How many of you have a stack of index cards collecting dust?

Following up from yesterday’s post about index card programs, I stumbled upon Jonathan’s blog and his post about spaced repetition software by following his comment link.

I won’t talk about them here because as we all know, I think they all suck. Why is it that these programs never think about sharing index cards, community ranking by difficulty level, and incorporating richer content than just text? Jonathan, if you want my opinion, you’re wasting your time. Please do let us know how it goes, though.

But it’s only been a few days that I’ve been using this method, so I can’t gauge yet just how effective it is. For now, however, I’m pretty pleased. It certainly beats the pit of near-inactivity that I have been falling in recently.

I certainly can’t argue with that.

Personally, I’ve tried them all and could never stick with it. I ignored the desktop or homepage widget, deleted my kanji email after they piled up, stop going to the websites, and my index cards were collecting dust long before I finally threw them away. I eventually realized it wasn’t a problem of motivation (I had that in spades) but rather a problem stemming from a flawed method. The index cards themselves were as interesting as reading a dictionary because well… that’s essentially what it is.

Have any of you successfully used these programs or index cards to study for a significant period of time? (I know my readership is dismally too small to make a statistical difference but I’m curious anyway.)

29 thoughts on “How many of you have a stack of index cards collecting dust?

  1. I’ve never kept up with one.

    The challenge is that repetition is important for understanding but is also mind numbingly boring.

    With all the flash cards, card sites, software tools I’ve tried, I was always encouraged to spend *more* time reviewing. And burning out or tiring of the routine just reflected a lack of discipline.

    I think that to use any system, SRS or otherwise, for an extended period of time, it needs to encourage you to spend as little time with it as possible and encourage you to learn as much as you can through discovery without being handed answers in english.

    In other words, spend more time doing japanese and less time learning japanese.

  2. Yes, I have had great success with spaced repitition software. I’ve been using them almost daily since around July. I don’t drill words, but rather drill sentences that I pick out of things I read or listen to.

  3. Drilling sentences is certainly an improvement over a single word or god forbid a single kanji as it provides more context. But I can’t help but think there must be a better solution than having to stop reading or whatever you’re doing to plug the sentence into a program. Maybe provide a browser plugin so you can instantly add it at least for online text. Won’t work for books though. Which is why we should at least share the work of plugging these things into the program.

  4. I use Supermemo (on PC) as a space repetition program, it’s pretty powerfull but pretty hard to use, it doesn’t handle very well UTF8 or japanese, the UI come from dark age …
    Even if the core is power full, they don’t seems to push and work on a new version, too bad 🙁
    I use it for my kanji , just put the kanji word in the question and the kana and traduction in the answer.
    I am curious about your idea of making a web site for learning kanji, vocabulary ….

  5. I used index cards for about a month during my intensive self-study period before stopping. I found that studying kanji with this method was so-so for learning to read, but meh for maintaining writing ability. It helped to use index cards, but only so much.

    These days I learn to read new kanji by reading Emails and translating with the WWWJDIC. It sticks more.

  6. I’ve used Supermemo on my computer consistently since December 2004 (just passed my 3 year anniversary!). At first I just inputted words and single kanji (Heisig keywords), but for about a year now I’ve been doing sentences as recommended by Khatzumemo (

    The program really helps me learn words and new grammar and that’s why I’ve been using it so long. Even when I was just doing single words, I was learning them and keeping them in my memory. I’ve always used the program for Japanese and it’s been great. When I started learning Italian, I consistently got around 90% in vocabulary tests whilst my peers struggled at 40-60%. In Maths, I was one of the few in my year group to have memorised the quadratic equation, and it didn’t feel like an effort to learn it and keep it remembered.

    I’ve gained so much from the program that I find it hard to believe someone could be so against similar programs. I might suggest that the problem lies not with the programs, but with how you’re using them (inputting boring sentences) or with a lack of motivation to begin with. Having said that, I understand everyone has different ways of learning.

  7. Yeah, I find that repetitive learning through the use of index cards/flash card programs is kinda pointless for me. It’s ok for cramming in 30 pieces of vocab the night before a test, but I find that when I learn words like that out of context my brain automatically separates them into useful and useless (in terms of how often I will use them in the near future) and I quickly forget the “useless” ones.

    Learning vocab through conversation or reading tends to help stuff stick.

  8. The only repetition learning I use on a regular basis is Kanji. To be honest, I think I just have this unnatural craving for Kanji. However I don’t use flash cards, I compile two lists: one with the Kanji, and the other with the hiragana reading. When I can, find a word that utilizes both a new and old kanji character. What I’ve figured out works best is learning no more than 1-3 kanji a day (NOT doing 10+ kanji at once as then you just get overwhelmed). When you feel really confident with your grasp of a certain set of words, put those aside for a longer period of time since they are farther into your longterm memory. But once again, I think this method might only work for me.

  9. Hey, I’ve made it big time on Tae Kim’s site!

    I appreciate your opinion, Tae (and those of the others, too). In truth, I’m not sure how effective I’ll find this experiment myself. Like I wrote, there has definitely been some short-term improvement, but I’m not sure about how useful it might be long-term or if I’ll still want to be doing it in, say, six months’ time.

    I’m not a fan of flashcards in general, really. Every time that I’ve tried to start making paper flashcards, I never get far because it’s too much of a pain for me. But I like this idea of spaced repetition in principle, especially since I’ve hit a low point in the amount of energy I put into actual study recently and it’s gotten me to get moving more again. And words are definitely sticking better recently. However, to some extent, that’s likely because I’m actually studying them better (a nice indirect benefit of this exercise).

    Anywho, I’m always open to hear alternative ideas. I’ll keep you informed about how things go on my blog. Many thanks!

  10. You might be interested in this site
    the author of which swears by SRS.

    Inspired by this site, for english learners,

    Personally I use an SRS occasionally just to reinforce words I’ve read but will likely never say. Sentences with words like 五月雨(さみだれ).

    I also don’t see why an SRS wouldn’t be helpful to beginners trying to get down enough 漢字 to start reading proficiently.

  11. Well, I use anki. I’ve had bad luck with the decks breaking, but it has a lot of functions that a typical program of this sort doesn’t. I used it pretty intensively for 2kyu prep, and feel I have retained most of the words. My next step is to add 1kyu (done) and change 2kyu to sentences instead of words.
    I never study single kanji with this program, just combos (words) and suffixes.

  12. You know, I learned some 52 symbols to master English, 26 capitol and 26 lower case letters. I don’t recall ever using flash cards. Maybe that should be a clue that they are not the best method of learning.

  13. 一緒にするな。
    52 roman letters vs 2000+ kanji (and not to mention they are way more complicated, and that they have different readings)

  14. I’ve been using an SRS for 6 or so months now and still use it everyday.
    I used it for kanji and now I use sentences with Japanese definitions in the answer box ala
    I never stop reading something to pick out sentences; I usually mark it in some way and go ‘collect’ all of the sentences later in one go.
    While SRS aren’t exactly the epitome of fun, for me they are so much more effective at picking up new vocabulary that not using them would be an absurd waste of time.
    Different Strokes for different folks I suppose.

  15. Also, about the sharing bit, Fabrice of is working on a sentence sharing system which should be released soon. It’ll have features that incorporate Heisig’s method (which I know you don’t like), but it could still be used by people using other methods.

  16. Tae Kim, I have used an SRS effectively for coming in on a year. It works for me, whereas paper cards don’t (hassle). You probably never needed one, as you never needed Heisig either. I have.

    A question: what’s your one positive contribution for learning Japanese– what’s your method? Of late, you have taken more of a gadfly’s role, poking holes in study methods popular on the Internet you haven’t needed (or just refuse to understand because you haven’t needed them? really, take our word for it), but I haven’t seen it backed up with a positive contribution.

    So the question: if I can’t use Heisig or SRS cards to get where I want to be– which is where you are– how do I get there? Read your grammar guide & I’m good to go? Did it just “click” magically for you early on, and should I reasonably expect the same for me?

    I ask, respectfully, because I have valued your writing on language, but as a reader/learner I find your gadfly role not too useful, however enjoyable it may be for you.

  17. I never said don’t use Heisig and SRS. I wanted to hear why people were using things that didn’t work for me. In fact, I’m working on a post talking about when using Heisig is good. The comments have helped me understand the type of people Heisig is for. Also, I’ve already posted about the shortcomings of current SRS software and what can be done to improve it not that SRS is bad altogether.

    I am even working quietly on such a system. Creating a “positive contribution” takes a lot of time and not something I can just whip up especially with a full-time job. The guide itself has taken many years of work, which I gave away for free. While I enjoy working on these things to help people learn Japanese, it seems strange that you feel I’m obligated to contribute something else when I don’t get a single dime from these efforts.

    So here’s my question for you. If SRS and Heisig are working for you, why do you ask me how to get where I am? Is it working or no? And if you want to know what my methods are, you might try reading through this blog since it’s a topic I already covered.

    Here’s a simple benchmark you can try to see if you’re using my “method” and I put it in quotes because I consider it more “common sense”.

    1. Do you meet with Japanese speakers and actually practice speaking and listening with real people?

    2. Do you read or at least try to read written Japanese in some form?

    3. Do you often use a dictionary to lookup unfamiliar words (preferably electronic or online)?

    And most importantly: 4. Is what you’re studying enjoyable and interesting?

  18. Well, I certainly don’t think you’re obligated to do anything, but if you’re not making a dime, you may wish to rethink the ads to the right and monetize in a different way.

    Yes to all four of the benchmark questions, and to the question to me, I asked because 1) when I returned to your site yesterday it seemed you were focused on poking holes in others’ learning methods rather than articulating one, esp. in the redux flame/linkbait Heisig post, and 2) looking back through the site, the flip iconoclasm turned me off. I think it’s healthy to question received learning wisdom, but it lately seems like shooting stuff down is mainly what you’re about here, other than more-detailed-than-a-dictionary dictionary-style grammar posts.

    This is important– whether you like it or not, you’re setting yourself up as a teacher here, and an authority. But I get the sense you don’t remember what it’s like NOT to be proficient. I first felt so in the Heisig discussion– you just seemed thick about accepting others’ testimony at face value. The other recent posts have made reading the site more of a downer– nothing’s good enough, “I think they all suck… you’re wasting your time,” as you wrote above. As a reader, the benefits of visiting the site (which I’ve used for a good two years) have been outweighed by how discouraging it has become to me, for both its tone and content. That’s all. I was out for a while after the last Heisig thing, and now I’m out for good.

    Thanks for the grammar guide, though, and best of luck to you.

  19. Actually, I’ve had a better than ever sense of not being proficient from my struggle with Chinese. It’s exactly that frustration that made me realize the inadequacies of things like current SRS programs. Yes, I think the current SRS programs suck and I describe how they could be so much better. I’m not saying SRS itself sucks. I don’t see how it could be so discouraging to think about how things can be improved for the better.

    And if you read my comments, you’ll see that I have been more understanding of what Remembering the Kanji is about. I also clarified that I don’t dislike the book itself but rather the ambiguous promises it makes in the Introduction.

    I’m sorry you feel my recent posts have been discouraging. Maybe the next post I’m working on would have made you feel better. In any case, I’ve run out of study methods to “shoot down” and have already started posting other topics to blog about but if you feel like there are some things I should be focusing on, I’m all ears.

    Finally to clarify, I am not the administrator of this blog. I do not control the ads nor do I receive any money from them. The reason I don’t start my own blog is because I don’t really care about the money and don’t want to spend the time to setup, customize, update, and run my own setup.

  20. Hi,
    I’ve been doing evening courses and studying outside of work for a couple of years now and just stumbled across your site.(btw I think it is great!)
    I’ve also recently started to use the spaced repetition programmes and flash cards. Exactly as I’ve read on other comments, at the start SRS appear to be very useful, but then they become very tedious and soon you haven’t used it for a week and have about 100+ cards to revise.
    You write on other posts about the fact there isn’t one tool to learn a language. This I think is the same with the spaced rep program and needs to be placed in amongst your learning arsenal, but also used in the correct way. Having one deck of 1000 words is just going to bore you to death , but breaking them down and sorting them into something that is interesting for you has helped me immensely. For example I’m very interested in films and practice taking about them with my learning exchange partners. I’ve then got a small deck of words and sentences associated with them for practice. I revise them before meeting people to practice. Aren’t SRS just used to optimise the time you spend studying. So you don’t review words/sentences/grammar you remember, but concentrate on the ones you forget more often?
    My deck of words that including business/company recently words was deleted long ago!

  21. Sort of old post, but I figured I’d post about how Anki is working out for me. Anki is a fairly simple SRS system with some nice features. I’ve recently been pushing my reading proficiency pretty hard and feel I’m starting to get somewhere after years of miscellaneous study.

    I decided to try Anki after picking up two Nintendo DS consoles, a copy of the Nintendo sonomama jiten and a Japanese copy of Zelda Phantom Hourglass. I was mucking my way through the game but I caught myself looking up the same words over and over (must have looked up 最近 about a dozen times). So as I played I started writing down words, their reading, and their meaning on a pad. It was so much work reading anything anyway that this didn’t noticeably add to slowing down the game. Then later when I didn’t have time or didn’t feel like playing I would add the words to Anki, if I didn’t have any new words I would go through the cards I had already added. Also when choosing words to add I tried to only add those that seem useful in the current context (for Zelda things like sword, cave, adventure, etc. along with common words) and when reviewing I tried to write out the hidden parts of the card on paper before revealing (helps to really learn the kanji and improves hand writing too).

    I’ve already made it to the end of the game unfortunately, but I’ve already started my next project. I picked up a Japanese copy of the first Harry Potter book. The learning curve is a bit steeper on this one, but the same method seems to work. Read and decipher as much as possible and pull out the most interesting/frustrating words, then add/review when you don’t want to read.

  22. Just FYI, I’m trying another round with Anki. Now that I’m back in America, I need the practice. It’s only been a few days, but it’s going well.

  23. I played around with various flash card software (and also with physical flash cards) before trying Supermemo. Since I started using Supermemo two years ago, I have more than 22,000 flashcards entered into it, and I’m loving it. Not only do I study Japanese and Chinese with it, but anything I want to remember I put into the program. As far as language learning goes, LEARNING must take place outside of the program. RECALL/REMEMBERING is what the program helps to do. Flashcards cannot take the place of watching a movie, interacting with people, reading a book, etc., but they are rather the small “nails” that are used to maintain the structure of learned concepts (Words, idioms, kanji, etc.) as time passes. It takes time to strike a balance when using an SRS program, but once that balance is achieved the results are wonderful. 🙂

  24. Yes, I have/had a few thousand flash cards (half a 3×5 index card) back in the US. I don’t remember if I got rid of some/all of them when I moved or not. To start with I basically just always had a pile of blank ones with me and as I learned new words I’d write it on side and meaning on the other. I’d also put grammar points or anything else that seemed useful at the time.

    Heisig’s book actually gave me the method of using them to study by that made it useful. I’d keep several rubber bands and as I’d study them I’d split the cards into groups I knew and didn’t. Cards I knew got moved into piles I’d review the next, or next week, or next month etc. Cards I didn’t would be kept in the immediate review pile. I found it actually helped to move cards around fairly often. It kept me reviewing new stuff and not going over the old things I knew and kept it from being boring.

    I had several ‘bins’ I’d put cards in based on when I was to review them next. I didn’t keep it really structured and often I reviewed cards when the bin was full. Sometimes cards I just couldn’t remember (or for other reasons) would get removed (to another bin). I’d review those from time to time and see if something… looked interesting. Sometimes something I’d learned recently gave an old card new meanings.

    I’d often add to cards, kanji, compounds, readings etc. In fact when I did Heisig I did the same thing. As I learned new compounds I’d pull cards out and add the compounds to them as well as readings. I used bigger heavier duty cards for this.

    If you find flash cards boring or find yourself reviewing a lot of stuff you already know I’d recommend you try a similar method.

    As much as I love software it’s often not available when/where I was studying or had opportunities to learn new words and I’ve found much of it awkward and/or inflexible. It looks like there are a lot of new options available I’ll need to take a look at, although I think I’m still going to work on my own new one for the iPhone/iPod Touch.

  25. Haha, I just read more about SRS. That’s basically what Heisig suggests in his first book. Anyway, if you find yourself on the go quite a bit paper and pen is always accessible and it’s easy to customize SRS for you own needs.

  26. I hear that Softbank is going to sell iPhones. I wonder if they could be used in the States or does the US version have Japanese input as well?

    I have Chinesepod on my iPod already so I have plenty to study where ever I go. The only problem is my laziness!

  27. The US version of my iPod Touch does support Japanese input. That’s one reason I bought it. The iPhone is the same. In general you’ll find Apple ships most of it’s products with quite a few languages supported. Unfortunately Chinese and Korean aren’t in the list yet.

    Although I haven’t had a chance to mess with it yet, Apple is including Chinese hand writing recognition with the 2.0 firmware. I was hoping to be able to tap into that for Kanji type testing. I’m hoping by the time it’s released Japanese and kana input will be supported. I’m not sure it will be any better then using the keyboard, but it’s worth experimenting with.

  28. Not sure if this page is still alive but I used SRS (Anki) to learn English vocabulary for the GRE. I scored in the 95 percentile which I attribute to my study with Anki.

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