Spaced Repetition System (SRS) – Week 64

This week, I finished re-watching Dragon with subtitles clip-by-clip, often repeating lines again and again, in an attempt to decipher new vocabulary. I now have over 50 terms in my Word-a-Day vocabulary list from Dragon–far more than from any other source. I register a phonetic transcription (using my own haphazard system), the source (Dragon), and the exact time that the term comes up in the movie. I do not try to translate the term, although I often have a rough translation in mind based on the subtitles and context.

When I again watch this movie or any source that I have previously worked on in this way, I am able to produce a chronological list of terms and reference them as the scenes come up. By this method, I gradually learn and reinforce vocabulary that I have been able to decipher.

These terms are all in a simple Access database that I created. In addition to using them as I repeat an entire movie or episode of a show, I also sometimes do a “Word List Review”, in which I will watch isolated scenes of various different sources to specifically reinforce vocabulary. In 30 minutes, I might watch clips from two different movies, a Boonie Bears episode, and a Qiao Hu episode, for example.

In order to render this process more efficient, I make use of a concept I became more familiar with when engaging in discussions last year on language learning forums: spaced repetition systems (SRS). The most cited example of SRS are Anki cards, a kind of digital flashcard for memorizing vocabulary or anything else. Anki cards are cool because they allow you to insert images, audio, or even video, and you can use them on your cell phone or any other device. Some people take this the next level and break down an entire movie or episode into tiny clips, with dual-language subtitles, in a process abbreviated as subs2srs. Supposedly, you can use this high-tech method of memorization, in a short period of time, to be able to watch a movie in a completely new language, whether Japanese, Bahasa or Mandarin, without subtitles and with full comprehension.

Now, mind you, I never really used Anki cards or subs2srs. Being me, I had to reinvent the wheel. I didn’t really want to distract myself with creating Anki cards or parsing videos and using dual-language subtitles. Instead, I created simple queries in my Word List database that incorporate the spaced repetition concept. The idea is that, each time you review vocabulary or whatever you’re trying to memorize, you rank its difficulty. Items that you rank as more difficult will come back or repeat sooner, while those you rank as easy will only come back to you after much longer intervals.

I made a couple little formulas in a database query to assess the priority of reviewing each term I register.

For those who are minimally familiar with Access or SQL, they will be very easy to understand. First, I defined a variable called “age”, which is the current date minus the date that I registered that term.

age: Now()-[when]

Next, I attributed a number to each level of difficulty. Each time I review a word in a clip, I assess its difficulty as hard, medium, easy, or mastered.

difficulty: IIf([difficulty_LR]=”hard”,8,IIf([difficulty_LR]=”medium”,4,IIf([difficulty_LR]=”easy”,2,IIf([difficulty_LR]=”mastered”,1,8))))

Finally, I use these variables to help calculate the priority. The higher the number, the higher the priority and the sooner I should review the term. The field “reviewed” refers to how many times the term was reviewed in that specific source, while “total reviews” refers to how many times the term was reviewed in any source.

priority: ([age]/([total reviews]+[reviewed]*2+1))*[difficulty]

I then use a simple query to generate lists of terms with priorities over 50 and over 100, respectively. The lists indicate which words I should focus on reviewing. The way I most often use the lists is to choose what movie or episode to watch when I want to review vocabulary. For example, if I see that a movie I haven’t watched for a while has 15 words show up on the 50+ list, I will then watch the whole movie or, alternately, review the specific scenes where those terms come up.

This system consumes very little time. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not sure whether this type of artifice improves or distracts from my learning. On the whole, I believe it is probably beneficial. However, what I am sure of is that it provides a psychological boost, as I have some quantitative parameter of progress.

5 thoughts on “Spaced Repetition System (SRS) – Week 64

  1. Your reinvented wheel is Greek to me. lol I use Anki and love it. I think last week I answered a card that got pushed out to be reviewed in nine years. Nine! I can’t believe I’ve been using it long enough to have cards due so far out. Keep up the great work! I’ve been working on Mandarin fairly consistently lately, about half an hour per day this month and last. I feel like I’m about ready to make a small breakthrough but am not sure what to do to trigger it. I guess I’ll keep plugging away at my lessons and hope it comes soon.

    • Thanks for your update! When you say half-an-hour, you’re referring to structured study, such as Anki cards, right? I understand from previous comments you also do some additional unstructured viewing (such as I do in my experiment).

      What do you think your breakthrough is going to look or feel like? I hope you are right and look forward to hearing about it! Unfortunately, I don’t feel I am on the verge of any type of breakthrough, haha.

      I do expect to continue improving my results in my self-tests. In the most recent one, I understood about 11% of words, including repeats, such as all the wo’s, ni’s, and hao’s. This is qualitatively very different from watching Mandarin at the beginning of my experiment. I now pick up words on a regular basis, and they contribute (even if marginally) to my comprehension of what I’m watching. If I didn’t have the visual cues, I probably would still be close to zero comprehension, however.

      I suspect when I eventually get up to about 30%, perhaps in a year or two, viewing movies and shows without subtitles will, again, be a qualitatively different experience from what it is today. I should be able to get the gist of the topics that are being discussed, even if I miss almost all details, regardless of visual cues.

      If I get to 50% before my experiment is up, then, again, it will be a radically different experience. Although I will miss or misunderstand many details, at that point I should be able to scrap subtitles altogether, watch anything with basic comprehension, and get the general flow of the conversation even on radio.

      It would be wonderful to have some “aha” moments or sudden breakthroughs along the way, by I’m not holding my breath. 🙂

      • Yes, the half hour is structured study. Anki for about 15 minutes and then 15 minutes of a grammar lesson. I always feel like I should study more but then I get burned out. I feel the slow and steady approach is better than cramming in hours over a few days and then not studying at all for awhile. I also watch shows in Mandarin that I try to include in my study time but often forget to log.

        To be honest, I don’t watch much in Mandarin because I think a lot of the shows out of Taiwan are silly and I don’t enjoy the historical stuff I find from China. I find far more enjoyment watching Korean dramas and am picking up a lot just by watching those every day. If we weren’t adopting from Taiwan, I’d probably switch to Korean simply because it’s easier to learn a language when you spend a bunch of time watching tv in that language. 😉 I have not studied Korean at all formally and yet I can turn my back to the tv and catch words here and there and understand a tiny bit of what is going on. I would imagine that is similar to what you’re experiencing with Mandarin, only you’re way ahead of me. I love following your experiment, especially now seeing my Korean exposure is reflecting the results of your Mandarin experiment.

        I’m not sure what the breakthrough will be like. Today I’ll finish lesson 41 out of 50 in my grammar course. Once I finish the last lesson, I think I will start trying to read blogs in Chinese and see how I do. We have purchased manga for our girl to read once she comes home. I’ve flipped through it but my vocab is still too lacking to really understand what is going on. Television is easier because you have the visual and audio cues. I might buy a couple graded readers and see how that goes. I don’t really have a plan after the grammar course is finished and I need to start lining up what next. Our adoption agency said we will probably be traveling to Taiwan at the end of July/beginning of August and I am excited to see how I do once I’m surrounded by the language and try to use it during our trip.

        Do you think you’ll continue with Chinese past the end of your experiment or have you not thought that far? I am impressed at all you juggle, especially now tossing law school into the mix!

      • It’s great to follow your progress and hear your reflections. Very interesting on the Korean. Is that just a coincidence of sorts, or does it have any relation to your personal plans?

        I think graded readers are a very good idea for you, and surely some very basic or structured conversation classes, if there is any way you can manage that. Additionally–and I’m sure you won’t be surprised at this suggestion–as much video as you can watch.

        I have loved many Chinese movies, and though many are martial arts and/or historical fare, which you may not enjoy, there are exceptions. For instance, the movie Shower is great and I have heard it is available with dual subtitles with study guides. Not One Less is phenomenal. I can give you several other movie suggestions, if you haven’t already caught them on my blog.

        I have thought about my post-experiment plans. I couldn’t help it. 🙂

        I don’t want to announce them on the blog, partly because there is a good chance they will change. But since I doubt many people are actually reading these comments, I will outline them for you. Part 2 of my experiment (after my 1,200 viewing hours) might be using my language institute’s methods strictly–so conversation classes with reading, writing, and listening homework for each class. Part 3 will likely be an immersion in China. By the time that’s over, considering about 3,600 hours, I would expect to be quite communicative, if not fluent. That will be many years in the future. I’ll be a middle-aged man hahaha if not I’m not already.

      • Korean is just for fun. I really enjoy their dramas and think they are better than most we’ve seen. I’ve seen a number of dramas from Taiwan, Japan, Korea, and China. My personal opinion is that Korea is hands down better than the others as far as story and acting are concerned. And again, part of the issue I have with dramas in Mandarin is that I can’t find a source for the genre I prefer. We want to keep it legal so watch via Viki.com mainly. Almost everything from Taiwan is romantic comedy and that gets old after awhile. Most of the shows from Korea, on the other hand, are fairly serious dramas about the police force or a spy or lawyers or doctors. We enjoy those more so it tends to be what we watch when we sit down to watch something for fun.

        Someday though… after I reach conversational fluency in Mandarin, I would like to tackle Korean. We sponsor kiddos in South Korea and write to them regularly. It would be fun to be able to write in their language and I would LOVE to visit someday.

        I like your long term plans and hope that you’re able to achieve them! I bet you’ll be able to breeze through the formal studies much more quickly than if you hadn’t spend all of the time watching and listening to Chinese. And spending time in China is a great way to wrap up the experiment! That will be exciting!!

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