NYR 1904: “Learn A New Language.” Part 3: Flashcards.

One of the most common and effective ways to pick up vocabulary is through the use of flashcards. My approach to flashcards is based on three ideas:

  1. Keep it simple,
  2. Make it personal, and
  3. Have a system.

Keep It Simple

I once had a history teacher who required us to make flashcards based on our assigned readings. On the front of the card would be the name of a subject, say, “The Spanish American War.” On the back we would write a set of facts in a consistent structure: the years covered, the people involved, societal developments, watershed moments and so on.

I’d had a lot of success using flashcards in the past, but I struggled using these as a study tool.


Because they had too much information. In my experience, the best flashcards have something simple on the front that tests your ability to recall something equally simple on the back. Studying capitals is a perfect example. If the front of the flashcard says “Hungary” and I can come up with “Budapest”, pass. If not, put it back in the deck and try again.

“Buddha is a pest when he’s hungry.” You’re welcome.

But this idea of loading down the back of the flashcard with numerous facts made me feel obligated to recall all of them at once. If the front of the flashcard read “Spanish American War” and I could remember the years involved but not the world leaders… then what? I treated it as a “fail,” which lead to a frustrating loop as I tried to memorize every detail and never made any progress.

When I write flashcards, I try to distill them as much as possible down to a single concept that’s being tested. It can be tempting to try and save time by testing multiple concepts at once, but in my experience this costs more time in the long run.

Make It Personal

Technology allows us to make flashcards that are more immersive than ever before. Here’s a method I picked up from a great language learning blog, Fluent Forever.

  1. Get a list of words you want to learn. I used this one, courtesy of the same website.
  2. Find the definitions in your target language. Start by typing the words into Google Translate. Let’s use the word “Alive” as an example. You’ll get two answers in Italian, viva (feminine) and vivo (masculine). Congratulations: you’ve stumbled upon a (delightful) grammatical concept. But remember, this is a vocabulary flashcard, not a grammar flashcard. Pick the masculine for now and we’ll get back to the grammar part later.
  3. Verify accuracy. Try Googling the word, and seeing what images come up. Vivo presents a bit of a problem due to the tech company of the same name. Here’s a fun strategy that can help: instead of just typing the word by itself, try typing a popular movie quote that incorporates the word as it is commonly used. For example, you could type È vivo! Frankenstein Junior (It’s alive! Young Frankenstein). Now search, review the images, and see if there are any screenshots from the scene you had in mind. In this case:



Of course you can always check a language forum or phone a friend (a buddy of mine speaks fluent Italian, and I pestered him constantly with these types of questions). Once you’re confident that you’ve got the right word, pick an image that brings the word to mind and put it on the front of the flashcard, and the solution on the back.

This sounds like a lot of work, but remember: you’re learning as you’re doing this. And the more personal the flashcard, the better your chances of remembering it.

When I had to come up with an image for “alive,” the first thing that came to mind was this:

Lion King

My wife, on the other hand, insists that this Jello commercial I’ve never heard of is more appropriate. To each his own.

Have a System

When it comes to flashcard software, there are lots of options. I’ve used Anki for over eight years to memorize all sorts of things, and highly recommend it. The main benefits from using Anki:

  1. You can make great flashcards. You can easily incorporate images, sound, even videos.
  2. You can study anywhere. Using the app on your phone or a computer, you can run through your flashcards whenever you have downtime, and don’t even need internet access. That’s what I did when studying Italian, and I found I was able to get a lot of flashcards done without having to devote a significant time-block to it.
  3. You can make the most of your studying through spaced repetition. 

From Wikipedia:

Spaced repetition is a learning technique that incorporates increasing intervals of time between subsequent review of previously learned material in order to exploit the psychological spacing effect.

To put it differently: the more times you get a notecard “right”, the longer Anki will wait before showing you that notecard again. There’s good science behind this, and the result is a more efficient approach to recalling large amounts of information.

Flashcards are a great way to get started with language learning. If you stick with it, you’ll find yourself remembering dozens of words in a matter of weeks. However, to tackle other areas such as grammar, pronunciation and eventually fluency, we’re going to have to bring out the big guns. More on that next week.

See you then!

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