You know that practice practice practice is the best way to learn a language. But its definitely true that some ways of practicing the language are more effective than others. If you’re going to put in the time and effort to study your language, you want to use that time as effectively as possible.

Latest theory is that learning new words and vocabulary in context rather than in isolation is the best way to expand your vocabulary.

So does this mean that the use of flashcards is a bad idea? Should I stick to other techniques when learning a language?

The appeal of flashcards

Flashcards are appealing in that they give you a sense of making real, measurable progress in your language. If you studied 20 flashcards, then you feel that you have increased your vocabulary by 20 words. Whereas if you speak with someone in the language, read a text or review your grammar notes, then its harder to measure what exactly it is that you’ve achieved.

Why you should avoid flashcards

Flashcards are a great way of putting vocabulary into your short term memory. But that is the only thing they are great for. You can study a set of flashcards and feel you have learned the vocabulary on them, but if you put those flashcards away for a month and then come back to them, you will have forgotten most of the vocabulary they contain.

Using flashcards is like cramming for an exam the night before – the knowledge goes in for long enough for you to pass the exam, but you will have forgotten it all six months later when someone asks you about it. Hopefully you’re wanting to be able to speak your language for longer than the length of an exam, so in this respect flashcards are definitely a sub-optimal study tool.

Why you should use flashcards

However, flashcards do have their uses if you are able to think outside the square a little.

Firstly, flashcards are something you can make and use in places and times where other study methods don’t work. For example, making flashcards is something that doesn’t require much brain power at all. Therefore, if it’s a Friday night at the end of a long week, you’re exhausted and not in the mood to do anything except watch television, flashcards could be the thing that saves your Friday evening. Rather than waste an evening in front of the TV not studying your language, you can have your notes open in front of you and slowly while watching tv you can make flashcards of the words you don’t know. It’s obviously not a very effective way of studying since you are doing it while watching tv, but if it’s the choice between that and doing no study at all, then definitely make yourself some flashcards.

Flashcards are also good if you are short on time. Like, really short on time. If you’ve got 30 seconds while waiting for the elevator or 5 minutes while waiting for the bus, flashcards are something you can take out and use where other study methods aren’t so convenient. And again, if it’s a choice between some study and no study – take out those flashcards!
But the main benefit (and danger) of flashcards is how great they are at putting words in your short term memory. The danger is that you confuse your short term memory for your long term memory and believe you’ve actually memorised the new vocabulary, but if you realise that it’s a short term memory tool and plan your strategy accordingly, then you can have great results.

The key is to realise that once you’ve used the flashcards to put the words into your short term memory, you’ve actually only completed step one. Step two is then to transfer the words from your short term memory into your long term memory.

Here is an example of an effective way to use flashcards to expand your vocabulary permanently:

  • 1. Take a text containing around 20 words you don’t know. Aim to have only one or two unknown words per sentence, which means your text is probably around half a page long.
  • 2. Read the text and try to understand the meaning of the whole text, even though there are gaps in your understanding because of the unknown words
  • 3. Look up all the words you don’t know, and transform these words into flashcards
  • 4. Study the flashcards until you can memorise all the words.
  • 5. Go back and read the original text. Can you understand every word in the text and is the meaning of the text completely, 100% clear?
  • 6. Read the text once every day for a week. Once or twice during the week, write your own sentences using the words on the flashcards.
  • At the end of that process, a large amount of the words should be in your long term memory. This is because you got the words quickly into your short term memory, and then placed them in context by reading and re-reading the text in which those words appear. This learning of words in context is a great way of putting the words into your long-term memory.

    Hopefully, the words in the text are common enough words that now that you’ve learned them you will hear them and recognise them again and again in real life and in your classroom.