SRS: The Lifeblood of Learning Languages

How can harnessing the power of spaced repetition make you a more efficient language learner?


I know you don’t want to hear this, but if you want to get good at Japanese, then you’ll need to invest some time in flashcards. Your knack for languages and the degree to which you want to excel in Japanese in a given amount of time will determine how hard you need to hit the SRS.

What’s SRS?

SRS stands for spaced-repetition system and it’s pretty much all the rage among language learners nowadays.

Here’s what it boils down to:

Using SRS, the more often you get a certain flashcard “right,” the less often you see it. This means that more difficult cards, the ones you keep constantly forgetting, will show up more often.

Thanks to this initial drill-like high frequency, you eventually start getting them right, and once you start getting them right, you won’t see them as often. This also means that a card you haven’t seen in days might pop up and catch you off guard, and if you get it wrong, the algorithm will (rightly) assume that you haven’t quite committed it to long-term memory yet and will shuffle it back into the deck for more short-term review.

Of course, the kicker with this whole system is that you have to be honest. If you didn’t totally nail an answer right off the bat, you probably shouldn’t say, “Oh, yeah, I knew that one, duh!” and then count it as being correct. While you should never doubt yourself, don’t overestimate your ability lest you waste the potential the program has to offer.

That sounds great! How do I get started?

Anki (暗記) is the Japanese word for memorization and happens to be probably the most well-known and widely used SRS application/software out there, with a sweet price tag to boot. (The desktop version is free!)

The iOS version is obscenely expensive, so if it’s your only mobile option, I would hold off until you know for sure you’re going to invest enough time to get your money’s worth. For dedicated learners, it’s worth it, considering it’s one of the most convenient ways to get some studying in during your commute or between classes (and it sure beats wasting time on your Facebook newsfeed). Android users, rejoice; your version is free.

Android version of Anki using night mode.


Alright, so how do I use SRS effectively?

Algorithms used in SRS have multiple degrees of accuracy. For the sake of example, I’ll use Anki’s design.

After an answer is shown using Anki, you can choose from “Again,” “Hard,” “Good,” and “Easy.” The first suggests that you had no idea or completely forgot the answer. You will likely see this card again in the next minute or so. “Hard” implies that it was, well, hard to come up with the answer, or maybe you got it mostly right but not quite 100% (although personally, I file anything I didn’t get 100% right in the “Again” category). “Good” means you got the right answer, and “Easy” means you knew the answer as soon as the flash card appeared. In other words, it took virtually none of your mental resources for the answer to pop into your head.

Now, linguists like to define fluency in a couple of ways (stay with me here).

  • Broadly as “overall speaking proficiency”
  • Narrowly as the “smoothness and ease of oral linguistic delivery”

Of course, you can spit out random strings of Japanese words like 花見, スカート, 牛乳, and 根性焼き all day with smoothness and ease, but you might get some pretty weird looks. Using the right words in the right contexts with the right constructs is important, as you can imagine (bonus points for anyone who can come up with a coherent sentence using the above).

But accuracy means nothing if it takes you 30 seconds to come up with the right answer.

Just as the key to unlocking the full potential of your Japanese is the marriage of fluency and accuracy, so does the formula for good studying and SRSing lie at the intersection of speed and correctness.

You can’t pause a conversation and make the other person wait for half a minute while you think of the exact word you’re trying to say, so why get into such habits during practice?

Imagine you’re a professional baseball player under the lights. If a baseball flies past you because you were distracted, or you simply weren’t prepared for its direction, pace, or spin, you can’t just ask the pitcher for a do-over. You have to learn and adapt and be ready for the next one. And the more balls you hit, the better you get at it. Here, though, you get the advantage of hitting the most difficult balls the most often. Eventually, the hard ones become easy, and before long, you’re knocking them out of the park.

I know you aren’t a robot and you probably think of language as a fluid, living thing that is probably the most amazing thing humanity has ever come up with.

It is. It totally is.

And it’s even more enjoyable if you get the chance to partake in that language’s culture and learn about the ways other people around the world live their lives. That kind of experience makes you more human, and we need more people like you.

But at the root of it all, language is basically a tool, and some people get way better at using that tool way faster than others depending on the frequency and method with which they hone their skills and train with it.

You can compare various SRS programs in the Resources section.