So, you’ve discovered the power of flashcards, and would like to finally use them to help memorize Italian words.
In theory, all you need to do is create a flashcard (physical or digital) that displays two pieces of information:
- A target language word
- The translation of that word in your native language
Once you’ve done that, you can then look at the information on one side, and use what you see there to help you recall the information on the other. You test your recall, and then check the other side to see if you got things right.
That’s it! Once you’ve done that, you’ve created the ideal flashcard, and can use that simple two-side structure to help launch your language learning skills into the stratosphere…
You can memorize a word using a flashcard this simple, but it’s akin to trying to hammer a nail with a rock you picked up off the ground.
As a tool, the rock can get the job done, but a hammer can do that same job much more quickly and efficiently. Upgrade to a nail gun and you have a single tool that turns the whole nail-into-wall process into a trivial exercise, easily accomplished at the push of a button.
Flashcards work in much the same way. They can be made simply and cheaply, but that simplicity can often work against you when the time comes to actually get down to the task of memorizing new vocabulary.
With a few small tweaks, however, you can make flashcards that are ideal for any memorization task set before you.
Why Make Your Own Flashcards?
At this point, you may be curious why I’d even recommend making your own flashcards at all.
After all, you can purchase pre-made Italian flashcard decks for languages both in bookstores and online, and even the most highly-recommended digital flashcard apps have dozens upon dozens of pre-made decks accessible at a moment’s notice.
The reason is simple: in the wide majority of cases, things which are more relevant to you are more memorable, while things that are less relevant to you are less memorable.
So, the best flashcards for you will be based on your experiences; they will contain words, phrases, and sentences that describe who you are, what you do, and what you’re interested in.
Since these concepts are important to you, they will more easily stick in your mind. They are based on experiences you’ve lived, things you’ve seen, and conversations you’ve had, so they carry much more “weight” than any terms in a general flashcard deck ever could.
So, if you haven’t already, start keeping track of Italian words, phrases, and sentences that have personal relevance in your life, and seek to use those in the creation of your ideal deck of flashcards.
Focus on Phrases and Sentences, Instead of Words
As I mentioned in the introduction, the classic, run-of-the-mill flashcard features a single word, with its definition or translation on the reverse side.
While this structure could work well for remembering the capital of Piemonte (i.e. Torino) or the name of the first king of Italy (i.e. Vittorio Emanuele II di Savoia), it is a terrible, terrible way to try to remember vocabulary.
Because, essentially, words have no meaning without context.
For example, if you see the word lingua printed on one side of a flashcard, you’ll have no idea whether that word refers to a language, or an anatomical tongue.
The same with the word piano, which could refer (in noun form) to a floor of a building, a plan, a geometrical plane, or something else entirely. And then there’s the adjective forms that describe something even, flat, slow, or clear, and the adverbs that describe soft or quiet actions.
If the only bit of Italian you have on your average flashcard is a single, lonely word, you’re severely limiting your ability to recall the meaning of the word properly. Worse yet, even if you can remember the meaning of the word based on such little information, you’ll have little hope of using it accurately in context when it comes time to speak.
So, do yourself a favor. Don’t just load up your flashcards with single terms like lingua and piano, but give these terms interesting and natural phrases and sentences within which to live—and then use the flashcard to test your memory of those sentences all at once.
Don’t just write lingua; write la mia lingua madre è l’inglese.
Don’t just write piano; write il mio appartamento è al quinto piano.
Through adding more context to your flashcards in the form of full phrases and sentences, you’ll have a better understanding of how individual words work, and how they cooperate with other words around them to create meaning.
Use Multiple Senses and Skills on Each Card
The simplest of flashcards are pretty low-tech, featuring written text on one side, and written text on the other.
This means that flashcards like these, at their best, can only engage one sense (i.e. sight) and at most two language skills (i.e. reading and writing).
If you’ve ever salivated at the mere scent of a quality Neapolitan pizza or laughed at the memory of how your quirky Italian doorman used to shout expletives in his heaviest romanesco dialect, then you can attest to the fact that the strongest memories engage the most senses.
Since language can be spoken, written, heard, and read, it is something that in most circumstances engages more than just our sense of sight—we can also hear the voices of our friends in conversation, and we can feel ourselves pronouncing and intoning Italian words. On top all that, the experiences of being out-and-about in Italy (if you have the opportunity) will give ample opportunities for you to smell and taste some great food, too.
All of these senses can work together to strengthen memories; this is why when you make a flashcard, you should try to incorporate as varied a sensory experience as you can.
Now, you can’t (or perhaps shouldn’t?) taste and smell your flashcards, but modern technology has certainly allowed for more ways that you can incorporate hearing and feeling into your vocabulary practice.
This is done through the inclusion of audio files on digital flashcards.
Anki, Memrise, and Flashcards Deluxe, the most popular digital flashcard apps available today, all allow you to link audio files to every flashcard you make.
This means that in addition to the usual writing and/or reading that you need to do when making or reviewing phrases and sentences, you can also listen to the sentences being spoken aloud, and even practice saying them aloud yourself.
Adding audio to your flashcards can immensely beneficial to your Italian learning, as it will help you learn both how to spell and pronounce words at the same time. By linking spelling and pronunciation information to every new phrase or sentence learned, it will become much easier for you to absorb new vocabulary over time.
Mix Up Your Flashcard Formula
The last thing you should do on your quest to up your flashcard game is perhaps the most fun:
Mix things up!
Not every flashcard needs to have English on one side, and Italian on the other. That’s the old way. The boring way.
If you’re going to stick with flashcards for the long-term, you should experiment with other formulas that will help you memorize Italian phrases and sentences from a variety of angles.
Here’s a few you can try:
- Audio-only flashcards – Nix the text! Try to remember the meaning of the phrase or sentence solely by listening to how it’s pronounced.
- Image-only flashcards – If you’re learning words for physical objects and places (i.e. things that can be photographed), you can put an image of that object or place on one side of the card, and try to recall the word for it.
- Cloze deletion flashcards – Put a sentence or phrase you would like to remember on one side, but delete one or more words. Test your ability to remember those words before looking at the full text on the other side.
- Typing test flashcards – Using digital flashcard software, you can test your capacity to actually type out the sentences or phrases that you’re trying to recall. Great for improving your reading and writing abilities.
Find What Works for You
The ideal flashcard for me will not necessarily be the ideal flashcard for you—and vice versa. The recommendations I’ve made here are not hard-and-fast rules, but merely guidelines that I believe will help you create flashcards that are more effective, more fun, and, of course, more memorable!
The key with flashcards, as with any learning tool, is to keep experimenting and trying different things, so that your learning never becomes boring or stale. Stick with what works for you, throw out what doesn’t, and keep learning until you’ve reached all of your Italian goals—and beyond!
Have you ever experimented with making your own flashcards? What works best for you? What doesn’t? Share your stories with me in the comments below!