My response to this:
My thoughts on a smart approach to using flashcards:
Olly: Good morning everybody. Welcome back to the I Will Teach You a Language podcast. I hope you are having a great day wherever you are.
Now today we are going to be back to the topic of flashcards. This is something that comes up with regularity much like the question on can I really not learn seven languages at the same time, is it really a bad idea. We are going to be talking about a really interesting topic today that goes in to the kind of theory of flash cards and how you put them together. So, braces yourselves for a detailed on here.
Before we get in to that I would like to thank the sponsors of the show, the place where I get all of my speaking practice. So, if you think you could benefit from more speaking practice in the language you are learning perhaps with a very affordable tutor who lives in the country of the language that you are learning then italki is the best place to get that. You can go to iwillteachyoualanguage.com/freelesson to get $10 worth of credit which is more than enough to try a couple of trial lessons with different teachers.
Okay, without any further ado let’s get back in to the trenches of flashcard theory with a question from Charlotte.
Charlotte: Hi Olly. Thank you for your fabulous podcast, just one question.
I've been learning Spanish for a couple of years now and after reading the book Fluent Forever by Gabriel Wyner I stopped putting my native language, which is English, on my flashcards at all and stuck with just Spanish and pictures of course. I am just wanting your opinion on this. Thank you.
Olly: Hi Charlotte, thank you very much for a great question and I think this is quite nice because in previous episodes we have covered similar questions but not exactly this one.
So, for example in episode 90 we talked about whether you should put audio with your flash cards and then back in episode 82 I had a long rant, almost a hundred episodes ago, I had a long rant where I kind of laid out everything that I think about flash cards. In fact, this episode was called The Truth About Flashcards. That is really my kind of go to resource that I have created. If you want to listen to really step by step what I think about flashcards.
So, I am not going to repeat all of that today, well I might end up repeating a lot of it, but I am going to try to address this question of whether or not we should have your flashcards entirely in the target language. I am also going to pick up on this point about having pictures because I don't do either of those two things, I am going to explain why and hopefully my thoughts will help.
The broad point that I want to make to begin with is all of us are always looking for the best solution or new trick that will help us suddenly unlock the progress and the results that we are looking for in our language learning and it is very easy to find people like me who will kind of stand up and say, “This is what you should do or this is what I would do” and to believe that is somehow the best way forward.
I am always very clear that the best technique for you is the one that works for you personally. The challenge facing all of is to experiment with lots of different things and to notice and pay attention to what works, what is suitable for us and our learning style and then really go for that. The extent to which we can figure out what works best for us determines how successful we are going to be with language learning.
So, let’s talk about first of all the arguments for. So why should you have your flashcards entirely in the language that you are learning i.e. no English? Here are the common arguments for this. First of all, you avoid translation because translation is often thought of as being bad, which I think is totally wrong anyway. By having your flashcards in the target language, you perhaps can learn to think in your target language more.
You get increased exposure to your target language, so in other words if you remove English then by default you get more exposure to your target language. You also hear things like, “You learn like a child” because children just grow up surrounded by nothing but the target language.
These are the commonly expressed benefit of having your flashcards entirely in the target language.
The arguments for having pictures on your flashcards and that is very interesting Charlotte because right at the very end of your message you said, “And of course pictures” that caught my attention because I want to pick up on that. So, the reason that people would say, “Well you should have pictures on your flashcards” is because your visual memory is stronger than your auditory memory. Typically, we will often remember someone’s face but not necessarily their name, for example. Therefore, to have pictures on your flashcards can only be helpful.
Now whether you exchange those pictures for the English or whether you use the pictures with the English or whether you use the pictures in combination with the target, whatever it may be. Visuals in the form of pictures are often thought to be beneficial in terms of your memory.
Now I had a quick look at Gabriel Wyner's website for something directly from him relating to pictures and a quote that I pulled out is as follows, ‘It is much easier to learn a word off a picture card you have made yourself than off a translation card you have downloaded in someone else's deck'. I'll read that again, ‘It is much easier to learn a word off a picture card you have made yourself than off a translation card you have downloaded in someone else's deck'. In other words, what he is saying here is that it is easier to learn a word that you have made yourself on your own flashcards with a picture you found yourself than it is to learn a word that you have downloaded in someone else’s deck that just comes with the English translation and the Spanish, for example.
So, let’s start off there with that comment from Gabe, because of course what he said there is a false equivalence. He is comparing making a picture card that you have made yourself with a translation card that somebody else has made and of course there is no reason to make that comparison, intercedent that it is true what he said. Of course, that is not to say that that is the best thing to do.
So, we have got to really pick these apart and talk about why we are making these decisions that we are making in terms of how we are building our flashcards and then what happens before and after and what the purpose of flashcards is in the first place, because all of this makes a difference. The overarching theme here is that flashcards can be extremely time consuming if you let them and they shouldn't be. Many people hate flashcards and the reason they hate them is because they are seen as boring and they are seen as time consuming.
Now flashcards obviously aren’t the most fun thing in the world. I find them effective because I think I've figured out how to use them the best way, at least for me, but what is for sure is if you start having this kind of elaborate approach where every single flashcard has to have a picture that you have sourced yourself. It can just become this kind of crazy system. Whereas what we really want to be able to do is have flashcards as this agile tool that we use to note things down and remind ourselves of certain vocabulary over time.
I only use my flashcards in two ways. First of all is after I have finished studying or having a lesson I will immediately transfer the vocabulary I have learnt over to my flashcards, that is number one. The second thing is if I have just learnt a word in the middle of a conversation or something and I don't want to forget it then I will just whip out my flashcards and I will whack it in there so that I don't forget it and so that it is stored.
Flashcards are a way to store language so that you have got everything in one place. You know what happens with notebooks right? If you write stuff in notebooks then your notebook gets filed away and you never see it again. The great thing about flashcards is everything is there. So, the way to find the most benefit out of your flashcards is to have a system for using them and reviewing your flashcards such that it is quick and easy and agile so that you don't have to see it as becoming a burden.
So, let’s go through this bit by bit. So, first of all the translation point. To the point that says get rid of the English and do it only in the target language for all of the benefits that I mentioned early. Translation in my view is inevitable, I don't think it is something that we should be avoiding because however until you get super advanced in the language you are learning you will always be using translation. Many friends of mine use translation as an integral part of their language learning. Luca Lampariello, for example, is well known for using translation as a language learning methodology. I have talked recently on the blog about reverse translation, an activity I really like.
It is a core part of making sense of language. In the case of Spanish, for example, the way that you can get very strong very quickly in Spanish is by doing this kind of contrast of analysis noticing how and why you say certain things in Spanish compared to the English and that really gives you a massive head start compared to someone who, for example, is Japanese and doesn’t have that common language. Translation is useful for all kinds of things and for me personally the more languages that I acquire or learn to speak the more I use these contrasts of analysis to learn much faster.
When I was learning Thai last summer what really helped me was my existing knowledge of Cantonese, because not only did the tones help but I would find lots of words in Thai there were very similar to Cantonese or Chinese and that gave me a huge head start over someone who only spoke English, for example, because I had these different points of comparison.
Now that of course isn’t exactly the same thing as translation but the way that I make sense of the Thai language when I am learning it is by looking at sentences and noticing that, for example, let’s take a simple example. In English, we tend to have the adjective before the noun, we say that there is a black cat whereas in Thai they might say something else or in Cantonese they might use a particle. So, the way that I learn languages is by looking at the English looking at the target language and seeing how they compare. That is like an anchor for me.
Now this is where the parallels with learning like children are misguided. Because people say, “Well you don't need that English translation, just immerse yourself and you will learn naturally through exposure. After all, that is how kids learn.” and of course the common myth is that children learn languages quickly. Now of course anyone who has been around children for any length of time will know that is not the case. Children take years to learn their mother tongue. Children likewise if you give them a few hours a week of a second language class they won't learn it at all, they will pick up words every now and again. But children who learn a foreign language in an academic environment they don’t learn it and if they do it takes them years and years and years.
As adults, we are not children. We have study skills and that is why translation is such a big thing and a useful thing. Because we can use the skills and the awareness and the existing knowledge that we have of our own language to help us in the language that we are learning.
Now let’s say that you do have flashcards entirely in the target language. Well the benefit, or so they say, is that increases your exposure. But the problem with that is that you very quickly learn the flashcards you create. So, if you do create say 10 flashcards in Spanish the first few times you look at them they might be useful, but then very quickly you learn it. It is like learning the test or something like that. You learn for the test so that when you test yourself on the flashcards you will already know what the answer is because you will of learnt it. Because of that it immediately negates of all the benefits of any increased exposure, because you are simply learning what comes.
Increased exposure needs to be with new things. It is like, for example, you are reading books or you are watching tv or listening to the radio. That is valuable exposure, not going over the same flashcards that you get to predict over and over again.
Now to the point of visuals, visuals are definitely helpful. In an ideal world if I could have images on all of my flashcards I probably would. Why not? It is certainly not a damaging thing it can only really be helpful. But it comes back to this thing of if I am making my flashcards by myself, which you must do you must never use other people’s flashcards. If I am making flashcards by myself how long is it going to take me to find a picture that properly represents that word? I can get my flashcard app out and I can make a new entry in a matter of seconds and then it is done and it is stored.
Inevitably as you get more advanced you start learning more abstract language. So, you might have to learn the word for a system or a word like jurisdiction or something like that. So, you have got to find more and more abstract pictures to represent these words. Very quickly it is going to become unsustainable. So, for all the benefits the visuals have in any way you look at it, it becomes too much of a burden to make it sustainable and you end up losing the benefits of flashcards as an integral part of your language learning routine in the first place. So, I never do it.
The only exception would be like sometimes I go for dim sum and I might want to remember the name of a particular dim sum dish so then I will just take a quick picture and stick it on my flashcard. But that is obviously because there is no word for that in English so that helps me remember it. So, if you can take a quick picture of something that is in front of you and stick it on the flashcards by all means do it, but it is really important it doesn't slow you down.
Now I am going to come back to this visuals thing, but the last thing I want to say about this is that these elaborate systems for flashcards these kinds of systems that say, “Okay here is how you set it up in this way or the other so you have visuals and tests and target language immersion”. This fundamentally misunderstands the purpose and power of space repetition as a learning tool.
Setting up flashcards with pictures and all this peripheral information in the target language is highly inefficient, it is not a good use of time. Think of all that time that you spend on doing that, setting up these cards this way. If you spend that time instead on actually reading or listening doing more getting more real genuine exposure the language you will be far and away ahead of where you would be with your head in flashcards all the time. It deprives you or time spent with the whole language.
So, the immediate response to what I have just said it, “Well hang on Olly I actually want to remember these words so what should I do?” Well I am glad you asked. So here are my thoughts on a smart approach to using flashcards. First of all, rule number one, the golden rule of flashcards. Flashcards are for practicing output not input. In other words, flashcards are for practicing the recall of stuff you have already learnt, not as a kind of source material for you learning new stuff.
The way that you learn new stuff is by exposing yourself to the language, talking to people, listening to things, reading things. Then you can extract the vocabulary you want to learn. Spend time with it by yourself with pen and paper, your imagination. Then once you have got somewhere with the vocabulary that is when you can put it in to your flashcards and the flashcards become a way of you to simple recalling the vocabulary practicing the review of that vocabulary so you speed up the time it takes you to get a word back on to the tip of your tongue.
Too many people see flashcards are the source of learning. So, they will download a deck of a hundred adjectives in Spanish and try and commit them to memory. No, that is the wrong way of doing it. Flashcards are for practicing words that you have already learnt yourself. So, this is why English is so useful on flashcards because when you display the English first, which you should do in my view is what I do at least, when you display the English first that is like a prompt. From that prompt, your task is then to recall the word or the phrase or the chunk of meaning or whatever in the language that you are learning.
So, if the English pops up as ‘Good morning' and you are learning Spanish then your task is to recall how to say ‘Buenos días' in Spanish. So, you are using the English on the flashcards to help you recall the word or phrase that you want to learn in the target language. The benefit of this is that it simulates real world conversation. What you do when you are speaking with somebody is you think, “Okay I want to say this word. What is it? What is it? What is it?” and it is the speed at which you can recall that word determines how good you are at getting those words out from conversation.
So once again, flashcards are for practicing output. Practicing you speeding up your recall in speaking. They are not for learning.
Images are very powerful as I have said already, but the best images of all are those created in your mind and that is mnemonics. Images that are created in your mind so you are not restricted by stuff you can find on Google. The stuff that you create in your mind where you can have characters and actions and emotions and locations, these are the images that stick forever.
To tie this all up then as we were coming back earlier, all of this what is most important is for flashcards not to become burdensome. Keep it simple. It is like the KISS acronym, keep it simple stupid. Don't make it too burdensome otherwise you simply won’t keep it up for long enough for it to be beneficial.
I've been using flashcards for years now with great success and I think the reason is that I don't try to make it something that it is not. The potential for your memory exists firmly within your mind and it is the extent to which you employ your brain power and your imagination when you attempt to learn new vocabulary that determines how well you remember it.
So, to that extent the space repetition that is built in to your flashcards offers you an opportunity to reinforce the associations that you have already made as you are learning vocabulary rather than the source of learning itself.
So how did I do? I wonder if that answered your question or not. As you can probably tell I have got a lot to say about this. I don't know the extent to which what I have just said raises more questions than it answers, but I've covered the main things and I think the most important thing really has to come back to finding a system that works for you. But the most important thing from what I have said I think is that at the end. It is work that goes on in your mind that determines your memory not the particular system you have got on your flashcards.
That is why my approach to using flashcards it relies using the brain power first and doing the heavy lifting first.
So, thank you very much I love your question. Resources related to this episode today because there is a lot of further stuff I would like to refer you to. First of all the two related episodes I mentioned before, episode 82 The Truth About Flashcards a similar episode to today but that was a year ago or so, my thoughts have moved on since then. Episode 90 Audio with Flashcards that is all about should you put audio on your flashcards and you can probably predict what I am going to say about that, but it is interesting because it relates to the pronunciation of the words.
Let’s say that you are using your flashcards in order to help you review or revise the associations you have already created, the heavy lifting you have already done with your mind. Well what is the process that you go through to learn and memorize words in the first place, because flashcards is like the last stage. So how do you make words stick? How do you make sure that when you are setting about learning new words you have a system for learning those words so that they do stay, not just in your short-term memory, but in your long-term memory so that you don't forget them and you can also remember them later when you need them most in conversation?
So, long term listeners to the podcast will know that I covered this in depth last year, in fact I created an entire course around this which was called Master Your Memory and I have since remade the course, it is now a brand-new course called Bulletproof Memory because that is what we are aiming to develop here. I have got a three-part email course that really shows you the most important parts of the process. So, it is all through the spectrum. So, what do you do before you start trying to memorize a word then what is the first crucial step in memorizing a word. Well there is a whole ton of stuff.
If you would like to get this free three-part email course then I have made it for you so it is freely available. You can go to iwillteachyoualanguage.com/freememorycourse you can do this on your computer or on your phone. So, if you are listening now you can get out your phone and go to your browser. Just type in the address iwillteachyoualanguage.com/freememorycourse all one word and that will take you to a little three-day thing and there are some videos there are some downloads in there. All of that stuff shows you the most important stuff that happens before you get to the flashcard stage.
So, if you have enjoyed todays episode all about flashcards then you will get a lot out of this free course. So once again that is iwillteachyoualanguage.com/freememorycourse.
Thank you so much for listening. I hope you are still awake after all of that. But I had fun getting that off my chest anyway. Thank you, Charlotte, for your question and I will see you back in the next episode of the podcast.
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