How Flashcards Put You at a Disadvantage in Language Learning, and How to Overcome that Disadvantage
Since grade school, I had used those 3×5 inch index cards to make flashcards, writing a question on one side, and the answer on the other. When I started studying Spanish nearly ten years ago, I went back to the flash card idea to review and learn vocabulary.
It didn’t work.
I’d make 20 flash cards, go over them dozens of times and actually learn the words and meanings. Later, in a test, conversation or reading assignment, I would see the word again. But with the change in context, I no longer made the association with the English translation.
You see, learning with flashcards is really just another form of rote learning.
Flashcards Encourage Rote Learning
Rote learning is any type of learning where you focus on learning the material at hand while purposely ignoring the inner workings of it. You ignore how something works and why you want to learn it, and instead focus solely on memorizing the material, often word-for-word, so you’re able to regurgitate it at a later time. I often memorized facts in this fashion, to be able to recall them for an exam.
With language learning you don’t want to memorize the facts while ignoring the why and how. You don’t want to learn a word in isolation, or in a stack of flashcards, because when you run across the word in a real-life context, you likely won’t recall the meaning.
A Better Stategy
A better strategy is learning the words in their real-life context, so that the next time you see them in the same or similar context, it will jog your memory and you’ll know their meaning.
Let me explain this in a more practical fashion. We’ll take an example word estreñimiento in Spanish, and assume you need/want to learn it. Instead of repeating estreñimiento – constipation dozens of times with flashcards, let’s see how you can learn it better.
First of all, find the word in its context. Do a web search and find some pages that talk about the subject. Look it up in the encyclopedia. Find it used in sentences. Almost anything will do, so long as you’re not dealing with the bare word. Now let’s see how we’re going to interact with the word to actually learn it, since flashcards are off-limits. Here’s a few suggestions: reflextion, observation, reasoning, active learning (doing), analysis, communication. These are basically critical thinking skills. Reflect on the word. Have you seen it before? Does it sound like any other Spanish words you know? Does it look like it comes from a Latin root that Spanish and English have in common? Now observe the word. Do you recognize any familiar affixes? Maybe -miento? Now do some reasoning. Estreñimiento kind of sounds like the English word strain. If you’re estreñido, you’re definitely going to do some straining. Now for some active learning- make the sounds of a person with estreñimiento or picture how someone’s face looks when they have this condition. Analyze the word further. Can you derive a verb, adjective, adverb from it? Use the word in some communication. Use the word in the essay you have to turn in this afternoon. Work it into your hour of Spanish conversation practice.
Now you might say, David, I do all those things, but I still forget the words I’m studying, that’s why I want to use flashcards.
I Still Need Flashcards
I often had the problem that I’d be learning some words, using the above techniques, but then all of the sudden in a conversation I’d want to use a word, but couldn’t recall it quick enough to use it. Here’s where I’ll suggest using a small notebook to write down some words, to remind you of them. I’d suggest a notebook simply because you can carry it with you easier and flip through it to find the word you’re thinking of. It seems more practical to me than flashcards.
I will admit flashcards do have a place. Sometimes, you want to memorize something for just a few hours, and then forget it. I also realize that each of us has a certain inclination as to our learning preferences. Some learn by listening, others by reading, other by writing, others by doing etc. If you do choose to use flashcards, try to use some of the techniques I’ve mentioned to change your rote learning into something more permanent. It’ll help your foreign language abilities.
Thanks Liz for the inspiration that sparked the thought that spawned this post.