This post is kinda random…
Random Repetition (February, 2013)
BREAKTHROUGH 三: Random Repetition
I’d tried Anki after coming back from China. I was playing Ni no Kuni and Sengoku Basara 3. I’d tried and given up on my textbook. For whatever reason, words weren’t sticking.
In the past, the majority of the words I learned were the result of seeing them over and over and over in class. In class, the teacher was very conservative with their language, often restricting it to words that we’d learned, and if not that, then words that appeared somewhere in the textbook. Such a small number of words repeated a number of times helped them stick. Unfortunately, in real life, there’s a much greater variety of words used. Expressions come up once in a blue moon. I wasn’t getting the repetition I needed.
Spaced repetition. Logical. If you haven’t heard of it, you should check it out, because everyone and their mother in the language learning community is a fan of it. I’m a fan of it. It just didn’t really work for me.
How could it not work? Well, I shouldn’t say that it didn’t give me any new words. I’ve learned some words from spaced repetition. But I got bored with it quickly. The same sentences are boring when you see them day in, day out. People like Khatzumoto would say that I’m just doing it wrong, but nothing really compelled me to do it right.
There are a couple gems within my SRS. Sentences that were always interesting. But they were rare. I like newness.
I was teaching a beginner-intermediate Japanese class at the time and in order to get the students reading Japanese, I decided to purchase the first volumes of over 15 different manga. Most of the manga was completely new to me, so in order to make sound recommendations, I decided to spend the week before class intensively getting a feel of the level of language for each and every one.
A magical thing happened during this period: I learned a lot of new words. Tons. In a week, I was confident about, I’d guess, 100-200 new words. Words that eluded me beforehand like 成功, 係, and 出発 now came incredibly easily to me.
I suppose to an onlooker, it was pretty obvious as to the reason why. I was reading a heapton more than before. But it wasn’t just that. In fact, I’d been doing a similar amount of reading of a single manga (One Piece at the time). No, there was something else at play. Something I call “random repetition”.
Random repetition is, in essence, learning by seeing a word you just learned repeated in a completely new context. Seeing the word 盾 in Zelda hundreds of times over the course of the game wasn’t enough. Seeing 盾 in Zelda and then seeing 盾 in Xenoblade sealed the deal.
The minimum is twice. The same word with a similar function in two different places. I think it convinces the brain that a word is important. If you see a word in a single place, then perhaps it is simply a word you will only see there, even if you know that’s not the case. Of course, three places is even better. 17 places is ideal.
Playing one game at one time, or reading one game at one time… in spite of being in Japanese and enjoyable, it slowed me down.
One thing I’ve noticed with random repetition: textbooks are actually fine. If I see a word in my textbook or in, say, an SRS like Anki, and then immediately see it some other seemingly random, not-connected-to-the-textbook place (be it a game, manga, or movie), the word gets stored easily.
As for the time between the two words: it needs to be short. Within a day or two. If I see 衝撃 in One Punch Man on Monday and then see it again in Gundam on Wednesday, the chance that it’ll stick is much smaller. Maybe if I spent a lot of time imagining a 衝撃 in my head and playing around with the word—maybe then it would stick. But it’s rare. On the other hand, if I saw both on the same day, it’s very possible it’d find its way into my long-term memory permanently.
Random repetition has been my godsend. It’s been the whole reason I’ve gotten this far. But it’s also unreliable. If I learn a word and then look up a thousand example sentences, like a good student, it doesn’t seem to have a great effect. The only way is to keep reading and hope I stumble upon it again. Keeping within the genre means I have a greater chance of seeing the same words, but the more disparate the genres (seeing overlapping words between ミス・パイロットand バガボンド is great, for instance), the better the chances are of perfect recall.
There is a caveat here: some genres are too far apart to be worth anything. That was the case with Ni no Kuni and Sengoku Basara. For the brief time that those two games overlapped, their vocabulary certainly didn’t overlap. Ni no Kuni used relatively simple words, lots of onomatopoeia, and words related to real life and generic fantasy. Sengoku Basara could not have been more different. Not only did it try to make itself complex, using lots of 四字熟語 and rare words over their common counterparts, it also contained a lot of words very specific to older Japan and 時代劇. In the end, the words that overlapped were few and far between. There were words that did overlap, and you can bet those stuck, but it almost didn’t count as random repetition given how few words repeated.
The only way to make sure things work out: read and watch a bunch. Try to get your material from different places. If you want to invest in a single manga, go for it. But consider also reading something random in the middle. It’ll help.