Learn vocabulary efficiently with SRS

Memorizing long lists of vocabulary items is something that few people enjoy, and on top of that, the way most people do this is very inefficient. In this article, I’ll describe a better, scientifically proven method for effectively and easily memorizing vocabulary called SRS.

Have you ever used the technique where you have 2 columns of words on a piece of paper, and you take turns covering one side and the other while you mindlessly try to drill the words into your brain by going down the list over and over again?

The traditional approach to drilling vocabulary.

This is one of the most common methods learners use to acquire vocabulary, but is actually extremely ineffective in the long term.

That’s because this method ignores a crucial aspect of how memory works: when you learn something, the brain stores it in the short term memory, not immediately in the long term memory. Short term memories might remain in your brain for up to 15 or 30 seconds, but what use is that when you need to use the word in a conversation the following day? Your brain has long since forgotten the word.

Therefore, the word needs to be transferred into the long-term memory. There are some tricks to help memorize words and make them stick in your mind (such as mnemonics, or music), but in this article I’ll focus on the idea of spaced repetition.

The forgetting curve

Every time you recall a word from your memory, your brain strengthens the neural connections that keep it memorized, so it becomes more resilient to forgetting again. In other words, if you remember a word enough times, it eventually sticks in your brain in the long-term memory.

If you remember a word enough times, it eventually sticks in your brain in the long-term memory.

This concept is known as the forgetting curve. Every time you refresh something in your memory, it sticks around for longer before being forgotten again.

To apply this to language learning: once you encounter and learn a new word, it’ll be in your memory for around 15 seconds. If you force yourself to recall the word again in 15 seconds, it’ll stay for a little longer, perhaps a minute or two. Once you force yourself to recall the word in a minute or two, it might stay for 5 minutes, and so on, until after you’ve reviewed it enough times, it becomes a word you can remember even years later.

This is also why just drilling a vocabulary list on a piece of paper might work for memorizing words for a test the next day, but won’t make words stick in the long run. Unless you keep reviewing those words over and over again over a long stretch of time, you’ll end up forgetting them. The brain only stores the information it cares about, and if it’s a memory you never use, it won’t bother keeping it.

SRS: Never forget again

So here’s the way that some language learners hack the vocabulary learning process: using SRS, or “spaced repetition system”.

This is the name of a technique that consists of showing you words at the correct intervals, so that every time you’re about to forget a word, you are reminded of it, the memory is refreshed, and the word is stored for longer until the next time you see it. Think of it as memory-optimized flashcards: you’re not flipping through the flashcards randomly, but instead, the flashcards are shown to you exactly when you need to see them – no less often and no more often.

In SRS, flashcards are shown to you exactly when you need to see them.

The most commonly used tool, and the one I use and recommend, is called “Anki”. This is a program that you an install on your computer, iPhone, tablet, etc. that has the ability to store a nearly endless amount of flashcards, which it manages and shows to you every day during your study session. A typical day could mean that you’re presented with 10 new flashcards (10 new words), and you’re also reminded of another 50 words that you learned previously that are due for a refresher, and such a session might take around 20 minutes.

Every study session will show you flashcards at different stages in the learning process; you’ll be presented with new words, words you learned recently, and words you learned a long time ago.

This way, you’re constantly learning new words as well as being reminded of previously learned words, so that you never end up forgetting any. Occasionally, you might slip up, but then the process will just start over again from the beginning, and since it’ll be easier to memorize a word the second time around, it’ll quickly go back to your long term memory.

Using an SRS program will optimize your study time so that you memorize the most words in the least amount of time possible.

Structuring flashcards

Flashcards generally have a “front” and a “back”. The front is the prompt to make you strain and try to remember, and the back is the answer. This format is pretty flexible, and the 3 different formats I’ve found work best (when used all together) to remember words are as follows.

Type 1: Production

This format forces you to actually remember the TL (target language) word so that you can bring it up in conversation/writing when you need it.

    Front: English word (e.g. “cow”)

    Back: TL word (e.g. “vaca”) along with any supplementary information such as noun gender, etymology, example sentences, etc.

    Type 2: Written recognition

    This format tests your recognition of the word when you see it written down (and by extension when you hear it).

    Front: TL word (e.g. “vaca”), possibly with a cloze sentence or other slight hints if necessary

    Back: English word (e.g. “cow”)

    Type 3: Audio recognition

    This format tests your recognition of the word when spoken.

    Front: TL word audio (e.g. “vaca” spoken out loud)

    Back: English word (written down, e.g. “cow”, no need for audio)

    Note on supplementary information

    I suggest that in addition to just the TL word (e.g. “vaca”), make sure to also include other information on the flashcard such as (but not limited to):

    • noun gender / class
    • etymology
    • a morphemic breakdown
    • example sentences
    • synonyms

    The more information you have on each card, the better. In particular, having an example sentence (or several) really helps understand how a word is used in context. Just drilling words with no other information runs the risk of forcing words into your brain without actually knowing how to use them, which is a very subtle trap you should try to avoid falling into.

    Final remarks

    It’s also worth noting that if you’re studying a language in other ways besides just SRS, you’ll probably be encountering many words in your reading, listening, speaking practice, grammar explanations, example sentences, etc. that will also refresh many of your flashcards, which makes words transition into long-term memory even more quickly.

    You should definitely be studying in other ways besides just an SRS system by reading, watching videos, interacting with other speakers of the languages, and so on. SRS is just an extremely helpful supplement that enables you to memorize any vocab you encounter while using your target language.

    I’ve used Anki for many years, and I occasionally encounter a word in real life that I haven’t seen or studied in many, many years… but I fully remember exactly how the flashcard with that word looked, as well as the example sentence it was in and what picture it had on my flashcard. An SRS system like Anki can be incredibly powerful if you consistently devote just a few minutes per day to it.

    I will cover more details on how to set up Anki so that you can start memorizing hundreds of words every month in a future post, so stay tuned and make sure to subscribe!

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