What’s the best kind of SRS card to use?

A very cool person named Timo mentioned to me recently that the method I use for learning Cantonese – especially regarding SRS use – isn’t what you might call crystal-clear.

And that’s a failing of mine. My excuse is that, well, I’m always experimenting with different techniques and that the posts on SRS use so far have been intended as ideas for other people to build off, rather than definitive “here’s what you must do” answers.

But maybe that’s not what everyone needs. Maybe a proper comparative evaluation of different SRS uses is in order. (*Starts looking into linguistics PhDs at HKU*.)  Before I get my doctorate though, here’s a quick rundown of the most important things I’ve tried:

Card Type Description Notes
“Original AJATT Sentences” Question side: an L2 sentenceAnswer side: definitions that you can understand (i.e. possibly L2 if you’re good enough but L1 is okay too) The method works, but I found I tended to waste lots of time needlessly deleting cards whose context I’d forgotten.  When going through cards, make sure you understand the function of each word before marking it as correct (applies to L2iR too).Audio is very useful but optional. If it takes too long to add it, don’t bother.


L2iR Cards Question side: an L2 word or sentenceAnswer side: the context of the sentence (could be a long sentence, a paragraph or a complete article) and L1 or L2 definitions for new words This improves on the “Original AJATT Sentences” because I’ve had a very low deletion rate of cards but a very high rate of learning.  Also, it allows rapid creation of new cards: just keep copying the context into a dedicated field and pick out the bits you can almost understand.You don’t always have to have masses of context, but it certainly helps sometimes, especially when you’re in the beginner/intermediate stages.  Audio is optional but helpful.


Situation-Based Active Recall Question: a situation (e.g. “you’re hungry”)Answer: something you’d say in that situation (e.g. “better get sommat to chow down on”) You might as well just go talk to someone in L2.  If it was all set up by a native speaker it would be okay as a learning tool, but you’d have to pay them to do it because it takes so long.*
Aural-Phonetic Pinyin learning Question: an L2 sentence in whatever phonetic system you please (e.g. Jyupting, Pinyin, IPA etc.)Answer: a recording of someone reading out the sentence These cards aren’t designed to test comprehension – they’re designed to make sure you can read phonetic representations of L2 accurately.You need to be careful to get a consistent accent though for this – it’s possibly worth paying for someone to help you or to buy a ready-made product, I think.  (Currently no such products exist though.)


Picture-Based Noun Recall Question: A picture of the word you want to actively recall.  A contextual sentence with the word clozed out is optional.Answer: The word (and audio, if you like) I’ve been using this for French and Cantonese recently, and it’s great.  Really.  There’s a plugin for Anki now that lets you download images directly based on question content which makes these cards pretty quick to prepare.Make sure if you’re learning Chinese you memorise the counter as a chunk with the noun.  For European languages, include the gender.

You can also include a list of verb-noun examples in the answer side to slowly get a feel of which verbs go with which nouns.


Song Learning Question: a line from a songAnswer: the whole song, optionally with audio These are fun to do if the audio’s in the answer, but splicing up songs using Audacity and then copying the audio into Anki takes a while.  (Sidenote: cards with audio would make a great paid-for product.)I don’t always bother to understand what the song means because English songs at least don’t always make sense.  My personal goal is to be able to sing songs at karaoke, not to memorise them completely, which I take into account when grading cards.

This is good for learning Pinyin/Jyutping/IPA too.


L2iR Cloze Question side: an L2 sentence with one word clozed out.  A definition of the word or a clue is belowAnswer side: the complete sentence plus the context Tried this for both French and Cantonese.  These cards are great because although they take a little bit of time to make, they allow you to test active recall of all types of words in context.The clues have been things like “an verb  which starts with e” or “an adjective that’s the opposite of black”, all in L2, of course.

These work because the answer is very narrow – there’s no spectrum of answers that could be correct.  Fun to review, too.


Heisig Hanzi Learning Question side: English keyword(s)Answer side: Hanzi These cards are fine as long as you’re learning Chinese characters in massive bulk.  Be aware that they have a sell-by date– it’s fine to stop using the deck once you’re flying along with your L2iR cards because it’s hard to maintain specific English>Chinese character associations after a while.**** while you’re learning characters

* when you can already read and write a lot

As for “do I split up these card types into different decks?”, I have this to say:

Using multiple decks is time consuming, and it’s annoying to switch to another deck just because you want to add a different kind of card.

However, it’s not a good idea to group together cards that test pronunciation together with cards that test comprehension. This is because it makes it harder to accurately grade cards if you’re constantly flitting between the two.

So, in general, I’d say learners are best off with two main decks – one for comprehension (L2iR sentences, L2iR Cloze and picture-based noun recall) and one for pronunciation and songs.  This is how I’ve divided up my learning.

Also, specifically for Cantonese learners, if you’re learning to read and write as well as speak, it’s best to have separate decks for Written Chinese and Vernacular Cantonese. They’re separate languages, after all. Both can include L2iR, L2iR Cloze and picture-based noun recall.

So, hope that helps!  Something to titillate your taste-buds until the thesis comes along in a few years time 😛


5 thoughts on “What’s the best kind of SRS card to use?

  1. Thanks much for posting. I’m adding L2IR to my deck now; it’s much more “lightweight” than Learning With Texts (the output of which I’m using for some of my “active recall” cards), but seems to do the job well. I especially like that (a) it doesn’t tempt me to just recall the individual clozed word and go on, and (b) as you noted, it makes it easy to dive into the text for longer reading. I added a few situation-based cards a while ago, but the difficulty-in-grading “gotcha” quickly became apparent and only the initial few have continued to circulate. Looking forward to digging through your archives some more–looks like interesting stuff!

  2. Hey Joel! I haven’t actually come across Learning with Texts before – shows how long I’ve been away from the English-language interwebs – but I’m curiously investigating it right now.

    RE the L2IRs – if you find yourself consistently untempted to dip into whole articles again, let me know, because that’s something I because aware of recently.

    I’m very interested that you tried the situation based cards – I’m kinda surprised that it was the grading that you found tricky! I dropped them quickly because for learners they’re lousy value for time.

    Keep up the good work with the Bengla! Might I ask why you chose to learn it? (If I missed something on your blog, sorry!)

  3. Eldon, the “tricky grading” on situation-based cards came primarily from the fact that any number of answers might be correct, unless the situation is specified in great detail–in which case it seems more efficient to just have the English equivalent of the expression you’re trying to pin down and let it evoke the situation.

    I’ll keep an eye out for “dead text syndrome” on L2IRs. Ironically, shortly after posting my earlier comment, I hit a wall with Anki, I suspect as a consequence of really “rocking” new-card acquisition for a couple of weeks before–it suddenly seemed as though my ability to acquire new cards or to remember old ones, along with my enjoyment of reviews, all cratered simultaneously. I’m currently digging my way out of reviews due, en route to diving back in a little more sedately.

    Re. learning Bangla, I’m hoping to move to Bangladesh next year, and expect that knowing the language will make the experience substantially more pleasant. 🙂 Aside from that, though, I enjoy language learning generally (though Bangla is the only one I’ve studied to any great depth; others thus far have been on the order of a semester or two of classes, or a Pimsleur course).

    • Ah yes, the ‘unlimited answers’ problem. If I understand correctly, you mean that it’s best to just equate the L2 expression with the English one, but also trying to pay much more attention to the situation (and feelings created therein) than if one was doing school-style word-pair lists?

      “Dead text syndrome” – like it. A slower pace does indeed seem to be essential for long-term success – I always get the cave-ins you describe when adding too many cards.

      Moving to Bangladesh, eh? Sounds like an exciting challenge! If it’s anything like Hong Kong, I’m sure knowing Bangla will make you a total and permenant celebrity 🙂 hope it all works out!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s