SRS – A Comprehensive Review

A few months ago, I pretty much completely stopped adding stuff to my SRS.  I’ve kept up reviewing everything I added, but that’s pretty much it.  I can gratefully direct you to this post by Jeff for a good explanation of why.  (Long story short: SRS is like performance-enhancing drugs.  A game-changer in small doses; lethal in large ones.)

In addition to Jeff’s conclusions, I would like to further add that SRSs naturally make the language you’re learning very abstract:

  • It’s possible to add sounds, pictures and videos to SRS cards…
  • …but the setup takes a prohibitively long time, meaning that only text-only cards are practical.

This means that words that one SRSs tend to stay isolated from whatever they actually mean.  (Example: I’ve been SRSing the character 投 for the last three years, along with compounds such as 投入 and 投資, but it’s only recently that I found out its real meaning is something similar to ‘throw down’.)

A further problem caused by ease of overdose is:

  • A tendency to equate number of cards created and studied with linguistic success, with the result of…
  • …a tendency to spend as short a time as possible on each card, in the interests of maximising the number of cards studied and…
  • …a tendency to add cards even when they’re not really that useful.

SRS Alternatives

Since I stopped adding SRS cards, I’ve been experimenting with lots of other methods for learning Cantonese, including, but not limited to:

  • Trying to speak with people more
  • Trying to do more practical activities using Cantonese (e.g. playing baseball, going to a pottery class, taking Wing Chun lessons)
  • Making extensive vocabulary/sentence lists in a notebook
  • Comprehensively analysing individual syllables (e.g. all syllables pronounced ‘si*’: 屎,事,思,試 etc.) and trying to learn compounds formed from these characters
  • Drawing out pictures of vocab that I want to know in a notebook and then labelling everything possible

Some of these methods have been more useful than others.  The main conclusion that I’ve reached is:

  • Real-world word usage is best, provided…
  • …you have massive, massive repetition.

By ‘massive repetition’, I mean repeating an action more than a hundred times whilst saying the relevant word in Cantonese.  (For example, I had to file down a piece of pottery that I’d made, so I took the opportunity to repeat the word 摩 several hundred times while I was doing it.  Result: no more confusion over the pronunciation or meaning of 摩, and probably no need to SRS 摩 ever again, either.)

Massive, Massive Repetition: Needs Structure

One problem with massive repetition is that if it’s unstructured (i.e. no revision schedule), it’s difficult to adequately balance repetition of everything you want to be able to say.

I’ve noticed that with no schedule (no SRS), I’ll tend to automatically revise the things I’m most familiar with, without focussing on things which needs more attention.  Case in point: on the day that I discovered the real meaning of 摩, I also practiced a lot of other vocabulary many times… however, because I practiced 摩 most, and made no special effort to write down or further revise other items, I’ll have to re-learn them in the future, which is infuriating.

I’ve tried the ‘massive repetition’ thing on “grammar” as well, but I haven’t been pleased with the results – possibly because sentence structures are more abstract, or because complete sentence patterns need carefully structured revision over a long period of time.


Having spent the entire day pondering the above problems, I think I’m in a position to draw the following conclusions:

  • With an SRS, it’s far too easy to overdose
  • Without an SRS, it’s difficult to adequately structure revision of vocab and sentence patterns.


  • Whether SRSing or not, massive repetition is required for new vocab items, characters, sentence patterns etc.  Saying a word once is not enough.

The solution, therefore, is to use an SRS in extreme moderation:

  • Only add items which you want to be able to say, and repeat them many, many times on each card review…
  • Items which you think you’ll only need be able to understand, you can simply repeat many times when you come across them in the first place, and then abandon them.  You’ll probably remember them when you come across them next time, if they’re really that important.

In addition:

  • Delete superfluous items whenever you realise you’re starting to overdose.

(I thank Khatzumoto for this advice, although I managed to ignore it for a full three years.)

What do I want to be able to say?

Currently, I’m thinking of the following strategy:

    1. Each day, write a list of words/sentences that I’m not sure of, and make a concerted effort to memorise them (using some of the methods mentioned in the ‘SRS Alternatives’ section above).
    2. From this list, take sentence patterns which I can’t yet use, and words which are especially useful or funny, and add them to Anki.

I’m really hoping that this will strike the right balance!

Has anyone else had similar experiences?  How did you deal with SRS problems?  Please share in the comments section below!


2 thoughts on “SRS – A Comprehensive Review

  1. It’s interesting that you’ve been trying extensive repetition (like while working on your pot), because I was thinking about that kind of thing over the past few days. And I just thought this was an interesting look at everything overall. Thanks for the info and good luck with everything!

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