Strong memories and spaced repetition systems

I recently started reading Fluent Forever by Gabriel Wyner. I’ve only read the first two chapters, but so far it’s been a refreshingly specific and practical take on language learning, told from the perspective of a successful and creative language student, instead of someone professing to be a qualified language teacher. Wyner is fluent in a lot of languages, and the book is a condensation of the lessons and techniques he’s picked up in the process of learning those languages.

The second chapter is all about memory and spaced repetition systems (SRS). While he hasn’t yet gone into the specifics of exactly what to learn with an SRS, it sounds like it does involve memorizing vocabulary lists and grammar rules. Normally, this would be a red flag for me on my march to Krashen- and Hippo-style language acquisition. But Wyner makes some intriguing points about memory that I hadn’t heard before, which might even in theory redeem the idea of learning vocabulary and grammar, so I’m willing to suspend disbelief for now.

According to Wyner, for SRS cards to be effective, they must be based on strong memories. Seems true enough. But how do these strong memories get created? The most straightforward way is through the process of creating your own cards, especially cards with images. When you make up your own card for some vocabulary word you’re trying to learn, and when you either draw your own picture or choose an image from Google Images, by the very act of making or choosing this image, you’re creating a rich, personal memory around this image and this concept.

The key difference between your own cards and someone else’s cards is the experience you then have when you meet a new card for the first time. If it’s a card that you’ve created yourself, you’ll flash back to the decisions you made in creating that card, along with the other thoughts and sensations you were having at that moment. The more you review the card, the more this particular memory gets cemented into your brain. If, on the other hand, it’s a card you didn’t create, you’ll miss these associations. If it’s a word or phrase you’ve never seen or heard before, your first reaction will probably be some form of confusion as your brain tries to figure out a) the meaning, and b) whether it’s actually important enough to remember. Unfortunately, in this case, this then becomes the basis for your new memory. A memory of uncertainty or outright confusion.

This seems like an excellent point, regardless of what exactly one decides to put on one’s SRS cards. It also gives me a clearer idea of what is wrong with my current Anki decks — or rather, what could be improved. Namely, they don’t have pictures, and I didn’t make them myself. When I hear a new sentence, I have to struggle (consciously or unconsciously) to construct a mental image to give the sentence meaning and context. This is closely related to the doubts I was having in my last post about context, but now I understand more thoroughly why this context is so important.

So should I just delete my current decks and start from scratch?  I hate to do that, mainly because these decks have audio. That would be hard to recreate by myself. Until I find some better way to make my own cards with audio, I’ll try experimenting with a couple compromises. First, for some cards I’ll draw pictures (I said I was going to do that in the last post but I haven’t gotten around to it yet). Second, for some other cards I’ll do a Google Image search and choose an image to add to the back of the card. Even if it’s a picture that doesn’t wholly represent the sentence being spoken, it may provide enough associative richness to make the cards more memorable.

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