Getting Away from SRS (Spaced-Repition) For Vocabulary Learning

Ok. I admit it. I have a problem.

I use spaced-repition software (flashcard software) way too much when studying Chinese.

And, I always have. Ever since I started learning Chinese.

I wasted way too much time on Memrise, Anki, Skitter, Pleco Flashcards, the flashcard/testing feature on FluentU and even the Remember the Hanzi flashcard site.

Way too much time. Much of it useless.

Countless hours. Hours I’ll never get back.

I first fell in love with the notion of spaced repetition software back when I first heard about Memrise before I moved to Japan a little over 3 years ago. I used the Memrise site – basically just a website to aid with mnemonics and spaced repetition – to learn Japanese kana (both hiragana and katakana) in a little under 3 hours.

It felt like a god-send. I never would’ve learned two new alphabets that fast with out it.

I did pretty good then though, at least with that “deck”, or set, of “flashcards”. After I initially “learned” the two kana alphabets, I never reviewed that deck again. I didn’t have too. Kana was everywhere in Japan – I could reinforce it by reading menus at coffee shops, reading Dragonball Z manga, or anytime I looked up, or studied a new Japanese word or vocabulary list.

That was a good use of spaced-reption. I used it to be more efficient, and then no longer used it when it was no longer efficient. That was good. That time. For that set of cards. That “deck”.

After that, I wasn’t so good. And that’s when the inefficiency started. The countless hours of lost time.

I poured through the JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test) vocabulary list on Memrise until I “planted all the plants”. When I wanted to move more into grammar and sentences, I actually wound up abandoning Memrise for Anki – which was more customizable in what you could do and test yourself on.

When I decided to move to Taiwan and began studying Mandarin in Aug of 2013. I started with Anki, and Anki flashcard decks in Chinese.

Then, I switched to Pleco, then to FluentU, then I read Remember the Hanzi (RTH) and used a website that was an SRS system built for helping you remember your RTH stories/characters. Then, I switched to Skitter.

Then, most-recently, after about a month of being back in Taiwan I realized something. (I came back to Taiwan in November 2015, after being gone for over a year and a half)

I had a deck of cards in there, in Pleco, from the last time I was in Taiwan. A deck of cards I had built from words I came across back then. I looked through that deck and 1.) realized I didn’t know most of those words, and 2.) couldn’t even think of what context I’d come across them in, and couldn’t even think of what context they would even be useful.

So, I just deleted that deck. “If they are useful words, I’ll come across them again.” I thought.

A smart move. A step in the right direction.

The next step in the right direction was the next thought process. “Should I move the card decks I currently have in Skitter over to Pleco? (from Remember the Hanzi, recent ChinesePod lessons, etc.)?” “No, if I need those words, they will surely come up again in my studies.”

But, you know what they say: two steps forward, three steps back.

And, before you know it, I was reaching a point where I had 400+ vocabulary reviews a day again.

And I was saying things to myself like “Alright, I’m going to listen to this new ChinesePod lesson, right after I get these reviews out of the way.”

Only I would go through the reviews – and get a substantially large percentage of words wrong!

That’s not how SRS is supposed to work. You shouldn’t be getting 50% of your words wrong. Some words were just not sticking. Why? I started to dig deeper.

Luckily, I was putting words into different categories based on where I came across them. And, one thing was noticeably clear: words I learned from my girlfriend and her mom were sticking. I learned those words quickly, and tended to know them better when they came up in reviews. Words from other sources (reading material, ChinesePod lessons, even sessions with iTalki teachers) – not so much. Some of the words were sticking – but a lot of them weren’t.

Why is this? The biggest difference is that the words that were sticking were the words that were useful. Ie: they were the words I actually used after learning them. Because, they were words I actually learned. Words I learned in context, understand how to use in context, and then later actually used in similar context.

Other words weren’t. They were just words. Words from a list. A list my iTalki teacher gave me at the end of a session. Or a list of words from a chapter in a book. Even, if I was a list I made myself. It’s still just a list. And, a list is a devoid of a real context.

A vocabulary list is not a language.

So these lists were quickly becoming similar to the old list I found in Pleco, from two years ago. Lists of words, where I couldn’t even remember the context in which I added the words.

So, then, I abandoned SRS. For two weeks. I still studied Chinese, still spoke Chinese everyday, still did iTalki lessons, still (tried to) read the newspaper. I even still looked up words in Pleco and added them to lists.

I just didn’t study the lists. I didn’t do any flashcard reviews.

And what happened? I forgot everything and my Chinese atrophied to nothingness.

No, not really. Not much happened. My Chinese actually still probably improved. I still learned new words. Remembered some of them, even.

All that really happened was there was a couple of times, maybe three, maybe four. Four times, max, in two weeks, where I heard a word or came across a word in context where I felt like I know that word, but can’t remember what it is. Maybe if I had reviewed my flashcards I would’ve known those three or four words better.

Maybe not. Maybe I still would’ve struggled with them. It’s a toss up, really.

So, I’m getting off of SRS. Getting away from it, really.

Not entirely. It still has it’s use. One particular use case I’ve found, is to review words before and after a session. For example, I’ve noticed that if a review the vocab from a ChinesePod lesson, before listening to the lesson – I’m able to follow along with that whole particularly ChinesePod lesson much better than if I don’t.

So, yeah, SRS is useful in small limited doses.

But, SRS is not language learning.

(Also, see Hacking Chinese’s great post on this: If you think spaced repetition software is a panacea you are wrong)

Prioritize Your Fears

I remember a long time ago when I started my record label and started selling CDs. One of the first things my “mentor” at the time told me was:

Just go out there and talk to people, it’s the only way you’re going to get sales. You can’t be scared of the word “no”.

He used to say that all of the time:

You can’t be scared of the word “no”.

It hit home with me, and I excelled. I had no worries about approaching people to make sales and therefore, I sold a lot. I outsold all of my peers, my teammates, and when I looked around at them, they just weren’t doing it – they weren’t talking to people. They made excuses.

They’re scared of the word “no”.

Is what my mentor said about them. Maybe it was true.

I never understood why, or what they were scared of, why they didn’t just do it.

When I was in China, I saw something similar with learning Chinese. I was studying ad-hoc, downloading Chinese character apps, talking to random Chinese girls I met in the street and really just trying to pick up as much of the language as I could…. for free.

I knew another Westerner who was in town. She was paying a shit ton of money for a private tutor to learn Chinese. She was learning “all the right things”, but I never heard her.

I never heard her speak the language. Not once. I know she had a private tutor and went to lessons everyday. But she wouldn’t speak the language. Not in front of me anyway.

We would go somewhere – even in the taxi cab, I would look at her and say, “”tell them where we’re going.”

She’d look at me with fear in her eyes, “Nooo!” she’d say, “you tell them.”

So I would. In my butchering awful Chinese I would tell them. Sometimes the taxicab drivers would laugh at me and repeat what I said laughing hysterically. Then guess what they would do?

They would pronounce it correctly and try to get me to repeat it.

They would help me say it correctly.

They would help me learn.

This motivated me tremendously and I tried speaking Chinese to plenty of more people in China… with similar results. Yes, a lot of times they laughed – but that never bothered me.

Should it? I don’t see why. It’s not my native language and I’d only been looking at it for a few weeks… plus, it’s a language everybody considers to be fairly difficult. The fact that I said things that were funny to native speakers didn’t bother me a bit or make me feel stupid. It actually made me laugh as well, cuz I knew that shit must be funny, especially with my accent.

When I look at it, a lot of people have similar fears. Across platforms. In various fields/interests. If you get past it easily, you look at other people who struggle with it and think “dude, what is wrong with you? Just do it!”

But fears are real and everybody has them. You don’t get through them just through willpower alone. You have to find ways around them, tricks to help you out.. and most importantly you have to prioritize them.

I’ve been studying a lot on focus and energy lately. If there’s something stopping you because of a fear, I honestly think you have to determine how bad you want to overcome it. If you do decide you want to overcome this fear – prioritize it.

Make it your main focus. Your main priority.

Put everything else aside. 

I mean it.

Too many focuses will stretch you thin and you’ll never do it. If it is your main focus, act like it. Make it your only focus for a set period of time and tackle it.

Or don’t, but then don’t be surprised that you never beat it.

no fear

Face the world with NO FEAR…



How to Develop REAL Passion (The Fear of Success)

Do you have real dreams? Do you really want them?

I’d argue that you don’t.

What do you have in life?

Give it up. All of it.

Lose all of your possessions. Lose all of your friends. Estrange a few family members.

Go to zero.

You have to.

You have to be willing to.

That’s real passion.

That’s the difference between real success and pretend success.

Be homeless. Sleep in the streets. See what the bottom feels like.


Fail again.

Feel like shit.

Go through depression.

Consider suicide. (But, don’t do it – that’s the easy way out.)

Come out of that.

Come from the real bottom.

Day by day. Chip away.

Stay focused.

Your goals, your current practice is the only thing that keeps you sane.

So you work at. Everyday. Day by day. Bit by bit.

Until you’re better at that one thing than everybody else is.

That’s real success.

Are you scared of it?

Getting Started in Mandarin: How I Learned Basic Chinese Script in Only 2 Hours

In Japanese, Getting Started is Easy

Or least knowing where to start is easy. When learning Japanese, you should start off learning hiragana and katakana – the Japanese phonetic scripts. They’ll get you started in the language and get you away from romanization quickly.

I must say, I’m not a big fan of romanization attempts in Asian languages.

romanization is the representation of a written word or spoken speech with the Roman (Latin) script or a system for doing so, where the original word or language uses a different writing system (or none). – Wikipedia

Not a fan may not even be the best way to say it. I grossly dislike romanization. At most its inconsistent, and I think it muddies the language you are trying to learn because it imposes English inconstancies and difficulties onto the new language when they shouldn’t be there at all. No – other languages are much more consistent with their sounds – English is a hack job. (more on this in about 2 paragraphs)

So, one of my first goals when learning Japanese was to learn the phonetic scripts first. That way I would never ever have to use Romaji (romanization of Japanese characters).

Just say no.

Just say no.

Learning a new phonetic script is not as hard as it sounds. You learn which characters represent which sounds. Think of it like learning a new alphabet.

You already know the English alphabet (basically the Roman alphabet), but as mentioned above, the sounds aren’t consistent in English. English has 26 letters in the alphabet, but way more than 26 actual sounds (every vowel has at least 2 sounds: think the ‘a’ in apple vs. the ‘a’ in ate, the ‘i’ in did vs. the ‘i’ in like, some consonants have more than one sound as well: sometimes ‘c’ sound like ‘k’, sometimes it sounds like ‘s’, there’s other sounds not accounted for in the alphabet at all like: ‘ch’, ‘sh’, ‘tion’… et cetera.) I can’t imagine how frustrating it must be to learn English as a second language. All those of you are learning English or have learned it: I applaud you.

The inconsistencies in the English sounds drive me up the wall when you try to romanize languages that actually have consistent sounds. I think this makes things more confusing. Yes, the argument for romanization is that you already know the Roman alphabet and it allows you to read and therefore use the new language from day 1. But, I think that’s the lazy man’s way and you’ll just run into more problems down the road. It’s best to learn to read a new phonetic script and get away from English biases as soon as possible. You don’t want them seeping into your new language.

For Japanese this is easy: it has a phonetic script, hiragana, which is the base of all Japanese words. You can write any Japanese word in hiragana if you wanted to. Cool. I like that. From day 1 you’re away from English and away from the monstrosities of romanization.

Ditto for Korean… Hangol is phonetic. (I don’t know any Korean at all, but learning Japanese has made me interested in Korean. It’s on my radar as a possible future target language to be acquired soon. Why? Because the grammar is similar to Japanese and like Japanese it has its own unique phonetic script. Albeit, Korean has a lot more sounds than Japanese does.)

But, what about Chinese?

It’s not phonetic at all. No, Chinese characters are all logograms.

logogram is a grapheme which represents a word or a morpheme (the smallest meaningful unit of language).

Chinese characters represent things – but you can’t look at them and sound them out like you can phonetic scripts. So, how do you learn these damn things? Sheer memorization? Sounds painful and a bit difficult. Attaching new sounds to a new phonetic script is one thing. Attaching new sounds to a logogram is quite another.

Not a phonetic alphabet.

Not a phonetic alphabet.

Hmm…. so what are our options here?

Well, for most learners, its back to romanization. The most common romanization for Chinese being pinyin. Very common, very widely used. I don’t like it. What else is there?

Tim Ferriss actually recommends going with Gwoyeu Romatzyh on his blog, saying: “If you go after Mandarin, choose the somewhat uncommon [Gwoyeu Romatzyh] over pinyin romanization if at all possible. It’s harder to learn at first, but I’ve never met a pinyin learner with tones even half as accurate as a decent GR user.”

Interesting. But, No.

GR is just so rare and so hated by most Chinese language learners that its just a pain to deal with. Plus, it’s also painfully harder to learn.

Ahh, I guess pinyin is the best bet, despite my hate of romanization. If only Chinese had a phonetic script like Japanese does….  If only

Taiwan to the Rescue

And then a miracle happened. Well, not really a miracle, but I learned something new.

The other day I was chatting with a few Taiwanese and expats here in Taiwan and I learned about bopomofo. Also called Zhuyin fuhao.

Bopomofo is.. exactly what I was looking for. It’s a phonetic script for Chinese, developed around 1910, that all Taiwanese children learn in order to learn Mandarin sounds. Every Chinese character, or logogram, can be built phonetically using bopomofo. The Taiwanese actually use bopomofo to as their main input to type and text with. It’s apparently a lot faster than typing and texting using pinyin (less input involved).

Bopomofo, the full character set.

Bopomofo, the full character set.

Best of all? There’s only 37 characters! That’s less than Japanese! (Hiragana has 47).

“Only 37 characters? That sounds simple, I could probably learn that in less than 2 hours” – me and my big mouth.

“2 hours? No way!” – My Taipei friends. “Maybe a couple of days or something. We know you know how to learn stuff fast, but not that fast.”

And the challenge was started.

“You don’t think so? Ok, then, I’ll do it tomorrow.”

The next day, I sat in a coffee shop for a couple of hours and knocked it out.

How I Did It: Materials & Method

Genius? Not at all. All method.

First off, I knew I needed proper material and I had an inkling for what kind of material I needed.

I started with Wikipedia – the Wikipedia page for Bopomofo has stroke order. Great. Now I can learn how to write it quickly.

Ok. With learning how to write covered, I still have 3 more skills to focus on: recognition, speech, and listening.

Speech and listening you only need two things – audio (listening) and the balls to say everything out loud (speaking). Even if this means you’re in a coffee shop alone and you look like a crazy person talking to yourself. It’s okay, I’ll be that guy today. I found the audio here.

Next, and maybe most importantly: reading and recognition. For that I need two things – a context to digest the new information quickly (see: my post on Acing Accounting courses) and repetition to keep it fresh and beat it into my memory. I have favorites for each:

For context in a new language  I prefer mnemonics – for this I used Memrise, because it gives me a chance to basically outsource/crowdsource actually building the mnemonics thus saving me time. Memrise Bopomofo here.

For repetition, nothing beats Anki. I found some bopomofo Anki decks, but I didn’t find any with audio. All the ones I found went from pinyin to bopomofo. That completely misses the point. The whole point in learning bopomofo is I don’t want to learn pinyin. So, I had to create my own bopomofo Anki deck. (Feel free to download it here.)

Now that I have all of the material I need, it’s time to get cracking.

I start off with an internet browser open with 3 tabs: one for Memrise, one for the audio, and one with the Wikipedia stroke order. Oh, and most importantly, a cup of strong coffee (I prefer an Americano, black no sugar.)

Start from the top. Which each character I repeated this exact process.

The initial “learning” process: 

  1. Start in Memrise and use the order given there.
  2. First character – find the audio. Listen and repeat it out loud. Listen and repeat. Listen and repeat.
  3. Then, mnemonic time: either I like and accept the one given in Memrise or I create my own. 
  4. Then, I listen to the audio again, repeat again, and flip over to Wikipedia tab.
  5. I note the stroke order and write out the character 5 times.
  6. Back to audio. Listen and repeat again.. then on to the next character.

Repeat these 6 steps, 37 times = one for each character. It’s systematic yes, but it works.

A quick note about mnemonics: when you’re trying to create memories the easiest to remember are those that are either disgusting or sexual. (Either this is the case for everybody or I just have a sick mind.)


This character is pronounced like "luh". I'll never forget it.

This character is pronounced “luh”. I’ll never forget it.

Getting through all 37 characters in this fashion takes me a little over an hour.

After going through that process – it’s time for a break. I leave the coffee shop and go do some other things and come back to the studying process later. Gotta let the new information settle in.

A few hours later and now that the longest part of the process (creating mnemonics) is out of the way its smooth sailing from here. This also means I’m done with Memrise. It’s all Anki, handwriting, and vocal production from here on out. (I find Memrise’s typing requirement both painful and useless – handwriting is way better for memory and I’ve already incorporated that into my process. I also like Anki’s use of Spaced Repetition better than I like Memrise’s.)

So, Anki deck loaded, it’s basically the process above, minus the mnemonic part.

The “building by repetition” process:

  1. Starting in Anki, the order is randomized now, which is good – I’m being tested a bit.
  2. First character, if I recognize it I pronounce it out-loud  if not I flip the card over and then pronounce it out-loud.
  3. Then I listen to the audio and pronounce it out-loud again. Trying to mimic the “native pronunciation” I’m hearing.
  4. Now, I write it out 5 times. I try to go from memory with the stroke order if I can. If not, I have the Wikipedia tab open somewhere.
  5. Listen and repeat one more time. Click on Either “again”, “ok”, or “good” depending on how good I feel about my knowledge of this character and when I want to see it again.
  6. Next character. Repeat.

After getting through all 37 characters this time I have a solid base and am already starting to feel like I “know” them. And, I’ve impressed myself by being able to write the characters on paper from just hearing the sounds – an added test I put in at the last minute. Initially, I was only going for recognition, but I figure its a better base to build both recognition and production skills. The Anki review took less than an hour.

Approximately 2 hours of work and I’ve learned bopomofo. I take another break and catch up with my Taipei friends and watch a movie. After the movie, I have them quiz me in various ways. Of course, they try to make things difficult, and its not perfection (and they give me a hard time for the mistakes), but I’m satisfied. The knowledge base is there and I can now read and write bopomofo.

I can now move onto to learning Chinese characters without ever having to deal with pinyin or other annoying romanization attempts again. And that was the whole goal.

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The Forgotten Importance of Warming Up (Bonus: Hacking Job Interviews)

“Yeah, and this is only the Warm Up” – Jermaine Cole


Jermaine Cole

When I was in London I got a chance to meet up with some of the best pick-up artists around. (Note: Be open minded. Be willing to learn from anybody achieving success in their field. Anybody.)

What I instantly found fascinating was – as good as these guys were, they still considered the first two girls they spoke to on any given day to be “warm up sets” or “throw away sets”: basically just conversations to practice and get into the social mood and feel for the day.

The Warm Up.

When I ran track in high school we had a routine. Every practice started with jogging a mile then stretching. Only after that did the real practice start.

You didn’t want to stretch cold muscles. It was important for them to be warm. Important to be lose.

P90x (which I’ve done twice) starts off every day in a similar way – warm up then stretch.

How Important is the Warm Up?

Well, when I was doing P90x I once tried to do pull-ups cold without warming up or stretching. I pulled something in my pectorals and couldn’t do chest workouts for a week. I had to skip them.

Professionals Warm Up

J.J. Redick is one of the best three-point and free throw shooters in the NBA. He set loads of scoring records at Duke University – one of the biggest basketball powerhouses in the country. Everyday when he steps on the court he takes his first 50 shots from 5-7 feet away from the basket. He doesn’t need to practice 5 foot jumpers, he’s J.J. Redick. Why does he do it?

To warm up his stroke before he attempts/practices longer distance shots.

Warming up gets on video game covers

Warming up gets you on video game covers

When I was in Japan, I read an article written for English teachers about the importance of warming up your students. It talks about the importance of warming up your students through a game or a song – to get them thinking in English and ready to speak in English for the day’s lesson.

The same was true for me when studying Japanese. Just starting out cold on any day I’d be rusty. A bit of Japanese audio (in the form of a podcast or an easy-listening song) always helped get me into Japanese mode. Otherwise the first 5-10 minutes of conversation with my language partners would be me fumbling about trying to get a feel for the language again. Never mind that I just had an hour long conversation yesterday – I still needed to warm up.

Performers do it. Every been to a comedy show? Or a concert? What do they both have in common?

They always have opening acts. The opening act is usually somebody lesser known who is doing it to get exposure to a larger audience but it has a benefit to the main act as well. The opening act is there to warm up the audience.

If you attend something like The Daily Show in New York, you’ll see this work two ways. An opening act will come out, do some stand up to warm up the audience, and then Jon Stewart will come out, do a little stand up, and answer a few audience questions (with witty retorts) before he sits down at the desk and the cameras start rolling. Why? To warm himself up for the show.

Hacking Things Like Job Interviews

If you ever have a job interview coming up and you google “how to do well in a job interview” you get a bunch of stupid basic advice like: look professional, shake their hand, and don’t wear too much cologne.

Really?? If you need tips on basic grooming you should go back to pre-school and just start from scratch.

Why is most of the advice on the the internet so awful and basic?

Sometimes you get advice a little better like: research the company before you get there. But again, this is basic knowledge and really just the price of admission these days.

How do you really pass a job interview? You sell yourself and they like you.

That’s basically it.

It’s all about being social really. But you really could be at a disadvantage here. Let’s say you’ve woken up, spent hours on your basic grooming like most websites recommend since you’re apparently a sloppy pig most days, you’ve studied your flashcards and interview notes and then walked into the job interview… but, you haven’t actually talked to anybody today.

Your interviewers probably came into the office, probably talked to a handful of different people already, seen a few of their co-worker friends, cracked some jokes, shot the shit, etc.

You may not have even had a conversation yet today and the first impression is everything.

Don’t come into the job interview socially rusty.  Don’t let your interviewer be the first person you hold a real conversation with today.

Warm up first.


What I’ve found is the best warm up simulates the real environment as much as possible. Since interviews are likely with strangers you’ve never met before you need to warm up by talking to strangers.

Yes, everything you learned as a kid is wrong. Especially that “don’t talk to strangers” bit. It’s complete nonsense. I can’t think of any advice more damaging.

Yes, DO

Yes, DO

To do this never schedule the job interview in the morning. There’s not enough time to warm up. Take an afternoon time slot, and preferably late afternoon so its not right after lunch. Throw on your fancy clothes and head to the business district or someplace near enough to your interview location where you know you can meet a few random strangers.

Stop random strangers in the street (compliment their tie, ask for the time, whatever to get them to stop and talk) and try to push the conversation as long as you can before they walk away. Find out what they do and try to sell yourself to them. Offer to help and whatever way you can devise on the spot, tell them you’re a contractor, exchange business cards, etc.

Then after you get a few street sales leads walk into your interview with a strut and your head held high. You’re warmed up now. You’re glowing. It shows.


Can you think of any other skills you’ve built or anything else you’ve practiced where warming up has been beneficial? Let me know in the comments below.


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