I hate language learning flashcards.
Well, I used to, anyway.
Before you reach for your pitchforks, hear me out:
The traditional vocabulary flashcard suffers from two key problems. Flashcards are, in my opinion:
— Cumbersome – Flashcards take up space, and lots of it. If you’re using index cards, you not only have to make the flashcards, you need to store them, organize them, and actually use them in your day to day life.
— Inefficient – They focus only on the connection between written word and translation, while ignoring other key elements of language, like pronunciation and context cues. Furthermore, most flashcards focus only on single words, when natural language always couches words in the larger context of phrases and sentences.
These problems seem insignificant at the beginning, when the number of words (and therefore flashcards) one has to worry about at any time is only in the dozens.
At the intermediate and advanced stages of learning, however, the number of learned nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, phrases (and more) can easily number in the tens of thousands.
It’s said that the average 20-year-old native speaker of English knows 42,000 words.
Can you imagine creating 42,000 flashcards for Italian, one word at a time?
As the saying goes, ain’t nobody got time for that.
So what do we do, then? Do these problems mean we should ignore flashcards entirely, and use other methods for vocabulary learning?
Not quite. Let me explain.
The Power of Flashcards
Despite my above-stated complaints about flashcards, I still believe they can be extremely important and useful tools in the language learning process.
Because of something called Spaced Repetition.
Spaced Repetition is a memorization technique that works with your brain’s tendency to most effectively learn when new information is absorbed over a period of time, rather than all at once.
The mechanics of the technique itself can get pretty complicated, but at its core, there are really only two essential rules:
— Information that is harder to remember (or completely forgotten) is reviewed more often.
— Information that is easier to remember is reviewed less often.
Flashcards are ideal for spaced repetition because they divide information into discrete units, which can be learned, tested, and reviewed at specific intervals, according to your ability to memorize them.
The one problem with physical flashcards and spaced repetition, however, is that you need to manually manage the review intervals for each individual card in your deck.
With hundreds or thousands of cards at your disposal, this can easily get out of hand. This applies even when using the simplest of Spaced Repetition systems, like the box-based Leitner system.
So, what now? The connection with Spaced Repetition means that flashcards can provide some truly potent vocabulary-learning advantages.
However, we still need to overcome the fact that:
— Flashcards can be inefficient
— Flashcards can be cumbersome
— Spaced repetition is hard to implement
Can we do this? Even better, can we find a way to get all the benefits of flashcards and spaced repetition, with none of the disadvantages?
Building Better Flashcards Using Spaced Repetition Software
In recent years, a new class of computer programs have emerged that have revolutionized the concept of the vocabulary flashcard. These programs are known as Spaced Repetition Software.
Spaced Repetition Software (SRS) turns using and reviewing flashcards into a fully-digital experience. Just like music streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music have replaced the need to purchase and store massive collections of vinyl records and CDs, SRS programs have replaced the need to ever handle or organize decks upon decks of language learning index cards. With SRS, flashcards are all digital, all the time.
Because of this, digital flashcards are no longer cumbersome. In fact, they take up no space at all. No matter whether your SRS deck has 42 cards or 42,000, the only physical space you’ll need for them is enough desk space for your laptop or pocket space for your cell phone. In most cases, this means you can take your entire deck with you anywhere you go, which means more learning in the long-run.
SRS programs also offer a number of features that make digital flashcards much more efficient than their physical counterparts. These include:
— Audio Playback – While physical flashcards are limited only the the written word, most SRS programs allow for audio files to be included with each card, helping you practice both listening and pronunciation skills.
— More Context – Physical flashcards can only be so big before they lose portability. This means you are limited to the amount of information you can include on each one. Not so with digital flashcards, which give you the space to include phrases, single words, or even entire paragraphs of language on each card. On top of that, each digital card can also include grammar explanations, pronunciation guides, and other notes alongside the words you are learning.
— Built-in Spaced Repetition – SRS automatically calculate when you should next review each card in your deck, according to the complex algorithms provided by Spaced Repetition research. This means that you get all of the memorization benefits of Spaced Repetition, with none of the math!
Getting Started with Digital Flashcards
The two most popular SRS programs available today are Memrise and Anki.
Memrise is a free browser-based SRS program which can also be linked to a free smartphone app. The interface is friendly and inviting, and enables you to create your own flashcard decks, or download pre-made decks made by others. If you’re a beginner with digital flashcards, go with Memrise.
Anki is a free desktop-based SRS program, which also has a free browser-based companion, and a free/paid smartphone app, depending on your specific platform. Cosmetically, Anki is much simpler than Memrise, but comes with a wide-range of customizable functionalities, including various downloadable add-ons. If you’re already an advanced user of digital flashcards, go with Anki.
Pick a program like the one above, and you’ll finally be free from the burden of physical flashcards. Thanks to the flexibility of SRS programs and the power of spaced repetition, you’ll soon learn to love flashcards—just like I do!
Do you still use physical flashcards, or have you already made the jump to digital? Let me know in the comments!