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.

Intensive Mandarin Viewing – Week 49

Besides fertilizing my eucalyptus plantation and spending time with family, my major pursuit for the past couple of weeks has been language study, namely my Mandarin project. It’s great to be on vacation!

This week, I enjoyed sharing three of my favorite movies with my sister Sofia while at the farm. First, we watched my all-time favorite, Dragon or Wu xia, with its impressive acting, gorgeous visuals, cool martial arts sequences, enthralling storyline, psychological duels, and carefully crafted philosophical undertones. Next, we viewed the visually matchless House of Flying Daggers. The colors in the autumnal birch and bamboo forests, the luxurious bordello, and the historical costumes of soldiers and rebels delight the eye, as does the actress Zhang Ziyi. For those that prefer gazing at men, Takeshi Kaneshiro is a good-looking fellow and an excellent actor, who happens to also star in Dragon. Finally, we watched Hero, probably the overall highest quality Chinese film I’ve seen. Like House of Flying Daggers, it is visually stunning and is directed by Zhang Yimou and features Zhang Ziyi (although here she is in a secondary role). Like Dragon, it involves a subtle psychological battle—in this case between the king and Nameless, the hero played by Jet Li.

As a way to focus my viewing, I sometimes reference my word-a-day list as I watch movies. It is easy to do, since when I record terms I include the exact source in a simple database, allowing me to produce queried lists. Here is an example from the movie Dragon—probably my longest movie list, ready to use for beginning students of Mandarin. Please note I am watching the abridged version of Dragon for Western audiences, downloaded from Amazon, and the notation is not pin yin, but rather my own invention, based loosely on English phonetics.

yinze 05:12 05:56 18-Oct-14
shu(r) 10:05 04-Oct-14
tjien 10:12 16-Nov-14
shee 10:22 05-Oct-14
chahng 10:28 06-Oct-14
ying shiung 12:30 07-Oct-14
fatzu 30:00 30:15 08-Oct-14
fa 30:48 30:55 17-Oct-14
yuan 31:34 28-Nov-14
bye 35:25 29-Nov-14
kan 35:52 02-Dec-14
cheezuh 48:50 19-Oct-14
guh 52:00 52:08 03-Dec-14
ju 53:00 20-Oct-14
hi 58:57 04-Aug-14
yao 1:11:27 31-Aug-14
jia 1:18:10 21-Oct-14

I have also been enjoying the sadistic machinations of the Boonie Bears recently, logging many hours of viewing without subtitles. Less enjoyable, but highly profitable, is the time spent on Qiao Hu. The following graph shows my erratic weekly viewing from October through December, followed by my traditional hours-of-viewing graph, which now spans over 11 months. hours_oct-nov-14       hours_25-dez-14

To conclude this week’s post, I’d like to mention my excitement about the Christmas present my wife gave me—a shortwave radio. This technology may have made a lot more sense 20 or 30 years, before the advent of the Internet and online radio. Nonetheless, here in Brazil and especially when out at the farm, camping, or backpacking, reliable Internet is not ubiquitous.

Thus, if I am able to tune in to foreign-language radio, it will be great for my language studies. For now, I am interested in finding and listening to French-language radio for my French fluency recovery project. In the future, however, when I understand a lot more Mandarin, Chinese radio may be a great listening source. In my preliminary dabbling with the radio, I was surprised not to hear any French, but to pick up several Mandarin stations! It’s a new world.