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Spaced Repetition is Awesome (chrisstucchio.com)
188 points by frrp on Aug 17, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 78 comments



I used to blog about spaced repetition systems five years ago back when it was mostly just language geeks into it: http://toshuo.com/2009/review-anki-spaced-repetition-learnin...

It's undeniable that SRS is great for remembering discrete chunks of information, but making it the primary portion of language learning efforts is generally a mistake since learning a language is not simply a process of memorizing a dictionary, word by word. Unlike an SRS, Extensive Reading will also help solidify a learner's understanding of collocations and semantics. It teaches more of the target language's culture, too.

There are two places in language learning where an SRS is fantastic. It's a great way to speed up learning the very basic scaffold necessary for engaging with graded readers or children's materials. Basic phonics training is particularly low-hanging fruit. Another great use is for memorizing words that one will very rarely hear in daily life and yet are the kinds of words everyone would be expected to know.

I recently tried Duolingo. I like some aspects of it, but it's really too bad that it mixes comprehension and production in all the activities. Far more practice time should be spent on comprehension (both listening and reading) than on production. This is true at every level but even more vital for beginners. Typing out words in a foreign language just isn't the best use of a beginner's study time.


I really wish there was a way for Duolingo to test comprehension without translating. Far too often translations are non-intuitive, especially with idioms. I don't know how they could do that, though.

Edit - an example from Duolingo: Ihm gehören viele Zeitungen.

Ihm means he/him

gehören means to be a part of or to belong to, from Duolingo:

(to) be part of

(we/they) belong to

(we/they) are part of

viele Zeitungen is many newspapers.

But the sentence does not translate as "he belongs to many newspapers". What it actually means is "He owns many newspapers". When Duolingo asks you to translate, there's no good way to translate that as a student. That is a complex sentence that, for all intents and purposes, can only be understood in German. You can't translate it without rewording it. Duolingo doesn't mention that gehören can mean "to own" in certain circumstances, because they can't give you the connotation of every situation that arises. Huge unsolved problem in language learning that would be great if it were fixed.


Yes. The one saving grace for Duolingo is that the production isn't `free' production, but most of the time you just repeat a sentence you just heard in the same exercise.

(Though I have to admit, I got stuck on Duolingo learning Spanish once the productions got more complicated.)


From his examples I wonder if these apps are good for grammar too, given that the two Portuguese sentences he writes have wrong grammar and/or declination.

1) Mulheres bonitas sao muito motivado. Literally "Beautiful women are very motivated", though the correct one (for gender and number) should be "Mulheres bonitas são muito motivadAS". Not sure what sense this makes though, I guess he wanted to say beautiful women were a good motivation (for him to learn Portuguese), "Mulheres bonitas são boa motivação".

2) (NSFW) Sua rabos e bonita should better be "seu rabo é bonito", i.e. (literal translation) "your a__ is nice". Wrong gender in "your" and "nice" and wrong number in a.


He's going about it the right way. Always learn vocabulary first, grammar after. Without the words you cannot communicate at all. Without the grammar you will be able to engage with a native speaker enough for them to correct you as soon as they get your meaning. Duolingo rightly postpones the grammar til later lessons and takes the right approach.


I don't think there are many children on HN. You can say "ass" and no one will bet upset.


I find SRS useful for grammar, using a fill-in-the-blank card. The user types in a template with the blanks marked:

  T: {{c1::Mulheres bonitas::Beautiful women}} são {{c2::boa motivação::good motivation}}.
Then it will generate one flashcard per template blank:

  Q: Mulheres bonitas são [good motivation].
  Q: [Beautiful women] são boa motivação.
The larger the blank, the more grammar the user has to come up with to synthesize the correct answer.

Anki has built-in support for this through something it calls a "cloze card", though I've found its implementation insufficient for languages with grammatical changes spread through the sentence.


Thanks. I did those from memory, still learning. Never claimed anki will make you perfect instantly.


Makes sense, it's probably easier and more fun to learn some vocabulary than correct grammar. I moved to an English speaking country (from Italy) eight years ago and still confuse "his" and "her" sometimes.


Is that really on Duolingo? The wording "seu rabo é bonito" would be considered hugely gross regardless of context or location.


I thought I was clear about that in the post - I put stuff like that one into Anki because DuoLingo won't remind me of it - but reading it again it seems unclear.

Anyway you are correct - that's not in DuoLingo. I learned that from a different source who does not consider it "hugely gross" (at least when I say it).


I think it makes you look like a prude or a child more than gross. There are widely used slang in both european and brazilian variants if you want to make those kinds of remarks. Not to mention all the african variants I'm not really familiar with.


As a Brazilian, I agree with ricardobeat. I don't think I ever saw a situation where saying 'rabo' as a slang for ass would be considered even slightly prudish or childish, but always at the very least explicit. The african variations for 'ass' are much more tame (used on TV broadcasts, for example).


As a portuguese, that's how it's used here. A sanitized version of slang.


Oh, I didn't know that. Well, that's a good reminder that pt and pt-BR have several vocabulary differences. A few more I can remember would be the words "bicha" (pt: queue, pt-BR: male homossexual) and "durex" (pt: condom, pt-BR: a kind of adhesive tape).


"bicha" has already picked up your meaning here in the last years.

Endless source of crappy jokes anytime someone says they waited somewhere. :|


Our non-offensive words for that are bunda and bumbum. The latter is more common w/ children, but I suppose foreigners would also like the sound.


There was a discussion of spaced repetition here two days ago. Does this mean the optimum time for the next spaced repetition discussion is now about 10 days from now?


Could be an alternate view of the "saved stories" list. Since it would be repeated only to those who saved the story, it could increase increase ongoing engagement with the story. Would need a way to terminate the repetition.


For those of you using Emacs and org-mode org-drill is a great option, http://orgmode.org/worg/org-contrib/org-drill.html


After reading all the comments posted here till now, I see that they are almost all about foreign language learning, with few mentioning other applications of spaced repetition systems. I had better apply my own background in foreign language learning (I learned Chinese as a second language beginning at age seventeen well enough to spend most of my twenties working as a language teacher, translator, and interpreter) to letting my friends here on HN know what else is useful to do for learning a human language well.

I hope the FAQ information below helps hackers achieve their dreams. As I learned Mandarin Chinese up to the level that I was able to support my family for several years as a Chinese-English translator and interpreter, I had to tackle several problems for which there is not yet a one-stop-shopping software solution. For ANY pair of languages, even closely cognate pairs of West Germanic languages like English and Dutch, or Wu Chinese dialects like those of Shanghai and Suzhou, the two languages differ in sound system, so that what is a phoneme in one language is not a phoneme in the other language.

http://www.sil.org/linguistics/GlossaryOfLinguisticTerms/Wha...

But a speaker of one language who is past the age of puberty will simply not perceive many of the phonemic distinctions in sounds in the target language (the language to be learned) without very careful training, as disregard of those distinctions below the level of conscious attention is part of having the sound system of the speaker's native language fully in mind. Attention to target language phonemes has to be developed through pains-taking practice.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10442032

It is brutally hard for most people (after the age of puberty, and perhaps especially for males) to learn to attend to sound distinctions that don't exist in the learner's native language. That is especially hard when the sound distinction signifies a grammatical distinction that also doesn't exist in the learner's native language. For example, the distinction between "I speak" and "he speaks" in English involves a consonant cluster at the end of a syllable, and no such consonant clusters exist in the Mandarin sound system at all. Worse than that, no such grammatical distinction as "first person singular" and "third person singular" for inflecting verbs exists in Mandarin, so it is remarkably difficult for Mandarin-speaking learners of English to learn to distinguish "speaks" from "speak" and to say "he speaks Chinese" rather than * "he speak Chinese" (not a grammatical phrase in spoken English).

Most software materials for learning foreign languages could be much improved simply by including a complete chart of the sound system of the target language (in the dialect form being taught in the software materials) with explicit description of sounds in the terminology of articulatory phonetics

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Articulatory_phonetics

with full use of notation from the International Phonetic Alphabet.

http://www.langsci.ucl.ac.uk/ipa/ipachart.html

Good language-learning materials always include a lot of focused drills on sound distinctions (contrasting minimal pairs in the language) in the target language, and no software program for language learning should be without those. It is still an art of software writing to try to automate listening to a learner's pronunciation for appropriate feedback on accuracy of pronunciation. That is not an easy problem.

After phonology, another huge task for any language learner is acquiring vocabulary, and this is the task on which most language-learning materials are most focused. But often the focus on vocabulary is not very thoughtful.

The classic software approach to helping vocabulary acquisition is essentially to automate flipping flash cards. But flash cards have ALWAYS been overrated for vocabulary acquisition. Words don't match one-to-one between languages, not even between closely cognate languages. The map is not the territory, and every language on earth divides the world of lived experience into a different set of words, with different boundaries between words of similar meaning.

The royal road to learning vocabulary in a target language is massive exposure to actual texts (dialogs, stories, songs, personal letters, articles, etc.) written or spoken by native speakers of the language. I'll quote a master language teacher here, the late John DeFrancis. A few years ago, I reread the section "Suggestions for Study" in the front matter of John DeFrancis's book Beginning Chinese Reader, Part I, which I first used to learn Chinese back in 1975. In that section of that book, I found this passage, "Fluency in reading can only be achieved by extensive practice on all the interrelated aspects of the reading process. To accomplish this we must READ, READ, READ" (capitalization as in original). In other words, vocabulary can only be well acquired in context (an argument he develops in detail with regard to Chinese in the writing I have just cited) and the context must be a genuine context produced by native speakers of the language.

I have been giving free advice on language learning since the 1990s on my personal website,

http://learninfreedom.org/languagebooks.html

and the one advice I can give every language learner reading this thread is to take advantage of radio broadcasting in your target language. Spoken-word broadcasting (here I'm especially focusing on radio rather than on TV) gives you an opportunity to listen and to hear words used in context. In the 1970s, I used to have to use an expensive short-wave radio to pick up Chinese-language radio programs in North America. Now we who have Internet access can gain endless listening opportunities from Internet radio stations in dozens of unlikely languages. Listen early and listen often while learning a language. That will help with phonology (as above) and it will help crucially with vocabulary.

The third big task of a language learner is learning grammar and syntax, which is often woefully neglected in software language-learning materials. Every language has hundreds of tacit grammar rules, many of which are not known explicitly even to native speakers, but which reveal a language-learner as a foreigner when the rules are broken. The foreign language-learner needs to understand grammar not just to produce speech or writing that is less jarring and foreign to native speakers, but also to better understand what native speakers are speaking or writing. Any widely spoken modern language has thick books reporting the grammatical rules of the language,

http://www.amazon.com/Mandarin-Chinese-Functional-Reference-...

http://www.amazon.com/Chinese-Comprehensive-Grammar-Grammars...

http://www.amazon.com/Comprehensive-Grammar-English-Language...

http://www.amazon.com/Cambridge-Grammar-English-Language/dp/...

and it is well worth your while to study books like that both about your native language(s) and about any language you are studying.


Learning in context is really an underrated aspect of language learning. Some more tips:

1) Podcasts: you can handpick a theme you like, so you can transfer your knowledge between languages to get all subtleties.

2) Graphic Novels (aka: comics): you see the dialogs with a corresponding image. You mix narrative aspects of a book, where you read whats in the mind of the characters and see with a corresponding image.

3) Movies: you should watch them with subtitles in the spoken language.

4) Kindle Touch/Paperwhite: you will easily click in a word to see its definition.


> 3) Movies: you should watch them with subtitles in the spoken language.

I can't believe I never thought to do this. Great idea, thanks!


Thank you for the excellent links. A lot of your comments really ring true. A number of times I've really wished that the international phonetic alphabet was far more widespread and included in more language learning materials.

In addition as someone who has spent countless hours studying vocab flashcards with very little gains I can corroborate the fact that using it as a primary study method is quite ineffective. When I want to flashcard style studying now I focus on sentences, or groups of sentences with translations. The added context helps significantly but is still no substitute for full passages of text.


A bit off topic from your post, but I'm curious how far your Mandarin studies took you. Did you ever make any headway into Business Chinese and/or do you know of any good resources for that?

I'm a native bilingual Mandarin/English speaker, and worked abroad in Shanghai for a year or so, but am still lacking a lot of professional business vocabulary.


For those looking for SRS built around keyboard shortcuts and programming editors give https://www.shortcutfoo.com a try. The learn section uses an SRS algorithm and uses timing to determine the rating (vs selecting a number). shameless plug: I built it :)


One of the hardest things for spacedrrepetition software is finding/creating decks of words to learn. Does anyone have any recommendations for how to go about that?


I took words from my reading. When I was at a bit lower-level I worked through a newspaper, highlighting words I didn't know making flash cards of them and then practicing the flash cards during free time and then reading the newspaper selection later. Here's an entry I wrote about that process: http://toshuo.com/2007/learn-a-language-by-taking-advantage-...

Every single word encountered this way should make its way into your SRS after learning it.

As far as deck strategies, I was an Anki user and didn't like getting too many decks going at once. I tried doing separate decks for each book, video game, etc I was working my way through but it turned out to be huge pain. Now I favor only one deck per language for recognition, one for writing and one for ear training.


Anki have shared decks[1], but the general advice is that you always create your own deck. I personally hand create every single card I learn and couldn't be happier with the results so far.

[1]: https://ankiweb.net/shared/decks/


I've always found this advice to be a little overrated. Card creation takes a lot of time and I've found it be only slightly helpful in the memorization process and try to avoid creating a card from scratch when I can. I use an extremely modified version of the Japanese corePlus deck and have found it invaluable that it already came with 6000+ vocab words with example sentences all already tagged with the most popular textbooks and online learning materials. I've been using it for about 3 years now and it has expanded to include pictures and example text for many more words as well. However it would have been a huge time sink to even attempt such a deck on my own.

The problem with shared decks is that Anki is not a very good way of learning information for the very first time. Seeing the material from another source, like a textbook or encountering it in the wild and then studying by tags is the process I find to be the best flow for me. I have a cram deck for all the vocabulary I have ever studied, one for the current chapter I'm studying, and if I'm taking a class one for all the vocabulary I've studied in the class that semester or year. With textbooks, I read over the vocabulary and tag words or add an example sentence if I need to but I often don't have to. Using this method I can learn somewhere between 50-100 new words in a week if I need to with pretty good recall.

However I have another cram deck that is tagged with words that are the top 2000 and 6000 most common. Unless I have seen the word previously I find even going through 10 words to be a painful process and it takes me much longer to memorize. I have that cram deck setup to only show me 5 new words a day and mostly use it as a review deck.

Edit: Grammar


You could try Memrise or Duolingo, of which the first has large numbers of user made stacks, but which I usually find have enough errors or other problems as to become rather irritating to work with. Duolingo is awesome, so long as what you want to learn is on their fairly small list of languages, as it has some understanding of grammatical issues, and far fewer outright errors than Memrise. My main issue with Duolingo is that its courses are somewhat limited - even if you finish one, you won't have much more than very basic literacy and vocabulary in the language.

Personally, now, I am concentrating on Anki, and I build my stacks by adding words and short phrases as I come across them during the day. It is an excellent, if clunky, tool: it allows you to add TeX for learning equations, etc; its model lets you define different types of data structure ('Note'), from which you can define different question-responses to learn ('Cards'). The main problem is the limitations of the iOS app, which doesn't let you add new Notes or process your TeX for you.


I love memrise. I've found it most useful for learning geography so far, not language. http://www.memrise.com/course/42769/country-mapping/


I've mostly used Anki for learning Japanese, so I'm biased towards that specific language. There are however some awesome free tools floating around that take the pain out of creating flashcards:

-[1] EPWING2Anki creates flashcards from a wordlist and a dictionary in EPWING format

-[2] Sub2srs creates flashcards based on a movie and subtitle files

It's also possible to use e.g. spreadsheets to mass-create cards. Further tools analyze e.g. a selection of ebooks and create word frequency lists of unknown words, Combined those tools have greatly assisted my progress.

[1]: http://subs2srs.sourceforge.net/

[2]: http://forum.koohii.com/viewtopic.php?pid=181475


I'm still pretty noob at Japanese, but I have lived there for 6 months and took 3 semesters of introductory classes. I've never had the motivation to study, but I thought I'd plug a really cool flash card type app called Wanikani [1], from the guys behind Tofugu. I maxed out the free level but I didn't want to dedicate my time to learning yet, so I haven't moved on to higher levels. I'm hoping this can be a way to develop my vocab, but I also like the idea from elsewhere in this post of finding some sort of radio broadcasts in Japanese, it would be super helpful if they had a text-based script of the dialogue too.

Also, in my comprehension of Japanese on the internet, a firefox extension rikai-chan or the chrome version rikai-kun (which I use) is invaluable. With computers even Japanese people don't need to know how to write kanji, they just type the hiragana and hit space til they see it. This extension allows you to highlight the kanji, going in the other direction (kanji -> pronunciation/meaning, use your japanese keyboard to go from pronunciation/hiragana -> kanji with spacebar).

Also, for a dictionary I use Alc [2] which I found is very commonly used by Japanese people that need to find English words. The main benefit to using this is that there are many examples of the words used in context, and showing other kanji used for those same meanings. This allows you to make sure the kanji you found for the meaning you want is actually used in, or find the correct kanji for, the context you are trying to use it in. It is important to have a database maintained by people that know proper Japanese for sure, it's much easier to understand broken English than to try to use broken Japanese.

[1] http://www.tofugu.com/resources/wanikani/ [2] http://www.alc.co.jp


User hermanschaaf and I live in Japan and set out to build a fast Japanese dictionary: http://nihongo.io

Source is here: http://github.com/gojp

Take a look if you have time, feature requests are very welcome :)


Once you study Japanese for any amount of time romaji becomes more of a liability than anything else. The thing I dislike most about most these one search bar dictionaries is there is no way to ignore romaji input. Its one of the main reasons I still use jisho.org so often and I'm very unexcited about their new beta. Adding the ability to turn it off would be a great start


I understand what you mean; I've been studying Japanese for five years now and learned hiragana and katakana in the first two weeks of class. I have always told new learners to do that first as you rarely see romaji used in Japan.

Do you mean that on jisho you always use the Japanese search box?


When I'm searching Japanese yes. Jisho splits up English and Japanese so that I don't have to filter through completely unrelated results if an English word just happens to be made up letters that could be romaji. I also usually type into both boxes if I have an idea of the word or I want a sentence example of the word used in a specific way


Ah, I think I get it. When searching for the term "shin" for example, it would ignore any English definition matches such as shin guard, and only match Japanese terms containing it, like 心配.


https://github.com/CraigJPerry/shortcuts

Some of these are copies of other's decks. The vim one is good, even as someone who's normally the vim expert in a given group of Unix bods I still find myself learning.

The git one is crap, I will redo that myself when I get a chance.

The idea / pycharm ones are just a dump of the keybindings. Same for the GitHub one. Its pretty easy to make simple decks.

There's an excellent multimedia deck called "knots" which predictably enough teaches knot tying. Worth a look to see what's possible with Anki.


Skritter has a whole bunch of curated lists out of the box including those for popular text books and academic levels. You are paying a premium for its use though (£10 a month).


Sivers on SRS (great info): http://sivers.org/srs


great link

I'd love to see more non-foreign language SRS applications

seems like every college textbook/class (or really any textbook/class) should have a SRS application to go with it

wouldn't it be nice if all those freshman level lessons had gotten implanted in your memory


Since I started SRS (first Anki and now even more successful with memrise) I have to agree that it's the most awesome thing I encountered so far learning languages. To say the truth due to lazyness and being tired after work I haven't found a reasonable alternative to learn thousands of vocabs. So before SRS I really was screwed, only learning very, very slowly.


Let me just say this post was mainly to inform my readers that SRS exists. A far better submission for HN would have been gwerns review article, with science and such.


I'm close to launching a memory trainer for remembering Names and Faces. It uses a spaced repetition algorithm based on Super Memo 2 (Anki does as well, but I'm not sure how far it has evolved from its SM2 roots): http://www.supermemo.com/english/ol/sm2.htm

I've also found SRS to be incredibly effective when combined with other mnemonic techniques, while learning French. I wrote about this recently: http://www.ubermemory.com/blog/understanding-mnemonics


I wrote a free spaced-repetition app for iOS a while back:

https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/memorize-me!/id578975798?mt=...

My plan was to release packs of things to memorize (e.g. Famous Quotes, Ten Commandments, etc.), but with 0-10 downloads a week, I just gave up on it. If there's some interest, I'll consider releasing an update.



Nice, haha, there's probably a dozen or so such apps. My motivation was to make an app that pings me when it's time to remember a certain item. So I could be anywhere and all of a sudden I'd get a message, "Propranolol (INN) is a sympatholytic non-selective beta blocker". I was in med school at the time.


At Kenhub[0], we built an anatomy learning platform that uses spaced repetition. The algorithm might not be as elaborate, but the basic concept is the same.

In our case, it's a little different from a flashcard system, because anatomy structures are typically grouped and asked together (e.g. choose the right term from the following images, choose the correct term in the picture from the following list etc). There's also more complex topics such as origin, insertion, innervation, function - which covers the way anatomy structures 'interact' (e.g. this muscle flexes the arm...).

[0] https://www.kenhub.com


The biggest list of learning apps, many of which do support SRS is http://www.flashcardapps.info/

It's iOS only but my point is to show how there is a huge variety even for iOS users.

I did my own free SRS flashcards app and focus much on cooperative content creation: https://fluxcards.de/

My suggestion is to try it out if you never did as it is truly amazing. It can't replace a teacher or actually using what you are trying to learn but it can make sure 100% that you learn faster and never forget facts that you want to make sure you know. Try Anki or any other other SRS app if you don't want to fall for my bold self-advertisement but try it out. It's worth it and should be known by all.


I've almost finished building a system for learning language specifically using spaced repetition.

Instead of basic flash cards, reads you the word (audio); then if you don't get it you'll be shown the word (visual); then you'll be read the word in context; then shown the word in context.

The system doesn't just drill you on single words, it tests comprehension on full sentences and documents too.

I'm currently putting the last polishes on to make sure new users can easily start learning. If you're interested, I'll announce the beta launch on my mailing list at www.hotglot.com , or if you're super keen email me at james @ hotglot.com and I'll give access to the alpha version.


I can testify to the benefits of SR apps too after using Skritter to improve Chinese reading and writing. Once you get the ball rolling you quickly find yourself easily memorising characters and in some cases even predicting the formation of characters you've never met before. For anyone who wants to learn written Chinese or Japanese I would highly recommend it!

That said though, for learning the spoken language there's no substitute for communicating with native speakers on a regular basis. SR tools simply help as an additional tool to speed up your spoken learning or help with reading/writing.

http://www.skritter.com/


Spaced repetition is indeed awesome. For a month now I've been working through a deck of hard English vocabulary using Anki, and already my speech and reading comprehension capabilities have increased dramatically.


Care to link?


Can anyone explain how a good SRS system should work? Are there any deficiencies in the current apps? I've got several iOS language apps and I'm looking for features for my next release. I just added about 1000 pictures so it's easier to learn by association, rather than word pairs e.g. gato/cat. Here's my Spanish app.

https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/h4-spanish-lite/id388918463?...


One thing that Anki does very well (and that neither memrise nor duolingo attempt) is allow you to immediately rate the difficulty of an exercise right after you do it. This allows you give feedback that e.g. You got something right by fluke or conversely that you got something wrong because it was so easy you weren't paying full attention. I find with memrise that it sometimes repeats the easy stuff too often leaving less room for hard stuff that I 'fluked'.

Also Anki allows you to fill your brain with the subset of the universe of vocabulary that most interests you (knowing that pinguna is a macchiato made my life a lot better today). I'd advise starting out with the set courses of memrise and duolingo and using them to fill up an Anki card set as you come across interesting vocab.


I personally wouldn't use your app because it doesn't look like you can add or modify cards and list and doesn't appear to robust enough to be the main way of studying.


Yeah, I've got to find a way to allow for word lists to be imported. iOS doesn't really have a good way to import csv. iOS 8 has some data sharing that I'll look into.


Dropbox?


I think spaced repetition is over-hyped and under-understood.

In language learning, it can have some benefit, but I think duolingo's approach, which does not obsess over computing repetition times, more effective than flash card software.

I found that in order to use a new word, 6 repetitions isn't enough, you rather need a few hundreds to make it stick. Also waiting a few weeks until the next repetition is just a waste of time...


A very cool thing with Anki (with contrast with Duolingo) is that it is free software (as in free speech), and is distributed on F-Droid https://f-droid.org for Android users who do not have Google play.


Read https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/22815528-anki-essentials (Anki Essentials) to get started.


I have used Anki. I really wish they had paid high quality decks to study.


1. Flash cards are boring as hell

2. Memorizing a bunch of vocabulary does not help you learn the language. If anything, it might be a hinderance.

Bear with me here.

The main obstacle in learning a language is not the acquisition of vocabulary per se, but getting familiar and acquainted with how ideas are expressed in the language.

The most common mistake that beginners make is they try to form the sentence in their native language, then translate it to the target language. This approach is guaranteed to make you form BAD sentences.

You need to be exposed to not just vocabulary, but phrases, collocations[0], and idioms.

You must train your mind to use the expressions of your target language from the start .. without starting from some expression in your native language.

To get there, you need to be exposed to tons of natural speech/writings/dialogs in the target language.

That's why a vocabulary list on its own is pretty useless.

If you're going to use flashcards, let the entries be phrases and collocations, instead of single words.

[0]: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Collocation


My experience has been exactly the opposite. When speaking or reading Spanish, German or French, I never think "gee, if only I knew more grammar" but almost every day I think "well, it sure would be nice if I knew the word for ___."

It seems your advice is directed towards language learners who think they might get away with just learning words and not bothering at all with grammar, collocations, expressions and all of the other things you need to truly grasp a foreign language, like practicing listening comprehension. For those people, your advice makes sense. But realistically, even among flash card aficionados, how many people do you figure think learning a language is as easy as just learning words? Do those people even exist?


Ah, but the word for X in this context is not necessarily the same word you should use in some other arbitrary context.


And many people to add hints to their cards (e.g. to distinguish prevoir quelqu'un from prevoir quelque chose) as well as add example sentences – or, as you suggested, have sentence decks in addition to word decks. But even regardless of that, not using flash cards because sometimes contextless learning is not ideal would be throwing away the baby with the bathwater; the increase in speed at which you can learn vocabulary is just immense with SRS.


> not using flash cards because sometimes contextless learning is not ideal would be throwing away the baby with the bathwater

No, that would only be the case if one decided to stop learning the language all together because they think they'll never be fluent.

I'm proposing to learn the language properly: by exposing yourself to as much material as you can, for prolonged periods of time.


> I'm proposing to learn the language properly: by exposing yourself to as much material as you can, for prolonged periods of time.

... which is what you need for mastery, I absolutely agree (it's what I do too!), but it's very, very slow.


It's not really very slow. It took me about one year to learn English when I arrived to Canada (I was 16).


2. Memorizing a bunch of vocabulary does not help you learn the language. If anything, it might be a hinderance.

I wouldn't be so harsh on flashcards. I moved to Denmark last year and am now learning the language. Having better vocabulary totally helps you learn the language, but of course should not be the only or primary mean. I would say that flashcards is a powerful tool that assists my other studies. If I was able to spend hours per day on studying the language, maybe they would not be necessary. But my work environment is English speaking, I have a family and no native speaking friends yet, so my study time is limited.

The way I maintain my deck is that after each lesson, or after reading any sort of text, or while reading, I add the words I did not know into the deck. And I also have a smaller deck for phrases and expressions. So, yes, I am getting exposed to natural writing, but it is not a trivial task to memorise words that you only saw or used a handful of times.

My deck is now around 3500 words and growing steadily, I can read and understand newspaper articles on general subjects and express myself in writing. I have been commended on my vocabulary by teachers and I believe the usage of Anki is the advantage that gives me "the edge" compared to others in similar circumstances.


As far as I understand your main assumption is that vocabulary acquisition is a smaller problem than grammar (i.e., how to express your idea). I have to disagree.

While this might be a problem for some people, for others acquiring thousands of vocabs is a huge problem in itself. Beside personal problems and preferences there are also big differences depending on the language you are learning and the languages you already know. An English native speaker learning French has much less vocabs to learn than an English native learning Chinese.

Additionally to memorizing huge amounts of vocabs I also find that learning phrases is very helpful, but more as a second step. At least for me it works like this. "Memorizing a bunch of vocabulary" is exactly what got me started to finally improve my Chinese.


No, I did not mean that the grammar is more important.

What I was getting at is that it's not the individual words, but the context in which these words are often used.

If you look up in the dictionary, there are about 6 different ways to refer to a woman/girl. Can you tell which ones are in common usage? Which ones sound formal and which ones sound casual? Which ones might seem offensive in certain contexts?


Yes, you are right. That's also a problem. I didn't think about that one.


I recently took a CEFR test in my second language, and the administrator of the test commented that I probably would be one level higher if I had a stronger vocabulary. She noticed that there were questions that I would have gotten right if I understood the words, but as it was I just had to guess. When I'm reading books in my second language, there are sometimes sentences I need to either look up or skip entirely because I don't know one or more of the words being used.

So, while you're right that flashcards won't teach you grammar, vocabulary is incredibly important to move beyond any basic level. I can greet someone or buy a meal at McDonald's with a phrase book. I can't read a novel without vocabulary.


What you say is true if mastery of the foreign language is required or the aim of the exercise. However, if you just want to order breakfast abroad without looking like an uncultured insensitive dick, translating sentences formed in your native language works just fine. Nobody expects people to master five-or-so languages, but putting at least some effort into learning the local language is usually greatly appreciated. Furthermore, depending on the degree of similarity between your native language and the “target“ language, forming sentences first and then translating them will actually get you pretty far – surely it will be useless if you speak, say, Finnish natively and want to learn some East Asian language, but I imagine it to work decently between, say, English and Dutch or Spanish and Italian. Even English and German share enough history that most sentences can be translated one-to-one.


If you want to order breakfast, you can memorize things from a phrase book, or you can just carry the phrase book with you.

And yes, of course, what I said was with "mastery of the language" as the goal in mind.

You might have a point for "similar" languages, but even then you will be setting yourself to learning bad habits.

My native language is Arabic. I learned English when I was in high school, and now I'm learning Japanese. All very different languages.




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