You may be surprised to hear that flashcards can be a rather controversial topic in the language learning world. Some swear by them. Some swear at them. So where do I fall in the flashcard continuum? Am I for or against them?

My short answer:

I think that modern digital flashcard apps can be a useful addition to a balanced language learning diet. The operative word here being “addition.” When you use a spaced repetition system, your flashcards can save time and increase your efficiency since you focus on just the words, phrases, and structures you have yet to master.

My longer, more nuanced answer:

As Khatzumoto of All Japanese All the Time puts it, “You don’t learn a language, you get used to it.” And the only way to “get used to” a language is through lots and lots of “input” (listening and reading) and lots and lots of “output” (speaking and writing). Learners can easily miss the forest for the trees if they start spending too much time studying flashcards (and engaging in other conscious, declarative memory tasks) and not enough time exposing their brains to the target foreign language in authentic, real-world contexts and real-time two-way communication.

If you do decide to use flashcards, make sure that they augment—not replace—the input and output activities you need to acquire a language. And just as importantly, make sure your flashcards meet the following three criteria for kick-ass cards:

① Make your own flashcards

Studying pre-made flashcard decks might save you time up front, but you will actually save much more time in the long run if you make your own. Not only does creating your own cards makes them more relevant to your unique needs and interests, but it also improves your memory and makes each repetition that much more effective. Moreover, creating your own cards helps overcome the most common shortcomings of traditional flashcards (e.g. single word cards without example sentences or audio recordings).

② Include example sentences on your cards

Most flashcards out in the wild have a single word on one side and a translation on the other. This approach is as boring as it is ineffective. Adding example sentences not only makes cards more interesting, but also provides context for the target word, phrase, or structure you are learning as well as a little dose of critical language input that helps your brain solidify the procedural memories that lead to fluency. Ideally, these sentences should be taken from authentic listening and reading content you’ve actually encountered in the real world, but you can also find example sentences using Google search results, sites like Tatoeba.org, or asking a native speaker on sites like iTalki or Lang-8.

③ Include images and audio recordings

One of the main problems with most traditional flashcards is that they are text only. Such cards provide few memory “hooks” to attach the content into your long-term memory and only help you practice one of the four language skills: reading. Fortunately, most modern flashcard apps allow you to overcome these limitations by adding images, audio recordings, etc. As Gabriel Wyner puts it in Fluent Forever: How to Learn Any Language Fast and Never Forget It:

“We recall images much better than words, because we automatically think conceptually when we see an image. Image-recall studies have repeatedly demonstrated that our visual memory is phenomenal.”

Gabriel Wyner

Fluent Forever

Where to find images for your flashcards

To find images for your cards, you can use:

  • For maximum effect, use your own photos or drawings (even stick figures will do!).
  • Find images using Google Image Search or icons using The Noun Project.
  • Fluent Forever app.

How to add audio to your flashcards

In addition to images, audio recordings take flashcards to an even higher level, providing another valuable channel of input and a chance to practice an additional language skill. Depending on your flashcard app, you can either upload an audio file to the card or simply turn on text-to-speech in the settings.

To get free audio recordings by native speakers, check out Rhinospike: Foreign Language Audio on Demand!

  • Submit your text: Simply upload some text content that you want a native speaker to record.
  • Record for submissions in your native language: To both help the community and push your submission ahead in line, answer a request for recordings in your native language.
  • Download the finished audio file. When a native speaker has finished recording your text submission, just download it to your computer and then attach it to a flashcard.

If you use Tinycards (my current favorite flashcard app), you can turn on text-to-speech as follows:

  • Go to Tinycards.Duolingo.com in your browser (the smartphone app version lacks some of the language options included in the online version).
  • Go to one of your decks and click the pencil icon to edit it.
  • Click the gear icon in the upper left.
  • In the “Audio” section, select the language you want from the dropdown lists for both the front and back of the card.

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