Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

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

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..


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!

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  1. 華洛克 says:

    The main sticking point of this article for me is the idea of suspending cards that you would otherwise hit ‘again’ to when you have a large queue. This makes perfect sense to me– but is something I’ve never thought to do before.

    I also use SRS in the way you have described. SRS is about making sure I don’t forget that which I already know. It had never occurred to me that often when I hit ‘again’, I’m actually making a decision to ‘learn’ this card by rote alone…

    1. Olle Linge says:

      To be honest, when I’m lazy, I’m also guilty of simply hitting again, even though I know it’s not a good idea. It’s always these words that appear again and again. I think it’s a very good idea to lower the threshold for leeches (if you use Anki), which suspends cards automatically. I’m pondering if it would be a good idea to set it very, very low, but I haven’t tried that out yet. I have an article on leeches written, but there are some other articles in front of it in the queue. In any case, perhaps the article should have been titled “SRS shouldn’t be rote learning”. 🙂

  2. Sebastian says:

    I started out useing Anki mainly for “rote learning”. I simply did not know any better. Luckily I now know enough radicals and other kanji (study Japanese) to really build the memory around the kanji to its respective parts. Makeing learning new kanji easier, and anki more efficient.

    I have read alot of your articles here and I think alot of them are very applicable to learning kanji aswell. Keep up the good work.

  3. Olle Linge says:

    Yeah, it’s quite important to know enough basic stuff to build up to the more advanced. I consider learning parts of characters and isolated characters very important (toolkit article series). It takes more time in the beginning, but in the long-run, this time in regained manifold.

    Without checking very carefully, I would say that about 50% of what I write is useful for anyone who tries to learn anything, 80% is relevant for people who study languages (not necessarily Chinese) and perhaps 95% should be relevant for Japanese. I haven’t studied Japanese myself, but I’d be happy to read future comments comparing what I write with your own learning of Japanese!

  4. Sara K. says:

    I actually do like using Anki for rote learning, so I disagree with this article. That said, I only started using Anki once I got to an upper-intemediate level. My Chinese is good enough that when I encounter an unfamiliar word in context, I can more often than not guess the meaning, and when I do guess, my guesses are about 70% accurate (for example, the other day I encountered the word 舢舨 and, based on both the context and the radicals, I figured it was some type of boat, and indeed, it is a type of small-to-mid-sized flat-bottomed wooden boat used in China). Because I usually can at least get clues about the meaning/pronunciation of an unfamiliar word, even if I don’t know the exact meaning, I usually only need 1-3 repetitions before it becomes just a regular word that I can simply keep on extending the repeat-times every time I review it. If I were still a beginner/lower-intermediate I might need more repetitions to learn a new word via rote, and thus rote-learning via Anki might not be so effective. However because I didn’t try that, I don’t know what trying that is like.

  5. Olle Linge says:

    I think your comment points out something that is a bit unclear in the article (thanks!). I don’t mean to say that you can’t learn new words in Anki, instead the point is that you shouldn’t rely simply on repetition to force words into your long term memory, but that isn’t what you’re doing. If you can see the parts of the words, the individual characters and see how they fit together, you’re using your understanding of Chinese to learn the words. Put another way, the reason you learn these words is that you see connections and reinforce them with repetition, which is good. As you say, beginners fall into the rote learning trap more easily, because they have a harder time making these connections.

    I’ll give you an example of what I do (which is more or less the same as what you describe). I recently added more than 1000 idioms to my Anki deck. I simply learn these by looking at them, trying to guess their meaning, look at the answer, create a mnemonic and then move on. Usually, this is enough. In about 50% of the cases, I need a second try, but I rarely need a third. I use Anki, but I don’t learn the idioms simply by repeating. Neither are you, I think. It’s perfectly possible to learn words using Anki without doing it by rote. The difference is not in the kind of software you use, but about what goes on in your head when you do it!

  6. Sara K. says:

    I guess the difference is that I do not deliberately make mnemonics – generally, I just use whatever connections I see right away and, if I need a couple repetitions, maybe take a closer look at possible connections, but that’s it. And once in a while, I run into a word/character for which I cannot make any connections whatsoever (廿 for example), and thus the only way I can learn them is by sheer repetition anyway (fortunately, such words/characters are very few).

    1. Olle Linge says:

      This is what I do as well (with one exception) and I don’t see that it isn’t mnemonics just because you call it something else or do it naturally. It’s just a way to connect things and remember them in a more efficient way, which is exactly what you’re doing. There are of course many different ways of doing this and I suspect no-one is doing it exactly the same way as anyone else. 🙂

      The only exception, and one of the main points in this article, is that I think it’s a really bad idea to simply hit “again” without having made any effort to make the character or word stick. Sure, this happens only to a few characters, but I think these drain more time than people are aware of. This is why I point out that SRS is contains the word repetition and not learning. If you repeatedly forget a word, you’re wasting lots of time learning it all over again many times, rather than just confirming that you already know it. Perhaps you could try deliberately finding a mnemonic for these few words? I’m sure it will sake time in the long run.

  7. Sara K. says:

    Actually, the thing which makes those few un-connectable words easier to remember is that they are so [expletive] frustrating to look up in the first place (I learn most new words from decks I make myself, so I have to look up everything to make the cards). When I look up an unknown character, I will either guess the pinyin and type it out (this is generally the fastest way when I think it would work), or if I don’t think I can guess the pinyin, and go for a radical/stroke count index. Of course, radicals are not always obvious, and if they are, it can take a while if there is a long list of characters with the same radical/stroke count. If a word is un-connectable, that almost certainly means that the pinyin was unguessable and the radical was difficult to pin down, which meant I spent an inordinate amount of time looking it up (I personally remember 廿 as being really frustrating to look up in the first place, so I have actually never had to repeat it in Anki – I always remember it as that [expletive] character that means ’20’ and is pronounced ‘nian4’).

  8. Sara K. says:

    Sorry for the double comment, but there is something that I think is important to add (sorry if you have already included this tip elsewhere) –

    Use a nice, big font.

    Some time ago, I noticed that characters with high stroke counts were a lot more likely to become leeches than characters with lower stroke counts, and I figured out that it was because it was harder to see all of the parts clearly and quickly at the default font size. Changing the font size helped a lot with that particular problem, at least for me. When I read actual texts, of course, context helps a lot, so font size is not as critical as when using Anki, though there are still occasionally times when I have to stare a character for a while because it is printed in a small font size.

  9. Olle Linge says:

    @Sara K.: Good advice about the font. It’s also important that it’s both nice and big. 🙂 I’ve had numerous questions about choosing a correct font (i.e. one that displays characters in the same way as is currently recommended for writing). This is problematic because both fonts and recommendations change. I’ve found that this problem goes away over time, though. Still, being able to effortlessly see the details of characters like 鬱 is essential, otherwise we will just remember it as the “difficult one with lots of strokes” which is okay if that’s the only character, but not so good if we have to distinguish between fifty difficult ones with many strokes. 🙂 I have not mentioned this elsewhere, so thanks. 🙂

    Regarding parts of characters, excuse me if I point out something obvious, but why are you limiting yourself to radicals? It’s very easy to look up all parts of a word and associate any art with anything you’ve previously learnt. I do find it’s hard to connect things sometimes, but it’s not because I lack parts to connect. I mainly use two websites if I want to break down a character:


    Zhongwen.com is better because it offers more etymology and more explanations, but Yellowbridge is easier to use and contains more characters (but has a very annoying ad-block blocker). Again, sorry if I misunderstand you and point out the obvious!

  10. Sara K. says:

    Well if I really went through the effort I could make mnemonics for those few characters … or I can just rote-learn on the spot. In my opinion, for me, rote-learning a handful of characters (it’s always characters – I can always make some kind of connection for compounds/idioms) is easier on my brain, even though it takes a bit more time (and I try to conserve both brain-power and time). That would not work for a large volume of characters, but considering that those characters are a small minority, I think resorting to rote-learning in those cases is the best way to conserve my brain power.

  11. Olle Linge says:

    @Sara K.: I understand your thinking and you’re definitely saving both time and brain power right now. However, are you sure that you wouldn’t save both in the long run if you looked things up? There are very few character parts or radicals that only turn up once. I’m personally convinced that it saves time in almost all cases, and since it’s impossible or at least difficult to know which cases that are the ones where it won’t save time, I just do it for everything. Still, I realise that this is a very long-term approach indeed. You might have to study for many years and learn thousands of additional characers before it pays off. 🙂

  12. Helmut says:

    Great post. I love spaced repetition software and have used a few apps over the years to study Chinese. Currently I am using Mnemosyne which is a lovely program. It works on the PC and the Mac, but not yet on Android. I too have recently gotten an Android phone. Any idea if and how I could combine Mnemosyne with Anki?

    1. Olle Linge says:

      As far as I know, Mnemosyne and Anki do the same thing (more or less). Why do you want to combine them? I would choose the one which suits your needs best. I use Anki because of it’s versatility.

  13. Chris says:

    Good advice. I know 2600-3000 Chinese characters, and it was the result of spaced repetition and mnemonics with Anki. I have spent like over 500 hours making and reviewing that deck

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