A Warning About Flashcard and Spaced Repetition Software

There's a lot of crazy talk on the Internet about the benefits of spaced repetition software. Before everyone gets too carried away, I would like to make a few points.

Spaced repetition is a solid idea with real results. But, there is a reason why it was invented in the 1970s and still hasn't changed the world- it is not a magic bullet. Spaced repetition alone will not make you smart. In fact, if you use badly created material to study, it will even be less effect than an old fashioned approach like cramming textbooks.

Mnemosyne is very, very good software. Using Mnemosyne, I learned to read the 1945 kanji for everyday use in about a year's time. But, making flashcards is not a substitute for traditional studying. If I hadn't gotten a solid hand on Japanese first in the classroom, I doubt I would have been able to use the kanji I had learned. Sure, I may have been able to memorize them, but knowing a vocabulary and knowing a language are two different things.

Mnemosyne can help you build your vocabulary. But I have serious doubts that Mnemosyne will drastically improve your grammar skills, or your writing ability. That's just not the way the technology works.

I've seen a lot of conversations on the Internet that suggest if you build the perfect set of flashcards for a program like Mnemosyne, you'll be able to learn any language with ease. I've never seen or heard of anyone actually having done that though. I've made 25,000 cards myself over the past two years, but I wouldn't consider that enough for fluency.

Flashcards do one thing: they help you remember. Before you can remember something, though, you have to know it. You have to understand it. If you try to memorize something without understanding it, you aren't increasing your knowledge. You're just memorizing, and it won't help you speak or understand the language that you're trying to learn.

Why You Should Make Your Own Cards

Imagine this situation: you are a biologist. You want to learn about animals. So to study the animals, you open some encyclopedias and start memorizing the Latin names. Even if you memorize all the Latin names, would you say that you knew a lot about animals? Probably not. Well, the kanji in Japanese are like that. They are not the original Japanese, although they have influenced the way Japanese has developed. But certainly simply memorizing kanji will not do much for your Japanese.

Also, there is a larger problem. Language is about expressing yourself, and understanding other's expressions of themselves. Memorizing a large collection of facts "as is" doesn't really help with this.

That's one of the reasons why it's so important for you to make your own flashcards rather than using someone else's set. Only you know the mental links within your own brain. Trying to work with someone else's for all but the most basic of tasks is generally inefficient and unnecessarily difficult. The greatest strength of spaced repetition software is its capacity for personalization.

If language was simply about memorizing lists of words, computers would have been able to translate everything for us years ago.

Of course, Mnemosyne is a great program, and I highly recommend using it every day. Just don't think it can replace studying in the traditional way-- taking classes, reading books, and talking to native speakers. It's a supplement-- it allows you to not forget what you've learned, and in that way, it's a great supplement-- but it is only a supplement. For real learning, you need to experience the language directly.

A quick way to prove this: find someone who has passed the 1kyuu and ask to read something they have written in Japanese (at least a page of material is good). You will find that some people can write very well in Japanese- and others can't even write a single kanji.

Mnemosyne excels at test prep for an exam like the 1kyuu. It also is generally a great vocabulary builder. But to teach the finer points of a language, a real teacher is required.

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