” theory. It seems that the words and constructions actually DO APPEAR AS NEEDED when I am speaking Chinese, even though I am NOT making my usual concerted effort to translate into the new language when I am practicing. It certainly takes less effort. I will keep using the L2 to L1 direction-only”” for a while to see how well it works for me.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Thanks for the vote! We'll see how the results turn out this week :)

    Hope the blog turns out to be your silver bullet, but I really think that's within you. Stop looking for inspiration elsewhere – sometimes you have to BITE the bullet ;)

  • troy

    Hi Benny,

    I'd like to use Anki but I have some questions (bakuninzh put it quite well, I think):

    1. What is your experience with the whole “you shouldn't learn associations from L1 to L2″?
    2. Do you think Anki is mostly helpful at the beginning stages or also after fluency?
    3. My personal experience is that as your language proficiency grows you move from word-by-word to phrase-by-phrase to idea-by-idea translation. Eventually, I've found that even WHAT I choose to say is controlled by my L2 so that I'm not translating even at the idea level. So my the question is: would we be better off not learning word-by-word translation in the first place so that we don't have to go through the gradual un-learning process?

  • http://www.learnspanishfastcourse.com/ Fast Jay

    Good post and interesting comments!

    I've recently started using ANKI as well, and i wish i had done it sooner. It's not the golden bullet, but i think it's a useful tool in acquiring a language (at least the vocabulary).

    I can already speak and understand spanish quite well (conversations), but eg in books or blogs i encounter a lot of new words. What i do now is i add them to a google document (spreadsheet). If i have enough words i will export that document (to a .csv file) and import it in ANKI. This way i'm only putting time into “new” words, wordt i didn't know. You could as well download existing decks, but i haven't found many with more “advanced” vocabulary.

    Reading the post/comments made me realise that perhaps a better way is to copy sentences and translate those… Which is more work, and probably worth it for a beginner because you also get a better feel for the language, but in my case not really necessary.

    Small tip: this a deck which you can subscribe to in ANKI online for spanish sentences:
    dec31522e74211d4 (Level i'd say is beginner – medium)

  • Katie

    I have a product recommendation. I've been a long time user of Mnemosyne, and who knows, I may have left a comment about it here, but about a week ago, someone sent me a link to a website — complete with iPhone app! — that I like so much better.

    It's called smart.fm (http://www.smart.fm).

    You can set up your own free account. I was initially turned off by it, because I thought you could only study their supplied word lists (boring!), but once I discovered how easy it is to enter my own content, I became hooked.

    A couple of advantages:

    –Whatever algorithm they use, quite efficient, and they'll give you a specific date, which might be days later, to study a particular list. You can also stop at any time, and it'll remember where you left off, but you'll never be put in a position to make up for missed days.

    –There's some automated voice included with it, which I thought would be hokey, but it is surprisingly helpful, as I find I remember words so much better hearing them.

    –You get spelling practice, which I also find totally useful. There's even a “dictation quiz.”

    –There's a simplified iPhone app.

    I thought much of this would be bells and whistles and nothing more, but having used it for the past week, I am addicted. I had found that Mnemosyne was becoming much too time consuming, and as great as I thought it was, smart.fm is taking words that were somewhere between passive and active in my brain to active, and much more quickly, and in much less time.

    My personal method: I've created lists around what ever my source might be. So I've got a couple of different ones from various books or websites I read, a couple from words and phrases I pick up from conversation partners, and so on.

  • Brianna

    Hi, sorry to be commenting on an older post, but I've been using SRS for a while, experimenting with different ways of using it, and wanted to share a few things about what I found personally to be the most effective.

    First, L1 to L2 (and vice-versa) was not very helpful for me. As you have said, using your mother tongue as a frame of reference is inefficient, as it slows down or completely blocks your recall of the word during a real-time conversation. Using L2-only dictionary definitions was not much better, because the definitions were hard to understand and boring (although if you're at a certain level, making up your own kindergarten-style definitions – for example, 'the thing you put your head on when you sleep' – in your target language is a lot more helpful!). I found that personally, I had a lot of trouble recalling a word on-the-spot when the time came unless I had anchored it to some kind of real-life context when I was studying it. This means that example sentences (or often, even less than sentences – syntactic chunks, like 'a gorgeous dress', 'access the internet', etc.) were extremely helpful for both remembering the word and recalling it with ease. To get these sentences or 'chunks', I either do a google search or make my own that is relevant to my life (e.g. 'My dad is stubborn') and have it checked by a native speaker (on Lang8, etc.) if necessary.

    The second thing really useful thing I found is one that I'm surprised no one mentioned in the comments here! The fact that you can insert images synchs perfectly with your method of associating an image/concept directly with the word. If it's a concrete noun, or something easy to visualize like 'angry', don't bother with sentences or definitions at all – go straight to Google image! (After I choose my image, I like to stare at it for a while and repeat the word for a bit, all the while trying to think to myself that 'of course this is a —–! I've been calling it that my whole life! What else would it be??' This is optional of course, but I like to think the positive attitude makes my brain more receptive to the new word :P ) And it's not just for beginner words – I use this technique surprisingly often for my highest-level language, too. My image-based cards give me the highest retention rate by far, and if I could I would make all my cards like that!

  • http://www.cardmonkeyhq.com/ Najaf Ali

    Blatant spam comment alert: I’ve been working on a simple, web-based alternative to Anki for a few months. Anki was always too complicated for me, and I much prefer the leitner style box system to the Supermemo algorithm, so here it is:

    http://www.cardmonkeyhq.com/

    It’s still a work in progress and a little rough around the edges, but I’m using it to study Japanese now.

  • http://nrw.free.fr Nicolas Raoul

    As you are an Android fan, I must mention that Anki is available on Android too, free and open source:
    AnkiDroid
    You can find it in the Android Market :-)

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      Yes, I said that in my post about Android ;) I use it all the time – it was the first app I installed when I got my Google phone.

  • http://www.facebook.com/robcrichards Rob Richards

    2 questions about using an iPod.
    1) I use an iPod flashcard program that is not Anki (it is a little cheaper than $24.99) but does use the Leitner system and I wanted to know if anyone has had experience using both systems and why one is better than the other.
    2) I am studying European Portuguese (Falo nível A2). I have vocabulary that I want to take with me on my iPod but not commit to memory (i.e. culinary, technical terms, etc.) Ideally I would have a database that I could create in a spreadsheet, upload, and track searches. I have not found any dictionaries with an editable database or that will track searches. Anyone else have luck using databases in this fashion.
    Side note: smart.fm has gone pay.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=797160611 Jon Littell

    Benny, since you’re a mac user, have you tried Mental Case? http://www.mentalcaseapp.com/
    It looks like a pretty elegant flash card tool with SRS—here are both desktop and iOS versions. I just downloaded a trial and the $5 iPad version to use with Esperanto (via lernu.net).

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      I am NOT a Mac user. What gave you that idea? At the time of writing this post I had an iPhone, but it’s only because at the time it was the only decent smartphone on the market. Now I don’t use it anymore.
      I’m a non-Windows user though. I have been running entirely on Linux for quite some time.
      I do have an iPad though (once again, still waiting for competition to catch up), but I wouldn’t use SRS on it. The way I use SRS is only while I’m waiting somewhere by taking out my smartphone (Android), and so far I can’t see anything beating Anki on that device.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      I am NOT a Mac user. What gave you that idea? At the time of writing this post I had an iPhone, but it’s only because at the time it was the only decent smartphone on the market. Now I don’t use it anymore.
      I’m a non-Windows user though. I have been running entirely on Linux for quite some time.
      I do have an iPad though (once again, still waiting for competition to catch up), but I wouldn’t use SRS on it. The way I use SRS is only while I’m waiting somewhere by taking out my smartphone (Android), and so far I can’t see anything beating Anki on that device.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=797160611 Jon Littell

        Hmmm. I thought I saw you comment about having a Mac. Anyway, thanks for the quick reply. I plan on using Mental Case as my SRS tool for my nascent Esperanto mission. I’ll report on its effectiveness.  

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=797160611 Jon Littell

        Hmmm. I thought I saw you comment about having a Mac. Anyway, thanks for the quick reply. I plan on using Mental Case as my SRS tool for my nascent Esperanto mission. I’ll report on its effectiveness.  

  • Jeff Winchell

    I used a site, http://Mindpicnic, that uses AI and your own progress to determine when the flashcard should reappear. There aren’t all the cool implementations in multiple platforms, but since it has been around for at least 6 years, there are lots of flashcards already created by users wanting to learn various topics/languages.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    I made some rudimentary ones for vocabulary I like to learn specifically, and didn’t save them after finishing with a language. They’re easy to make yourself though, go on and try! :)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    I made some rudimentary ones for vocabulary I like to learn specifically, and didn’t save them after finishing with a language. They’re easy to make yourself though, go on and try! :)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    I’m mostly promoting the free version in this post – I suggest you get in touch with the developer for issues with the paid version. Your issues are very easy to solve.

  • http://twitter.com/mllocs Màxim Colls

    Give a try to http://recall.io,  it’s a simple web-based spaced repetitions app.

  • http://GreenGlobalTravel.com/ Green Global Travel

    Interesting piece about language learning. I’m an English teacher in Spain with no Spanish under my belt at the minute so this was interesting to read!

  • http://twitter.com/shollum Shollum

    In case any new readers read this with a similar question in mind. Anki doesn’t have it’s own IME, you must input everything as if you were typing it in plain text. Also, Anki doesn’t natively support all Unicode characters (however, the most commonly used ones are). In this case, all you need to do is download a plugin to support those characters. This will solve issues with scripts not displaying properly.

  • nokiyuch

    Thanks for the post Benny! The Anki app you talk about by Damien Elmes however, I’ve found to be currently $25 on the ipod. Could you make a recommendation of a free SRS app?

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      Jailbreak your iPod. It only takes a few minutes. Then you will find a separate “store” called Cydia and can install the app free from there.

  • Farrukh H.Khan

    I’m Learning Mandarin! And recently have installed Anki and would really appreciate if some one can send me the list of words/sentences they have added in any format so that I can import it! IT WOULD BE LIFE SAVING :) email add: farrukh@gmx.es

    • http://kieranmaynard.com/ Kieran

      Sent you an email!

  • Maxime Laterreur

    I love Anki! I previously used SuperMemo but I find Anki easier to use for mobile devices. I have nearly 15000 cards. It works like a charm!

  • Abdul Aziz

    I’ve been using anki for several years (for both Arabic and Medicine) and would agree with most of what is said above. Additionally, believe it or not, ANKI is super for use at the gym too. If you do weight training, you rest 1-2mins between every set and this is perfect timing to fit in some extra cards. I can review up to 100 cards per gym session. This is on top of what is mentioned of making use of time waiting in queues, in waiting rooms etc.

  • Lorenzo Pardo

    That was a great piece of information, thanks a lot!

  • Caspar

    I cannot get Anki to work, and the documentation requires a degree in Com Sci to understand. Is there a simpler program that is just a basic flashcard program?

    • http://30something.ie 30Something

      Hi Caspar. I agree with you 100%. I have tried to use it 3 times before but due to the fact that it was IMPOSSIBLE to use I gave up. Fear not. I have figured it out. And no thanks goes to the tutorial on the Android. Basically what you need to do is: 1. Create an account. You won’t be able to download a language deck without a login. 2. Click settings 3. Select ‘Get Shared Decks’ – Thats it.

  • Chris

    Brainscape is another good alternative for mobiles, although you do have to pay for the card packs. I bought the spanish cards (about 9000 cards for £9.99) and they are fantastic, I’ve picked up lots of vocabulary in only a couple of months.

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  • http://www.feelgoodhacks.com Conor

    Hey benny,

    I have an ipod touch but it seems the app costs €21.99 from the app store. Do you know if there are any other options for ipod users with no access to internet?

    • http://fluentin3months.com/ Brandon Rivington

      As far as I know, other than the free software for computers and the paid software for mobile, there’s not much of another option. Maybe you should check out Memrise. It’s another SRS that has a free app.

  • Adam Sinclair

    Benny, does AnkiMini still work for you on your jailbroken iPhone? I just jailbroke my old iPhone and managed to find AnkiMini, but when I try to sync I get all kinds of errors. Just wondering if I should finally shell out the $25. Thanks in advance!

  • Schumpeter1

    Hey, great article! I am learning 2-3 languages at once atm, would you recommend to do this or focus at one at the time? With all that languages, do you have any good way of separating languages (like spanish/italian) so you don’t mix up the references you make? Thanx, and keep up the good work! :)

    • http://fluentin3months.com/ Brandon Rivington

      Hey there, learning multiple languages simultaneous is definitely doable. However, you have to make sure you have the proper amount of time to put in to the task. If you feel like you aren’t able to budget a lot of time for the languages, then maybe going for one at a time is best. Remember: these are 3 separate language projects so you should try to work on each one a little bit everyday instead of doing a different one each day.

      For keeping the languages separated, I’ve found that it’s best to not let yourself fall out of practice with either of the languages. There was one instance where I went from speaking French pretty often to not speaking French often at all. Meanwhile, I went from speaking a little Spanish to working 40+ hours/week in Spanish. A French customer came in one day and I noticed immediately that my French had become very “hispanicized.” My lesson learned was that I just need to make sure that I continue to practice each language as much as possible.

      Happy languageing!

      –Brandon, the Fi3M Language Encourager