SRS and the Natural Approach

Posted on | August 13, 2009 | 6 Comments

The other day Kev posted an excellent question in my previous post. He asked:

If you spend progressively more and more of your time on reading and listening (as you should), wouldn’t the amount of time you spend on feeding/reviewing an SRS fade to zero? Therefore, is it worth spending any time at all on an SRS?

My short answer is ‘yes’. The amount of time you spend on feeding/reviewing an SRS should eventually fade to zero, but it still worths investing time in SRS-ing before you reach this point.

SRS and other flashcard methods seem artificial to many ‘natural’ learners. But if you use them properly, they become extensions of the natural approach. Here are the 2 rules you need to keep in mind all the time:

Always build your vocabulary on comprehensive input
You should only add new vocabulary you have encountered from your reading and listening, and not from dictionaries or other people’s decks. When you are reviewing your words, think of yourself as reopening the book you have read or the podcast you have listened to, and reviewing the original sentence where the word first appeared. I see this as a natural way to remember the word. Only with SRS, you can do it more efficiently.

Always connect with contexts when reviewing your vocabulary
When reviewing, you should at least recall one place where the word appeared in your past reading or listening. Some people even go one step further to look up how the word is used in other places (e.g., google the word).

SRS works extremely well for beginners and intermediate learners. I once tried the ‘natural’ way to absorb new French vocabulary, and my progress was slow. Then I started using SRS and that made a huge difference. Now, I know enough French words that I can effectively pick up new ones just by reading. So I have stopped SRS-ing for French.

Kev’s 2nd comment was about showing/hiding translations when working on your SRS. Some people have problem seeing the translations. They find them disturbing. They are if you really treat them as direct translations. I never have any problem since I always think of them as merely hints to the actual meanings.


6 Responses to “SRS and the Natural Approach”

  1. Keith
    August 13th, 2009 @ 8:42 pm

    Edwin, I think you are not in favor of an all-natural approach so it is not surprising that you promote use of SRS. Saying that SRS can become an extension of the natural approach sort of sounds like you think SRS is natural. It seems you do not fully understand the natural approach. Can you speed up nature?

  2. edwin
    August 13th, 2009 @ 9:00 pm

    Hi Keith,
    Let’s say I am not a ‘pure naturist’.

    If there are only 2 categories, “structural” and “natural”, and nothing in between, I think SRS falls into the natural side.

    I think this is like trying to categorize the ‘natural’ products sold on the street. They are extracted from natural sources (or at least claimed to be), but they are processed. Are they really ‘natural’?

  3. chris(mandarin_student)
    August 16th, 2009 @ 5:16 pm

    The problem with a pure natural approach is that I would have to effectively check out of my current life for quite some time. I wouldn’t mind my but my wife, kids, boss, bank manager etc. etc. are almost bound to have objections ^.^.

    I don’t personally like SRS as an algorithm approach but repetition certainly exists in natural learning and my version is a simplistic recording and occasional revisiting (and re-re-visiting of resources). I don’t like the thought of a program doing this for me because I think my desire for repetition of resource is driven by its usefulness to me (how does the software know if a word is dud one and not actually worth learning in the context of the real language I am encountering?) Of course you address this Edwin by emphasizing the importance of how you feed the system.

    What I am trying to do is use artificial tools to recreate the benefits of natural learning.

    To be fair in your TV method you are doing the same Keith, the massive input may be natural but Video isn’t. This is probably what leads to the “attention” problem you have identified recently, if you see people preparing and cooking a meal for example in real life and you don’t understand the language you have a vested attentiveness interest if you know you will be eating the end result. Seeing the same thing on a Video won’t spark the same interest.

    I think with the right tools and a reliable way to feed input I could use SRS and still feel that I was a natural language learner.

  4. Vincent
    November 14th, 2009 @ 4:40 am

    I think you are right about the SRS. However you should not use it too much at first, I think.

  5. Casey Coffie
    December 2nd, 2010 @ 7:34 am

    Thank you so much, this was a good read. I was actually born in Madrid (I’m not telling you what year though!) but was moved around europe and lastly settled in Britain when I was 6. I dont remember much of the few years I was in spain, but the delicious smell of spanish food always seems to ring a bell in me or something. Funny, how I dont remember anything except the smells,isn’t it! I even found a whole internet site dedicated to spanish recipes, which gave me great delight and thought I ought to share. Anyway, thank you again. I’ll get my son to add your website to my rss thing…

  6. Steve
    February 1st, 2013 @ 1:48 pm

    Hi, I was happy to read this since I agree with the two points and have actually made a tool which allows you to read, translate words, and then test yourself using an SRS algorithm:

    And when you get a word wrong it displays the original context of the word to remind you.

    I’ve just opened a beta trial and would love to get feedback from people like yourself.

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