To think (too much) or not to think

When you see your word or card, do you spend some time trying to actively remember the meaning/sound, or do you answer the first thing that comes to your mind?

I have been trying to understand what would be best for memory retention. I am leaning towards thinking as much as I can, but would love to hear your thoughts.

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I have better retention if I actively try to use a mnemonic or invent my own mnemonic for something I’m learning. I’m also lazy so sometimes I don’t.

I’m interested to see what people say as well. There have been a few posts with this mentioned.

I’m trying to speed up as the SRS level goes up.

If I have just learned an item, I spend as much time as I can be patient with trying to explore my memory. Usually, the time decreases as I climb the levels through apprentice. I also spend more time on radicals/kanji then vocab.

If I can’t remember a guru’d item quickly I enter garbage to send it back to my review pile 4 hours later.

For vocab, I try to go quickly because if I can’t recognise those quickly, how will I ever be able to read? I have no idea if this is the right way to go about it and I doubt it’s the same for everyone.

At the moment I’d say I recognise words when I look at sentences, but a lot of the time I don’t know what they mean without thinking about it. I’ve not really tried to read because it seems like it’d be very frustrating. I’m pretty sure I’m wrong though because most people seem to recommend immersion asap.


You are talking about the reviews I guess, and if we think or just translate automatically.

My answer is “yes but only if necessary”: I will think about it, unless it’s so clear in my mind that I could call myself ‘fluent’ with that word (no sense in overthinking お母さん …).
First recognize the single kanji used, then try to remember the meaning/reading (more or less at the same time).
Sometime the jukugo reading will suggest the meaning, usually for words learned before WK, I’m looking at words like 沢山 (たくさん) .

Otherwise I’ll try to remember if there was some mnemonic etc. I think of it as digging a canal by taking away 1 cm every time. Also, when both kanji have the same meaning, the vocab will have that too.
I’m not sure if mnemonics for vocab survive long term. I think lately I’m starting to simply recognize the words or guess the meaning because i can read them naturally, even for words that I had learned through mnemonics. Either way, until you learn it in the wild, and it becomes natural, the mnemonic will make it usable.

I also check if the reading “sounds well”. I always focus on the hearing aspect because it reinforces the word and makes it possible for me to recognize it in real speech (making it reach a level closer to what I called ‘fluency’).

But don’t overthink. 10 seconds for a word should be enough. If it takes you 40 seconds, it means there’s something wrong, maybe mark it wrong and find a different way/mnemonic to remember it. (There’s even a script that marks them wrong if you take too much)

IMO your recollection needs to be instant.

This becomes particularly evident when using the language, speaking or listening to someone or whatever. For example if you’re trying to listen to someone speaking to you and just one word in a phrase takes you so much as 1-2 seconds to hang onto and think about, you’ll completely lose the entire sentence. Same could be said of being at an airport or train station and needing to very quickly parse something scrolling by on a marquee.

So I think it’s good to practice this way as well. Answer reviews as quickly as possible with the first thing that comes to mind. And if you get it wrong - so what - you’ll be better next time.

Only exception I have for this is if I see something an I know that I know it and it’s on the tip of my tongue but not quite there yet, I’ll give it a second or two to think about. But anything past say 10 seconds of thinking is way too long and I think it’s better to intentionally fail it and move on.

As a bonus to this approach, a review session of X cards goes faster.

I don’t stop to think. The more I get an item wrong, the more often it appears. The more often it appears, the faster I learn it.

In my opinion the whole point of spaced repetition system is not having to think and memorize. SRS saves that time and effort for you.


For example if you’re trying to listen to someone speaking to you and just one word in a phrase takes you so much as 1-2 seconds to hang onto and think about, you’ll completely lose the entire sentence.

Not sure I agree. Most of common speech is a collection of emotions combined with vocal inflection, and very rarely are there any where near as many abstract concepts in a sentence as there are words. In addition, most languages have a stock of very common sentence types. With a good handle on grammar and the flow of the language, it is not a problem if the main work of listening involves parsing a few difficult vocab words, while copular statements and easy adjectives are subconsciously filtered as “obvious” or “unimportant to parse grammatically” the way that native speakers filter through essentially everything we hear besides highly technical language in which we are not well versed.

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I can only speak to my own experiences.

When I’m listening to someone speak, particularly at native speed, it’s like I’ve got some amount of buffer in my head of stuff I’ve heard and I’m (ideally) understanding it at the same speed it’s coming in.

If I come across some word that I know I’ve never heard before and have no idea what the meaning is, I skip right over it and try to figure out what’s being said from everything else. That’s generally not an issue.

But if I hear something that’s familiar but I don’t quite instantly remember it, I can’t help it - I hang onto it for a second or two thinking, “Ohh I know that word, what the hell is it again…” And in that brief couple seconds it’s like the input buffer is turned off, the speaker is onto an entirely new thought, and I’m lost.

So to me I think it’s critical to practice instant recollection.

I’m more on what comes to my mind, except for the first two or three reviews of a kanji or vocab because I need to recall the mnemonics first.

I typically need to think less the higher up in the SRS it goes. If I’m going through Master level stuff on my laptop I can get through a card in like one second, without using the mnemonic. On the other hand, apprentice ones can sometimes take over a minute of thinking if I’m stuck.

Of course, even in some master level stuff I can still get stuck and have to think for a bit. These are usually words that I never grasped as well.

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I am like MegaZeroX. In the first apprentice reviews I need to spend time recalling the mnemonics. After a while I get more and more fluent and recalling becomes instant. I agree with those who say recall must be instant but I think we don’t need to get there from the start.

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Honestly, even if you don’t get instant recall by the time it is out of the SRS, you will eventually pick that up by reading/listening if it is a common word, and if it is not, then it isn’t super important to anyways.


I don’t spend much time on each card. There are words/kanjis that I will instantly memorize because either I had seen it before or mnemonics are really easy to remember (or I have a perfect mnemonic using my first language - Portuguese - rather than English). Otherwise, I just wait to learn it through exposure during reviews. Trust SRS… It will print all you need in your brain. If there are leeches and words/kanjis that are too similar, then you should take your time to teach your brain to sort them out.

I definitely take longer over new items, as I think spending more time on early Apprentice items is normal and helps to reinforce the mnemonic if you can picture that.

I’m actively trying to spend a bit more time on some items - I’ve realised I’ve developed a horrible habit of not actually looking at the whole item, but only the first one or 2 characters, so if there’s been another similar item in the same review set I often mix them up. I assume I do this when reading in English but wasn’t aware of it!

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