Taking the world less travelled

Don’t Review Sentences in Your SRS

Posted by on Feb 24, 2010 in Language | 14 comments

After a brief love affair with smart.fm (who look like they have actually improved a lot since I last used them – good to know for if/when I go back!), I’ve been back with anki a little while now.

One thing I haven’t done in a gazillion years is reviewing sentences. I think perhaps reviewing sentences has its merits but it has never worked for me. I am too focused on trying to remember unfamiliar vocabulary than the really pay attention to how the sentence is put together. In other words, I may remember the vocab and know how to read the sentence, but it doesn’t help me much with remembering/noticing what particle was used, for instance, or how to put the sentence together as a whole.

What it does do is take a lot of time.

OK, so it has never been promised that reviewing sentences in Anki passively would help with actively producing sentences (where I would need to know what particle goes there etc). However, reading and understanding sentences – I can do that by reading books. I can do that by reading manga. I can do that by reading websites, etc. I can even do that by reading textbooks. In other words, where was the source of the sentence? That’s where I can read it…

What is stopping me from reading it there? For me it is a lack of vocabulary. So, I need to work on vocab. Therefore, I review single words.

What are the advantages from reviewing sentences? Is it to check that you can understand a whole sentence, with each individual word in context? Sure. But… you can check that while you are reading the original source. If you don’t understand a sentence… why? Is it vocab? Is it grammar? Is it something else? That something is what you need to study, not all the extra information as well.

Simple Is Easy

Supermemo’s guide to formulating knowledge in learning is a great resource to look over when you are building your SRS deck. One point is that simple is easy. You learn faster with simple things because you only have to focus on one thing.

Another thing to think about is why Remembering the Kanji is such a popular method. It’s because it breaks learning the kanji down into baby steps. You learn how to write the kanji (with a simple idea of meaning) and nothing else. You then learn how to read and pronounce the kanji using other methods. By breaking down the process into small steps it is easier to climb the big mountain that is Japanese.

This is why I review vocab in my SRS.


What do you review in your SRS?

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  1. Joe

    I think the biggest advantage to doing sentences, if you are doing it AJATT style anyway, is that there is no English involved. Reviewing individual words can be alright early on, but if you are always reviewing things in terms of English then you will automatically be processing English->Japanese and Japanese->English. With sentences that are monolingual, you learn new vocabulary in context and *through* Japanese, which is important if you want to be able to speak/write in a natural way. You start seeing words and phrases that always go together and they are continually reinforced by reviewing through an SRS. For example, in one of your screen shots you have 新任, with a meaning of “new.” How do you know when to use this word versus other words that mean new like 新しい or 新たな? Obviously, all these words have difference nuances and usages. If you had a sentence card that had this word in context then you would be able to learn and reinforce that through your reviewing, with the obvious side-benefit of solidifying grammar, etc.. By the way, 新任 means new in the sense of inaugural, with the two kanji meaning “new” and “duty/responsibility.”

    You are right when you say when you can best learn sentences when you are actually reading sentences in things like books and websites. So why practice any different? The real language exists in complete thoughts, not fragments. Studying sentences allows you to constantly to engage real material while reviewing in a structured, productive way. My two cents, anyway. :)

    • GoddessCarlie

      The thing is, I got these words from context. I didn’t pluck these out of thin air, I am getting them from sentences that I have been reading in books or other sources. I can read the sentence in the context of the book. Plus words can mean different things in different situations, so the more I encounter it the better I will understand the word.

      Plus, it is again like RtK. The method uses a basic English meaning which soon becomes redundant and is forgotten. The English meanings in my deck give me a quick meaning and I can then discover it’s real nuances through encountering it in life.

      I fully plan on making my deck monolingual as soon as possible, but for real my vocab sucks. For now with English in my deck this is quicker. Later Japanese will be quicker.

      I want my anki reps to be as short as possible. Learn/remember the word then encounter it in real life to gain a deeper understanding.

      Less time in anki, more time reading/watching tv etc.

      • Joe

        Fair enough. I love to be reading/watching real stuff too, not just doing Anki. But even if you do sentences, your Anki entries don’t have to be that long. Usually I don’t exceed 20-30 characters total in a card, which for ones I’ve seen a lot, I can read in five seconds or less. I think that another thing that just SRSing vocabulary does is that it gives undue weight to things, i.e. everything shows up at equal intervals. To be honest, I had never even seen the word 新任 before I saw this post and I’ve been hardcore reading newspapers, manga and sentence mining for the past year. In English as in Japanese, certain words just aren’t used as much as others. Sentence mining allows the natural ratios that words are used at to come through. For me, it’s all connected, the stuff you do “for real” and the stuff you do in Anki. An imbalance or separation between the two can only serve to confuse you, or worse, hinder you. I wish I could explain this better, but it’s just this conclusion I’ve come to after spending quite literally thousands of hours now just doing sentence mining and reps. It’s not time wasted, better spent doing “real stuff,” believe me. ;)

        • GoddessCarlie

          I’m not sure I get what you mean with natural ratios. As in, I understand if something is more common, and you are using sentences, the word is going to appear more often than uncommon ones. However, isn’t that a bit of redundancy in typing, and it is this redundancy that will occur in real life to help me learn common words.

          Also, if I encounter something in real life as well as my SRS I’m more likely to retain it. What I am not retaining, well, it becomes a leech and Anki automatically suspends it. So, if I understand what you are saying, Anki already has a natural “weight” detector.

          Perhaps you can expand on this? I love your comments and I’m not sure I’m understanding properly :)

        • GoddessCarlie

          Also, in regards to 新任 – actually this word is a “translation” from the English word “new” in the textbook my kids are using at school, grade 1 middle school. I understand maybe 85% of the words in that text book in Japanese, and wanted to learn the rest. My school (I’m an ALT) uses the “grammar/translation” method of learning, and while I don’t agree with that method really, it is a free lesson for me in Japanese and so I want to learn the words they use in this to help me understand Japanese. I do know the “basic” translation of all the sentences in the textbook, but often I find they use more complex sentences when they translate it, and I like being exposed/remembering/understanding them.

      • Joe

        I meant hundreds, not thousands of hours. I haven’t been doing it for that long. XD

  2. Tiffany Harvey

    I think it is different for everyone ~ you have to learn what works the best for you. I was gung-ho to get my deck switched over to sentences too, and spent hours typing & reformatting my cards… only to realize that it plain & simple wasn’t going to work for me. As soon as I went to sentences, I stopped reviewing Anki. I lost all motivation. I quickly realized that I need to keep reviewing vocabulary only, and get the benefit of sentences from reading.

    • GoddessCarlie

      Thank you for your comment!

      I agree that all the extra effort isn’t worth it for me.

      However, I guess the opposite is true too. If sentences is what makes you use your SRS program, then by all means use them! After all, doing something is better than not doing it.

      I do think that using vocab only is more efficient, however.

  3. Fishy

    SRS is like a hammer. It is wonderfully useful as a tool, but it is not the solution for every language problem.

    Over the past four years I’ve experimented with different ways of remembering vocabulary and grammar using an SRS program (Supermemo).
    I have tried putting entries entirely in Japanese (Instead of Camera, I would put “thing that takes pictures” or 写真を撮る道具). Rather than making me think in Japanese, this seemed to lengthen each card/item’s review time and didn’t make things any easier on me. It felt like I was using SRS to do a job SRS wasn’t made to do, much like using a hammer on a job where a different tool is needed. That’s when I learned something later articulated on the Supermemo site.

    Somewhere on the Supermemo web site (The site is so poorly organized I don’t recall nor do I want to find the location of the article), I read something along the lines of ‘Supermemo (SRS) is not used to learn, it is to RETAIN WHAT WAS ALREADY LEARNED.’ An SRS should be the “checkpoint” companion for your language progression, not the only tool driving you forward. Learn how to use a particular vocabulary word, and then “store” it into your SRS.

    http://www.jgram.org has some nice explanations for different grammatical structures. My strategy for grammar was to use JGram examples to try to understand how a certain pattern was structured, then plug in my own vocabulary words. I would keep changing vocabulary words until I could recall the grammatical structure without much thought. Once I could do this, I created two or three flashcards that tested the learned grammar pattern. Here’s an example:
    The structure we want to learn is …からといって…(という)訳ではありません。 It means “Just because… doesn’t mean…”

    Once you look at enough examples you can see that you simply say

    Phrase 1 からといって phrase 2 (という)訳ではありません。
    Just because PHRASE 1 doesn’t mean PHRASE 2.

    Just because [he has money] doesn’t mean [he is happy].
    he has money からといって he is happyという訳ではありません。

    Just because [He has an iPod] doesn’t mean [he is a member of the Mac cult]
    he has an ipod からといって he is a member of the Mac cultという訳ではありません。

    Just because [You use an SRS] doesn’t mean [it is the solution to every problem].
    You use an SRS からといって it is the solution to every problem という訳ではありません。

    After I “got” the point, I would make a couple of flashcards. Here is an example:

    Just because he is American doesn’t mean he is fat.

    This would be the flashcard:

    Q: GRAM: 彼はアメリカ人 Just because、太ってる doesn’t mean.
    A: からといって 、訳ではありません。

    So I use sentences but cut what I want to know and insert English in its place; also each sentence has a specific purpose (To teach one piece of grammar, one vocabulary word, etc.). Adding Japanese definitions to simply force you to read more Japanese (In my opinion) is somewhat missing the point of what an SRS is, a program for RETENTION, not EXPOSURE. If you want Japanese exposure, get a novel and try to read it, or keep up with a Japanese blog or something. Go on a journey, THEN record your findings in your SRS.

    • GoddessCarlie

      Fishy! Great comment! :D

      This is something of what I wanted to say. The SRS for me is to help me remember a word. Apart from that, I want the rest of my exposure to be from source materials, which are way more fun and interesting than an srs program.

  4. Ellie

    Obviously everyone studies differently, but I agree with you. I also realized that reviewing sentences in Anki was just not going to happen for me. I tried, but for some reason, it just wasn’t fun. Maybe it would have helped me in the long run, but I didn’t want to torture myself. :) So I just use Anki for vocab now. I also have the UNICOM 2kyuu vocab book, which has example sentences.

    Other than that, I try to read, usually manga. I went to Kinokuniya and got a couple of books, though I might have overestimated myself in that case. But I’ll try. :D I don’t really like reading books for children because they have too few kanji (reading endless hiragana is painful), so my other choices would be young adult or adult books.

    This blog, btw, is really cool: http://howtojaponese.com/ In a couple of entries, he blogged about reading Murakami (for example, he had a 1Q84 live reading post: http://howtojaponese.com/2009/05/29/1q84-liveblog/). His blog gives me confidence that I can also take a book and try to read. Yeah, it will be painful, but sort of fun and very worth it.

    • GoddessCarlie

      Hey Ellie!

      I’ve actually been reading a book aimed at about 10 year olds and wow, I’m amazed at how well I’m going. Sure, some pages I have 20+ unknown words, and my best page I had only one. Soooo much easier than books for children, I have discovered – more so than just the hiragana only, but also because the content is more interesting, I think.

  5. izzy

    wats is SRS?

  6. kekoa

    I recently finished RTK 1 and I’ve been just doing reviews on my kanji. I’ve been putting off the sentence mining until I can find the best way to start.

    But after reading this post it made me think that maybe your method maybe better (at least for me).

    Thank you for the incite.

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