Review: FluentU Chinese

04-23-15-11-58-39_250-250I remember what it was like starting to learn Chinese and I have since seen the same thing in students. When first starting out, everybody’s very enthusiastic and even though some parts of the language feel difficult, these challenges are there to be overcome and even repeated setbacks can’t really dent our ambition to learn more.

But it’s with language as it is with everything else in life, the sheen wears off, the dust settles and studying stops being the most exciting part of the day and turns into a part of normal life instead. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it becomes boring, but it means that for most of us, we have to make an effort to make it interesting.

The obvious way of making learning interesting is to make sure that the content in interesting, but as anyone who has tried knows, immersion in Chinese isn’t as easy as it sounds. Reaching a level where you can read and listen to interesting content takes a long time.

This week’s article is an in-depth review of FluentU in general, with an obvious focus on Chinese. I think this new service can help you solve both the problem of finding interesting material and the problem of making it accessible.

FluentU Chinese

In a nutshell, FluentU is a service that uses video and audio to teach you Chinese. While doing so, you have access to a lot of scaffolding, such as subtitles, translations, pop-up definitions, useful player features such as looping and pausing. Added to this, there is a learning and review section if you want to actually learn the content of the media you watch and listen to. Overall, I think FluentU has come a long way towards solving the problems of boredom and inaccessibility of Chinese learning materials.

If you’ve never hard of FluentU before, I suggest you check out my brief video review below. I will discuss the service in more detail below in both text and images, but since this service is mostly about video content, I feel that a video review is in place:

Let’s dig deeper and see what FluentU has to offer learners of Chinese.

Using video to learn Chinese

The videos are the core of FluentU and what sets it apart from many other services, including most podcasts. Using video to learn has obvious advantages, such as being more interesting, engaging more senses and offering more information in general. The problem is of course that video is harder and more expensive to produce, so what FluentU has done is very clever: Turn existing videos into Chinese learning material. They also offer a growing library of videos created by the FluentU team, but more about that later.

At the moment, there are 2441 video and audio clips distributed over six difficulty levels, eight types of content and nine formats. Something to note here is that for each video, you can see how many words it contains, and, more importantly, how many of these words you already know. That means that the more you use the service, the better it will be at showing you clips where you know most of the content already.

You can also view or download a transcript of the dialogue and the vocabulary found in it.

screenshot43

This is what the main interface looks like. You can play the entire clip, loop selected sections or pause the video simply by hovering over the subtitles. The video interface works well and allows you to drill-down into any part of the content you didn’t understand. There are also some extra features that increase the usefulness a lot:

  • Screenshot from 2015-05-27 18:44:49Coloured time panel based on the subtitle content so you can easily find what you’re looking for
  • A loop function that allows you to play the same section over and over
  • The option to toggle Pinyin and translations on and off
  • Choose between simplified and traditional characters

Another great feature is the pop-up dictionary. This is not your average browser pop-up dictionary that simply gives you the CDICT definition and pronunciation of the character or word you hover over, it gives you much more than that. As the screenshot on the right shows, you also get a picture and the part of speech. The pictures are surprisingly well chosen to illustrate the specific words, although not always perfect. Still, this is as far as I know the largest dictionary that includes images

While we’re at it, let’s look closer at the vocabulary, because this is one of the areas where I think FluentU is outstanding. If you click the character or word, it brings up more information about it, like so:

screenshot45There are a couple of really cool things here. First, there are numerous example sentences with translation and audio. Second, some of these sentences have video, which is surely unprecedented in other Chinese learning materials. This means that you can actually watch how that specific word is used in other videos on FluentU! The only drawback here is that if there is no specifically recorded audio, a TTS (text-to-speech) function takes over, but more about this later.

A closer look at the content

As mentioned above, the content is partly from YouTube and partly created by FluentU. The former is very diverse and everybody should be able to find something. Most of the videos are very short, many of them less than a minute. This is good for bite-sized learning, but can also be quite annoying if you want something longer and more coherent. To address this problem, videos are also organised into courses, which focus on a specific topic.

The videos created by the FluentU team are of decent quality, both in terms of scripts, acting and recording quality. Of course, lower-level videos are a bit awkward at times, partly because the speed is reduced and partly because there’s only so much you can say with a limited vocabulary. Considering that it’s almost impossible to create natural-sounding material for beginners, I’m perfectly fine with this.

There is also an audio section, which works very much like the video section, except there is no video. The interface works the same way, you can look up words and toggle subtitles the same way. I do think the audio is useful, but it still feels much less unique than the video content.

Learning vs. just watching

If FluentU was just a service which added subtitles to YouTube clips in a neat way, I think it would have been very useful, but it would be very far from a comprehensive solution for learning Chinese. One step in that direction is the learning mode, where you can study the content of a video rather than just watch it. You can do it in any order, but I would strongly suggest you do the following:

  1. Select a video where you already understand a lot
  2. Watch it without subtitles a few times
  3. Watch it with subtitles in Pinyin or characters
  4. Turn on translations and check your understanding
  5. Study the vocabulary you find interesting or useful

If you’re a big fan of bottom-up learning, you can of course but the last step first, but I strongly advice against it since that is far removed from real-world listening. You learn to understand spoken Chinese by really trying to understand spoken Chinese.

screenshot42The learning mode consists of a series of questions where you’re supposed to pick the right translation, fill in the gap, type characters (with a built-in input method) and so on. You can also view the word in different contexts, just as you could with the pop-up dictionary in the video player. In general, this section of the site makes sure you’re actively processing the content, rather than just watching it. If you want that depends on your reasons for using FluentU, of course.

Flashcards, reviewing and spaced repetition

If you want to learn something, you have review it. FluentU has a built-in flashcard system based on a spaced repetition algorithm. They don’t disclose much about it, except that it’s based on Supermemo. In any case, it’s all integrated into the system so you can review words from the videos you have watched and so on.

screenshot49What I like most about the flashcard system is that it keeps everything in context. I have mentioned this several times already, but it’s truly awesome to be able to see the word used in different sentences and the videos in which they appear.

I haven’t used FluentU for long enough to be able to say how well the flashcard system works. If you have used the service for a longer period of time and have anything to say about it, please leave a comment! I’m a big fan of SRS in general, though, and it’s something I use daily myself, although not in this form.

The FluentU iPhone app was launched earlier today, so that should take care of the mobility issues, at least for iOS users.

Pricing

Considering that FluentU creates their own learning materials and really adds value to other people’s videos, it’s definitely something you should expect to pay for. A lot of manual work has also been done with the dictionary (pictures, for instance) and the overall experience is completely different from just watching videos with subtitles on YouTube. So what does it cost? There are three tiers (click here for actual details):

  1. Free ($0/month): You have full access to all functions, but for a limited amount of content. I see no reason not to try this if you’ve come this far in my review.
  2. Basic ($8/month): You now have unlimited access to the content, but some functions are not available, such as learning mode and flashcards.
  3. Plus ($18/month): You have full access to all content and all functions.

Is it worth it? Which plan should you go for? Only you can answer the first question, preferably by first checking it out and then choosing which plan to go for. The basic plan works well if you want this as a source of extra listening and reading material, the plus plan comes closer to a complete solution, so it depends on what you’re after.

Room for improvement

No review would be complete without bringing up a few points of concern. It should be clear from the above discussion that I think FluentU is great, so the following list is not meant to discourage you from trying it out, but if you think something I mention here is extremely important for you, you should take that into consideration:

  • Text-to-speech inadequate – The single biggest issue I have with FluentU is the text-to-speech (TTS). It doesn’t work. TTS is far from good enough to teach Chinese, especially beginners. Pronunciation is sometimes completely off, clipped, garbled or just wrong. This is not a problem when you watch videos, of course, but it is when you learn vocabulary. For more advanced learners, this might be okay, but beginners should never have to hear this. Here are some examples: 就是 (jiùshì), 想不到 (xiǎngbùdào), also note the missing tone sandhi), 還 (hái).
  • Doesn’t work in China – This should be fairly obvious since the service is mainly based on YouTube videos. You should be able to get around this by using a VPN, but from what I gather, that creates delays that are so serious that it’s not worth it. If you know more about this, please leave a comment.
  • Difficult to integrate – Some learners don’t want or don’t need a complete solution, especially if it isn’t complete (and no solution ever is). That means that being able to integrate FluentU with other ways of studying is important, but it’s not easy. For example, there is no way to export vocabulary. I don’t want to be tied to a web interface to review vocabulary. The iOS app is launched today, but I don’t have an iPhone.
  • Lack of structure and guidance – This comment is only relevant if you want to use FluentU as your main source of learning. Where should you begin? Should you learn all the words? No, you most definitely shouldn’t, but how do you know which to learn? If FluentU wants to become a complete solution for learning Chinese, it needs to guide learners more. Yes, being able to choose interesting content is great, but too much choice has its own problems.

As I said, none of these issues are serious enough to stop me from recommending FluentU, but for now, I can only fully endorse the basic plan, since I think the learning mode still needs work, especially with the audio. If you want it to activate the language you learn, then go for the plus plan, but be aware that the audio is far from ideal.

Conclusion

I think FluentU is a unique and valuable addition to the different paths to Chinese fluency. It has come very far since the early days and I’m sure most of the issues I mentioned above will be addressed in due time. In the meantime, I think anyone who is interested in learning Chinese through video content should check it out. Exactly what you think about the service and if it’s worth the money will depend on your current situation and what you need, but I think the basic plan should be attractive for most students who takes immersion seriously.

Have you tried FluentU Chinese? What do you think? Please leave a comment!

About cheating, spaced repetition and learning Chinese

cheatingCheating is an interesting phenomenon, especially when it concerns motivated students who cheat even though this can only have negative effects on their long-term learning. In the case of language learning, cheating is (almost) always bad for you.  It’s not only morally questionable on exams, it’s stupid as well.

Of course, if we’re talking about a language in school people take only to receive a grade, it’s understandable that some will consider cheating, because they aren’t really interested in learning. This is not what I want to talk about today. My guess is that most readers of Hacking Chinese are learning Chinese for more than just a grade (if you do care a lot about your grades you should read this: Studying Chinese when your grades matter).

…and still we cheat

I can honestly say that I have never cheated on an exam in the more than twenty years I’ve spent in different classrooms, but I do cheat sometimes in an environment where it appears odd to cheat because there’s nothing to gain from doing so. My guess is that if I sometimes take shortcuts, the likelihood is that there are lots of other learners who cheat too. This is what I want to talk about.

Spaced repetition software and cheating

The cheating is related to spaced repetition software or any kind of program that checks your knowledge of Chinese through some kind of self-grading. In general, asking yourself (or having the program ask) you is a very good way of retaining knowledge. However, even if you get it wrong, all programs I know of allow you to go back and change the answer (and rightly so, you don’t want to reset the interval of a card just because you accidentally hit the wrong button). In some cases, you’re meant to just think or say the answer and then compare that with the correct answer.

I don’t do this very often, but sometimes I catch myself choosing a higher grade than I actually deserve. This isn’t a mistake or sloppy thinking, I think it’s more akin to actual cheating, albeit not in the sense of violating the rules of an institution. I didn’t know that character, but I think I ought to and once I see the answer, I knew that I should have chosen answer A even though I actually chose B. If the answer isn’t written down, it’s tempting to just think that I actually meant to choose alternative A from the very start…

We are only cheating ourselves

From a rational standpoint, however, this is completely ridiculous. The only reason we use spaced repetition software is because we want to learn Chinese, and pretending to know words better than we do is not going to take us closer to that goal. In fact, cheating increases the risks that we forget words and it will thus impede learning.

The weird things is that there’s nothing to gain from cheating in this case, no-one sees your retention rate or your score for your reviews today. Even if someone did, they most likely wouldn’t care at all. You don’t earn a degree or a good grade.

Why do we cheat?

So, why is it so tempting to cheat, then? I don’t know, really, but I have two theories; perhaps you can come up with better explanations than I. If so, leave a comment!

Before I do that, I just want to say that when I say cheating here, I don’t mean the deliberate kind of cheating that some students use to get better grades than they deserve, I mean an almost subconscious process that biases your self-grading in a positive direction, even though if you stopped and thought about it, you would know that it was wrong. Let’s get to my theories about why it’s tempting to cheat even if we will lose in the long run.

First, it is painful to admit defeat. Forgetting a character or word that we really ought to know means that we have failed and that’s bad for normal people (but it really shouldn’t be). If we’re trying out a certain learning method that we really want to work, failing might also mean that the method is less effective than we thought. In this situation, it’s tempting to just change the answer.

It's tempting to cheat in this situation!
It’s tempting to cheat in this situation!

Second, humans are lazy, which is another word for focusing too much on the short-term and ignoring long-term goals and commitments. In this case, if we have a backlog of reviews or a certain number we have to go through before we can do something else, it’s tempting to cheat because it means that the session will end sooner. Of course, this might mean that the next session will be longer or that we slow down our learning in general, but this is a long-term effect that we’re not well-equipped to deal with, at least not intuitively.

No cheating!

I said above that I catch myself cheating now and then, but what actually matters is what happens then. Nowadays, when I find myself doing this (which isn’t very often), I just go back and judge myself harshly, sometimes even more harshly than I should.

When doing this, I think to myself that this is for my own good, I will learn more Chinese in the long run by admitting that I didn’t know this word or by realising that I might need to review this again, even though I have 500 cards in the queue and I want it over and done with. Another mantra I have is that it’s much better to realise that I don’t know this word now compared with a situation where I actually need it, such as when teaching or using Chinese in an important context.

This is actually very similar to my requirement for last year’s character challenge, where participants were supposed to ban or suspend any character or word that they had forgotten so that they could deal with it later. This was presented as a method to avoid rote learning and going on tilt, but it could also be a shield against cheating. By establishing a proper system for dealing with failure, we can take the next step and realise that mistakes aren’t all that scary, they are a natural part of the learning process.

Conclusion

Do you find yourself cheating sometimes? Do you agree with the arguments I have presented? I could of course be completely wrong and be the only one who behaves like this, but I really don’t think so. My guess is that most people will spontaneously think that they cheat less than they do. So my suggestion is this: Pay attention to your behaviour when you use spaced repetition software over the next few days and report here. I’m very curious to hear what you have to say!

Flashcard overflow: About card models and review directions

One of the most common questions I receive is what my flashcard deck looks like and how I think one should organise a deck of flashcards for optimum learning. The reason I seldom give straight answers to these questions is that the true answer is usually “it depends”. However, I can still say quite a lot about what it depends on and I will try to do so in this article.

overflowNote that what I say here is generally applicable for flashcard programs in general (including paper flashcards, actually), but the specific software you’re using might limit what you can do. Anki is the only program I know that allows you to do everything I talk about here and more (although it is certainly harder to use). Other programs might be really good for other reasons, such as Skritter being excellent for handwriting, but this is not something I plan to discuss in this article. Instead, I will keep to major principles and leave different software for later.

Flashcard overflow, part 1: Review direction

One of the most immediate problems that faces people who use spaced repetition software is that they need to decide how they want their flashcards to work. In its most basic form, this question is a matter of direction. The most basic kind of flashcards have two sides, front and back, and you need to decide what goes on the front and what goes on the back.

Sounds easy? It’s not. Even if your particular program only allows you to enter three elements on each flashcard, such as Chinese character(s), pronunciation and definition, you still face the problem of directionality. Given three elements, you can set up three different kinds of cards. Actually, if we mix in audio recordings or pictures, you can have more combinations than this, but let’s not make it more complicated than it already is:

  1. Chinese characters on the front, pronunciation and definition on the back
  2. Pronunciation on the front, Chinese characters and definition on the back
  3. Definition on the front, Chinese characters and pronunciation on the back

This means that if we want to learn 500 words from the textbook we’re currently using, we could end up with 500 words, but 1500 flashcards, three for each word. This might be manageable, but if your vocabulary swells to thousands of words, your flashcard deck will become unusable very quickly. This is what I mean when I say flashcard overflow and it’s a very real problem. Before we start talking about solutions, let’s look at a second problem that is the nail in the coffin for the idea that you can create flashcards for everything.

Flashcard overflow, part 2: Review level

As if it wasn’t enough that we tripled the number of flashcards above, we also have to take into account what linguistic level we’re aiming for and therefore what we write on each side of the flashcard. Here’s a breakdown of the possible levels, starting with the smallest:

  1. Character components (phonemes for sound)
  2. Individual characters (monosyllables for sound)
  3. Single words
  4. Short phrases and collocations
  5. Sentences

Let’s say we encounter the sentence 今天太阳很大 and we want to learn it. Should we put the entire sentence on one card? Should we add 太阳很大 to focus our attention on the fact that we can say “the sun is big” in Chinese to indicate that it’s sunny? Should we add 今天, 太阳 and 大 as three separate words? Should we also add 阳 as a separate character that means “sun”? Or perhaps break it down even further and add 阝 which isn’t a character in itself, but is a common component that means “hill”, and 日 which is a character that also means “sun”?

Clearly, we can’t do all of this at the same time, especially not consider that each question can be answered in three ways depending on what you put on the front of the flashcard, the number of cards will spin out of control very fast. The question, then, in what should we add?

What cards should I add? It depends on what you want to learn!

Let’s return to the “it depends” answer I usually give to people who ask about flashcard models and review directions. First, the review direction (i.e. what you put on the front of the card) is mostly determined by what you use your flashcards for and what you cover through other means of studying (remember, spaced repetition software isn’t a panacea).

Here’s my personal philosophy:

  • For basic words, add both characters to pronunciation/definition and definition to pronunciation/characters. You need to understand these words and you need to be able to produce them as well. If the words are really basic and if you practise Chinese often, you can probably do away with the second type of cards because you will learn that by using the words.
  • When you encounter new sentence patterns or grammar, use sentences. This should be quite obvious, but don’t treat sentence patterns such as 因为… 所以… like single words, instead add sentences. If you find new instances of the same pattern that don’t fit your previous understanding, you can consider adding these as well. I don’t think that adding an example sentence is enough, though, you need the sentence to be part of the question.
  • For anything beyond the basics (synonyms of words you already know, for instance), just add characters to pronunciation/definition. Your goal here is to boost your understanding of Chinese, you will learn how to use these words through exposure, but you need to understand Chinese in order to get exposed to it a lot. I’m a firm believer in that we need to learn things passively before we learn them actively. Exactly how to do this will be the focus of at least one future article.
  • Whenever you encounter problems with words you have already learnt (such as something that goes against your understanding of the word or shows a new, cool ways of using it), focus on the problem and add a card that targets that problem. For collocation problems and problems with function words, use cloze test (a test where you remove the keyword from a sentence; fill in the gap); for characters you forget how to write, add single radicals and use mnemonics. Don’t go on tilt, be sensible.

The level you choose (component, character, word, etc.) depends mainly on these factors:

  • The reason for wanting to learning the item – When you consider adding a flashcard, you presumably have a reason for doing so (if you don’t, you really shouldn’t add the card). Why do you want to add it? The obvious answer is that you want to add it because you don’t know something, but try to think one step further. What is it that you don’t know? If you see the sentence 今天太阳很大 you probably know at least some parts of the sentence. If you found the collocation 太陽-很大 new, focus on this (gap text or translation). If you didn’t know the word for sun, then adding the word 太陽 is a bitter idea. If you weren’t familiar with the word order in the sentence, you might want to add the entire sentence.
  • The predictability of how the item is used – Some parts of a language have very strictly defined functions, tend to be more or less the same across languages and are therefore quite predictable. For instance, “table” is very similar to 桌子 and if you always translate “whale” into 鲸鱼 you will be right most of the time. In these cases, context plays a minor role, so adding entire sentences isn’t necessary; going for a single word is fine. Of course, you should try to add as few things as possible, we’re trying to deal with flashcard overflow after all!
  • The productivity of the item – Productivity here refers to the number of expressions a particular item can generate or be part of. So, the most common radicals are ridiculously productive, whereas some chengyu (idioms) are not, which is one of the reasons I think learning chengyu is mostly a waste of time. The more productive an item is, the more you should consider adding it as a separate flashcard. You can use the common rule of three to determine this if you’re new to Chinese, so if you see something appear three times in different characters/words/sentences, you should consider learning it as a separate item.

In order for the above approach (my philosophy) to work, you need to spend a fair amount of time reading and listening, as well as actually practising using the language. In other words, this is not a method that works well if SRS takes up a large part of your study time. If it does, I would lean more towards using sentences since this is closer to the way the language is actually used.

This is too complicated! Is there a shortcut?

This might look very complicated when written down, but the process actually becomes natural quickly. First ask yourself what you want to be able to do with a certain word. If it seems likely that being able to know what it means is enough, go with Chinese on the front of the card and the rest on the back. If you want to add the card because you really want to be able to learn how to say this now rather than later, put the definition on the front of the card and/or use a cloze test.

You and your flashcard deck: A dynamic relationship

The most important thing to understand is that you should have an active relationship to your flashcard deck. It’s not like you have to decide exactly how to do things now and then stick to that for the rest of your life. For instance, learning the meaning of lots of characters can be very useful at a certain stage when learning Chinese, just as learning radicals can, but at some point, this stops being meaningful. Don’t hesitate to delete, change or add flashcards or flashcard models as you go a long (please read this article for a more thorough discussion of editing/deleting flashcards).  Spaced repetition software should be a tool you use to maintain certain aspects of the Chinese language, not a chain that binds you to ways of studying you neither like nor find useful.

If you want to read more about flashcards and SRS, there’s plenty more to read here on Hacking Chinese:

More about spaced repetition on Hacking Chinese (newest first)

[add_posts tag=spaced-repetition-software show=100]

Why manually adding and editing flashcards is good for you

One of my earliest contributions to the Chinese language learning community was to share my flashcard decks, first with my fellow classmates and then with the rest of the world. I have almost a dozen decks shared in Anki now that have been downloaded thousands of times. However, I think downloading other people’s decks is a double-edged sword. I don’t create my own flashcards only for altruistic reasons. Do you know why?

Image credit| universaleditbutton.org/User:Oxomoxo
Image credit: universaleditbutton.org/User:Oxomoxo

Creating your own flashcards is good for you

Actually, if it weren’t for the fact that if I didn’t share, someone else would, I feel that offering ready-made decks might be doing a disfavour to ambitious language learners. Sure, if you’re leaning towards the more casual style of learning, being able to download a deck in five seconds rather than enter a whole textbook manually is awesome, but it comes with a cost. Here’s why I create my own flashcards.

  • There’s a lot of crap out there. Many decks you can find online are really bad, with incorrect definitions, pronunciation or erroneous characters. They might miss important vocabulary or be automatically generated rather than manually created (this is actually true for my earlier decks as well, because I created them retroactively). If you enter everything manually on your own, you know what you get. This also avoids the problem that arises when you’re wrong on an exam because the definition in your deck and in your textbook are different.
  • You get to know your deck. Perhaps your deck doesn’t need to be you best friend, but getting to know it is quite important. If you’ve built your deck on your own, you care a lot more about it and it’s also much more rewarding to work with it. You know where the definitions come from, you know what abbreviations and notes on the flashcards actually mean.
  • Your Chinese will improve during the process. Entering the words from a chapter in your book manually takes quite a lot of time, but it’s not wasted time like some people seem to think. This is a very good opportunity to learn! Check the characters in dictionaries, look up the radicals and learn the words! Remember that it’s spaced repetition, not spaced learning.

Obviously, you can gain some of these benefits simply by using decks from people you trust or that has been recommended to you, but the last item in the list above is really important. If you download lists of new words, you need to study them before you can review! If it’s your textbook, then fine, but downloading huge lists from the internet and hacking away at them isn’t a good idea. You need to process what you learn actively.

How to create flashcards manually

I don’t know what flashcard program you use (I suggest Anki or Skritter), but there are some things that are universal and applies to all programs. First, even though this might sound counter-intuitive, I suggest that you disregard the auto-completion or dictionary look-up function if there is one. You can look at the answers, but it’s much better to write your own, even if it’s a verbatim copy from a textbook or dictionary.

This is extra important when you copy from a Chinese-Chinese dictionary. It’s so easy to skim through the definition, copy-paste it and be done with it. If you type it manually, you have to process the sentence much more actively, which aids learning tremendously. It turns menial copy-pasting into a learning opportunity.

Second, spread it out. Regard flashcard creation as learning rather than a mechanical task you perform using your computer. You probably wouldn’t sit down and try to learn all those words in one go, so since we have now merged learning and flashcard creation, we should apply the same principles. Add the words in small batches of perhaps 3-5 words. Add example sentences (read and type them), add definitions, add other useful information you find in your textbook or online.

Editing flashcards

Likewise, if you need to change or update your flashcards, this shouldn’t be viewed as menial task that just needs getting over with, it’s part of your studying. This is where you adjust the cards to your current needs, often adding more information where you’ve found it lacking, but also removing cards you don’t need. I spend quite a lot of time adding information about synonyms, new example sentences and details about character composition. Again, make this a learning opportunity and not just a chore!

Not a waste of time

This article should have explained why I think it’s weird to think that I’m wasting my time creating flashcards. It’s not as if I have to grow the trees, cut them down, turn them into paper and write the information on them. That would indeed be a waste of time if my goal was to learn Chinese. In this day and age, though, the actual creation of a flashcard takes a second. Filling in the information takes much more, but as I have explained before, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

More about spaced repetition on Hacking Chinese

  1. Spaced repetition software and why you should use it
  2. Anki, the best of spaced repetition software
  3. Spaced repetition isn’t rote learning
  4. Vocabulary in your pocket
  5. Diversified learning is smart learning
  6. Dealing with tricky vocabulary: Killing leeches
  7. Answer buttons and how to use SRS
  8. Measurable progress is a double-edged sword
  9. You can’t learn Chinese characters by rote
  10.  Towards a more sensible way of learning to write Chinese
  11. Is your flashcard deck too big for your own good?
  12. If you think spaced repetition software is a panacea, you are wrong

Spaced repetition isn’t rote learning

Anyone who has spent some time thinking about and experimenting with how to best learn new words will realise that rote learning isn’t a great idea. I remember teachers in elementary school recommending me to use the word list in the book, cover one column with a piece of paper, look at the other and see if I remembered the words thus hidden by the paper. If not, peek and try again. This is horribly ineffective and any other way is likely to be better.

But isn’t that what spaced repetition is all about?

I have said that spaced repetition software is the best thing since sliced bread, but isn’t flashcards and spaced repetition just another form of the rote learning from elementary school described above? Sure, we use a fancy computer program now, but what makes this the best thing ever (at least since sliced bread was patented), while the scenario in the previous paragraph should be avoided at all costs? I think there are two major differences. Before that, though, I’d like to link to some more basic articles about spaced repetition here on Hacking Chinese:

More about spaced repetition on Hacking Chinese

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 Spaced repetition is about repetition, not learning

The main function of Anki or other similar programs is repetition. They allow you to maintain words that you have previously learnt and they allow you to do so without wasting too much time. I advice against using SRS to learn the words in the first place, so don’t just import a hundred new words and go through them until you know them, because that would indeed be repeating the same mistake as we’ve looked at above. Instead you should spend some extra time and use smart and carefully thought-out methods to learn the words as efficiently as you can. Looking at character components and individual characters to learn words very fast is a good way to do it. I have also written an article about how to learn Chinese characters as a beginner.

The point is that you use one method to memorise the words when you first encounter them, and then you use spaced repetition software to help you remember them afterwards. The program will remind you roughly when you are about to forget a word or a character; ideally you review the flashcard the second you would have forgotten it if it hadn’t popped up.

Don’t go on tilt when reviewing flashcards

If you’re serious about language learning, you will inadvertently end up with quite a number of flashcards, and sometimes you just don’t have time to keep the queue down. Cards pile up. When you finally sit down to tackle the problem, it’s easy to go on tilt and simply try to hack one’s way through the heap of cards, and when you realise that you’ve forgotten a certain card, you simply hit “again” and wait for it to turn up again. You’re on tilt. The likelihood is that you still won’t know the word, or that you will have forgotten it again a few minutes later. Don’t do this, this is falling into the same pit as we’ve talked about before.

When you answer a card incorrectly, try to be honest. Sometimes, you might miss a word because you simply made a mental blunder, misread the card or something. Do you honestly believe that you actually know the card in question? If yes, then by all means, hit “again” (or even “hard” if you really know the word and just misread something) and keep going, you should be fine. But if your answer is wavering or a bit uncertain, you should stop and examine the flashcard more carefully. If you don’t want to interrupt the flow of reviewing cards, simply suspend or mark the card and look at it after you’re done with the reviewing. Anki has a very useful system to detect leeches, use it! In fact, this kind of feature is a warning system. If the alarm goes off, it means that you’re doing something horribly wrong and you need to change strategy. You can read more about leeches and how to kill them in an upcoming article..

Conclusion

My conclusion is that spaced repetition, if done correctly, isn’t rote learning. Rote learning means that you associate A with B simply by repeatedly seeing or hearing the connection until you can remember it. Spaced repetition is about first learning something and then using software to review and enhance the connections you’ve already made. It’s simply a way to refresh what you already know, to enhance pathways and links between different parts of the web of Chinese in your brain. Spaced repetition software can be used to maintain and strengthen these links, but it shouldn’t be used either for building them in the first place or repairing them if they fall apart. Use your toolkit and mnemonics for those situations instead!