The humble flashcard: A key component in a successful strategy, or a distraction from what truly matters? Few things have sparked as much debate as the use of flashcards for learning a foreign language.
In this and two follow-up articles, I will discuss the role of flashcards in learning Chinese. As we shall see, this is a complex topic with many potential pros and cons depending both on how you use flashcards and what you use them for.
In this first article, we will focus on the upsides of using flashcards, then we will flip the coin and look at the downsides. In the final part, we will try to balance the pros and cons and see what role, if any, flashcards should have in your approach to learning Chinese. Here are all the articles in this series:
- Why flashcards are great for learning Chinese (this article)
- Why flashcards are terrible for learning Chinese
- How to best use flashcards to learn Chinese
When I discovered the power of flashcards for learning Chinese
I remember clearly what it was like to start using flashcards to learn Chinese. It was almost like magic; I was suddenly able to memorise all the vocabulary I encountered and decided to learn.
Flashcards allowed me to nail smaller tests and bigger exams alike, and succeed in my courses while spending less time on characters and words than I had before. For handwriting specifically, I also found it much more enjoyable than the mindless repetition I had been doing prior to that.
Flashcards also made me feel more in control of my vocabulary learning, choosing what vocabulary to learn and being reasonably sure that I would remember it later. The feeling of forgetting most of what I learnt went away.
Why do flashcards work so well for memorising vocabulary in Chinese?
Flashcards aren’t magic, though, but are instead underpinned by thoroughly researched principles related to how we learn and remember
There are mainly two things that make flashcards excellent for remembering certain types of information:
- The spacing effect is a psychological phenomenon that has been observed across a wide range of learning domains, from language learning to sports. In essence, spreading repetitions over time leads to better long-term results compared with massing repetition together. In other words, it’s better to review a word ten times in ten days, rather than reviewing it ten times in one day. Learning methods and software based on this effect are usually called “space repetition”.
- Active recall is when you actively search your memory for the information you’re looking for. If I ask you to write the Chinese word for “memory”, jìyì, and you are able to write 记忆/記憶, this is an example of active recall. If I gave you a Chinese sentence containing that word and asked you to read it, you would also think about those characters, but you wouldn’t need to actively recall how to write them by hand. A very clear result of memory research is that simply seeing or hearing something leads to worse retention than actively recalling it.
These are the key reasons why flashcards work. While it’s possible to imagine flashcards without spaced repetition (such as if you reviewed the same flashcard over and over) or without active recall (such as if you included the answer on the front of the card), I would argue that this is not how people normally use flashcards.
What is a flashcard anyway?
Before we move on to more benefits of using flashcards for learning Chinese, let’s discuss what a flashcard is. A traditional flashcard is a piece of paper with a question (usually called a prompt) on the front and an answer on the back. You look at the front, try to recall the information on the back, and then flip it over to verify if you were right or wrong.
In theory, you can put anything on the front and anything on the back. Digital flashcards don’t need to have only two sides either and also allow for having pictures, audio and even video on them.
You can have prompts with only one word on them (such as “memory”, and you’re supposed to write 记忆/記憶) or prompts that take minutes to go through (a long paragraph with one word blanked out). Similarly, you can have answers that are very simple (such as the two characters for “memory”) or answers that are very complex and contain full dictionary entries and personal notes for the vocabulary item in question.
With some ingenuity, you can create a flashcard for almost anything you want to remember. This means that it’s hard to discuss flashcards in general because the pros and cons depend on exactly how you use them.
Here, however, I will mostly discuss flashcards as they are commonly used to learn languages. This means short prompts and short answers, sometimes with pictures and/or audio.
More benefits of using flashcards for learning Chinese
I have already explained why flashcards work when it comes to memorising basic information of the kind that can be easily put on the front and back of flashcards. There are many other benefits, however, which aren’t exclusive to flashcards, but which are still important reasons to use them:
- An efficient way to learn the basic meaning of characters and words – As I’ve already said above, flashcards are very efficient, meaning that you can review exactly what you need to review quickly. If you’re busy with other things and only have 10-15 minutes, it’s hard to imagine an activity that would give you more bang for your buck than reviewing flashcards that have come due.
- Excellent for learning to write characters by hand – If you value the ability to handwrite Chinese characters, you almost have to rely on flashcards. You can commit characters to memory short-term by writing them a lot, but it’s almost impossible to learn thousands of characters this way as an adult foreigner. The amount of handwriting you need to do is prohibitive. Using apps like Skritter, which is built specifically to solve this problem, is a much more realistic option.
- Immediate feedback about what you don’t know – A basic tenet of flashcard design is that you should only test your knowledge of one piece of information per flashcard. Check if you know how a character is pronounced or how it’s written, not both at once on the same flashcard. If you follow this, it means that you can pinpoint exactly what you remember, and more importantly, what you have forgotten. If you’re working your way through a textbook without relying on flashcards, it can be very hard to find things you’ve forgotten; you’d have to check the whole book to find them. With flashcards, anything you forget is marked as forgotten and can be easily learnt again.
- Flexible and always available, enabling you – Flashcards are portable (provided that they are digital) and can be studied whenever you are, wherever you are. Even if you only have five minutes to spare while waiting in a queue somewhere, you can make the most out of the situation by reviewing some characters. If you do this vigilantly, you can free up a lot of time for other learning activities later, something I wrote more about here: Time quality: Studying the right thing at the right time.
- Measurable progress and increased motivation – Flashcards make learning visible. You can see how many cards you have created, how many you have learnt and how many you have reviewed. This gives you highly measurable progress, which can also be gamified to motivate you to learn more. Naturally, this is a double-edged sword, because not everything that can be measured counts, and not everything that counts can be measured.
- Collect notes about the vocabulary you learn – A less well-known use of flashcards that I have employed throughout my Chinese learning journey is to use them to collect notes. I said above that you should only ask for one piece of information per flashcard, but that doesn’t stop you from adding notes on the back of the flashcards. You can add anything you want, from example sentences and collocations to related vocabulary you keep mixing up or interesting factoids. With digital flashcards, there’s really no limit to what you can do. You could keep these kinds of notes in a normal text document, but that would become unwieldy fast, so why not keep them sorted by vocabulary item where you’re most likely to need the information anyway?
Dangers of relying too much on flashcards
If your goal is to pass the next dictation test or do well on the vocabulary part of an exam, flashcards are, without a doubt, the most efficient way to do it. If your goal is to grow your basic understanding of common characters and words as quickly as possible, nothing beats flashcards.
Learning a language is not about dictation and exams, however, even if some courses might make you feel like it is. This means that flashcards aren’t the best solution to any and all challenges you encounter when learning Chinese, just that they offer significant benefits in certain areas that make them worthwhile.
If you’ve tried using flashcards but didn’t like it, try again with a different approach. If you dislike flashcards so much that you end up not using them or feel demotivated to learn Chinese in general, you need to find another approach. A method only has the potential to be great if you actually use it. I explored this further here: Should you use an efficient method for learning Chinese even if you hate it?
In the next article in this series, we will look at why flashcards are overrated for learning Chinese, along with some alternative ways to get all or most of the benefits discussed in this article. Stay tuned!
What do you think about flashcards?
I’ve discussed using flashcards with many students over the years, and what seems clear to me is that all students find their own way forward, with or without flashcards.
- What’s your experience with flashcards?
- Do you find them efficient but boring?
- Motivating and fun?
Or something else entirely, maybe? Please leave a comment below!
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