Flash Cards – The Secret Weapon For Learning a Language

Photo of the finished flash card books: old and new.

The Problem

One of the biggest struggles when learning a new language is the problem of memory. You may hear a new word, be told its meaning, hear how it is pronounced and generally understand it. But minutes or possibly even seconds later, you can no longer remember the word, its pronunciation, its meaning, or all of the above. It can be very frustrating. Some think they have a bad memory. In reality, the problem is rarely a bad memory but more often a lack of understanding of how memory works. Below is a brief description of how memory works and how flash cards can solve the problem of forgetting. You will also find some of my personal favorite flash card solutions.

How We Forget, How We Remember

It is generally understood that human beings have two types of memory: short term (also called ‘working’ or ‘active’ memory) and long term.

Short term memory lasts mere seconds (20-30) and it can only hold 4-7 items at a time. Long term memory lasts indefinitely. We can stretch out items in our short term memory to last longer, however. If we keep stretching the item to last longer and longer, eventually it ends up in long term memory and we can remember it possibly forever.

How exactly do we ‘stretch’ out the memory of something? One of the best ways is by active retrieval or ‘testing’ or ‘quizzing’ ourself. Notice the following example, called the ‘curve of forgetting.’

The first time we learn a piece of information (a new Hmong language word, for example) the rate at which we forget is steep. We forget it quickly. But notice what happens when you test yourself and try to remember what it was (before being shown the answer): The rate at which you forget slows down. If you test again later, it takes even longer for you to forget. Each time you attempt to retrieve that item from your memory, the memory gets stronger and lasts longer. This means there should be a longer period of time before you try to retrieve the memory again. And when you try again, it takes even longer for you to forget! And eventually… you don’t forget.

Practice at retrieving new knowledge or skill from memory is a potent tool for learning and durable retention.

Excerpt From “Make It Stick” by Peter C Brown

Flash Cards – Your Secret Weapon

If someone asked me how to learn a language my first response would be flash cards. Truthfully, there are so many things that you need to learn to be able to speak a language fluently, but the most important thing by a landslide is a ton of vocabulary. Mountains of vocabulary. Flash cards are the unsung hero that will get you there. Flash cards will allow you to test yourself on many words, one after the other, effectively making them last longer and longer in your memory until you don’t forget them any more.

How To Use Flash Cards

Flash cards are not hard to use, but there are a few important rules to help maximize their effectiveness.

  • DO: Remember, what you know goes on the front side, what you want to remember and be tested on goes on the back side.
  • DO: Set aside time every day to practice.
  • DO: Say your answers out loud, not just in your head.
  • DO: Use pictures on the front side when you can. For example, instead of writing out the word ‘tree,’ draw a little picture of a tree. This helps you connect a foreign language word with an image, not an English (or your native language) word.
  • DO: Instead of writing a single word on the back of the card in the language you are trying to learn, include an entire sentence and write the word you are trying to learn in red. This will help you learn grammar without having to learn grammar. Make sure the sentences are simple.
  • DO: At first words will be hard, but as you practice them over time, they will become very easy, even painfully easy. When they become painfully easy, DO move those cards to another set called ‘old,’ which you practice once a month. If you have forgotten the word when you go back to it, move it back into the new set.
  • DON’T: Don’t practice new words every single day. This is a huge waste of time. Practice testing yourself on the same group of words for at least a week. Gradually add new words.
  • DON’T: Don’t practice once a week or once every few days. You need to practice every single day if possible. Make it a habit.

Option 1 – Low Tech

Hand Made Flash Cards

Below is a method I use to make flash cards. There are pros and cons to this method. Here is what you will need to make them:

What you will need
  • Scissors
  • Single hole punch
  • Printer
  • Card Stock paper (trust me)
  • Binder rings (see below)
  • Sheet of cardboard for front and back cover (Optional)
Pros
  • You have complete control.
  • You can put whatever you want on the card.
  • They fit nicely in your pocket when you are done.
  • You can include pictures (which you draw or glue on) and full sentences on the back.
  • These cards take more effort to make which means you are more likely to remember the words
Cons
  • It costs money and takes time to get the supplies.
  • These cards take longer to make than digital ones
  • No audio.
  • They are not with you wherever you are unless you remember to take them.
  • They take up physical space unlike digital cards.
Tools needed to print flash cards
You’ll need card-stock paper, a hole single hold punch and scissors.
Photo of book binder rings
You will need book binder rings to connect your cards together. You can get them at Office Depot or Amazon.com, for example here: https://www.amazon.com/Antner-1-Inch-Binder-Nickel-Plated/dp/B07V7ZJ8K1/
Screen shot showing that you should print to fit, not 'actual size'
Remember to print at the ‘fit’ setting. Do not use ‘actual size.’ Using fit will ensure that all of your cards are exactly the same size.
A photo of the flash cards that are cut out and hole punched with the rings nearby.
Step 2: After you cut out the cards and hole punch them you will need to use the 2 rings to connect them together. You can trace around the paper template you cut out on top of a piece of cardboard and cut/punch that out to make a cover if you like.
Photo of the finished flash card books: old and new.
Here is the finished books with a cardboard cover. You can print and add or remove pages as you please. When the cards get too easy for me, I remove them and put them in the ‘old’ book which I study once a month. If they are hard again, I move them back to the new book.

Option 2 – High Tech

Pros
  • You can include audio.
  • They are always with you.
  • It is easier to add and update words.
  • Some programs use formulas to calculate spaced-retrieval so that you will always be practicing the word at the best time for you to remember it.
  • Sometimes other people have already made the set of vocab that you want to study and you can just study theirs.
  • Apps will remind you when it is time to study.
Cons
  • Not always free.
  • You have limited control. You are limited to the design of the application.
  • Sometimes others have already made card sets but they include errors, are poorly made, or there are so many options it is overwhelming.
  • Can be complicated to use/ update.
  • You are at the mercy of the company. If they go under, so does your vocab.

Memrise.com

Memrise.com is one of my favorite options for digital flashcards because it uses spaced retrieval over time and almost all of the features are free.

I love Memrise.com and have used it for years because most of the features are free and because as you study, your words are re-organized based on your performance automatically so that the words you need to study most are the ones that you study first whereas the cards you are remembering well will go to the back of the deck. It also tests you in multiple ways designed to maximize what you remember. It is a great program.

Memrise has a version that you can use in the web browser (like Chrome or Safari) and an app you can download for Android or Apple. It is important to remember that you can do a lot more on the web browser version than you can on the app version so it is probably best to make your account and start making your card packs on the web browser version first. Then once you have already started studying your words, you can log in on the app and use it from there if you like.

Memrise also has a premium version which is more focused toward those who want to learn a more widely spoken language like Spanish, French, Chinese, etc. As far as paid tools to help you when you make your own card sets for a lesser spoken language like Hmong, they only have a tool that allows you to carefully review your more difficult words. I cannot speak to whether this one tool alone is worth the money.

Here are a few of the packs I have made for myself and for others.

Anki

I have not used Anki much but it does use the spaced retrieval method and is mostly free.

I have not personally used Anki much but it does use the spaced retrieval method and as I understand it is mostly free. I would recommend looking into it if you find you don’t particularly like Memrise.

Conclusion

I love flash cards and I hope you will come to love them too. There are many other ways to make/ use flash cards that are not included here but hopefully this gives you a head start and motivates you to start using them on a daily basis.

If you have any effective tips that you have found for memorizing vocabulary, please share them in the comments section below.

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