Learn How to Speak Chinese & Japanese with Spaced Repetition System – Part 1

It’s simple. The best tool to quickly and efficiently learn a language is to use an SRS system, or “spaced repetition system”. You might be thinking something like “why didn’t my middle school French teacher ever talk about SRS back then?” It’s not a traditional method for language learning. That’s why you never heard about it back then. An SRS is so simple though that you’ll probably wonder why you never thought of it before.

An SRS is basically a type of flashcard software that helps you to memorize, for the long-term, large quantities of information by working on small pieces of the information every day by using…you guessed it…spaced repetitions!

An example of an SRS flashcard.

An example of an SRS flashcard.

When I first started learning Chinese in Beijing, my teacher handed me a book and said, “Learn the first twenty characters by next class.” I didn’t know any Chinese characters at that point so it was a daunting task for me. So, I went back home determined to learn every character I had to. I learned those first twenty characters by the next class and I felt good. Then the teacher assigned more, and I learned those. Then she assigned more and more. This process kept going and going until I got to the point where I couldn’t learn twenty, let alone fifty characters a day!

I didn’t have any experience with serious language study at that time, and my learning techniques were very inefficient. My method for learning the characters was to go stock up on note cards, write the character on one side, the English meaning on the other side, practice these flashcards, rinse and repeat. Making the cards used up half my study time to begin with. Then I would take the characters and write each one about 20-50 times each! This medieval technique might have been good for my writing form but it was a huge waste of time. I could write the characters and remember their meanings for a little while, but I’d usually just forget most of it after a week.

This is how my homework looked before SRS. What a mess!

This is how my homework looked before SRS. What a mess!

I didn’t figure out an efficient method for learning until I was back in the United States studying Japanese. Eventually I realized how much valuable time I’d wasted in Beijing trying to learn Chinese with my brutal techniques. At least I was on the right track though. We learn by repetition, but the trick to remembering something is not cramming all your repetitions into one sitting. You have to space them out. That’s what SRS will do for you.

I think everyone understands this concept of spaced repetitions either consciously or subconsciously. Everyone has been guilty of cramming for tests, but if we really want to become good at something don’t we try to practice at least a little bit every day? Like when I try to learn a new song on my guitar, I don’t just sit down and expect to learn the whole thing at once. I’d just burn myself out really fast! Instead, I just take a little piece of that song each day and practice it and integrate it into the whole song. This method is much more effective and fun for me, and I can work on more than one song at a time. The same idea applies to our language learning. If you hear or read something with the right spacing in time, you’ll remember it better.

Don’t get the idea of trying to do SRS without a computer though. You don’t want to waste your time doing manual spacing calculations when the software can just do it for you. The SRS software will keep track of your spacing and decide when to show you information. When you first start learning something, you need to review it frequently in order to remember it. Eventually, you can review it less frequently. The space of time continues to increase between repetitions, which lets you review old material and allows you to learn new material at the same time.

To remember something you need to practice it gradually over time. Not cram it. Please don’t write out your Kanji, Hanzi, or whatever a hundred times expecting to remember it in a few days. Put your information into a SRS and it will present the language to you in the right intervals to help you best retain it. This is the most effective way I’ve found to quickly learn language and retain it long-term. If you use SRS correctly on a daily basis, then there is generally a retention rate of about 90-95%.

If you’re ready to revolutionize the way you study language with this simple yet highly effective method, then continue to read Learn How to Speak Chinese & Japanese with Spaced Repetition System – Part 2 where I’ll show you step by step how it’s done.

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One Response to Learn How to Speak Chinese & Japanese with Spaced Repetition System – Part 1

  1. Pingback: 用Flashcard學外文 (2) « HKLinguists

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