Hacking Chinese

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Why spaced repetition software is uniquely well suited to learning Chinese characters

Technology has the potential to make language learning considerably easier. While we’re not able to download kung fu skills or Chinese proficiency directly into our brains yet, technology gives us the opportunity to invest time more efficiently while also cutting down on activities that don’t contribute to learning. Naturally, technology is just a tool and can also be bad if used incorrectly!

After having learnt Chinese characters for a decade and a half, and after having used spaced repetition software for almost as long, I think that the combination of the two is a great example of how technology can make learning easier. I would go so far as to claim that spaced repetition software is uniquely well suited to learning Chinese characters. To show you why, we have to talk about spaced repetition first.

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The spacing effect: Reviews count for more if spread out over time

The spacing effect is a well-researched phenomenon, showing that learning is more effective when spread out over time compared to when it’s clumped together. This effect has been shown to hold true for a wide variety of learning activities, but here we’re interested in language learning.

Let’s look at a concrete example. If you review a character ten times spaced out over a period of time, you’ll remember it longer than if you reviewed the character ten times in a row. The difference is big, with spaced repetition being several times more effective than massed repetition, yet this fact is not widely taught in school and many study routines ignore this fact. Writing a character over and over is good if your goal is to improve your penmanship, but it’s terribly inefficient if long-term retention is the goal!

This doesn’t mean that cramming is never a good idea, though. In fact, it’s more effective in the short run, which is probably why many students rely on it. If you have an exam next week, cramming is your friend, not spaced repetition. But we’re not learning Chinese in order to pass a test next week, are we? No, because even if you have exams, the goal is still to learn the language for keeps. And then you should stay away from cramming and say hello to spaced repetition, your new best friend.

Cramming vs. spaced repetition: When to use which method to learn Chinese

This doesn’t mean that the only way to take advantage of the spacing effect is to use a mobile phone or computer either, for that matter. Reading and listening is a natural form of spaced repetition where you will encounter words over and over. The main problem with this approach is that most students don’t read and listen enough, especially beginners for whom it can be very hard to find reading and listening material at the right level, but more about this later.

Spaced repetition allows you to review the right thing at the right time

When I first started learning Chinese, I didn’t have access to modern spaced repetition software such as Skritter, Pleco or Anki, and didn’t really know about the spacing effect. I still developed a primitive system on my own, though, because I realised that it was the only way to make sure I didn’t forget too much. If I didn’t review, I would forget most of the words I learnt, because the environment I was in didn’t constantly bombard me with comprehensible input (unlike the situation we find ourselves in when learning our first language). This is a problem that most learners face, so let’s have a closer look at it.

As a beginner, it’s possible to review every word you have learnt, every day, but the more you learn, the less practical this becomes. What to do? The solution is simple: if you can’t review every chapter of your textbook and all the other things you’ve learnt every day, what about reviewing half the words every second day? That saves 50% of the time!

But as you keep learning more, that won’t be enough, so you need to go down to once every week, then once every month and so on. This is still not very efficient, though, because you will spend most of the time on words you actually know well and don’t need to review. The more you learn, the bigger this problem becomes: How do you find those few words you need to review in the sea of words you know well?

Delaying reviewing as long as possible while still making sure you get it right most of the time

The only solution is to treat words as individual items and schedule them individually. While you can do this manually (with Leitner boxes, for example), using a digital solution has many benefits, such as being easier to manage and update, as well as being easier to carry around with you. Digital tools can also play audio, show animations and so on.

Spaced repetition software works by algorithmically trying to predict how long into the future each word can be scheduled while still making sure that you remember it. Making sure you remember isn’t the only goal, however, because then it would be best to review every word every day, which would guarantee that you never forgot a single word. It would also guarantee that you didn’t get anything else done.

Instead, the goal is optimise long-term efficiency. In essence, this means that as long as you remember a word when reviewing it, it will be pushed further and further into the future, with intervals of ever increasing length. It also means that the goal might be to remember 85% of the words you review, not 100%. In other words, you’re meant to forget some words, because the cost of remembering all of them is higher than the cost of relearning words that you forget. This gives rise to a learning experience where you’re constantly asked to review words you are about to forget, making each review count for as much as possible. This is also an example of when perfectionism becomes an obstacle to progress:

When perfectionism becomes an obstacle to progress

Just barely being able to recall what something means is not enough

While all the above sounds great, there are some serious problems with the above reasoning; spaced repetition software is not a panacea. Here, I want to focus on one of the more serious arguments raised against using spaced repetition software for learning languages, relating to what I’ve talked about so far, namely that of optimisation. While it sounds great that something is optimised, it’s only good if it’s optimised for the right thing.

It could be argued that the goal of reviewing something right when you are about to forget it, while being efficient, is not actually what language learners want. If you have a conversation and are just barely able to recall what a word means, it means it will take you a few seconds to find the right answer, at which point the other person will have said two additional sentences, most of which you will have completely missed. For listening comprehension, speed matters, not just if you’re able to recall the meaning of a word or not.

This is true for other communication situations too. Can you really claim to be able to speak a language if it takes you five seconds to recall key words in every other sentence? Can you say that you’re literate in Chinese if you can read a 500-character article with full comprehension, but it takes you an hour to do so? Most proficiency tests would say you can’t.

In these cases, it seems that spaced repetition isn’t so wonderful after all. Most of the reviews will be too easy for you (because you’ve seen them elsewhere or because you happen to find the word easier than others), but the words you really need to review more won’t be shown enough to be truly useful. It seems you’re better off just listening and reading more instead!

You might be better off just reading and listening more instead

This is indeed a viable approach, provided that you can find enough reading and listening material at or below your current level. This is indeed one of the main reasons extensive reading and listening are so powerful, with benefits reaching far beyond merely being able to recall what words mean.

An introduction to extensive reading for Chinese learners

This is more easily said than done, though, especially if you’re a beginner or lower-intermediate learner. I’ve done my best to collect reading resources especially for beginners in this article: The 7 best Chinese reading resources for beginners. I also present even more resources, not just for beginners, here: The 10 best free Chinese reading resources for beginner, intermediate and advanced learners. And here’s the corresponding article for listening: The 10 best free listening resource collections for learning Chinese.

This probably isn’t enough, but it’s better than nothing!

Spaced repetition software is still useful as a stepping stone and fore learning fringe vocabulary

So, even though spaced repetition software wouldn’t be very useful in a perfect world with limitless reading and listening individually tailored to your level and interests, this is not the world in which we live, and so spaced repetition software is still very effective, especially in the following situations:

  1. As a stepping stone when reading and listening enough is difficult. This might be when you explore vocabulary  in a new area (which would be everything if you’re new to the learning Chinese). While you can and will learn new words if you see them over and over, you simply won’t be able to find enough reading and listening material to do so. Spaced repetition software works a bit like training wheels before you know enough to get most of your reviewing done via listening and reading.
  2. When you learn fringe vocabulary that you want to know, but don’t encounter often enough to learn through natural absorption. This could be anything outside of everyday vocabulary, whatever that means for you. Since these words occur so rarely in everyday reading and listening, spaced repetition is ideal to maintain at least passive knowledge. For such words, it’s also less of a problem to have to think a bit before coming up with the right answer.

Why spaced repetition software is uniquely well suited to learning Chinese characters

But there is another area of learning Chinese where spaced repetition truly shines, and where it would still shine even in the imagined utopia of limitless level-adjusted reading and listening: writing Chinese characters by hand!

There are many reasons why students want to learn to write by hand, even if it isn’t necessary in most cases in the digital age, but few of them involve writing quickly and effortlessly. For example, as a teacher, I want to be able to write characters relevant to lesson content on a whiteboard. Others might feel that handwriting makes reading easier, essentially treating it as a very active form of reading. Still others might want to be able to take simple notes or write short messages.

None of these activities requires immediate recall of every single character. Unlike when speaking, you can control the pace yourself, so taking extra time to remember how to write some characters is not a problem. Compare this with speaking, where every seconds delay make you a less interesting conversation partner.

It would be madness for foreigners to learn Chinese characters the way native speakers do; it would simply take too much time. Here, spaced repetition software can do wonders. It means that all the benefits of spaced repetition software discussed above apply, while few or none of the shortcomings are relevant. This is why I personally only use spaced repetition for nowadays is handwriting. I can cover my other needs by using the language for listening, speaking, reading and typing instead, but that definitely doesn’t work for handwriting.

I’ve written more about my minimum-effort approach to learning and remembering Chinese characters here: 

A minimum-effort approach to writing Chinese characters by hand

I’m not a beginner, though, which is why I still recommend students to use spaced repetition software as a stepping stone to more reading and listening, even if you don’t see much point in writing characters by hand. It’s beyond the scope of this article to discuss specific solutions, but I normally recommend the following:

  1. Anki (for the tinkerer, free)
  2. Pleco (integrated with the best dictionary app, single purchase)
  3. Skritter (best for characters specifically, subscription)

A stepping stone, a way to learn and maintain fringe vocabulary, and… what?

Even if I don’t use spaced repetition software much beyond handwriting these days, if I started learning a language from scratch, I probably would, at least if the language wasn’t close enough to a language already know. This would count as the stepping stone approach mentioned above, so the purpose would be to make sure that I see and hear words I’m learning often enough to not forget them.

I would also use spaced repetition software if I want to focus on a new area with lots of terminology rare enough that I would struggle to learn and maintain it through exposure alone. This is true for Chinese, but also for other languages, including English and Swedish!

What do you use spaced repetition software for? Do you agree with my reasoning in this article? Please leave a comment below! Of course, this discussion is broader than just learning Chinese, so feel free to include thoughts about language learning in general!

More about spaced repetition on Hacking Chinese

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One comment

  1. Harry says:

    Great article, thanks for sharing.

    I’ve found SRS very useful for remember Chinese characters. But I don’t really recommend the Pleco one, the interface is a bit ugly and found it repeating a lot of words that were easy.

    I’ve been using Zungzi recently and it seems to learn quicker and spaces out the easy words further. https://apps.apple.com/app/apple-store/id1496948615

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