Flash cards have become quite a popular method to learn vocabulary. In fact, Duolingo, Memrise, Quizlet and other language learning apps were built around them. However, there are two problems with how they use flash cards. In this blog post, I will not only explain what these problems are and how to fix them. I will also suggest a better way of learning new words by using flash cards more effectively.
Have you ever heard the saying “context is everything”? What is true for most of the social sciences is definitely true for languages. Indeed, many words are context-dependent. To put it simply, they make sense in some situations but not in others. What complicates matters further, some words even have multiple different meanings, so the context in which these meanings get activated is crucial. Let’s look at an example in the English language. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “break” has 70 (!) different meanings. From falling apart, sustaining an injury, putting an end to a period of silence in communication, having some time off (to name but four)- the word takes on different meanings in different contexts. Using the word in the wrong context would therefore result in a misunderstanding of its context-specific meaning. So the first problem with the popular language learning apps is that they feed you words without explaining the context in which they are supposed to be used.
The second problem is related to the first. It is not just our words that need context in order to be understood and used correctly, our brain needs context too. Here, context should be understood in terms of associations that allow our brain to establish a connection between a word and a situation that is meaningful to us. Research has shown that we are more likely to remember a new word when we associate it with a personal experience. So we need to apply words to ourselves to remember them.
Two lessons should be drawn from the above. We have to use a word that we want to memorise not only in the correct linguistic context so that it can be understood by others, we also have to use it in a way that is meaningful to us. So how should we use flash cards to incorporate both of these insights?
Let's look at an example in the German language. The flash card below is for the word "fahren". The design of the card is fairly straightforward and includes both grammatical and contextual information. While the word itself is written in the middle, at the top left you find the conjugation of the verb in the present tense. On the right hand side you find its Perfekt tense form. Both information are helpful because fahren is an irregular verb. So much for the grammar. Let's now look at the context. When my student who wrote the card learnt about the meaning of fahren (to go by mode of transport; to drive), her first association was how she gets to work. So she used the verb in the sentence "Sie fahren mit dem Auto zur Arbeit" (They go to work by car) as she and her partner take their car to work every day. Flash card sentences should always be as intuitive and self-explanatory as this one. If they are not, they will not have the desired effect of helping you to retain the meaning of the word. The back of the card should then have the translation of the word (ideally, in your mother tongue) and should specify that fahren can be used for all modes of transport, except for flying for which the German language uses a different verb, namely "fliegen".
Writing flash cards that combine grammatical information with using a word in context cater to all types of learners and are particularly useful in languages that have as many grammar rules as the German language. Since the language has three genders and different plural forms, both should be written down for nouns and learned with the word. Otherwise, the noun can't be used correctly.
Using flash cards in this way not only ensures that you learn the meaning of the word, you also learn how to use it its context. Try it- you'll be surprised to see how quickly your vocabulary grows.
On our German language blog "Auf Deutsch, bitte!" you will find explanations on all major grammar topics in the language- from adjective declensions to German word order- and tips about language learning more generally. For instance, we have blog posts that explain the most important grammar terms, a review of the most popular online dictionaries, and a comparison between the most well-known language learning apps Duolingo, Memrise, Quizlet, and Babbel.