I’ve always found SRS systems (like Anki and Skritter) and flashcards an interesting addition to language learning. Many people seem use to it to great success, but somewhere along this language learning continuum, SRS and Flashcards just fail with me.

Don’t get me wrong. I did the research. It can work, if you allow it to. The myth of it being detrimental and slow is nonsense. Like I said, many others use it to great improvement of their vocabulary skills.

Now, here’s me. I start Anki. Get in there. Use it for about seven days straight. Then bam. It gathers proverbial dust. Skritter was a lot better. It allowed to use writing as a distraction. But again… bam. I failed in keeping it up (no! Not that kind of failure!).

So where is my problem? Why can’t I use SRS systems as a long-term solution in acquiring vocabulary?

Learning through repetition is just not for me

In fact repetition in all things, bores me very quickly. I remember playing World of Warcraft (the most popular MMORPG out there) back when it came out. I quit after playing for three months. My friends all played for many years after that. Many quests involved grinding, which has you killing a random amount of creeps (creatures) for the chance of getting an item that drops upon the killing it. Usually you have to get a certain amount of these items. For example: Collect 10 tusks by killing Wild Boars.

It just got so boring. I ended not doing the quests anymore and entertained myself by selling items for profit in the in-game auction house, making lots of gold, far succeeding what a character at that level should have. This was far more challenging and exciting. This brings me to my next point.

SRS Systems are devoid of excitement and challenges

Hello there unknown word. Oh, I don’t know you. Click to see definition. Ok see you later… This is the crux of Anki. Yes, yes. It’s very bluntly put, but really what excitement does it offer? Maybe I’m silly in expecting some kind of magical orchestra every time I put a word in the easy category, but it just is not engaging. Skritter again solves this somewhat, by having you engage by actually writing it, but the novelty soon wears off.

The challenge is also very linear and predictable. Yes, I can change the amount of new words everyday, but most of the work is done behind the scenes. The SRS algorithm takes control of your learning. Where is my autonomy? This is not challenging. Remembering is not challenging. It is just takes effort. Effort =/= Challenging.

I'm not feeling like I'm mastering anything

The things that I enjoy doing, like playing guitar and computer games, allows me to master something. Learning languages, also allow me this. The reward in gaining a language is intrinsically there, but SRS systems removes this context. The “decks” are removed.

This is what a lot of people claim against SRS/Flashcards, in that they don’t provide context. But there is definitely a way to incorporate this into your SRS system. For instance, adding words and sentences from a book you are reading. This I admit is my undoing. Fast forward to the next point.

My attention span and self-discipline sucks. Also I'm lazy

If I really want to make progress in SRS, I have to put 20minutes in everyday. God! That’s only 20min. Why don’t I have that self-discipline to do just that? This relates to other points: SRS feels like a chore. I much rather listen to Chinese music, read blogs or watch movies. Even participate in other Chinese related activities. It is much more rewarding and doesn’t feel like a chore.

If I had the self-discipline to persevere in SRS, I’d be able to do it, but I guess I have a low tolerance for repetition (as evident from the WoW example), and much rather sooner find more entertaining options. This low tolerance also comes from a lack of attention span. I’m easily distracted. Something I’ll have to work on for sure.

Chinese offers a unique problem

Chinese is a logographic language, but this offers an interesting disconnect that only arises in Chinese. The pronunciation, meaning and character and their relationships are irregular. So, once you see a character, not only do you have to remember the pronunciation, but ALSO the meaning. This makes for much heavier cognitive load.

There is no regularity or prediction available in either getting the meaning or pronunciation from a character. Yes, some characters have phonetic and semantic radical information encoded that provide this information, but it is just way too irregular to trust radicals and characters for that kind of information. It will remain arbitrary.

Where another language, Spanish for instance, you just have to guess the meaning, because the form (the written word) contains the pronunciation.


How do you use flashcards? Please please please, I beg you! Leave a comment below. I want to know how you have gained success in using them (even those that failed, comment too and tell me why).

I have detailed my problems with SRS and Flashcards, do these apply to you too?