Flashcards Are A Bad Idea: Here Are More Reasons Why

As the flashcards holy war rages on, I continue to be amazed at how far people will go to defend a bad idea — even after admitting that it's bad.

One commenter said:

Ok, yes I agree flashcards are boring. I've tried using flashcards, but I just couldn't sit through it (Anki software). It is just rote repetition. There is much researched to be done to improve SRS. However, I have to disagree on some points. You refer to the translation step as bad thing. The translation step is vital part of the SLA process...

It might not be clear to you as you read that, but that was intended to be a defense of flashcards. (As I read it, it sounds like an indictment.) But then he even attempts to paint word-for-word mental translation as a good and necessary part of language learning!

Really? You don't think the translation step is bad? Tell that to this commenter:

How do you undo the process of translating in your brain? I hate, hate, hate that habit of mine, but I don't know how to break myself of it. I try to be aware of what I'm doing with German, but every time I check in with my brain, I find myself translating as I go. Hate it!

or this one:

I agree with you on the flash cards. And this is coming from someone who studied Italian for 3 years and now is living in Italy and believe me those flash cards did not help a bit. What I have learned is that I must stop translating. TRANSLATING in your brain is bad. SO now I am learning ways to express myself.

Wow. Three years of study, and then living in Italy, and still unable to break the translation step. Whereas I've been learning for less than a year and I've never been to Italy, but I don't have that problem.

But perhaps the best comment is this last one:

I absolutely won't argue with the argument of not using SRS as it has happened to me. My girlfriend, who I met in my country learned English without SRS, without studying much and by simply speaking and using it. When I moved to her country, I studied grammar books, I built up an Anki vocabulary of nearly 4000 words, I purchased hundreds of books, and I got nowhere. I spent 2-3 hours everyday studying, doing pointless
exercises, etc.

True, I'm actually a walking dictionary, but I have to translate the word first. I can't use the word in context without first seeing the Anki card. This in reality has done me more damage than good.

I've noticed the stuff I do understand without translating is the stuff I use everyday, I hear on TV or in music or I use in conversation. I now simply spend my time watching movies, reading and talking and I'm making far better progress. I realised it was bad when I was reading a blog and saw a word and couldn't think where I had see it before, until I realised it was one of my Anki words and I needed to translate it.

It didn't matter to me at the time that my girlfriend and all her friends learnt English without using flashcards, I believed the method was working for me, and I was wrong. I tried varying the way I was learning, i.e. Using whole sentences, etc. But flashcards have been my greatest hindrance.

Still think flashcards are good?

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. A sentence on a card is just one possible use of a word... some words have several dozen uses! I know you're not doing 40 cards for every word. And if you are, why wouldn't you just read an article?

Other people try redefining the argument, to the point where what they're talking about are no longer flashcards at all. And again I ask, if you're going to do all that work, why wouldn't you just pick up a book, or read a magazine, or listen to a lecture or podcast? There's 1000x more context in any one of those real-world uses than there is in a deck of flashcards, no matter how much time you've spent making them.

This has certainly turned into a hot topic. And frankly, that's good, because that means we're challenging the assumptions and beliefs of traditional methods. But I think it's time that we gather some data.

I know that more of you will find yourselves unable to resist commenting on this topic, so I'm going to ask that everyone who leaves a comment begins their comment by stating how many languages they speak fluently.

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. So please, tell everyone how many languages you speak fluently when you write your comment, so we can get some actual data rather than emotion and assumption.


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  • You know what? The truth of what you're saying about flashcards dawned on me as I found myself using the same word in different circumstances/meanings/etc. Like, duh, Sara! How are you supposed to grasp the different (sometimes as many as 8 or 10 or more) various meanings or even subtle shades of meaning off of one flashcard? Once that dawned on me (OK, sometimes I'm a bit slow), all your points made sense. I know I've made a lot of progress this past year, and with applying more of your suggestions, and a bit more patience on this end, I'll be even better this year. (And sloely but surely, I see myself getting out of the translation habit. Was so happy yesterday when I talked with my husband yesterday and realised that I don't translate everything like I thought!)But, thanks again. I'm glad your point finally dawned on me!

  • Yes, I still think flashcards are a good tool, but you need to know how to use it. Many ppl don't.
    By the way: it seems you learned from Benny Lewis how to make a blog attractive...

  • I'm currently learning French; I'm not yet fluent.Two substantial comments, and neither commenter did what was asked:
    "I’m going to ask that everyone who leaves a comment begins their comment by stating how many languages they speak fluently."It seems to me, Randy, that those arguing against you aren't even reading your posts in entirety. Come on, people!

  • Make that three comments.

  • Sorry for the typos -- was typing this on my phone. I can spell, promise!

  • Sorry for not stating my language fluency status -- I misunderstood the last paragraph you posted. I'm fluent in English, and I'm getting there with German. I expect to feel comfortable calling myself fluent in another 1-2 years, but for now, I do pretty well with the language. (e.g. - The vast majority of my friendships here are with people I speak all or mainly German to; I speak to my mother-in-law only in German; my husband and I speak a German/English mix; I can go to the doctor/store/immigration office/wherever I want by myself and do just fine in German; I just translated a 13-page IT-related document for my husband's boss (and got paid for it), gave a 5-minute speech a couple of weeks ago, and have another coming up in 2 weeks...)Writing that...hmm. Maybe I'm more adept with the language than I thought. I still need to get out of the bad habit of translating in my head more than I should (though it's not as omnipresent and pervasive as I'd originally thought that it was.)I used flashcards for a bit back in March (maybe for 1-2 weeks) before I got utterly bored with them and pushed myself to talk to people more, no matter what. I also used the words and vocabulary I knew to make myself write sentences/paragraphs on the fly (wanted to improve my writing in case I entered the business world), and used the new vocabulary I was learning in conversation. Surprise, surprise... all that worked a ton better than flashcards, now that I'm thinking back on it.My previous thoughts of perhaps considering going back to flashcards was based on a fear that I'm stuck with my language learning and not progressing, which isn't really true -- I'm just a bit of a perfectionist and need to chill out and keep communicating with people. I do think that I need to stretch myself a step farther (more television, movies, and local slang), but that will come in time. Honestly, I guess my worst stumbling block is lack of patience.

  • Name one thing you can do with flashcards that can't be done with another, better method.

  • I think you last sentence sums up the real problem for most language learners -- impatience!In fact, I'm certain that it's that impatience which makes people buy into the idea of flashcards. They think they're learning more, faster. But flashcards only jam tons of one-to-one information into your short-term memory, and as soon as you put down the flashcards for a moment, everything you thought you knew is gone.Patience is the most important thing for a language learner. Anything worth doing is worth doing right.

  • Hi everyone!My native language - Latvian, I speak fluent English and Russian. And here's an interesting thing - I studied German for 7 years at school but it's all gone. On the other hand, I can still remember all conversational Romanian that I picked up when working with Romanian lads 8 years ago... I think that goes to prove that real-life language use beat academic studies hands down!As for flashcards - I have a good point to make in this regard.When I came to Ireland 8 years ago, I realized my English was s*&$t (contrary to what I had thought previously) and it was no good for real-life conversations. So I started improving my English by all means possible. For some reason (I reckon the traditional academic language learning experience had something to do with it...:-) I chose to cram hundreds upon hundreds of English words into my brain by using a method that is essentially the same flashcard technique.I was writing the words down in a notebook with a translation in Latvian and memorized them. About 5 - 10 new words daily. Repeated them all the time - I was carrying the notebooks with me and made meticulous effort to memorize every single word out of the thousands that I wrote down.The results were good. I started speaking English much better. But while I seemingly improved my English vocabulary, I started experiencing terrible issues:1) I couldn't get rid of my native language in the back of my mind when I tried to speak English (anybody can tell me why? :-) - and this resulted in messed up speech, hesitation and stuttering, let alone the terrible unnatural sentence structures!2) Whenever I was trying to remember a certain English word, I involuntarily VISUALISED the word. I was driving me nuts, but I couldn't help it, because by memorizing the words I was creating a very, very strong bond with the WRITTEN WORD instead of an ABSTRACT image as it should happen if you acquire vocabulary in a natural way!!!3) I could tell you were a particular word is written in one of my many pocket dictionaries, but I was struggling to use them in real conversations. My English vocabulary was brilliant for writing (when you can create sentences slowly, pick the right words from your inner SUPER-VOCABULARY :-) but useless when speaking!I stopped cramming English word lists in my brain when I realized what it does to you; but I can't understand to this day how I could be so blind for years without seeing the truth - only by USING (Randy has gone great lengths to stress the importance of USING A LANGUAGE!!!! in the previous blog post) a language you can learn it and improve it!

  • I think it is the real reason why people are so adamant when it comes to flashcards - they're looking for a silver bullet in language learning. Just think on it - every industry has one, and it's very easy to fall for it!
    Language learning - learn 5000 words using SRS - and you've learned the language!
    Fat loss - use these incredible pills twice daily and lose 100 pounds in 60 days!
    Internet marketing - make 23,523.234$ a month - all you need to do is join this membership site and we'll help you set up your business in no time!
    People are buying into the hype because it yields some results and they believe it works for 100%, and what's worse - they believe it's the RIGHT thing to do!...

  • I can think of one very particular instance where flashcards really helped me, although there have been more.I'm a translator and interpreter by trade. I was called upon to interpret EN < > ES for a private party attending a boxing match. I thought "Wow, this'll be fun! No boring courtroom stuff (my bread and butter)." Anyway, I knew nothing about boxing in either language. So first, I boned up on boxing rules, terminology, etc. in English. Then I went about finding all those same things in Spanish. Yes, that's a very specific example that a lot of people probably won't encounter in their learning. But I was learning not just in one language, but in two. And frankly, in this instance I looked at it as much-needed preparation for a job.The upshot of this is that I expanded my vocabulary in both languages by using flashcards, although the research happened first in English. And because I was really pretty thrilled to have that interpreting assignment - which happened a bit over two years ago, that new vocabulary will stay with me. To this day I can easily recall everything I learned in preparation for the event. It's not that I particularly enjoy boxing. It was the complete set of circumstances that caused this.I can imagine that there are more than a few people out there that are learning a language for work, not purely for pleasure. Or more likely still, a combination of reasons.Would I use flashcards for everything? Of course not. Certainly not for most things either. But they've served their purpose for me.

  • Finally, someone with a concrete example!I would still argue that the flashcards were a good prep for the event, but that it was the event itself which burned those word into your mind.So I still don't believe that you "learned" from the flashcards, but I will give you credit for being the first commenter to suggest a good use for them!

  • Well, because this was a job, I really needed to be exact. But as Sara sort of stated in one of her posts above, once I had done the initial research in English, I could have used my own words (perhaps not exact, but good enough) to relay the information. But again, because it was a paying job, I owed it to myself and to my client to be exact with my terminology.Case in point: I also speak Italian and work with it daily. I've not bothered to learn the exact Italian terminology for boxing because I've not needed it in a professional setting. But I can easily convey everything I learned about boxing in that language, even though there is some overlap of terminology between ES and IT (and truth be told, Italian *LOVES* importing English words for sporting events).

  • Fluent in English. Native language is English. Learning Japanese. Plan to learn Korean and maybe Mandarin, too. I'm also a linguistics major at univeristy, if that counts for anything.As I'm still monolingual I don't know if I can say much about whether or not flash cards are all they're talked up to be or anything. But, my view on it is, I didn't learn my native language with flash cards so I definitely don't need them for any other language. Language, at least the way I see it, is a physical and mental behavior. (Emphasis on behavior). Physical because you move your body, mouth, tongue, etc. to make sounds, and receive these sounds through your ears. Mental because the experiences attached to sounds you hear as part of a language have to be put somewhere. That and symbols (writing) is interpreted in the mind. The physical element of writing is of course writing things or typing or tracing them on your hand or in the air or what have you.I used Anki for a year and a half and the best I can do is read some things and send messages on Skype in Japanese. It's slow and challenging unless it's something I use all the time.The folks at ALG of AUA Thailand teach Thai, English, and Japanese in a natural way where you're involved in activities and exposed to thousands of hours of the language with the help of drawings, acting out, and such. They ask that you don't speak until a certain number of hours of class are completed, and they also ask that you don't spend any time trying to think about the language in any way (like using a dictionary to look something up, or trying to translate something in your head, or using flash cards to memorize things). ALG stands for Automatic Language Growth. The people that complete the course's 2000 hours of Thai come out as native speakers. Never needing to use flashcards.There are also groups like the Hippo Family Club that advocate natural language acquisition. They say to listen to their CDs (which are stories and songs) and either passively listen or actively listen and mimic along. They say to get the sounds in your head. As a result, meaning grows based on the experiences you have with these sounds. It's by this way of thinking that I now operate my language acquisition activities. While I don't have the CDs they offer, I do have movies, TV shows, people, music, and the like to watch and listen to and mimic along.Chris Lonsdale, author of "The Third Ear", doesn't mention ever using flash cards and acquired fluency in Mandarin in 6 months and in Cantonese in another 4 months. His book is about how you can learn languages quickly and easily and have fun with it. Basically it came down to letting your brain be exposed to the whole language while interacting within the society that speaks that language and practicing details. Using the language to learn the language. And that sort of thing.Also, I've never heard anything of Stuart Jay Raj ever using Anki or the like for learning languages. And, a friend of mine learned Japanese by watching lots of Japanese TV and can't be bothered to use flashcards because they're a nuisance. And, his Japanese is incredible.I'm glad that there is some opposing view to flash cards. I can see them being of use to memorize facts or something more effectively, but for me they make language learning dull and makes the process feel unnatural. I'm glad I've freed myself from that prison.

  • I'm very fluent in Japanese and am now studying hard to attain native-like proficiency (I estimate with hard work I have about 2-3 years of study to reach that goal). I personally have no doubt that what you're saying is correct. Since deciding to fire up my language study a few months ago I've been reading a lot about how to learn langauges and experimenting with different approaches, including anki flashcards, but I found flashcards deeply unsatisfying compared to the richness of learning new words in real meaningful contexts ie as part of texts (that I have chosen because I am interested in reading them). And I am 100% sure that my acquisition of those new words is far superior to the shallowness that I experienced with flashcards (not to mention, doing anki is so boring compared to engaging with a real text). Thanks for confirming my suspicions, with all the talk of SRS in the language learning community I was feeling like maybe I was missing out....

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