Using Language Flashcards

Flashcards are the single most cost-effective tool in your language learning arsenal. By cost-effective I also mean time, as well as money. They can be used for review of vocabulary, phrases, grammar points and idioms when away from your coursebooks or language cds. They are also very effective when you don't have time for a more involved study or review session. I never even tried to use flashcards until I read Barry Farber's book 'How to Learn Any Language.' I reluctantly tried it thinking 'I don't really need this, but I'll give it a shot.' They quickly became a staple in my language learning armory. They provide me with the review that is so necessary when learning, and do it without taking away any of my time. You can buy flashcard sets or you can save some money and make flashcards yourself as I outline below.

Software. There are several great flashcard programs you can get for free that you can use to supplement your language study routine. The one that I use is Anki. You can download sets that other people have made or you can start to input your own words as you need them. Anki and most other free flashcard programs have features such as adding audio, images or other information. They usually include a feature that presents cards as you are likely to start forgetting them, a feature included in other language methods like Pimsleur but are becoming pretty standard (it's called SRS - read this article for more info). Once you have it set up they are extraordinarily easy to use. I have mine set up for just 3 minutes of review per day for each topic and I have several languages and topics.

There is a great downloadable flashcard program by Transparent language that you can use that comes with free sets in dozens of languages.  It has lots of great features like matching images and mp3 audio for your iPod or mp3 player. You can try it for free or update to the deluxe version :

Buying Flashcards. You can buy flashcard sets for under $20. You can get them at bookstores like Barnes and Noble or possibly at other smaller bookstore chains or even local stores. You can also try used bookstores, they are some of my favorite places to find language learning books and supplements. I bought a set of 1000 French flashcards in a used bookstore for about $5. Online you can always shop at the usual places - and There are also a few online sellers of flashcard sets and other learning aids like Vis-ed Flashcards or LangExpress. Flashcards come in sets, sometimes up to 1000 cards or more. The cards are typically business card sized to index card sized with the word in your target language on one side and the translation on the other side. There will frequently be other information on these card sets such as grammar points, pronunciation clues, alternate meanings, related words,etc.

Making Your Own Flashcards. For just a few dollars and some Arts and Crafts 101 you can have a nearly endless supply of flashcards for whatever language you are currently working on, with the words and phrases you most need. You can also put on them whatever extra information is most helpful to you. The simplest method is just to buy sets of index cards. Write the words in your target language on one side and the translation and whatever other relevant information you want on the other side. You can fit a number of entries on an index card. I prefer smaller, business card sized cards, however, and I have not been able to find a box of blank ones. So I came up with the following simple method to make my own blank cards the size of business cards. 

I use cardboard stock printer paper, the same kind you use to make greeting cards with, which you can buy in any stationary store, Wal-mart or office supply store. I use a word processor program to divide the page into three columns and four rows, and I print them out with an outline around each cell which makes a grid for me to use as a guideline to cut out the cards with scissors. This creates twelve cards for each page, and these cards are exactly the same size as ordinary business cards. I used Microsoft Publisher 97 for this, and this technique might be tricky with other word processors. You could also measure out the grid by hand with a ruler, but this might be a little time consuming for many pages. Of course, if you didn't care if the cards were all of identical size and shape, you could just guess and cut the pages by sight. For me, it is much easier to handle the cards when they are the same size.

I usually put seven words or short phrases on each card, held vertically. Occasionally, I will have more phrases on a card than words and that takes up more space, but generally I get at least five entries per card. At seven entries per card and twelve cards per page, that's 84 vocabulary words and phrases per page. It only takes twelve or thirteen pages cut into flashcards for me to get 1000 words and phrases that I am learning onto flashcards! In most languages, 1000 words represents the majority of everyday speech. 

I sometimes put a relevant grammar point along with the word, such as gender if it's not apparent from the word itself, or perhaps a word that is usually left out of a phrase but is implied, I will put in parentheses. This means I am not getting any information from the card that is not helpful, and I can get exactly the information that I know I need or that is most helpful to me. I also find that the act of looking up a word the first time, then writing it down with the definition, then making the flashcard with that word is usually sufficient work to make me remember the word or phrase. Then it is just a matter of refreshing my memory on a regular basis with that word and it is then in long-term memory. 

I have made sets for myself for Spanish, Swedish and Esperanto. Since I figured out how to make them for myself and put my cardboard stock printer paper to good use, I haven't even looked to buy another set.

Using Flashcards. Using flashcards is simple. Pick up a card and look at the word or phrase in the language you are studying, or the first word if there are more than one on the card. Know what it means? If it doesn't come to you right away, rack your brains a little and try to remember. If that fails, then guess. Flip the card over and look at the translation. If you were right, congratulations. If not, were you close? Did you have it confused with another similar word? Move on to the next card or the next word on the same card. Since I make my own cards, and I like to put a number of entries on each card, I make sure that when I flip the card over I don't see the translation of the next words on the card. I don't want to cheat. I want to genuinely remember each and every word or phrase.

Barry Farber recommends keeping a stack of cards in your shirt pocket. Every time you find yourself in line at the grocery store, the bank, the post office or anywhere else, whip out the cards and start testing. This is what he calls 'Hidden Moments.' Simple, but effective. A 30 second review of the vocabulary words and phrases that you most need to be studying, and it didn't take any more time out of your already busy day. Review and daily contact with your new language are so essential to really learning it.

I confess that I tried this approach and it didn't work for me. I think I'm just very good at avoiding lines. I shop at strange times, or online (where there are no lines!), and in general I found that I didn't use the flashcards. Except when I was in my car. Traffic lights. I spend a lot of time driving, and traffic lights became the review sessions. I moved the stack of flashcards from my shirt pocket to that little storage area between the front seats. The flashcards are now a permanent resident, next to the Tic-Tacs and assorted coins. My target each and every day is five cards. Every red light I have to stop at, where I know I will at least have time to reach down and grab a card, becomes a short review session. Sometimes I get through a half a card at one light, sometimes a whole card or even two. When I get through all five, I shuffle them and flip them over, and my next flashcard test will be translating in the opposite direction. Now I look at the English word and try to come up with the translation in the language I'm studying. Since I saw the word or phrase recently, it should be fresh in my memory. That night I rotate those cards to the back of the deck and five new cards take their place next to the Tic-Tacs.

Seven entries per flashcard, five cards per day. That's 35 words per day. Approximately 200 words or phrases per week. But that's my target. Maybe you want to do more than five cards per day. Maybe you will only do one per day. Great. Any way you want to do it. These are all words or phrases you have culled from your weekly studying in your coursebook or heard in your audio cds or picked out of books, newspapers or websites you are trying to read. Verbs, nouns, adjectives. Greetings, idioms and proverbs. Every word or phrase you learn is a triumph. It's an extra review that brings you closer to learning your new language, and it doesn't cost you much in time or money. Maybe you still aren't sure if you'd use flashcards. Try making just a small handful and try it out. Just a few dozen words or phrases and give it a shot. It can't hurt, and it may help a lot.

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