How to sentence mine and SRS for Mandarin? That is the question

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Sentence Mining and SRC overload
Part of my goal with this blog was to share my experiences in learning Mandarin, my frustrations, my mistakes, my ambitions, my joys and my failures. I am writing from the perspective of a student who has very little time to study Mandarin and who has only ever studied Mandarin by herself.

This leads me to sharing some of the frustrations I’ve had with doing sentence mining. I know there is a huge number of articles on the subject out there and I’ve read a few of them (at least the ones that perform well in Google search) but somehow none of it really sinks in unless you try it yourself.

For some background on how I am building my own personal deck using Anki:

  • I pick sentences from materials (my grammar book if I feel like typing – least preferred option), ChinesePod.com podcasts materials, online dictionaries MDBG.net or Twitter (e.g. @chinesesentence or @allaboutchinese) and add them to my Anki deck.
  • I save them somewhere (Notes on iPhone) or email them to myself and enter them in the desktop version once a week or when I get to it.

I’ve been feeling rather frustrated at times with this whole exercise, at which point I stopped for a week and then resumed. It sounds like a pretty normal thing to do, doesn’t it? Just like anything else in life, when you feel you get sick of something and you need a break, you stop and resume when your batteries have been recharged. However this time around, I vented my frustration to a friend and fellow learner (Greg from Mandarinsegments.com) who is a great student of sentence mining and an Anki user himself) and he told me to “STOP” for a while else I’d poison this aspect of learning Chinese for myself.

Well the time-out gave me an opportunity to assess what I have been doing and why I was getting so frustrated. I share some of my findings with you:

Using a deck with mistakes

I downloaded a deck called ’20000 Mandarin HSK sentences v2′ but had to double check the tones for so many of the sentences and even worse than that, had to check up on the correct English meaning for those sentences.

For example: The deck told me this sentence ‘他喜欢吹牛’ (tā xǐ huan chuī niú) means ‘he likes to throw the bull’ which really means ‘he likes to brag’. Without trying and even initially realising that it was wrong, I’ve kind of memorised both these sentences cause I had to find out what the correct translation was.

Awesome – I took valuable study time and learned another (incorrect) English sentence I shouldn’t have learned – one which I’ll never use. (No one I know (except Superman) is strong enough to throw a bull anyway…). Learning Mandarin is tricky enough. I don’t have time to sift through errors. I don’t have the patience to do so either. I’ve since quit this deck.

Using two or three or four decks of cards

I think having four decks is rather crazy but it is what I was doing for a while. I had one deck for Heisig revision going from English keyword to hanzi, another for hanzi to English keyword, a 20 000 sentences HSK deck I downloaded and my own sentence mining deck. I focused mainly on recognizing the chars I learned with Heisig and then the two other sentence mining decks (my own and the 20 000 HSK sentences one.)

Honestly in trying to keep the numbers down I ended up with so little time to do anything else, e.g. listening to podcasts. I now just run my own deck, and still do occasional revision on my two Heisig decks when I get time. I am not allowing pressure there anymore.

(Yes I have forgotten a few hanzi but funny enough I am actually better recalling characters going from English key word to hanzi than I am the other way around. Even though I have not been doing revision from English key word to hanzi. I think it has to do with guessing. I feel more pressured to recognise the hanzi quickly thus more easily make mistakes. But when presented with the English keyword I allow myself the time to come up with the hanzi.)

It felt like ARATT (all repetition all the time)

Yes, I underestimate myself in the beginning when I see a new card. And choose to show a card again in a day or three days or soon and basically then end up feeling that I’m endlessly repeating the same things. I really almost want to say to you: from the start choose the middle time option. You’ll see that same card soon enough. You’ll reduce the number of repetitions you do and you’ll get to use some of your precious time on other streams of learning Mandarin Chinese.

Besides you’ll see so many similar looking sentences where about 80% of the characters in a sentence is similar that you could even be more daring and choose the last option presented in your deck to show it as far away in the future as possible. This is even more true if you do some basic reading in addition to your sentence mining decks.

Questioning Sentence Mining and flashcards???

During this frustrated time, I did a bit of googling and found this website Yearlyglot.com – with an article titled ‘Why I don’t use flashcards’. Wow what a discussion this post started. In a sense I totally totally agree with this guy. Really his whole point is that you should be aiming to use the language – not rely on a deck of cards to “teach” you the language.

That’s a good argument and I will be heeding (some of) his advice. I agree and believe that learning a language and using it is not the same. That’s why I find my mind so SLOW retrieving the correct words when I find myself in a situation where I need to speak Mandarin. HOWEVER – not all immersion opportunities are the same, and therefore not all “usage opportunities” are the same. Secondly, not everyone has plenty of time to learn Mandarin.

Having a phone with a deck ready to “teach” you a few characters or new vocab a day and helping you memorise phrases or giving limited reading practice is great – whichever way you look at it. It is also a very personal thing. Having and doing a few cards surrounded by noise with limited time available is fine to do but doing some proper reading with a dictionary would require a quiet place, coffee and my Pleco dictionary. (Everything has its time and place.) Well – the same Yearlyglot author wrote this post: “8 ways to learn a language without using flashcards”

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I’m not giving up flash cards no – at least not yet – I want to substitute this entirely with books in the future you know. Now that I know MY mistakes, I’m simply going to keep things in perspective and not get carried away with it like I used to. I’d rather like to view this article as “8 ways to learn a language supplementing your flashcards habit.” At least for now… (and now’s definition is a little vague.).

Well that’ just me for today, I have no authority nor expertise in this thing but I have been able share with you my initial discoveries in how to “manage” a sentence mining and SRS habit.

Bottom line(s):

  • Maintain a reasonable number of decks (one – at most two).
  • Don’t devote all your studying time to flashcards. Choose a time to spend on this aspect (daily), specify that in your decks settings and try to stick to it for the most part. If you skip a day or two I truly believe it isn’t the end of the world. Your memory might surprise you for the better. Between ten and twenty minutes a day works well for me done in sessions of 10 minutes.
  • Limit the number of new cards shown every day per deck. If you feel it’s too much, lower the number until you feel you can handle more. Adjust it as you see fit. (I do about 15 new ones a day.)
  • Don’t underestimate yourself. Don’t be afraid to choose the last button when Anki asks you when next you should be shown the same card. Again – your memory might surprise you (for the better).
  • Keep your sentences short where possible. Break longer sentences into shorter ones where possible or change it into useful ones if you feel they are not. For example some of the sentences in my previous post was a bit too long.
  • Try and get immediate usage out of your deck – add phrases that you can start using.
  • If you get frustrated like me – “STOP” and think about what you’re doing. Do not go about it like a bat blindly. :)
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