Why and how I use paper flashcards

For vocabulary to use in conversation, I primarily learn new words by using them in conversation

Some language learners rely heavily on memorization to acquire new vocabulary (such as Jan van der Aa and Olly Richards) while others don’t (such as Steve Kaufmann). I use flashcards, but not as my primary means for learning vocabulary. 

For vocabulary to use in conversation, I primarily learn new words by using them in conversation or while thinking aloud (talking to myself). I combine two approaches: (1.) I prepare for conversation practice by selecting a topic well in advance, looking for useful words in topical vocabulary books (especially those by Andrey Taranov and Barron’s), writing questions and answers on the topic in my target language, talking to myself on the topic for practice while looking up words in a dictionary as I need them, and then practicing conversation with tutors on Skype. (See my blog post “How I use italki” for details.) (2.) During our conversation sessions, the tutors type new words and error corrections for me. When I invest the time to study those new words between sessions (and I’m not consistent about doing this), I can use them during the next session. If I use a word a few times in conversation, I tend to remember it after that. 

For vocabulary in reading, I reread the same passages, read more novels by the same authors, or read more non-fiction on the same topic (such as several news articles on one topic). After I’ve read a word enough times, I eventually remember it for future reading. Sometimes I only have to read it a couple of times—sometimes many, many times—but it eventually becomes part of my known vocabulary. 

How can I learn words even more effectively using these methods (reading and conversation)? And how do I handle the difficulty of 2000-3000 Chinese characters encountered while reading Japanese? By supplementing my learning with paper flashcards. 

Since I learn words by using them (in reading or conversation), I don’t usually need to use mnemonics, Spaced Repetition Systems (such as Anki), memory palaces, the Goldlist Method, or other means. In fact, these approaches are too slow for my purposes. For example, Anki only reviews a word once a day, once every few days, or even once every few weeks. It won’t help me with the article or novel I’m reading now. I need something quicker. Also, with Anki, sometimes I skip a few days, and I eventually get tired of Anki and can’t bring myself to use it anymore. Both of these problems work against the SRS system of Anki. 

Paper flashcards come to the rescue. I can study them several times a day if I want, easily add and remove cards, have few decks or a lot, combine decks when they get small, and feel a sense of accomplishment as each deck gets smaller. If I’m distracted away from that language for a few days and don’t review my cards, I don’t feel guilty or penalized. Also, making my own cards helps me to learn them, and writing them by hand helps me to learn them. From the moment I write a card, I begin to learn it. 

I use half-size index cards or smaller. I either buy them at an office products store (or online–Oxford 10009 or similar, look it up) or I cut a regular index card into halves or thirds with scissors. They don’t need to be clean and neat because they’re only for my personal use. Remember, perfectionism is an enemy to language learners. 

When I started learning my first language independently (Spanish, when I was 17 years old), I cut up envelopes into small rectangles to make flashcards. If you’re a poor student, look for junk mail envelopes and other junk paper from the recycle bin with blank areas that you can cut up to make flashcards. If you must use an app instead of paper, look for an app that will let you have control, rather than an app like Anki that gives you limited control (such as the option to review a deck a second time in one day), but which isn’t designed for quick memorization. 

For my purposes, I actually memorize individual words out of context rather than memorizing sentences which contain the new words. If I used flashcards as my primary means of memorizing new words, I should definitely memorize whole sentences (or at least phrases)! I remember when I lived in South Korea and tried to learn Korean, after a while the Korean words started sounding alike and I couldn’t memorize them via flashcards anymore. Besides, the mind learns best in context. However, I already learn in context (through reading and conversation), so I don’t have to worry about that. I save time by memorizing individual words. 

My plan is to dash through many cards quickly and immediately use them rather than trying to learn them via flashcards. In fact, if I don’t use them within 48 hours after I remove them from my decks, I forget them. But since I am using them (and not just memorizing random lists of words from a textbook), there’s no problem. 

If I’m using the cards to help my reading (primarily to help me recognize new characters in Japanese which I encounter in my reading), I put the target language (Japanese) words on the blank side of the card and my native language (English) words on the lined side. The blank side is the front and the lined side is the back. I flip cards over from the bottom rather than left-to-right because that’s easier on the wrist. In other words, the words on the back are actually upside down. But after I flip the card, they’re right-side up again. The English side can be messy, with scribbled-out letters or extremely messy handwriting, but I try to make the Japanese side as clean and neat as I can. If I make a mistake while creating a card, I tear it in half and throw it on the floor or the desk, then later I put the pieces in the paper recycling box where the junk mail goes. 

If I’m using the cards for speaking, the lined side (with the English) becomes the front of the card and the blank side (with the target language, for example Korean) becomes the back. I still flip the card up from the bottom rather than left-to-right to preserve my wrist. The difference is, in this case, I try to make both sides somewhat clean and neat (without cross-outs)–but not perfect. The front should be clean-looking because it’s the clue I use for memorization. If I crossed out a wrong letter, the smudge of ink could become a mental clue to help me remember the word, and I don’t want that. Meanwhile, if there are smudges on the Korean side, the word won’t fix itself into my memory as easily. 

My cards are not there for completely learning words. They exist only to help me recognize them faster when I read or recall them faster when I speak. Therefore, as soon as a word seems easy to remember, I remove it from my deck. I either throw it into my recycling box or I put it in an index card storage box. The difference is, if I recycle it, I don’t plan to review it again ever but simply continue learning the word by using it. If I store it, I can review it again if I feel it’s necessary. For example, I stopped reading Japanese for a month, and when I returned to it, I had forgotten too many words. So I opened up the storage box and reviewed all those words, then put them back into storage. 

How do I know if I remember a word well enough to remove it? If I review a list of words without the flashcards and I still remember them, I don’t need those cards anymore. If I use one while speaking, I don’t need it anymore. Or if I read it with comprehension, I don’t need it anymore. Finally, if I recall it quickly and easily while studying the cards, it can remove it (but I’d better use it within 48 hours!). 

In Japan, they also use paper flashcards while learning languages. In fact, Japanese stores sell expensive, tiny, unlined flashcard decks on metal rings. I’ve also seen larger, lined card decks like small spiral notebooks where each card can optionally be removed via perforation. There are problems with this approach. First, if all of the cards are in a particular order, you can memorize them because of the order instead of the word on the front of the card. Second, it’s harder to remove cards when you’ve finished with them. 

I shuffle the cards as I study them. I actually use my pant thighs (or two piles on a table) to sort them. When I study a word and don’t remember it or get it wrong, I move it to the back of my deck. When I remember a word easily, I remove it from the deck. But when I remember it with difficulty or had to study the same card two or more times before I could remember it, I put it on my lap. The first word I remember goes on my left thigh, the second on my right, the third on my left, etc. When I finish studying the deck, I combine the piles and put the rubber band on them. Then, the next time I study that deck, the cards are in a different order than last time. It helps if I have a few small decks rather than one large one. Otherwise, the piles on my thighs get too thick and fall on the floor. Small decks also mean less delay before I see a word again, if I fail to remember it. 

In summary, I use flashcards to speed up my recognition or recall of words, not to learn words. Reading and conversation are my primary means of learning these same words. I only select words I want to use in conversation or words I encounter in my reading. Thus, it’s unusual for me to memorize a word and never use it. And when I get sick of flashcards for a few weeks, I can continue speaking and reading and learning words without guilt or penalty–other than the frustration of my recall being slower. 

Sentence build-ups

The point of this method is to make difficult things easy.

One of my favorite methods in learning languages is repeating recordings of native speakers, trying to speak as quickly as they do and copying their intonation, rhythm, and other aspects of their pronunciation. I pause after each sentence of a dialog and repeat it at least three times. If the sentence is too long, I pause it after each clause. Another day, I go through the same dialog again. Eventually, the long sentences that were difficult become relatively easy to say.

I believe this method has helped me immensely in my language learning. Not only does it improve my pronunciation–making it easier for native speakers to understand me–but it also improves my listening skills. The rapid speech of native speakers doesn’t bother me as much because I practice speaking quickly via this method. I believe that everybody learning a foreign language should spend part of their study time repeating after recordings–if conversation is one of their goals. It might even improve a person’s reading skills, especially if they’re a beginner.

They don’t even have to be dialogs. They could be individual sentences, such as those used in an audio phrase book such as Book2 or Language/30. Or you could do it with Glossika. Even the example sentences from the grammar section of your textbook will work, if they are also recorded in an audio file or an audio CD. If they aren’t, maybe you can hire a native speaker to record them for you.

Shadowing is a similar method which other people recommend, but which I haven’t tried. Essentially, you’re doing the same thing as I do, except you don’t pause the recording. Instead, you repeat what you heard while the speaker is still saying the sentence. You try to finish the sentence soon after the speaker did. This requires you to listen and speak at the same time. The technique sounds too stressful for me, which is why I pause the recording and repeat three times instead.

Once you have some practice repeating after recordings in your target language, you can even practice with written sentences. That is, you can use example sentences that you find anywhere–in a grammar book, in a textbook that doesn’t include audio, in a phrase book, or in a written article. With this technique, you start with the long words in the sentence and practice saying them until they are easy to say. Then you take short phrases (prepositional phrases, etc.) and repeat them a few times. Then longer phrases and clauses. Eventually, practice the full sentence until it’s easy. Review these same sentences another day. You may or may not need to build them up again.

I often do these steps in reverse order: First, I do sentence build-ups with the written dialog until I can say every sentence somewhat easily (or at least each long clause within the sentence). Then I repeat after the audio, listening for anything I’ve been saying incorrectly and focusing on correcting my errors. However, this way is risky because you can learn to say things incorrectly and then repeat them incorrectly after the audio. Still, it’s much easier (and less stressful!) to do it this way. Stress makes it harder to retain what you’re learning. If you have to adapt a method to reduce your stress, do so.

Don’t try this method for long periods of time. A few minutes here and there through your day will be much easier and give you better results, I think. If it starts becoming too difficult or you start feeling fatigued, stop. Come back later and try again. What’s difficult the first time might be surprisingly easy later or on another day. In fact, that’s one of the mottos I live by: “Everything is hard before it is easy.”–Goethe

The point of the sentence build-up method is to make difficult things easy. This includes speaking quickly, pronouncing long words, sounding more like native speakers so they understand you better, saying complex sentences, and understanding rapid speech.