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How and why to use flashcards to learn a language

First of all, what are flashcards?

(How to use flashcards to learn a language)

Flashcards, simply put, are cards with a word on the front and either a word or picture (or both) on the back.These can be physical cards, or digital. Personally, I use a mixture of both. Of course, there are many ways to create a flashcards and the typical set up as described just before is by no means the best. In classes, as a teacher, I use almost exclusively physical flashcards. These could be bought, or made by me or the students.

I use flashcards with all of my lower level students and often with the higher levels too. At some point I always teach my students how to use flashcards to learn a language, how to make them and why. In the children’s classes they are used almost every week! On my own, as a language learner, I use simple paper flashcards for phrases, and AnkiApp for vocabulary. I’ll go further into why below.

Have you used flashcards before?

Flashcards are most commonly thought of in respect to babies, small children and students of all ages. At schools and most language academies, how to use flashcards to learn a language is not taught, or even  mentioned. This is largely due to educational facilities being notoriously slow on the uptake of new teaching methods. It’s also a little thanks to the fact that flashcards are most efficiently used by individuals, and can replace a large amount of average curriculums.

They prove to be much more effective and we can learn much more quickly using flashcards (as a large part of the learning process) than following a non-personalised curriculum at a school. As long as you know how to use them and follow through with your goals…

Why should you use them?

Flashcards are arguably one of the best possible ways of memorising new languages short of living in a country which only speaks your target language and immersing yourself completely in the language and culture. They allow for an extremely effective process of spaced recall. I’ll go into spaced recall in plenty of detail later in this post.

If you want more information on fashcards, a truely great site which I refer to often myself, is Fluent Forever. They have heaps of content related to how to use flashcards to learn a language, how to make them, pros and cons of certain forms of flashcards, and much, much more. Click below for their blog archives on flashcards!

Fluent Forever Flashcard Archives

Flashcards for kids

Do your children know how to use flashcards to learn a language? They probably know better than you! Children are often well versed in using flashcards from their native languages. Many parents use flashcards with babies to teach them their first words. There are also flashcards for learning animal sounds, times tables, periodic tables, and even definitions of words for older children.

So it is not all that difficult to add in foreign language flashcards to the mix. In fact, why not learn a language with your child? It’s a great bonding experience and you can both make use of all the fun activities you can do with flashcards and other resources.

If you would like to know a little more about learning a language with your child, click here.

How do you make flashcards?

Here’s where we get to the good stuff.

You have a few different options here. First of all there’s wether to use physical cards or Digital. There are pros and cons to both, although for personal use I recommend using an app. If you have a teacher or native speaker around, I recommend the physical version.

Physical Flashcards: can be made of paper, card or cardboard and can be laminated (although this is a huge waste if you are not a teacher who will reuse them all the time)

Pros of Physical Flashcards:
  • Physical flashcards make it easier for you to learn and remember because there is the added tactile factor. The more senses you involve in learning something, the more neural links you brain makes, and the stronger the memories will be.
Cons of Physical Flashcards:
  • You can’t attach sound clips to paper.
  • Pictures mean printing or drawing. If you’re a terrible artist like me, and don’t want to use copious amounts of ink and paper you will eventually throw away (recycling, right?) this is not optimum.
  • Use of paper. Flashcards use up a lot of paper. Bad for the environment, bad for our pockets.

Digital Flashcards: can make use of apps created for the purpose. Some free flashcard apps include Anki App, StudyBlue and Evernote Peek

Pros of digital flashcards:
  • Sound clips! This is the number one reason to use apps over paper. With sound, you can add clips of native speakers pronouncing the word or phrase for you. In this way, every time you read the word, you associate it more with the correct phonetics too!
Cons of digital flashcards:
  • You miss out on the tactile factor. This is, however, balanced out easily by the sound clips. With physical you have visual+tactile and with digital you have visual+audio.

 

 

So now I hope you have decided on one of the above options: physical or tactile. The next step is to start creating! Each flashcard has a front side and a back side. Of course.

On the front you should have either the word or phrase in your target language or a picture of any kind which clarifies the meaning of the word of phrase to you.

Why did I not mention the translation in your native language? Because unless you can’t describe the word in your target language or with a picture or symbol, you should never use your native language. If you translate the word to learn it, you will always need to make that translation in your head, which only slows down the learning process. Not to mention not letting you think or speak fluently in your target language.

The goal here is to learn the new word as a new word. Associate it with a picture. For example:

This is one card from a set I bought for new learners in my classes. Originally, It had the word in Spanish on the front and back of the card as well as in English on the back only.  I upgraded the card by covering up the spanish words. Now it’s perfect. You can use the flashcard either way around.

If you use the picture side as the front, you have to recall the word. Just as if you use the word side as the front, you have to recall what it means. Both ways are associating the word and picture together. You shouldn’t even think of the word in Spanish (or your native language) to learn the word and meaning in English.

And for more complicated terms?

Nobody should need to be learning any kind of term until they are confident enough with more basic language. If you can’t describe the “complicated” term in your target language, you should be focussing on something simpler. The basic language needed to describe the “complicated” term, for example.

A quick summary:

  1. Keep it simple.  The more information you add, the more difficult it will be to learn. You need to know the easy stuff so the hard stuff will be easier later on. Start with the basics, and move up step by step. Everything will come together, I promise.
  2. One side should be a prompt, and the other a reminder.
  3. Physical and digital both have their value. I recommend digital flashcards using an app.
  4. Use the target vocabulary on one side, and a picture or description on the other.
  5. Stay away from your native language!!!!

 

Here are some links to sites where you can download and print flashcards for kids.

British Council Vocabulary Flashcards for Kids

Kids’ Pages Flashcards

You can find thousands of different flashcard apps for kids. They’re easy to find, and most of them are fun to use. There are also plenty for adults. The one that I use is Anki. I like it because you can add sound and it syncs over as many devices as you want. Plus it’s free. You can download pre-made flashcard packs, but I advise you make your own. Even just the process of making flashcards helps you to memorise them.

Finally, a few examples of flashcards that I use in classes and for my personal use. The digital ones are on Anki.

 

 

And most importantly, HOW to use flashcards to learn a language?

Now you have your freshly made flashcards, optimised for efficiency and ease of learning. Here is where I let you in on the secret of how to use flashcards to learn a language. The trick is all in the timing.

Step one: Look at side A, the target word or phrase.

Step two: Think of the meaning. but NOT in your native language! Think of the description in the target language or as a picture or feeling. You don’t have to translate, you just have to know in general.

Step three: Look at side B. If you got it right, move on! If you got it wrong, put it back in the pile of cards, about 5 cards back, to try again. On an app, this should be done for you automatically.

IMPORTANT Note: Once you know more or less what the word means, Flip the card and go from side B to side A. This gives you better recall practice as you have to remember the actual word, not just the meaning.

Step four:  Repeat with each card. Once you get the word correct A to B and B to A a few times, and you are comfortable you know it, put it aside.  Do  NOT throw it away just yet! You will want to review it later….

 

Spaced Recall! (or step five, six, seven…)

Spaced recall is the real key here. The number one rule on how to use flashcards to learn a language. Basically, you have to learn the word or form one day, then put it aside for about a week. Repeat step one to four. Next put the cards you know aside for a month. Then three months. Then six. Then a year. If you still remember the word or phrase or form after a whole year, you probably have it for life. Of course you can change this timeline for whatever you feel comfortable with. The goal is to encounter the target form over extended periods of time to really embed it into your long term memory. You should also be reading and listening to as much as you can in your target language. This also brings these words to your attention (in a more involved manner, even better!) and contributes to to spaced recall.

Spaced Recall

Recall is the second pard of the grand master plan. When you use the flashcards, you absolutely must RECALL the word or meaning. If you just look at both sides and call it a day, not a whole lot will happen. This is the difference between reviewing and recalling. We want to recall, to remember. Recall, don’t revise.

Now I have a few more tips, aside from those two golden rules on spaced recall.

Points to remember:
  1. Spaced. Recall.
  2. When using flashcards, the best option is to say everything out loud. Use a mirror, record yourself, learn with a buddy, whatever floats your boat. But speaking aloud will make extra connections in those nimble neurons of yours which will help you to learn the word or phrase more in depth.
  3. Do not, I repeat, do NOT learn sets of opposites. Trying to learn the words hot and cold together just causes a mess. It may seem counter-intuitative, but trust me on this one. Start with one, and the other will come later.
  4. When using your flashcards, just go a little at a time. Start with just a few, then as  you get comfortable with those, add more. By putting too much pressure on your brain to learn large quantities of information in one go, you will only tire yourself out. It can work for short term memory, but if you want to keep these words forever, take baby steps. Relax, turn it into a game. Take it easy and you will go far!
  5. That is not to say be lazy. Flashcards only work so well if you keep at them. use them regularly. Have a realistic schedule, make sure to keep adding more words as soon as you have a good grasp on the last ones.

 

There are all sorts of games you can use to learn with flashcards. However, I’ll leave those for another post. Little by little, people!

 

 

And finally… How do I use flashcards to learn a language?

Firstly, I’m going to be clear. I use flashcards in many different ways across my classes as a teacher. Here I’ll outline how I use them myself for my own personal use. Teaching other people and teaching myself is similar in many ways, and flashcards is one of them. But only to a point. I teach my students how to use them in the same way I use them myself. During class time, I use them in entirely different ways. Ok, to business!

At the moment I am learning Farsi, or Persian. This is the language spoken mostly in Iran as well as a few other countries. As I write this post, I have only just started. The first thing that I did was to learn the numbers. I’ll have to write another post on why in the future, but for now suffice to say that I recommend this as the first step for any language.

To learn them (which I did in two days, 0 to 99) I wrote the phonetics of the number in farsi on side A of a piece of paper. On side B I wrote the symbol for that number in farsi. I proceeded to memorise them in order on the first day, repeating them to myself whenever I counted anything (change, pages, spoons of cocoa in hot chocolate…) and as I lay in bed falling asleep. The next day I mixed the flashcards up. Now they live one my desk along with some other flashcards, being picked up whenever I feel lazy and don’t want to learn anything new that day.

The next step for my adventure into Farsi was to start watching videos on youtube and listening to podcasts, while noting down any new vocabulary I wanted to learn to turn into flashcards on AnkiApp.  Greetings, family, dates, weather, food, etc all went into the app.

Why the digital version?

I use the digital version of flashcards for three main reasons.

  1. Sound clips.
  2. Minimising paper wastage.
  3. Ease of access.

And that’s it! How to use flashcards to learn a language. If you have any questions about flashcards, feel free to leave a comment below! Also, you can contact me about anything via the contact form. Don’t forget to sign up to my newsletter to get more material and a reminder every time I upload a particularly important post. See you next time!

 

 

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