Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Why I use flashcards (and you should too): How to use flashcards the right way

This post is part of a series on using flashcards written in response to Why I don't use flashcards (and you shouldn't either) and other related posts on
  1. How to use flashcards the right way
  2. When to use flashcards
  3. How much to use flashcards
  4. Learn more with flashcards than without
  5. Learn faster with flashcards than without
  6. Translation is not the end result of flashcard use
  7. How to deal with the lack of one-to-one translations
A few years back Randy on wrote some posts arguing that you should never use flashcards in language learning: "Why I don't use flashcards (and you shouldn't either)", "The flashcard holy war rages on!", and "8 ways to learn a language without using flashcards", and it's a constant theme of his posts generally.

In the second of the above-mentioned posts, Randy remarked:
I have a strong suspicion that the biggest advocates of flashcards are people who haven't yet finished learning their first foreign language. And I expect that the number of polyglots using flashcards is extremely low.
It's high time that a big advocate of flashcards and polyglot explain why Randy's advice is wrong.

Randy argues, in short, that you should learn only through reading, listening to, writing, and speaking the language (with an emphasis on reading), looking up unknown words as you come across them or learning them from context. My position is that you should learn through reading, listening to, writing and speaking the language and supplement that with flashcard review because that'll allow you to learn more in less time, and each problem Randy raises about flashcards is either incorrect or can be overcome without detracting from your learning.

Before we jump in, let me just clarify that I'll be using "flashcards" interchangeably with "spaced-repetition system", or "SRS", with Anki of course being my preferred SRS. Although flashcards could of course be made with paper and toted around, if you want to maximize your efficiency, it's time to shell out for a smartphone of some sort and start using an SRS app.

Now let's get into the how-to of using flaschards…

Make flashcards from context

Nearly every flashcard that I have was made for an unknown word that either I encountered while listening to or reading the target language or that I wanted to use while speaking or writing. The words are from songs that I listen to, news articles that I read, something that came up in conversation, etc. This means that my original exposure to the words on these flashcards is fully in context and that I use flashcards to bolster that original contextual exposure.

Include the context in your flashcards and review it

Randy says this about using sentences in flashcards:
I have read arguments from people saying that you need to use sentences rather than words on your flashcards, so you can get it in context. But that's not context. Context is when it's used as part of a story, or an opinion, or a conversation.
And I actually agree with this, provided that you're just finding or making up some random sentence that uses the word you're trying to learn.

If, on the other hand, the sentence you're using is the actual context in which you found the word, well then obviously you've actually got context: "part of a story, or an opinion, or a conversation". I include these sentences and, when I review a word using flashcards, I also usually read the sentence I found it in. That puts it in the context of the sentence I found it in, and, in turn, I can almost always put that sentence in the context I originally found it, whether a news article, a conversation, a chat, an email, a document from work, etc. (As an aside, this also has the side benefit of helping you better remember the non-linguistic content of things you've read.) And since I funnel pretty much everything through Learning with Texts, the original source of the word is almost always archived in there, should I ever want to reread it.

The way I set this up in Anki is that I have the sentence displayed together with the answer, although I don't treat it as part of the answer, i.e., I'm not memorizing sentences. Then I just review it each time I show the answer. Check out this post to learn how to set this up for yourself, or to see how I've set up my Japanese flashcards in Anki.

Avoid flashcards from lists that you didn't make

I've been using flashcard programs for something like two decades now, and even from the beginning I was pretty much only making flashcards from context. However, a few times I've actually tried to learn massive amounts of vocab from lists prepared by others—and each time the results have been less than stellar. Because you may have never encountered the words in actual use, because you haven't looked up the words yourself, because they usually have no context for you at all, because shoving raw, out-of-context data into your head is boring, you're going to struggle to learn words from raw lists prepared by others.

The last (and final) time I tried this was several years ago for Japanese vocabulary. I downloaded some list that had thousands of words in it and put it into Anki. Known words were quickly cleared from my study queue, but unknown words would just not get into my head. The end result was that I let the list grow stagnant for a long time before I finally got around to deleting it wholesale.

Although you generally shouldn't even consider using vocab lists prepared by others, there are a few instances in which I consider making exceptions:
  • Early use of frequency lists. Alexander Arguelles estimates that native speakers use about 750 words every day. This means that, pretty much no matter how you use the language, you're going to run into these 750 words. Learning these up front from a flashcard set based on a frequency list can help you get an early jump on comprehension, and because these words are everywhere, you'll never lack for encountering them in context. These are of course also the easiest words to learn from context, but you'll gain comprehension more quickly by funneling them through a spaced-repetition system and, if you can get a list that's already out there, you'll save even more time.
  • When context isn't all that relevant. This is most typical of easily categorizable things that are more likely to have close one-to-one translations with your native language: numbers, countries, foods, etc. I still often just make these on my own to get exactly what I want and because generating flashcards is one kind of exposure, but if you can quickly find a set of flashcards that has what you were going to make anyway, you can probably save yourself some time without a lot of damage to your ability to recall.
  • Later use of frequency lists. After I've been studying a language for a bit, I like to go back though frequency lists to pick out words I don't know and learn them. I'll start with the most frequent words and go through the list until I get to a point where the number of words I don't know begins to increase. Although I typically wing the numbers on the spot, once I start getting more than, say, 5 new words for every 100 words in the list, I'll set the list aside for a while (sometimes a long while) and just get back to my more typical exposure. The end result of this is that I fill in holes in my knowledge for the level of vocabulary I'm at without overburdening myself with sucking in arbitrary information from a raw list.

Add audio to your flashcards

All your flashcards should have audio. Period. Being able to hear something makes you more likely to recall it than reading it alone would. The sound should play whenever you're reviewing that card, as is the default behavior of Anki. And of course you can automatically add pronunciations to Anki. You should also feel free to say the words out loud to try to match up what you're saying with the sounds you're hearing; I do this all the time in my meanderings around Tokyo, pressing the repeat button and pronouncing the words over and over again for those I'm not quite pronouncing right, and sometimes I get some curious looks.

Use images or video for the meaning of the new word

Just like hearing something makes you more likely to recall something, seeing it does as well, so instead of using a word in your target language to represent what a word means, use an image or a video. For example, for "car" you could have a picture of a car or for "jump" you could have a video of someone jumping. Finding images and videos is pretty simple with Google images or YouTube, and even Randy's on board for linking a word to its corresponding image (although I suspect he wouldn't concede that flashcards are a good way to do this). And, of course, unlike with audio pronunciations, not every word is going to easily lend itself to an image or a video.

So far, I know of no automatic way to add appropriate images or video to Anki, so the downside of using these is that it'll be a bit time consuming to locate the appropriate media and add them to your flashcards. Because using text together with audio has been effective for me, I've rarely used additional media. That said, I'm still always happy to make use of images and video whenever it's convenient to take advantage of the benefits they bring.

Use another foreign language for the meaning of the new word

Obviously this has the prerequisite of knowing a language other than your native language well enough for it to be of use, but you shouldn't feel pigeon-holed to use your native language. For instance, when learning Korean, I often use Japanese as the meaning of the new word simply because the meanings sometimes match up better between the two than between Korean and English. When I make a new flashcard, I simply put whatever I think will help me best remember the word in whatever language happens to be convenient, as I'm really just using the meaning of the word in the non-target language as a mnemonic device (more on that later).

Use the target language for the meaning of the new word

You probably remember doing this back in high school in classes for your native language, and it'll work just the same way in your target language. This is not something you'll be able to do right when you start studying your target language, but as your vocab grows in your target language you'll be able to do this more and more frequently. To the extent you can do this, you fully neutralize any concerns about flashcards forcing you into a rut of translating and you get additional exposure to your target language through the definition itself. I often do this when the word in the target language has a long string of possible corresponding words in English; even though the word doesn't match up well with anything in my native tongue, I often find that the definition in the target language is still succinct enough to easily allow me to connect the word with the concept it encapsulates.

Use the words in your flashcards

A while back I came across a study that basically said practice + exposure (even when said exposure on its own is less than what would be necessary for learning) lets you learn something in half the time of practice alone. In connection with that, I had this to say about flashcards:
This would also explain how best to use spaced-repetition systems; as they are one kind of practice method, you'll need to follow up with exposure to maximize your learning.
If you're following the recommendations I laid out above, you'll see a word in context before it ever goes into your flashcards. Then, each time you review it in your flashcards, you'll get an exposure not only to the word but also to the sentence you found it in. If it's a sufficiently common word, with a bit of luck, or if you actively seek out something that's likely to have the word, you might also come across that as you do other things in the target language.

On top of all that, if you really want to go ahead and cement the word in your memory, you'll also want to actively use it. Bring it up in conversation. Use it in a Lang-8 post. Feedback from native speakers can quickly tell you whether you're doing it right. On Lang-8, you'll obviously get corrections if it's wrong and, in conversation, you'll often be able to tell from the flow of the conversation whether you managed to use it correctly.

Ruthlessly get rid of less useful flashcards

Sometimes you'll find that some weird terms sneak into your flashcard decks. For example, one time I had to do a real-time translation of a legal presentation from Japanese to English. This meant that I needed to learn a bunch of fairly obscure legal terms from that presentation in a very short time, and I did this by throwing them into Anki. Many of those terms come up elsewhere at work, so they've been of use, but a number of them started seeming too obscure to bother with. One example that comes to mind is 移行期正義 ikouki seigi ("transitional justice"), or the "set of judicial and non-judicial measures implemented in order to redress the legacies of massive human rights abuses". Although I did come across this word in context and needed to learn it at the time, it's probably better relegated to the "I'll look it up again if I ever encounter it again" box, given how rarely that particular topic comes up in my life.

Whenever you come across a flashcard like this, don't put too much thought into deleting it—just delete it. If it really is a word you need to know, you'll encounter it again and can make a new flashcard then.

Get enough sleep

Getting enough sleep is a rule to be followed whenever you want to partake of any kind of learning (languages or otherwise), but it's particularly applicable when using flashcards. If you're tired and can't recall something in, e.g., a conversation, it's generally not a huge deal; ask your conversation partner or just skip it and the conversation will move on. But for flashcards, your decreased ability to pull things out of your head will result in more cards marked wrong, which will result in more repeats of cards that you wouldn't have needed had you been in full form. Getting lots of things wrong and then immediately thinking "Damn, I should've got that!" can also sap your motivation, which isn't going to help anything. If I'm tired and finding that I'm struggling to recall things, I'll often simply skip using flashcards that day or try again later when I'm feeling more awake… and, if possible, I'll use that down time to sleep.

So after years of using flashcards, those are the tips I've got to make flashcards as useful as possible. Any tips I missed that I can use to make my own flashcard use better? If so, drop a line in the comments!


  1. I do read your whole and i found that there is a lot of information available like my position is that you should learn through reading, listening to, writing and speaking the language and supplement that with flashcard review because that'll allow you to learn more in less time and as the part of Mandarin flash cards it seen be real helpful for me.

  2. Hi there,

    I just started reading through this series and find it quite interesting. I agree with what you are saying about premade decks, I think a lot of the problem is that SRS software is not designed to teach you something - it's to review something that you have already learnt/understood.

    I was wondering what you think about diving into vocab in the beginning stage and spending 70-80% of your time doing premade flashcards? This would be to get past the initial hurdle of not being able to read anything interesting/read widely.

    I was thinking that in that case the context the premade flashcards give you with examples , images and sound would be at least as rich as dialog from a text book or similar simple content for example.

    To be specific I'm starting Japanese , have a basic grasp of grammar and was thinking of using a site like this: (it feels a bit more fun and interactive and anki - should help keep up motivation). Also Iknow seems to deal with the initial learning stage a bit better - it shows you cards in several different formats a few times until you get it for the first time and then it adds it to its normal spaced review process.


  3. For my thoughts on using a big chunk of time for vocab at the outset, see this comment.

    I'd definitely agree that's presentation is much better than Anki's, although Anki's under-the-hood flexibility is sorely lacking on However my biggest issue with is the way they mix in multiple choice, which you can get right through process of elimination and other testing strategies that don't necessarily indicate that you know what the particular word being tested means.

  4. Thanks for the quick reply , having read my 2 questions they are quite similar - sorry for the double post !

  5. Nice read, thanks. We like the perspective and we are trying to adjust to make it easier.