IWTYAL 214: Should I create monolingual flashcards?

Max asks: “What are the benefits of monolingual flashcards?”

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Good morning everybody welcome back to the I will teach you a language podcast. I Hope you are having a wonderful day. It is very autumnal around these parts where I'm recording this here in the UK. We had a bit of a summer back in June where it was crazy weather and since then it’s just been one long slow death of a summer, stretched out over three months and now all we have to look forward to the next six months of winter. Such is life and that is when we can thank our lucky stars for languages so we have got something to occupy our minds and our attention during these crazy weather times.

Would you like to have more guests on the podcast? Would you like to have more conversations and interviews? I've been doing more of them recently and I've really enjoyed them. In recent episodes, I have spoken to Dr. Barbara Oakley, Johnathon Levy, Gay Wining the last episode. I had that conversation with Chris and Kirsten and we have got Alex Rawling's and Stephen Krashen coming on the podcast soon.

I really like these conversations, but it is very different from like a short 10-minute Q&A episodes that I normally do. So, let me know, send me a tweet, drop me an e-mail. Let me know if you like these conversations and if you think I should do more, I would like to have your opinion.

Before we get into today’s episode I would like to thank the sponsors of the show, who I met again in Montreal in the Montreal Language Festival this summer. The wonderful italki which is the best place on the internet to get your language lessons. You can find teachers from all backgrounds, all nationalities, all languages and to get a free lesson you can go to iwillteachyoualanguage.com/freelesson.

Today’s episode follows on very nicely from the last episode with Gabe because I kind of avoided getting in to a rabbit hole with Gabe about flashcards because it's very technical and I think for most people the specifics of my engaged particular interpretation of how to use flashcards is not that interesting. It doesn't really matter all that much. What we both advocate is the sensible, smart use of flash cards to in enhance your language-learning. That's the main thing I think, I didn't want to get in to a big back and forth about the specifics.

But as it happens, todays question is touching on exactly that. So, what I'm going to do is take these questions and speak specifically to this question. So, let's hear it.

Max: Hi Olly, this is Max and why? My question for you is in regard to flashcards. I use your method of using phrases and going from English to my target language Japanese. I have been wanting to switch over to mono-lingual flashcards though. I'm curious if you A, have an opinion on the benefit or there being a benefit to having monolingual target flashcards. The second part of the question would be, if you do think there is a benefit, how would you do that if your flashcards are phrase based as I mentioned there. Anyway, thank you and keep doing what you are doing. I appreciate it. Bye.

Olly: Hey Max, Thank you very much for a very cool question. I hope you enjoyed the last episode that we're in the conversation with Gabe Winer where we going to flashcards a little bit there. That was episode 213 if you would like to go back and check that out. There is also episode 188 in which I answered the question, “What are the benefits of monolingual flashcards?” I'm going to start my answer here by giving you a very brief summary of my view on monolingual flashcards, but then I'll move on to talk about actually what I think you should do it if you are going to do it, because as you may know, I don't really think monolingual flashcards are good use of time, but I'll focus my answer on giving you my suggestions.

Now I think you have to draw a distinction, well I would draw a distinction between the beginning level and an intermediate level. So, I think at the beginning level you can use monolingual flashcards for simply learning basic words. Whereas at the intermediate level, you have got new challenges. You have got words that don't necessarily translate very well in to English. In the case of Japanese, how do you translate [foreign word] or [foreign word] [foreign word]? All these different types of compound words in Japanese, they don't translate into English.

So, the challenge at intermediate level is a bit different. You can also start to have expressions and EDM's and things like that that don't translate well. Whereas as a beginner, you would use flashcards for simple nouns and verbs. At intermediate level, you're trying to learn much more complex stuff that doesn't translate well. That's me setting out the stool.

Now my first question to you is to ask you to challenge the assumption that you should actually create monolingual flashcards. So why do you want to create monolingual flashcards? I would ask yourself honestly why you feel like that. Is it because you love flashcards and you want to up the challenge? Is it because you have got tired of using the method that you've described? Is it because you are starting to sense there is a limitation with having English on your flashcards.

In each case the big question is how can you be sure that this is the best way of using your time, because for me the big issue with monolingual flashcards is that it slows things down massively even more than the normal use of bilingual flashcards. So, there is a big opportunity cost to spend all your time making and studying with monolingual flashcards and in my view, there are better ways you use your time. Primarily by spending that time listening and reading the language and using more specific memory techniques to learn vocabulary.

I just want to throw that out there because often I think we as language learners we do have a bit of tunnel vision sometimes and the best thing we can often ask ourselves is, “Well how else could I do things? What other way to do things are there?” As a beginner, I can see the potential of monolingual flashcards for learning concrete nouns. So, for example, learning the words for cat and dog. You could have a flashcard with just the word cat or dog written. You could have a picture, you could have the audio for example. I can see how some people might like to use that approach to learn concrete nouns. For me it is simply much more efficient to spend a lot of time reading and listening to good material because the thing about these basic words is that they are going to come up so much that you going to learn them anyway. You can't avoid the most common words in the language especially when you're using kind of beginner textbooks.

I'll acknowledge that there may be people that like to learn that way. So that's fine. As we get to the intermediate level. As we said, this is what we are going to dive in to now. I'm going to make the assumption that Max is around an intermediate level in Japanese and that's why he feels like he wants to progress to monolingual flashcards.

First thing, what would you not use monolingual flashcards for? I am quite clear about this. Firstly, I would not use monolingual flashcards to create definitions. Okay? So, I would not put, for example the word analysis on one side of the card and then the dictionary definition of the word analysis on the other side of the card. I would also not do the same thing but with example sentences. So, I

would not have the word analysis on one side of the card and then an example sentence using the word analysis on the other side of the card.

The reason is because this approach to flashcards is using flashcards to learn vocabulary. I do not recommend that you use flashcards as a tool to actually learn the meaning of vocabulary. Instead you should learn vocabulary from your study, from your reading, from your listing, from your textbook. Whatever it is that you're doing. Then instead you should approach using flashcards to practice your output. So, practice speaking or writing. In other words, use flashcards to help train you to choose the appropriate word to use in any given situation in your conversation and then recall it quickly so that you can speak in fluent sentences without spending half an hour trying to remember what the word is.

It is worth laboring this point because many people make the mistake of using flashcards to learn, learn the meaning of words, to practice input. But it doesn't make any sense because why would you do that if you can learn vocabulary from rich context like text or videos or audio or whatever, that is much better.

Now here is what I think is the most important point about monolingual flashcards. When you think about using flashcards only in one language the assumption you are making is, “Okay, this is going to help me. I am going to learn faster because everything is just going to be in the target language. So, I will be learning new things in the target language all the time”.

Now this is absolutely true if you're spending your time reading, say books in the target language or listening to podcasts or something like that in the target language. You are immersing yourself. But there's a particular phenomenon with flashcards which is that you are in danger of learning the cards and the exercise stops being useful. Now what do we mean by learning the cards? Learning the cards is when you kind of trigger yourself to learn the answer without actually thinking about the language on a deeper level. So, when you are flipping your cards over and over again and they are coming back up in the deck, you start to associate the answer to the question and the question to the answer, but that's not a very natural process.

When you are in a conversation or you're writing a letter or something like that you will need to try to recall that word based on the meaning that you want to express. It's very, very different from

having a definition flashcard for example. Where you have the word Analysis and you have to look at what's the definition flashcard for example where you have the word analysis and you have to, “Okay what is the definition of analysis again?” and you kind of pretty quickly after you have been through the card a few times you start to memorize this definition in response to seeing the other side of the card. It's just a very unnatural activity.

So, the big danger is that you start to learn the cards and you just go over and over and you feel very pleased with yourself because you are getting the answers right, but actually that has nothing to do with communication.

The reason I like using bilingual flashcards is because when I display on one side of the card in English the word analysis, that's a concept I understand because it's my mother tongue. So, if I can then take that concept, “I understand” and immediately train myself to say the word in the foreign language, assuming that there is a direct translation. Then that is a mirror of what happens in a conversation and that's why it is so effective. This kind of goes back to the point about what I would not do, I would not create monolingual flashcards with definitions, example, sentences. These things where you have to give a question and reply, complete the dialogue type activity. I think that this is all busy work that you would end up doing the learning equivalent of teaching to the test. You will get very good at getting the right answers to these cards without ever really making any improvement in your language learning.

This is why the question I asked you earlier was, “Are you really sure that this is the best way to be using the language?” So that’s the warning, the disclaimer.

If I was going to use monolingual flashcards myself how would I approach it? The main thing is don't see flashcards as a testing mechanism, so don't see it as a way to test yourself to get the right answer. See it as more like a retrieval mechanism. In other words, use the technology of flashcards to store stuff digitally so you can find it whenever you want and practice it easily. Use that technology to help you see the vocabulary more often.

The reason that people who read a lot learn quickly is because they see interesting words and phrases over and over again. So, they get used to the way the language works, they see it in context and they start to learn it. That is why reading is so effective. For me with flashcards you

should try to mimic this approach of repetition. Those of you who remember my description of the art technique will remember that the R in art is repetition. Notice it’s not T for testing. It’s a very different thing. Repetition is simply the more often that you see words and phrases being used the more likely you are to remember it. It's a necessary part of the process.

So, the best use of flashcards, if you are going to make these monolingual flashcards, is simply to show yourself a new vocabulary as often as possible and then you are more likely to actually retain it. The kind of things that I would think about using monolingual flashcards for, are as follows and I am going to list them out.

First of all, learning Chinese characters. Now Max you are learning Japanese and learning Kenji as one of the most important and most difficult tasks. Flashcards are brilliant for learning Chinese characters so I would not hesitate to do that. There are probably better ways than making your own decks. You can use an app called Skritter, S-K-R-I-T-T-E-R, which is wonderful. A little bit expensive, it’s about $15 a month I think for that one app, but it's very, very good. You could maybe create a flashcard deck of synonyms. That might be useful. So, if you want to expand your vocabulary and you want to know a wider choice of words to use. You might create a deck, for example, so you don't just have analysis but you have assessment. What’s another word for analysis? Assessment, it’s kind of a similar thing and make a flashcard deck out of that.

Then you start to see words that mean the same and you can look over them. The problem with that is, once you've done that deck of synonyms, what you do then? I think there is potential for cloze deletion. Cloze deletion or cloze tests being when you have a word missing and then you have to choose the correct word. What I might do is on the flashcard decks I might have my sentence pop up and then I might have a gap in the world and I have to choose the correct word to put in the gap. That's good for context because you have to read the whole sentence. So, you are going to be reading quite a lot.

Again, the problem with that is you are going to learn the card very quickly, like I said before. You are just going to learn the answer. That is only going to be useful for a few repetitions at which point you just learn the answer. Something else you could do is mine Google or a similar website for example sentences with a particular word. So, for example you might Google the word analysis and then look for some interesting sentences with the word analysis in and simply build your flashcard

decks with that. You don't even have to have two sides, you just have one side to the flashcard. Simply have a deck with a bunch of different sentences using that word analysis and go over them, look at them over and over again. So that you are spending more time with that word in context.

The other thing you could do is to have something like question and answer cards, but I don't mean this in terms of testing yourself. This is an idea I got from Steve Call from when we were chatting in Montreal. We were queuing up for chicken. It was an amazing Portuguese chicken shop in the— I can’t remember the name of that big park in Montreal. We were in a queue for this chicken, this Portuguese chicken for about half an hour, 45 minutes and we talked about a lot of stuff including these little question and answer things. But here’s the thing, instead of having question and answer where you have to kind of guess the right answer, you simply display the question and the answer together and you read it and the fact of just simply reading it means you just get a bit more repetition of that word.

So, it's not like a test it’s just you are using the flashcards just to bring back words from a text or from a story over and over again. It's that kind of repetition that just helps you get used to the word. That prevents the problem of learning the card. It just becomes more exposure which is ultimately what we want.

So, those are my thoughts. Max, that is the way I would approach it. I think really the main point that I want to get through here is that if you do want to go monolingual, so to speak, then just do that. Just go off and read, browse the internet, read blog articles, find magazines that you like. Just do that. I don't see why you need to kind of soak up all of your time with flashcards. I think there are plenty of other better ways to do it.

So, there you go. I don't know how helpful that was, but I thought it would be a good way to sound off a little bit on my thoughts. If you would like to ask me a question you can go to Iwillteachyoualanguage.com/ask. There is currently about five to six weeks wait for questions, but I do get through all of them eventually so your question will be answered, providing that it is not one that I've answered a ton of times before. Recently I've been getting a lot of questions about can I learn two languages at the same time and I don't even think I'm going to answer these anymore because we have just been over it so many times.

A few resources for you then. I've written a little guide, it's called Make Words Stick. Many of you have bought the guide already. It is a very simple guide and it's got lots of pictures and explanations and basically what I do is I walk you through my exact recommended process for using flashcards to learn and memorize vocabulary. It's very specific to flashcards. If you don't like technology, please don't buy this guide, you won't like it, but if you are partial to the odd flashcard session and you'd like to know exactly how I recommend using flashcards the right way based on all my experience of doing this over many, many years, then pick up a copy of the guide. It's called Make Words Stick.

You can go to iwillteachyoualanguage.com/makewordsstick, all one word, to get a copy of that. It is very cheap, it's about $7, and it gives you the whole process that you can then go off and use for many, many years.

All of these resources and things that I have mentioned in the show will be available in the show notes and they will be at iwillteachyoualanguage.com/episode214.

Feel free to chime in, in the comments on this episode. If you disagree with anything I say or would like to give your input I appreciate it and I'll see you back in the next episode.

Thank you so much for listening to today's episode I really hope you enjoyed it. You know one of the questions I get asked most often about language learning is how to improve your memory. Because things get so much easier when you learn new words and you don't forget them later in conversation when you really need them. So, what I decided to do was to put together a short email course. It’s a three-part email course. So, for three days that teaches you my favorite techniques for memorizing vocabulary and actually putting that vocabulary into your long-term memory. It's a short course, three days. It's completely free and you would like to sign up for it please go to iwillteachyoualanguage.com/freememorycourse.

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