Flashcard apps, for me, were revolutionary.
You see, when I was a teenager, I really struggled with learning vocabulary in foreign languages. It was easy for me to pick up the basic stuff, but when it came to learning 100 words for a test, I would always fail. I just couldn’t focus long enough on a list of words. I was so jealous of one of my friends, who could learn the vocabulary for the test in 10 minutes while walking to school…
Still, I managed to pass FCE (First Certificate in English) when I was 19. But I still thought I was really bad at learning languages, and I couldn’t manage more than English.
When I was 24 years old, I moved to England. There, I could communicate without any problems. But then I decided to take a degree in English Studies and so I had to learn vocabulary all over again. And that was when I discovered flashcard apps that use the Spaced Repetition System.
What is a Spaced Repetition System
A Spaced Repetition System (SRS) is a learning technique whereby you review material at increasing intervals of time, whilst being introduced to new material.
Let’s say we learn one word. If we don’t revise it, we will probably forget it after a few days. If we revise it after a day, it will take us longer to forget it. In fact, each time we revise the word it takes us longer to forget it.
In the 1970’s, Sebastian Leitner devised his “Leitner system”, a spaced repetition learning system based on flashcards. His system started by creating a series of boxes in which flashcards could be placed. By default, all cards should start out in the first box. Once a card was correctly answered, it would be advanced to the next box, which would be revised less frequently. Incorrectly answered cards should be moved back to the first box, so they can be revised more often.
In the 1980’s, people started creating the first computer programs to emulate flashcards, which are getting more and more popular with many flashcard apps you can now download for your phone.
How to use the spaced repetition system with flashcard apps
Anki has plenty of available decks (sets of flashcards). However, I personally prefer to create my own decks because, this way, I can select what vocabulary, sentences and grammar points to learn. Anki has an online platform plus computer and phone apps, so you can study using any device you want.
How flashcard apps changed my life
Up to the age of 26, I was convinced that I just don’t have a talent for languages, that speaking English to a conversational level was all I’d ever achieve. But after discovering flashcards (and later flashcard apps), I didn’t seem to have problems with learning vocabulary anymore. The fact that learning using flashcards is kind of like playing a game, which even makes it a bit addictive.
My English improved so much that I decided to do CELTA (a course to teach English as a foreign language). There I met my husband, followed him to South Korea, where I started learning Korean.
I currently speak 6 languages including Polish. I have never achieved it if I hadn’t discovered flashcard apps.
How to create your own decks
I firmly believe that only studying words is useless. If we only learn words we won’t know how to put them together in context in a sentence. That’s why I usually add complete sentences into my flashcards decks, and only add words when I really have problems with remembering them. Even then, I try to work out a simple sentence I can use to remember the problematic word.
I usually take sentences from the book I’m studying at the time, as well as from my lessons. It’s best if I have audio files for all these sentences as well.
Are flashcards enough?
Now it’s time for the bad news. Flashcards are definitely not enough. I spent years just creating and studying with flashcards in Korean, but I didn’t feel that I was going anywhere. The whole point is: YOU NEED TO START SPEAKING!
Flashcards are only a tool. They will help you, but they won’t do the whole job for you. It took me a long time to learn this. One of the things that really helped me with this was the Add1Challenge. I blogged about it here.
Are flashcards for everyone?
Of course not. There are people who find them too repetitive and find studying them boring. There are, of course, ways to make studying with flashcards more interesting. You can add pictures to them, create funny sentences to learn from and put some personal comments in. But I know many languages learners who never used flashcards and they still managed to learn multiple languages. There are other ways to learn vocabulary and everybody needs to find what works for them.
Thank you for reading. Have you ever used flashcard apps before? Which ones are your favourite? Let me know in the comments.
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