Remember Anything, Forever!

5 Mar
Most of us have plenty of "head" room to spare.It's time to start filling it with something useful!

Most of us have plenty of “head” room to spare.
It’s time to start filling it with something useful!

What if I told you that there was a way to learn huge quantities of information, permanently and in only a few minutes each day?

Why I bet you’d say “Good sir, I’d pay you a king’s ransom for such valuable information… or I’d at least read the rest of this article”.

Well my tightfisted friend, today you are in luck. Today I’m going to share with you a secret that will change the way you approach learning for the rest of your life.

Back story
I discovered this method back in late 2007. I had been living in Japan for a little over a year at the time and I had made a lot of progress in learning the language from scratch. However, being a perfectionist (the curse that it is) I was still looking for ways to speed up my progress. With all my online searching for a so called holy grail of learning I managed to hit pay-dirt in the form of a site with the very catchy address of  www.alljapaneseallthetime.com .

This site is aimed at language learning but in particular it introduced me to the “tool” that I’m going to tell you about. I used it and it worked. In only 3 months I had memorized 3000 Japanese kanji (chinese characters) and in a little over a year I was a certified Japanese translator. To put that in context, native Japanese students learn about 2000 kanji over the course of 10 YEARS in elementary, junior-high and high school (that works out at about 60 times faster than an average Japanese native). I often schooled my own students in Japan when they made mistakes writing kanji and my party trick was writing complicated characters that most Japanese people could only read and not even write themselves.

I know I’m tooting my horn here a little but it’s something I’m very proud of and I really want you to understand just how effective this method is.

Tell me more, Tell me more…
Ok, at this stage you’re probably saying “Ok, just get to the good stuff and let the super-learning begin”

What I used was the very simply titled “SRS”.

“What you talkin’ bout Richie?”
SRS stands for Spaced Repetition Software; it’s basically a computerized flashcard system that uses very fancy “spaced repetition algorithms” (God I love that word, it makes anyone who uses it sound like they know what their talking about) to schedule the learning of pieces of information (facts) according to how well you know them.

Think of it like this: An SRS quizzes you on certain facts by showing you a question (a question and it’s answer together are known as a card… from flash-card). When you reveal the answer you score yourself on a scale of how well you knew the answer. If you knew the answer very well, the algorithm will schedule that card to be shown again at a date in the future (days, weeks, months even years). However if you didn’t know the answer and score it accordingly the algorithm will schedule that card to be shown again very, very soon (maybe within 5 minutes). This way you spend more time reviewing facts that you don’t know well and don’t waste time reviewing stuff you already know.

The whole idea of the algorithm is to allow you to review a particular card just before you are expected to forget it. In this way you strengthen the memory retention effect maximally.

One of the great things about SRSs is that many are accessible from the internet so you can basically study anywhere you can connect to the net. With most mobile phones these days, that means you can literally study anywhere, whenever you have a couple of minutes free.

The screenshots below should give you an idea of what an SRS looks like (the particular one I use is called Anki and I definitely recommend it)

ピクチャ 3

This is what a Japanese “Question” looks like. I read it, try to answer it and then click “Show Answer”

ピクチャ 4

Here’s the same card with the answer shown in blue (it’s an explanation of new vocabulary in the sentence) (I prefer to study using a Jap/Jap Dictionary).
Below I have various options to score myself which will result in the card being shown at different intervals (1 minute, 1 day or 4 days) (This is a new card I haven’t learned yet).

Here’ an example from my Spanish deck

Here's a similar style of card, with a "question" in Spanish.

Here’s a similar style of card, with a “question” in Spanish.

And here's the same card with it's "answer" shown below in blue.

And here’s the same card with it’s “answer” shown below in blue. The scoring options will result in intervals of 10 months, 11 months, 2.1 years or 3.7 years (that means I know this card well).

The idea is to review your cards (study) for about 20-30 minutes a day. The real magic starts to happen when the intervals between seeing a particular question get long (many months). That’s when these “facts” start getting locked into your long term memory (thanks to the wonderful, magic algorithm).

I highly recommend you check out the wikipedia entry on SRS for further information.

Pfff, Bulls#!t
No, seriously, this is the real deal. To give you a little example: I don’t get to speak Japanese here in Cali all that often so I felt that my spoken fluency was suffering. Two weeks ago I met a bunch of Japanese folks and we got talking and as the conversation went on I was talking about something that happened to me in the gym. I just casually said that my thigh started to spasm when I was exercising. The word for spasm in Japanese is keiren (痙攣) and as it’s a medical term I probably have used the word less than 3 times in my entire life. The reason I remembered it is because it’s included in my SRS deck. I had reviewed it casually many times when I studied Japanese regularly back in Japan and it had become locked firmly into my long-term memory. To give you an idea of how long-term: I haven’t studied my Japanese SRS in any serious manner in about 3 years! This happened with a whole load of other words too, during the conversation.

So what can I learn?
The question should be “What do you want to learn?”.

Decks (collections of cards) can be completely customized to allow you learn anything that you can think of.

  • Use it to learn the vocabulary or sentence structure of a new language
  • Add photos and use it to learn the names and details of regular clients or workmates
  • Use it to memorize facts for quizzes from geography to quantum physics
  • Add sound and learn the pronunciation of difficult tonal languages like Chinese
  • Build a list of motivational quotes
  • Learn the nutritional values of the foods you consume most often

It really is up to you! You can find many pre-made decks online or you can create one completely by yourself and to your likings. For example, the front of your card could be a simple question (e.g. Who was the first man on the moon?) in which case the back of the card would be a simple answer (e.g. Neil Armstrong). On the other hand, if trying to learn the grammar of a new language you could write a short statement in the target language on the front of the card (e.g. Yo voy a la tienda cada mañana) in which case the back of the card (the answer) would be a explanation of new vocabulary or grammar in the sentence (e.g. tienda=store, cada=every/each). You can vary your question/answer style to your own needs.

This is what making your own cards looks like.It's as simple as writing in what you want to be on the front of the card (the question) and what you want to be revealed on the back (the answer).

This is what making your own cards looks like.
It’s as simple as writing in what you want to be on the front of the card (the question) and what you want to be revealed on the back (the answer).

The best way to start out would be to visit the website of whatever SRS you chose to use and read their instruction guide and FAQ to educate yourself about how to properly use their program. At first the learning curve can seem a little steep but within 30 minutes of downloading the software you’ll realize how easy it really is.

As I said previously, I really like Anki; it’s relatively easy to use and the best thing is it’s FREE!

Tips for using an SRS
Having used SRSs in one form or another over the years I’ve learned what works and what definitely doesn’t. Here are a few tips to make your learning experience more efficient.

  • Use it regularly. This may sound obvious but many people make the mistake of being very irregular with their SRS use. Remember, you only need a total of 20-30 minutes a day.
  • Keep questions simple. The shorter and simpler your questions are the faster you’ll get through your deck and the more you’ll enjoy it. Trying to cram too much info into a question is actually counterproductive and hinders fact retention.
  • Use it whenever you have a few minutes to spare. Especially if you use the online versions with your mobile phone you can study on the bus, waiting in line at the supermarket, during commercials while watching TV etc.
  • Keep cards interesting. If you make your own deck (which I recommend) make the cards as interesting and relevant to your own interests as possible. You retain interesting information much more easily than something you have no interest in. My language decks are full of cards about cooking, science and travel. It’s interesting (for me) and it’s in my target language (the majority of the language used is transferable to everyday conversation)
  • Grade yourself fairly. This one is a big stumbling block for newbies. If you don’t understand a question then score yourself accordingly. Otherwise you’ll only be lying to yourself and your progress will suffer. No one will know if you get it wrong anyway.
  • Have fun. Nothing will sabotage your learning more than if your study isn’t fun. Look at it as a daily game where you try to get through as many cards as possible in a set amount of time. Do everything you can to keep it interesting and fun. Make sure you want to come back to study.

I know this is a lot of info to handle at first. It was for me too a few years ago. But if you give SRSs a chance and put in a genuine effort at the start to wrap your head around how to use it, it really could be one of the greatest learning tools you’ll ever encounter.

So no more excuses for not learning the names, capitals and flags of every country in the world or the lyrics to that song you love or those few key phrases in Spanish to impress that pretty latina girl at the salsa club 😉

What are you gonna learn first? Let me know in the comments.

**********************************************************************
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10 Responses to “Remember Anything, Forever!”

  1. Stephen Murray March 5, 2013 at 9:33 am #

    Agreed, use it for German, learning words and they are staying in memory surprisingly easy. Highly recommended. , Any recommendations for science decks?

    • The Dancing Irishman March 5, 2013 at 10:19 am #

      When and how did you get started using an SRS?
      I haven’t really checked out the science decks myself. I’ve already got a load that I don’t have time to get through at the moment!

      • Stephen Murray March 6, 2013 at 9:59 am #

        Been using Ankidroid on my phone for nearly a year now. Used it for spanish, now german. use it nearly everyday.

  2. Dianna Fazio March 5, 2013 at 9:55 am #

    Richie this sounds amazing! As a fellow language learner I am totally excited to try this! I may have some questions to get started, but you are VERY encouraging! I am so impressed with how fast you learned Japanese and Spanish too! I will be using this to help me memorize Taigi for Ki-Aikido (taking my Nidan soon) and for my other languages to help with grammar and retention (Italian, French, Portuguese), so I am super excited! Thanks so much for sharing! Love your blog, keep it coming!

    Abrazos,

    Dianna

    • The Dancing Irishman March 5, 2013 at 10:21 am #

      Hey Dianna, I’m glad you liked the post. Yeah the SRS was really essential in learning Japanese for me. It’s a language learners dream. If you have any questions with getting started drop me an email anytime. I’ll be happy to help you out.
      Richie

  3. ArchitecturalBayanist March 5, 2013 at 1:06 pm #

    Thinking of this in the 10,000 hours frame of mind, SRS only speeds up your learning insofar as it takes some of the organizational tasks off your shoulders. It is just as boring as any rote memorization technique. Think self-organizing flash cards. Effective IF you put the work in (and don’t be fooled, it’s plenty of work). This applies to countless techniques.
    Long story short…I don’t get so warm and fuzzy about SRS. I’ve used it. It was flash cards again. Sure it works, but a breakthrough it ain’t. If it helps you get your 10,000 hours, go for it, but don’t expect any magic.

    • The Dancing Irishman March 5, 2013 at 1:33 pm #

      I guess it works for some and not for others. Same with many things really!

  4. IELTS Singapore April 30, 2013 at 2:47 am #

    Yay, SRS is really awesome. I just learned about it and I’ve been doing some research about the various software. I’m hoping to implement it in my English/IELTS teaching. And also use it for my learning of Chinese!

    I’ve been hearing of other SRS. Have you tried others? I’m just beginning to use Anki, but some others have said there are other better ones!

    • The Dancing Irishman April 30, 2013 at 7:02 am #

      Hi Jason, I’m glad to hear you’re planning on using the SRS, it really is a great tool. I’ve only used 2 myself, khatzumemo and anki and anki was far superior. I’ve also heard memosyne is quite good.

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