What is SRS (Spaced Repetition System)?

Spaced Repetition System, or SRS for short, a scientifically proven method that learning and memory retention while  minimise unnecessary revision. SRS is the most potent ways to build your vocabulary when learning foreign languages and is in fact a great way to learn just about anything. SRS is essentially an optimised way or revising lists of information, or in the case of language, revising vocabulary lists. With SRS each time you revise a word and remember it’s meaning, the time to the next revision of that word is increased; conversely where you get a word wrong the time to the next revision of that word is decreased. The result of this is that you revise words you know less and less often. SRS doesn’t have to be used for language lists, it can be used for revising any information that is suitable for memorising with flash cards.

Spaced Repetition System (SRS) is a scientifically proven learning and review methodology which optimises your ability to learn and retain information such as vocabulary words in a language. By optimising the time between which you review or are tested on a word from your vocabulary list, your memory of words is greatly strengthened and time spent revising much reduced.

SRS – an intelligent language list

The old way or learning vocabulary was to constantly revise a long list of words and drill yourself on them. Alternatively you may have tried using physical flashcards, which have a word on one side and the definition on the other. All of these techniques, while proven to work, are not at all optimised for the way you brain creates and reinforces memories.

It is common knowledge that memories fade over time, this is known as the forgetting curve, a graph that represents how our memory declines over time.

By revisiting a given memory the memory is strengthened and will be retained longer (represented by the green lines above). Unlike flash cards or vocabulary word lists you don’t need to revisit every word on your vocabulary list every time, the time between needing to revise a word increases over time.

Now you might think that it is more optimal to still revise every word on your vocabulary list, however this is not the case for a few reasons:

  1. Revising long lists of words or hundreds of flash cards leads to fatigue and greatly increases the chances that you will give up learning a language
  2. Research has shown that revising a word on your vocabulary list when you are just about to forget it better strengthens your memory of that word.

How does SRS really work?

SRS works by after adding a new word to your vocabulary list and testing you on that word less and less often. The typical way SRS is used is in an intelligent flashcard system whereby you are presented with a word in English and asked for it’s Chinese translation or vice versa. The time between when you learn a new word and review it may start off only seconds part with which you are tested on or revise a new word may only be seconds or minutes apart from when you first learn it, however this increases to minutes, hours,days, weeks and eventually months. Typically the review is a simple test of the word whereby you are shown the English word and asked for the Chinese translation or vice versa; if at any point you get the word wrong then the frequency of reviews reduces such that the next review will happen sooner, however whenever you get the word correct again the time between reviews again begins to increase.

SRS is demonstrated in the diagram below:

How SRS works

As demonstrated by the diagram above, you could create your own your own SRS system with physical flashcards and shoe boxes, moving each card to the next box up if you get it right and placing it in the first box (to be reviewed sooner) if you get it wrong. In this shoe box versino of SRS you would revise shoe box number one the most frequently, perhaps every 5 minutes, shoe box two perhaps every hour, shoe box three every day, show box four every three days and shoe box five every week. Obviously you can modify the timing to suit your needs.

Another example of a system similar to SRS is Pimsleur language courses, which uses a repetition interval whereby the word is used initially frequency and slowly decreases is frequency. Pimsleur’s research in 1967 used a frequency of recall of initially only seconds apart, then minutes, hours, days, weeks and finally years.

SRS Predicts when you will forget a word

Simple SRS systems will do as I’ve described, scheduling your review of words depending on if you get the right or wrong. More advanced SRS systems use additional smarts to predict when you are most probably going to forget a word and schedules the review accordingly. Why does this matter? Because, as I’ve mentioned above, memory science tells us that testing someone on a word (or anything for that matter), just before they are going to forget it is the best way to strengthen that memory in the brain.

How modern SRS systems works

As technology has improved this fixed approach has been added by computers which has led to SRS language learning aids testing your memory of a word and adjusting the frequency based on if you get the word right or wrong.

Most of these modern system use a variant of the “SuperMemo algorithm” by Piotr A. Wozniak. With this standard algorithm are given a grade between one and four. As you revise easy words are pushed further and further in to the future, while words you get incorrect are pushed out. I suspect that Skritter uses a variant of this with it’s “easy (blue tick)”, “got it (green tick)”, “so-so (yellow approximately equals sign)” and “not yet (red cross)” system.

Reviewing a word at the wrong time can worsen you memory

SRS saves you time

Ultimately, SRS systems save you time. You do not need to worry about which words to revise when, this is handled for you. The greatest challenge

The modern approach to using SRS via a computer website or dedicated App. My favourite SRS systems for learning Mandarin Chinese are Skritter and the Pimsleur audio series. Personally I’d recommend Pimsleur as a great starting point for learning Chinese as it slowly introduce new words with SRS style repitition. Skritter is great for acquiring new Chinese vocabulary, whereby you are able to choose if you learn reading, writing, tones or definitions.

SRS alone is not enough to learn a language

SRS is a great toll to help you learn new words in a language, but, despite some representations to the contrary, it needs to be supported by other forms of study. If you focus solely on memorising vocabulary lists you will end up with a huge vocabulary that you have no idea how to use, each word will lack real meaning in you mind and ultimately it becomes a waste of time

Ultimately you need to use SRS with other active and passive leaning. I would recommend supplementing SRS with a combination of podcasts, reading and media. It is important that any new vocabulary takes on real meaning in your mind and you therefore know how to use it.

Podcasts and other media will improve your listening, vocabulary and grammar, while reading will strength your ability to recognise characters and more consciously improve your grammar.

When to do SRS revision

As with all language learning I would suggest breaking up your SRS reviews during the day and spreading them out across multiple sessions. Schedule a few times a day when you will definitely do your SRS revision, for example I do mine on the train. Additionally, whenever you have time, be it while waiting for an elevator, a bus, a train or for an egg to boil, have an SRS app on your phone ready to go so you can revise a few characters.

How to manage the size of your SRS word list?

I found myself that as I added more words my word lists became huge, to the point where every morning I would have hundreds of words to review, and several hundred if I dared to take a break. Ultimately the choice is up to you, you can either

  1. Ensure you set aside enough time every day to revise you word lists, relying upon SRS to schedule the review of easier words well in to the future (perhaps up to a year or more)
  2. Trim words or word lists that you know well. For example once you well and truly know the words from HSK1 first remove it from your list to keep review sessions shorter.
  3. Keeping in mind that SRS should not be your only exposure to language revision each day, you should come across the easier more common words through other means such as reading or videos. Essentially, once you have some degree of proficiency, there is not need to revise the most common words in the language via SRS as you will come across them via other means multiple times per day.

Don’t use multiple SRS systems with the same words

At one point I started using Skirtter to add writing practice to learning. This mean that I ended up with two SRS apps essentially teaching me the same thing, both of which tested reading, pronunciation and definitions. This can be detrimental as I’ve described above, most specifically as it becomes repetitive and boring

Ultimately I dropped my original SRS system and moved to Skritter, such that I was using one app to cover all aspects. Skritter is the only App I’ve come across that is easy to use and test Chinese writing along with read, definitions and pronunciation. As such I have continued with Skirtter even to this day.

Final words on SRS

Without question if you are learning a language, you should be using SRS, however don’t let SRS lead your language learning, instead it should support and reinforce your language learning endeavours.