Spaced repetition system (or SRS) is a way to memorize “items” of knowledge (i.e. vocabulary), by making the student rack his or her brain trying to remember them at increasing intervals. You can find a bit more detailed description about it on Wikipedia. If you tried Anki or the long-term study in zkanji you probably know what I’m talking about. I don’t intend to write about the way SRS works and would avoid any scientific stuff. What follows has probably been said already (I don’t know, I haven’t read what others wrote), but this is a blog, so I just post what I think.
Let me make it clear that I think SRS is a great way to remember things. It has received a lot of criticism (probably, I have only seen a few, but I don’t roam the internet trying to find out what everyone thinks), and some of those partially concur with what I think as well. People who criticize it probably have their reasons to do so, and I’m not going to debunk them, nor am I able to. I just wanted to write about one correct way of using SRS.
This might sound like the opposite of what I wrote so far, but I think SRS is not the best method when you want to learn something new. Although it might be a way to study, but it is rather a way to prevent forgetting what you studied before. If you are like me and don’t use Japanese in your daily life, you ought to forget even some pretty common vocabulary. Preventing this is one purpose of SRS. I have met the opinion that using this method is a waste of time, and that many people learned a language without using spaced repetition. I agree that SRS is not for everyone, and that your experience might tell you to avoid it. There are people who learned a language without every touching textbooks, and textbooks might have slowed them down even. It depends on your environment and skills. If you have the opportunity to communicate a lot in your target language or you are surrounded with that language all the time, the correct way of using SRS might be to not use it at all. It can still be useful, so it is up to every person whether they need it or not. It is also possible that SRS wouldn’t help you because it doesn’t suit your learning style. For example books for learning kanji never helped me, even though a lot of students found them helpful.
I don’t want to tell anyone what they should do, but I have a few ideas regarding the use of spaced repetition systems. I think they are only effective if you combine them with some other study method. For example reading is both great entertainment and an excellent way to study. Even the best writers tend to use the same words and expressions over and over again, so if you read several books from the same author, you can learn without SRS. You could even take reading as a badly tuned SRS, though it doesn’t force you to remember as much as a program used for testing you. Especially if you are lazy and never take the time to learn what you have read. :p Reading Japanese books is “a bit” difficult due to kanji, but fortunately it is not the only way. You could pick any kind of entertainment, collect words you heard or read and study those. It is not a good idea to just add new words to the list (or deck) of an SRS program, because spaced repetition is not effective that way. My opinion is that if you make sure that what you learn with SRS can be associated with something else that you enjoy or use (entertainment, textbooks etc.), and that you try to be exposed to the Japanese language (or any other subject) as much as possible, it is easier to remember things with, than without SRS.
I could write a lot more about the subject, but I’m not confident in my authoritativeness. Just try it before you form an opinion.
As a final word I wanted to tell this to those who complain that the intervals given to words in the zkanji long-term study are too long. Repeating the words with the normal study groups, before adding them to the long-term study list helps a lot. At least if you try to learn brand new vocabulary.
I’ve contacted Jonathan Waller of http://www.tanos.co.uk/ who was kind enough to let me use his JLPT vocabulary lists in zkanji. (Actually anyone can use them freely if they comply to the CC-BY license.) The hard work comes only after this, because I will have to create my own data from them, and this cannot be done automatically. I could probably write a little script that does the hard work, but then I would have to go through the lists checking for missing words and differences, so doing everything by hand seems to be a safer method. But the work won’t stop there.
Have you ever wondered what is the best order to study vocabulary? I think this is a difficult question, and there is no definite answer to it. Programs like Anki or the current zkanji just throw the words at you in random order or in the case of Anki, in the order you want. This probably allows the student to come up with a study plan or to use some textbook’s vocabulary, and learn it in order. But is this really the best approach when you want to get ready for the JLPT? Especially if kanji is added to the mix and you have a limited knowledge of them.
When I was getting ready for the JLPT’s level 2 in 2009, I came up with my own order of study. I based that order on kanji, and it worked pretty well. The main idea was to study 3-6 words with each kanji at most, and only study words that have a single kanji that I haven’t seen before. For example I picked 速い. After learning that, I went for 時速, 急速 and 速報. I have seen 報 now so I could go for words like 電報 or 情報. I also had to take kanji readings into consideration, as I wanted to be able to read unknown words I see for the first time as well, to be able to look them up in the dictionary easily. So I picked several words where the same kanji had the same reading, and repeated this with most common readings of that kanji. With time I acquired all of JLPT2’s vocabulary this way.
Unfortunately the example order I have just shown wouldn’t work for beginners. Newcomers to the kanji world have trouble remembering simple kanji with stroke order and they equate the number of strokes in a kanji with its difficulty. With my current knowledge this way of thinking seems a bit naive, but I did the same years ago. Thus here comes the problem.
If I wanted students not to be overwhelmed by the 2-3000 common kanji, but still wanted to teach only relevant words, what order should I choose? Should I prioritize words with simple kanji having few strokes, or should I not care and put the more frequent words on top of the list? This might depend on the level of the student as well. Some will want to only study the words (how to say them and what they mean) without even touching kanji. Although this seems counterproductive to me, but should I deny this possibility from students? (Actually this is more of a technical issue than a question of study methods, and a difficult one on top of that.)
I think the best approach would be to teach words with simple kanji that are frequent as well first, and postpone those that are infrequent, but this has a disadvantage as well. If I can’t include a bit more complex kanji at the beginning of study or even after the student has acquired a hundred words, some frequent kanji combination can only come pretty late.
What do you think?