When we were kids, nobody wanted to be the nerdy flashcard kid.
Now that we’re all grown up, being a nerd is where it’s at.
They used to call the studious kids “nerds,” just because they were using their big stacks of mom-made flashcards in class.
Maybe you were one of ’em!
They had flashcards for everything: multiplication tables, vocabulary, words beginning with the letter “J,” male and female names of animals, the whole lot!
The rest of the class just thought they were begging for wedgies.
Then the test season came and went—those “nerds” got stellar grades.
And you know in your heart of hearts why that is. But you can’t seem to admit it to yourself.
It’s those darn flashcards! That’s why they were tearing through the test like it was toilet paper.
You learned at a young age that the crude technology of flashcards works. But you can’t seem to get around to using them. Why not? Because they’re so not cool. They’ll destroy your reputation of being the kid who winged it all.
In this post, I’m gonna convince you to give flashcards a shot. Because they’re simply that awesome.
Let’s go find out why flashcards work—particularly for learning a new language.
Don’t worry, nobody’s looking.
Download: This blog post is available as a convenient and portable PDF that you can take anywhere. Click here to get a copy. (Download)
Flashcard 411: Everything You Ever Needed to Know About Language Learning Flashcards
First, we’re going to take a quick look at all the reasons why flashcards are perfect for language learners. There are certainly a lot of reasons, but these are the strongest!
Why Do Flashcards Work for Language Learning?
- They’re beyond easy to use
Everything is easy. Until you meet a grammar book you don’t understand or listen to a podcast where the hosts speak so fast you can’t even make out individual words.
Flashcards are simpler on a whole different level.
Flashcards are so easy, so simple and so unassuming that learners often underestimate their power. We’re so used to thinking that unless a tool has all the bells and whistles, it couldn’t do a great job.
But the sheer simplicity of flashcards, both in paper and digitized forms, is the very feature that makes them so powerful. As you’ll soon learn, the next 3 bullet points spring from the fact that flashcards are so deceptively simple.
- Those rectangular spaces really do grab our attention
A feature of flashcards is that they’re confined to a limited (rectangular) space. As it turns out, this is very helpful in learning. Unlike a single book page which may contain several paragraphs and dozens upon dozens of sentences, a single flashcard often contains just a few words—sometimes even just one word or one image.
And this one word, in that very instant, becomes our whole universe. It’s daring us to answer or guess what’s behind the card, and in that moment it’s our entire point of focus.
Nothing else matters. No extraneous factors dilute or demand our attention. It’s like being in a gun duel and all your focus is spent on that dark silhouette in front of you. It’s just you and the flashcard, there’s no tomorrow.
I don’t wanna get too theatrical, but that’s what facing a flashcard is like. It’s just the word and you. And the only question is, can you conquer it?
- They give us instant feedback and course correction
Whether you use print flashcards or the digitized versions of today, flashcards have an instant feedback mechanism. You simply flip the card and expose what’s behind—then you’ll know who won the duel.
This instant feedback and course correction is vital for enhanced learning. Because the correction is in real-time, you can immediately learn from your mistake and incorporate the learning into the very next question/card.
It’s not like taking a long exam, passing the answer sheet to your professor and waiting for one week to get it back.
Instant feedback allows you to self-reflect and review your train of thoughts immediately after you discovered your mistake. The mistakes and lessons learned are painfully fresh, which makes it memorable.
- They encourage repetition—the key to learning
The Romans have a saying: repetitio est mater studiorum. (Repetition is the mother of all learning).
Flashcards are quite effective because they promote the act of repetition. Because of their inherent simplicity, which we’ve already talked about, flashcards easily lend themselves to repetition. That’s why they’re so freakin’ awesome. They’re simple and unassuming, but they can pack a mean punch.
You can have another go at the deck without fear because you know you can stop anytime you want to. You don’t have to finish the whole thing. (Unless of course you are somewhat slightly obsessive-compulsive.)
You think you can do better with Spanish verb forms in the next round? Simply shuffle the cards, and voila! You got a brand new randomized deck.
Flashcards can even be mildly addicting. Especially when you’re getting good at the lesson and you just have a few mistakes in the round. You’re gonna be itching to make up for all those careless mistakes and end up with a perfect record.
So guess what just happened? You overlearned and burned the lesson into your long-term memory. Not bad at all.
Okay. Now that we know why flashcards are your buddies in learning a language, let’s dive deeper into this topic and investigate the ways that we can pack even more punch into these babies. The defining features of an awesome flashcard system are up next.
3 Characteristics of a Great Flashcard System
1. Different sensory cues are integrated for maximum impact
We know that there are visual learners. They learn best with images and colors. We also know that there are auditory dudes who like melodies and sound with their lessons. Finally, there’s kinesthetic learners, who learn best when they’re moving and actively doing things.
Now just to make it clear, we all learn visually, auditorily and kinesthetically. It’s just that people have certain preferences or modalities where they learn best. So a kinesthetic bloke can still learn visually, albeit not as effectively as when he’s jumping around, running after people and generally making a mess of things.
Going back to flashcards, what do you think will happen to the learning process when we have cards that hit on multiple sensory modalities?
In other words, what’s the effect of having multimedia elements like images, sounds and videos to the flashcard ?
Answer: Enhanced learning.
Memory will be served well by multimedia as the brain can have multiple points of anchoring.
Studies have shown time and again that hitting many varied sensory nerves makes the event, object or, in this case, language lesson more memorable.
A great flashcard system is one that hits the eyes with images. Not just ordinary, boring pictures mind you, but funny, cute, interesting or shocking ones.
For example, if you want an “el gato” (cat) vocabulary card, don’t just place there a picture of an indistinct feline. Choose one that’s funny or cute—like many of those cat memes. That’ll make it so much more memorable.
Use interesting fonts and colors as well for your “el gato” text.
If you can have a video of a cat hopelessly chasing a laser pointer, even better.
2. Language is always presented with good context
The brain can’t hold information that exists in a vacuum, at least not for very long. That’s why memorizing a bunch of meaningless numbers is futile. It’ll only take a few minutes before you forget them.
You’ve got to make all your learning meaningful.
One way of doing this through flashcards is by creating context for your card. That’s why Voxy’s system (which we’ll learn more about later in the post) is so good—it allows you to make flashcards out of the pictures in your phone’s photo gallery. That means the pictures that you’re using already have personal context. They’re already anchored. You already hold memories of them—you only have to add a language lesson.
The picture of your drunk uncle on New Year’s Eve, for example, can be used as a Spanish vocabulary card for “tío” (uncle).
A great flashcard system makes every card meaningful. Otherwise, it’ll be just a boring vocabulary list.
3. It performs spaced repetition
What is spaced repetition?
Let’s say you have card A and card B. Card A, you know by heart. You get shown Card A, you quickly answer and with 100% accuracy. You get shown Card A, you think your intelligence is being insulted.
Card B is a little different. You’re not so familiar with Card B. It takes you a couple of seconds to give an answer. And you’re not even sure of your answer.
A spaced repetition system will make sure that you meet Card B more often than Card A.
Spaced repetition is a great way to maintain the “freshness” of your flashcards. It means you’ll always be learning something new. You will always be challenged. A great flashcard system is not random. It’s algorithmically determined so you’ll only keep studying words you really need to study. Time is saved in the process.
Now that we know all that, let’s see some prime examples of both traditional and digitized flashcards.
The Hottest Flashcard Apps
FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
Great—but what does this have to do with flashcards?
Well, FluentU just happens to have developed one of the best interactive flashcard systems to date. Everything that your senses will ever need is provided for: example sentences, dynamic games, relevant images, audio pronunciation examples, usage examples from real-world videos and more.
Plus, all the language on the flashcards is pulled from video content that you’ve been enjoying and studying on the site. That means every last word is anchored in context that’s personally meaningful to you. Your flashcard decks will be perfectly customized to your FluentU progress.
Try this out if you’re looking for the liveliest possible flashcard experience.
Anki is the Japanese word for “memorization.” And that’s what this program is for. Anki is offered as freeware for anybody who needs to memorize anything (so basically every breathing human being on the planet).
Students can use it to memorize formulas, historical dates and figures, countries’ capitols and currencies, definitions of terms, scientific names etc.
For language learners, the program can be used to memorize sets of vocabulary, grammar rules, important phrases, pronunciations and more. It’s media-friendly and can support clips, images, videos and sounds.
There’s a feature where you can download the flashcards shared by others so that you can also benefit from their lessons. And because it’s open source, you can customize the features to perfectly suit your learning style.
“What would you like to learn today?” That’s the question the folks from Brainscape would like you to ask yourself. Because whatever that is, whether it’s Spanish verbs, French adjectives, cocktail proportions or keyboard shortcuts, Brainscape can help you learn these things faster.
With their unique Confidence-Based Repetition (CBR) system, you spend more time learning the things that you find challenging and less time on those you’ve already got in the bag.
With every flashcard, you’re asked to gauge the difficulty level and decide how often you’d want to review that particular card. Their adaptive learning algorithm then jumps into action scheduling the card to come up at the most optimal moment.
So with Brainscape, your learning is highly targeted and personalized. You’re getting the most out of the time you spend studying. And, for students, that leaves you with more time to play!
Imagine this. You’re taking one of your morning walks. You’re listening to a language learning podcast on your mobile. Then suddenly, something catches your eye. A man wearing a cowboy hat is walking in the opposite direction. It made you wonder, “What’s the Spanish word for hat?”
Voxy is the app for that. You can take a picture of that hat, and then this (free!) app is going to analyze your picture and transform it into a flashcard with the word “el sombrero” on it.
Wouldn’t that make your day, knowing that you can take pictures and turn your daily life into one big, exciting vocabulary lesson?
With Voxy’s app, you can even use the pics in your galleries to make the smart flashcards. You can also add notes to provide richer context for your pictures.
And in order to further boost your language learning, the app comes with 3 exercises to help reading and listening comprehension.
Boom! There go all your excuses for not learning a new language. It’s too much fun to resist!
You know flashcards are effective when British Council is getting in on the action. With its mission of spreading development, uplifting the arts, promoting social equality and championing the English language, the Council only promotes methods that are practical and seriously effective.
The site has a flashcard maker that helps both student and teacher to print out engaging and informative flashcards. They can be most useful in a classroom setting where playful interaction with fellow students increases the lesson’s “retainability.”
Here you’re just going to find good ol’ flashcards flipped and shuffled by hands. But for some language learners, especially the kinesthetic and social types, this is the most effective way to go.
This app has one of the better interfaces around. It’s easy on the eyes and easy to use.
You’ll know right away that the makers of StudyBlue didn’t want you to study alone. You can actually share your flashcards with everyone in your class, as well as benefit from the flashcards of others.
With StudyBlue, you not only get the standard options to add text, pictures and audio to your cards, but you’re also given stats, search options, reminders and a study saver so you can really get down to learning Russian, Spanish, French, Korean or any language of choice.
StudyBlue is one of the best Android flashcard apps around. So if you’re gonna find yourself idle while waiting in line for that hot java, fiddle with StudyBlue and get that learning going.
So how about that? Are beginning to change your mind? Ready to give flashcards a chance?
Then get downloading!
Download: This blog post is available as a convenient and portable PDF that you can take anywhere. Click here to get a copy. (Download)
And One More Thing…
If you’re digging these apps, you’ll love using FluentU. FluentU makes it possible to learn languages from music videos, commercials, news and inspiring talks.
We talked about its flashcard features earlier, but it has plenty more to offer learners. FluentU has a wide variety of videos like movie trailers, funny commercials and web series, as you can see here:
FluentU has interactive captions that let you tap on any word to see an image, definition, audio and useful examples. Now native language content is within reach with interactive transcripts.
Didn’t catch something? Go back and listen again. Missed a word? Hover your mouse over the subtitles to instantly view definitions.
You can learn all the vocabulary in any video with FluentU’s “learn mode.” Swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning.
And FluentU always keeps track of vocabulary that you’re learning. It uses that vocab to give you a 100% personalized experience by recommending videos and examples.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn languages with real-world videos.