This article will show you how.
What follows is a review of my favourite spaced-repetition flashcard app, which I’ve used to help me learn eight languages.
Learning New Vocabulary
What process do you go through to learn a new word?
Do you write it down? Where?
How do you revise it later? How long does it take you to learn it?
How many times do you have to see it before you know it? And how do you know when you really have learnt it?
All relevant questions if you want to get the bottom of vocabulary learning. Alternatively, if you just want to get the damn words learnt and leave the science to another day, just use a well-endowed piece of software to set it all up for you!
All About Flashcards
They are, of course, one of the most basic study tools there are. Write the known information on one side of a piece of card, and the unknown information on the other.
For example, the word “sleet” on one side, and the Chinese character “霙” on the other. You can then test yourself on everything by flipping the cards until you know them well.
Physical flashcards have worked for centuries, and naturally still do. However, they’re cumbersome to use as you have to manually determine the order of the cards yourself.
What technology has brought to the table is SRS – Spaced Repetition System. What SRS does, in a nutshell, is to control the frequency that certain cards appear and reappear.
As one proponent puts it:
A technique that ensures nearly perfect recall with minimum possible investment of time via computing optimum inter-repetition intervals.
In other words, you learn stuff quickly and save time. Manifest this in an iPhone and a killer app, and you’ve got a portable learning machine. An no excuses left!
What Does An SRS App Do?
There are an awful lot of features on this app, most of which you probably won’t need. Here are the most important features to get you up and running:
- write the flashcards out yourself or download pre-made decks from within the app from 4+ million options on Quizlet or FlashcardExchange. Note: other people’s stuff isn’t always good – vocabulary is likely to come in isolated words and many things will not be relevant to you – but nevertheless it could prove handy in the early stages. I recently learnt a short list of Cantonese adjectives, for example, that someone else had made and saved me lots of time.
- As you review the vocabulary, you indicate how well you know the word with a swipe (up: very well; left: somewhat; down: not well).
- The app then uses SRS (or Leitner system, if you prefer) to determine when to bring that card up again to best implant it in your long-term memory. The SRS is completely customisable, so you can control how many new cards to introduce at one time, how often to bring them back etc.
- You can attach photos and audio clips to flashcards (again, within the app) as a memory aid.
- Select which side of the card to bring up first – so you can start with recognition (eg. French-English) and then move to production (eg. English-French).
- Track your study time in detail
- Have multiple sides to flashcards (useful in Japanese, for example, where you might want to have both the kanji and the furigana on separate sides)
- Assign categories (eg. verb, noun, expression), types and statuses to each card so you can filter what you want to study
How To Study Using SRS Flashcards
Here are some tips for getting the most out of the features such an app has to offer, based on what has worked for me.
- Dig out your notebook and transfer vocabulary you need to learn onto flashcards on the app
- Don’t write single words on flashcards – implant them into full sentences and learn the sentences as a whole (here’s why).
- Attach relevant photos flashcards if you can – visuals give the memory something else to latch on to. (Learning the word “delicious”? Take a picture of the food you’re eating.)
- Similarly, use the voice memo function to attach a recording of a native speaker saying the sentence. You can do this in a language exchange, for example.
- Experiment with the SRS settings. You could, for example, lower the number of new words that are introduced in one study session.
- When learning a large amount of vocabulary, begin with recognition only – displaying the target language flashcard first. Only having to recognise the word is easier than the other way round.
- If you use transliteration or phonetic transcription (eg. for Japanese or Chinese), use the 3-sided function to write the original script on a third flashcard
For the price of an espresso, you get a very powerful learning tool indeed. Transform all those spare 5-minute slots in your day into power study sessions by digging your phone out of your pocket and reviewing that vocab that just won’t stick.
You might be too busy studying to remember to enjoy all the progress!
Flashcards are hugely powerful, but you need a good language learning strategy to make the most of them.
To learn more about my complete method for learning and memorising vocabulary, you might like this…
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This article was written by Olly Richards.
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