Club-member Andrew emailed this:
One other language learning tool which I’m kind of undecided on is flash cards. I’ve not seen you mention them on your site, but I know you’ll have an opinion. Maybe a topic for a future newsletter? My thoughts are:
- Helps get over a hump when you struggle with similar looking words; spesso, spasso, spessa, etc
- Single words on their own don’t work, it needs to be a phrase with context.
- Focus on tricky words, not every word you don’t know.
- Beware of youtube videos that have you believe it’s the silver bullet.
Well, of course I have an opinion on flashcards, Andrew’s right. Though not a strong one either for or against.
I agree, Andrew, that flashcards (little pieces of paper or cardboard with the word you want to learn written on one side and maybe a translation on the other side – or a more technologically up-to-date version of this age old study technique) are no silver bullet.
The interesting part, though, is why not.
Learning vocabulary is, of course, an essential part of learning a foreign language, and there are different approaches to doing it.
When I was a beginner in Turkish, for example, I remember using flashcards to teach myself the numbers, the days of the week, food items, and other such useful beginner topics. The Turkish words were not similar to anything I’d seen before, so effort was required to recognise and memorise them, and there was the promise that they would be immediately useful.
Duolingo didn’t exist in those days (this was more than 30 years back), but if it had done I could have used their app, which presents words and grammar together not separately, and probably got just as far or further than with my elastic band-wrapped stack of snipped up pieces of card.
Ditto with taking a course, or doing ‘match the word and the picture’ exercises, or whatever. There are many ways to learn new words and, in part it, comes down to what you are comfortable with and what the options are. If I had no other way of learning words, so no app, no course, no textbook, then flashcards and the like would be fine.
Flashcards, I suppose, would also be good when it came to dealing with a MASS OF ESSENTIAL ITEMS that really must be dealt with before moving on to, say, reading or listening to actual texts. If you want to learn Japanese, you’re going to have to deal with the Japanese writing system, and so build that visual memory for kanji (the Chinese characters that represent words). Flashcards, why not?
BUT – and this is the important point – in any language there’s a lot of vocabulary. And so, once past the essentials that you’ll find in any beginners’ course, the issue is WHICH WORDS are worth spending your time on, rather than how you might learn them.
By definition, when using flashcards, you will have pre-selected words you want to focus on, or someone else will have done so for you. But once past the lowest levels, it’s far from obvious what your focus should be. Do you really need to memorise sets of ‘body’ or ‘food’ vocabulary, for example? Or would you, like me, find it more useful to be learning terms like ‘marketing’, ‘discount’, ‘turnover’, ‘profit’, and so on?
With my most recent and lowest-level language, which is Spanish, I’ve really not ‘studied’ at all (apart from a few months with Duolingo), but I have been reading it, listening to it, and taking weekly conversation lessons. You might wonder whether that’s not a case of putting the cart before the horse, but with a language that’s reasonably accessible in terms of its vocabulary and grammar (I know Italian and some French) it’s perfectly possible to get used to understanding it and communicating in it WITHOUT memorising sets of words beforehand.
By reading regular emails from El Pais about the American presidential election, for example, I’ve learnt a lot of words, got much more used to the grammar structures, and built my confidence dealing with Spanish texts. More to the point, the things I am reading and listening to contain the words and structures that are relevant to my interests. Sure, I might have trouble decoding a Spanish menu, because I haven’t bothered with the flashcard set of food words, but I can follow the conversation about how relevant the Hispanic/Latino vote in Florida is, and how both sides are attempting to win it.
Were I to have spent the same time as I spent reading election report emails in Spanish memorising word lists, I might, or might not, have learnt more items. But they almost certainly wouldn’t have been the things that are most-immediately relevant to me.
Insomma, learning by reading/listening/speaking has the huge advantage that it is targeted to your needs, compared to learning pre-selected lists of words. Suppose I was into, I don’t know, say cooking, then arguably, reading and following recipes would be a way to fast track the relevant words and structures into the part of my brain from which I expect to subsequently retrive them when I need them.
OK, you might argue, what about making flashcards of all the words you need to look up when creating Spanish food for your family, learning just those, and so having exactly the vocabulary you’ll want handy for next time?
Logical, but wrong.
Reading recipes, or election news, has the advantage of providing information about frequency. If I read or hear a word many times, sooner or later my brain will figure it out. It’s a slow process, and not terribly effective, but it’s natural and everyone can do it WITHOUT STUDYING.
Whereas if I only see/hear a word or structure once or twice, I might not understand it and I’m pretty sure not to remember it. Or at least, I won’t remember it to the extent that I could use it in conversation when I needed it.
But that’s fine.
Because according to the texts that I am exposed to, that I have chosen to read/listen to, that particular word, that specific structure, is not frequent. And items which are not frequent are unlikely to offer a very good return on the time invested to learn them, or to stay ‘learnt’ very long, given that they won’t be reinforced with regular exposure.
Learn by reading/listening/speaking and you will inevitably, without a shadow of doubt, eventually assimilate and be able to use whichever elements of the language that are most relevant to you, while ignoring the rest.
And it’s the ‘ignoring the rest’ part that allows someone like me to reach a degree of conversational fluency fairly quickly.
What I’m not doing is spending time on memorising words or studying grammar that I might only use at a future point, or never. What I’m instead doing is having fun decoding, then perhaps as some distant future point using in speech, the elements of the language which I actually need, in order to understand what I read and hear, and to express my thoughts.
A final point – by not studying Spanish, I find that I’ve developed a huge hole where the past tense should be. Were I to be bothered to fill that hole, I’d find a website or textbook that showed the past tense conjugations and perhaps make a few flashcards. Perhaps just ten or twenty of the most common verbs.
With a little effort I’d have significantly improved my Spanish using this old-fashioned and free technique.
Why not do that, then, you might be asking yourself?
Because I’m lazy, perhaps. Or maybe because I don’t learn languages that way any longer. It didn’t work out so well in the past, so I stopped.
These days, I’d rather be catching up on the pandemic situation in Madrid and Barcelona by listening to the lunchtime news on Spanish radio, or reading about last night’s presidential debate in a Spanish newspaper’s daily election email. And yes, it’s difficult at first. But it quickly gets easier.
Articles and news broadcasts are not perfect, but they motivate and interest me, and importantly, they contain FREQUENCY INFORMATION. Whatever I hear/read often, I learn effortlessly. Whatever is uncommon gets ignored.
Were someone to come up with a master-list of ‘all the words that Daniel needs to learn in order to read, listen to and say the things that Daniel is interested in‘, then surely it would be worth me devoting study time to. I’d make a MOUNTAIN OF FLASHCARDS, and work through them, and boy, would it be time well spent!
But given that such a list would be personal to each one of us, and so each would be different, no one has done so, not even, especially not, my teacher, who sadly lacks the ability to peer into my brain and poke around to see what’s missing.
My list would be heavy on language-learning, marketing and politics. Yours would be different. And both would no doubt mutate in time, as our interests and priorities changed.
Never mind that there are no master lists, though, because you know what? Our brains has an app for making one.
Just feed your app appropriate data (text and audio which is more or less intelligible, feedback from conversation partners on things you don’t know how to say, or say badly) and it will run happily in the background, not taking up too much of the mental energy you need to conserve in order to get through your day. You’ll forget it’s there, but all the while it’ll be working away to build for you, word by word, structure by structure, your very own master list for the language you’re learning!
Read, listen and converse for long enough, for enough hours/days/months/years, and you will end up with, I promise, a personalised database of the elements of the language that are most essential for your needs.
No Youtube ‘learn an Italian word a day’ video can do that for you.
Here’s a final reminder about this week’s new ‘book of the classic movie’ ‘easy reader’ ebook, which is on offer until Sunday night at just £5.99!
- .pdf e-book (+ audio available free online)
- .mobi (Kindle-compatible) and .epub (other ebook readers) available on request at no extra charge – just add a note to the order form or email us
- 8 chapters to read and listen to
- Comprehension questions to check your understanding
- Italian/English glossary of ‘difficult’ terms for the level
- Suitable for students at B1/B2 level and above
- Download your Free Sample Chapter (.pdf)
Don’t forget to listen to Thursday’s FREE bulletin of ‘easy’ Italian news!