What, you forgot it? Good!

When I wrote that current spaced repetition software all suck, I wasn’t saying that you shouldn’t use them or that the idea of spaced repetition itself sucks. To make an analogy, Linus Torvalds said subversion sucks in a talk about git and while I found his talk interesting I still continue to use subversion. It’s because his philosophy and needs for source control are different from mine. Just like Linus, I think that the current SRS can be so much better based on my needs and philosophy (the difference being he actually built the software while I’m just all talk).

I have a basic and simple philosophy that learning languages should be simple and enjoyable. Current SRS are all based on the idea of study and review. I don’t like “studying” because it sounds like work and flipping through cards is work to me (and boring work at that), especially when I have to make them myself. I’ve learned enough about myself to know that I could never stick with it. But hey, I’m just talking about me personally, so don’t let me discourage you from finding the techniques that work for you. In fact, I encourage you to try out various different methods of study to find what works best for you. I went through the same experience to learn enough about myself to know what works for me.

Personally, I think spaced repetition works naturally if you have reading material with words that are spaced out. I’m talking about graded readers that naturally introduce new words while reusing old ones. You can even throw all the vocab in an SRS as a bonus but the most important part that’s missing in current SRS is the material; you have to find it yourself. The simple reason is because software is made by programmers not writers. That’s why my idea of a great spaced repetition program is not one that flips through words but one that allows use to share and find material that interests us in the language and at the right level of difficulty. Flipping through words based on the material is simply a nice bonus.

I love the concept of spaced repetition and enjoy the effects every time I learn a new word without even realizing it. This may sound counterintuitive but forgetting a word really is the best way to learn it. If you forget a word it means that you’ve already learned it and spaced enough time to forget it again. It’s hard to explain without experiencing it yourself but the more times you think, “Oh I can’t believe I forgot this word again!” the faster you end up memorizing it. So you shouldn’t feel discouraged when you forget a word, you should be thinking, “Yes! I forgot it! This is really helping me to remember it for good.”

12 thoughts on “What, you forgot it? Good!

  1. Graded Readers are a great resource when learning any foreign language, and it’s amazing how I _can’t_ find decent graded readers for Japanese.

    I’m not talking about children books, but about original material where the choice of vocabulary is explicitely chosen to match a certain skill level, and gradually risen over the time.

    Nihongo Journal and Hiragana Times have been working reasonably well for me, but I’d love to see some real graded readers on the market.

  2. Eh, I don’t think memorization works *quite* as you describe… there have been tons of words in Japanese that I’ve looked up over and over and over again, and never seem to actually retain. Same thing in English.

    Somewhere I’ve read that what works best is reviewing something just BEFORE you forget it. Obviously, it also really helps to have a unique context for the word, and actively trying to memorize the word helps too.

  3. My understanding is that the principal value of any form of SRS is to reduce the overall amount of review. However, if you’re reviewing isolated vocab one by one, it’s gonna get boring eventually no matter how sophisticated the software.

    Personally, I don’t care much for graded readers either, except when I was actually at that age/grade level. I find them just as boring as drilling words out of context.

    I think people would be surprised at how much they can figure out if they just pick up a newspaper or find a few blogs and start reading. You can delete 3/4 of the words from an article in your native language and still understand quite a bit (and in English, you can delete ALL the vowels…).

    There aren’t any foreign or challenging concepts on those pages, they’re just expressed differently.

    In the end, just play. Grab something easy, grab something hard and keep reading.

    P.S. You make a great point about what you get wrong. Those words, phrases, and grammar start jumping out at you when you see them elsewhere and then you start getting them right.

    The key is “see them elsewhere”. Stop studying and just read something.

  4. Alex, I agree that looking up the same word in the same context over and over again won’t help as much as seeing the same word in a different context. Still, forgetting a word over and over again does not necessarily mean that you are not retaining it. I’ve forgotten words up to 10 times or maybe even more before it finally sunk in.

  5. I think you are coming from a different viewpoint and as someone that already has a good grasp of the language. If you are someone stating out or that is still learning basic adjectives or verbs then anything you try feels like hard work.
    As at the beginning you still have to do some basic study. I’ve persevered with small SRS basic word lists even when I’d found it hard work and found that the Japanese word for something would pop into my head without realising I’d even learnt it. Maybe when you reach a level you can ditch them for something more fun with a more natural process of repetition, but at the start it is difficult to find the appropriate material. Or can you suggest something??

  6. I posted this in another entry’s comment section, but for Elliott:


    As a beginner myself, I cannot recommend these volumes enough. There’s two volumes out right now, and level 1 is very simple. That’s 10 awesome books right off the bat for a beginner. The native narration is gold. The minute, no, the second a beginner has a good grasp of hiragana, katakana, a few kanji, and basic grammar, she should be knee deep in these books.

    I really hope they expand the collection for the current levels, and hopefully add a couple of higher ones in the future 🙂

  7. Currently I’m studying Chinese at a beginner level and I still find that natural repetition works for me. Most reading material are too difficult for me so I get most of my spaced repetition from conversation practice once a week.

    So I very quickly learned to say the things I often say in conversations such as, “How do you say…?”

  8. It is normal to forget words that are not in use for a longer time. I lived in Japan some years ago and studied the Kanji using the Heisig system. It is a fabulous system to memorize Kanji quickly.
    Neverthelss, today – six years later – they are almost all gone. But I do not regret to have spent so much time with my Heisig Kanji cards, inventing stories for each. At that time, it enabled me to study other parts of the Japanese language more quickly as well.

  9. I should clarify that the forgetting isn’t the good part but rather that you’re thinking about the word again to even realize that you forgot it. Thinking, “Oh I forgot all my Japanese” is certainly not good.

  10. Japanese is difficult from me((( I want to improve my japanese! But time is a little bit. Kanji and reading is very big problem for me.
    Can you give advice me?

  11. Guess it depends on how you go at it. Right now, there’s no end all be all list to learn from. And as you wrote, many get lists only to let them gather dust on the hard drive.

    I’m creating my own list from a book to get my grammar up to par. After that I’ll probably use a Kanji in Context or Kanji Odyssey to get the reading bit upto par. The idea being this allows me to efficiently read cool material earlier. It’s tedious, but even at an early level I can notice results. Feels weird to be able to read Japanese better than I can speak, yet I recall that was the case with French.

    No where will I put in a table of words and translations. That really reeks of monotony.

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