Do Flashcards Work for Languages?

Flashcards are powerful, but if you’re not careful, they can hijack your memory work. A reader asks: should we still use flashcards for learning a language? I answer: Yes, but only sometimes, and carefully.

Recently, I’ve been rethinking how I work with flashcards. Over my years of using Anki, my flashcard work, which started out with amazing results, gradually turned into a monotonous computer game. I began to focus on the cards, and getting them right as fast as possible.

These days, I’m trying to approach my reviews as quality time where I actually think. It’s a slow transition. I’m still figuring out where flashcards and the amazing power of spaced repetition fit in.

Are Flashcard Drills a Waste of Time?

In the midst of this, I’ve just received these intriguing emails from a reader:

… Would this paradigm shift towards using SRS [spaced repetition] as a time to enjoy thinking as a process still apply to foreign language learning, or does foreign language learning still follow the old order of efficiency and obsession with grades/success/testing? …

My situation was that I was upset that I was learning a foreign language out of context, but I couldn’t deny the efficiency, power, and effectiveness of recalling Spanish words/phrases through SRS. Should I just suck it up, do the drills, and ignore sentiments of SRS drills being potentially a waste of time?

I was just so inspired by you saying that thinking and memorizing itself is a skill, that it needs practice, and that thinking/reviewing is that practice. I want to learn to enjoy the process, much like practicing guitar or learning how to code. But in your original blog, you kept saying that this notion may be exempt for learning languages. Have I misinterpreted you?

What an excellent, precise question. Exactly what I’m mulling over myself.

Drills Are Useful When They Practice the Actual Skill

First, let’s back up and consider this whole concept of drills. Drills are not intrinsically evil. Drills can be incredibly useful – if they practice the actual skill you want to achieve.

If you want to get stronger, you do push-ups. You may not find push-ups particularly amusing, inspiring, or intellectually satisfying, but after a month or two, your arms and torso will be visibly stronger.

If you want to play the piano, you practice playing the piano. Reading about theory can be helpful, but you can’t meditate your way over the inevitable hours you’ll need to spend in filling the room with noise.

I could give examples all day. We need drills.

Problems With Drills

But drills have a couple obvious potential problems.

  • If you hate drills, you’ll quit. Almost every time I play the piano in public, someone wanders over and starts telling me how much they hated piano lessons. Now they think they could never learn. But anyone can learn. Probably, the lessons just had nothing to do with making actual music. Which brings us to:

  • Poorly designed drills do waste your time. It’s fatally easy to come up with drills that don’t actually practice the desired skill. Imagine someone who only ever plays the scales, and never even gets to try “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Yes, the scales are useful, but we come to the piano to make music.

Drills and Thinking

In my case, I was misusing flashcards.

Flashcards, at least as you use them by default in Anki, are clearly designed for reviewing:

  • short bits of information
  • that can be totally randomized

Flashcards excel at this kind of review.

But I was trying to use flashcards to learn longer information. And this information was only really valuable in a larger, slower context. When I tried to atomize long texts or even useful facts from books, I inadvertently destroyed much of the meaning. By losing the context, I actually made these things harder to remember.

Drills and Learning a Language

So what about learning a language? On the one hand, it seems like we should savor and enjoy learning a language, just like anything else. On the other hand, what about learning those thousands of vocab words?

The solution, as far as I can tell right now, seems to be simple. Do both.

Here I’m following the advice of Gabriel Wyner, that opera singer I told you about who’s learned several languages over the last few years.

He uses flashcards for vocabulary and certain grammar rules.

But he also spends lots of time listening to the language, reading books in the language, and ultimately talking in the language.

He uses flashcards sometimes, but not for everything.

Flashcards Work for Vocabulary

Why do flashcards work so well for vocabulary? Because vocabulary words are short bits of information, and they can be totally randomized. When you listen and speak the language in real life, you’ll be getting streams of random words, right? So, in one sense, the flashcard practice is very similar to the actual skill.

Also, don’t forget that both SuperMemo and Anki were developed by guys who wanted to learn tons of vocabulary. Spaced repetition and acquiring foreign vocabulary seem to have a long history together.

Does this mean that vocab review has to succumb to the “old order of efficiency and obsession with grades/success/testing”? No. I don’t think so.

So far, I’ve found that I do enjoy my new Spanish picture flashcards. I like how easy it is to enter the altered “Spanish” state of consciousness.

Plus, in general, I think that obsession with the meaningless (like grades) only comes when we’re already making a different mistake.

When I wanted to finish my old flashcards quickly, it was partly because, on some level, I sensed that they weren’t working. Instead of letting that tension fuel my search for a solution, I diverted the energy into flashcard anxiety.

With these new vocab cards, the system is working properly. Without the old tension, I don’t have the same desire to finish as fast as possible.

Well. Okay, maybe I do want to knock off those last few IPA vowel cards sometimes. But old habits die hard.

But You Also Need To Listen, Read, and and Talk

At the same time, great as those vocab cards are, speaking a language is more than just word identification. To work with the language, you need to leave the flashcards behind, and enter the dance of listening and talking.

That’s why the solution really comes down to doing both. Yes, use flashcards for vocab. But don’t try to cram everything about learning a language into Anki. As Wyner (and any sane language teacher) emphasizes: listen to and read material that you enjoy.

For instance, I listen to the Spanish soundtrack of Muppets Take Manhattan. I have the movie pretty much memorized from hundreds of viewings as a child, so I don’t know if this is brilliant, or cheating. But every couple weeks, I pop it on again, and I catch more of the phrases.

Since I’ve (basically) memorized the Gospel of Mark, I also listen to some great Spanish recordings of that. I know at least one language book specifically recommended against listening to a foreign translation of something you know word-for-word – but I also found an old author who mentioned that he always started learning a new language by reading the New Testament. So the jury’s still out on this one. Plus, Wyner says he always reads Harry Potter, so that’s got to be getting familiar by now.

The point is: by the time you’re laughing over how a particular voice actor ever got the part of Rolf, you’ve obviously left the “testing” mentality far behind.

Remember: No English!

One final proviso on Anki vocab cards: don’t use English. This critical suggestion from Wyner has changed my whole approach to learning vocabulary. Instead of an English definition, he has you use a picture, or, eventually, a definition in the target language.

The result? If you’re learning Spanish, you stay in “Spanish mode” for your whole review. Speaking from experience, I can say that this feels completely different than the standard toggling back-and-forth that you get with typical vocabulary decks.

The bad news is, most of the free shared vocabulary decks on Anki use English definitions.

The good news is, the Internet has a lot of images. And if you edit the card in Anki, you can usually drag a thumbnail from your web browser and drop it right into your card. Very cool.

In another few years, SRS picture vocab cards will hopefully go viral. For now, I need to go work on my deck. Then listen to the Muppets.