A bad memory is one of the top excuses people give for not learning another language.
We see pages of unfamiliar words, or hear streams of sounds we can’t decipher and think “I’ll never be able to cram enough words into my brain to understand that”.
I used to worry that my own crappy memory would make me a bad language learner: I’m the type of person who can’t remember anything I learned at school, the last film I saw or what I ate for breakfast. Thankfully, once I got into language learning I realised that it doesn’t have to stop me from remembering vocabulary.
In fact, lots of language learners with average memories manage to learn thousands of words and make it look easy.
The spaced repetition technique
Many learners swear by flashcard systems, which involve studying words or sentences in the language you’re learning on one side of a card with a translation or picture on the other.
Nowadays, people use apps like memrise and anki which show flashcards at specific intervals to optimise learning. This technique, known as spaced repetition, is based on observations by memory researcher Hermann Ebbinghaus, who noticed that we’re better at remembering information learned a few times over a longer period of time compared to many times within a short space of time. This means that we can learn more vocabulary with less effort, by spreading out our study sessions.
Love them or hate them
Despite their merits, flashcards have caused quite a stir in the language learning community. For each successful language learner who swears by them, there’s another who wouldn’t touch them with a 10 foot pole.
That’s because learning vocabulary is more complex than memorising a bunch of words. When we focus too much on flashcards, there’s a danger we’ll end up recognising lots of words without knowing how to use them in real life. Also, languages are about communication – spending too much time with your head in an app is boring and it sucks the soul out of learning. Finally, if you don’t dedicate enough time to engaging with the language in a real way by listening, reading and talking to native speakers, you’ll never learn how people actually talk.
Importantly, the flashcard haters are a testimony to the fact that it is absolutely possible to learn a language without them.
My experience with flashcards
These conflicting viewpoints are the reason why my relationship with flashcards has been more on and off than a Justin Bieber love story.
In the honeymoon period, I’d get excited by all the words that seemed to pop into my head at just the right moment. But after a while, I’d notice that lots of words I was learning didn’t come to me when I needed them in real life. Eventually, I’d get frustrated and delete the app.
But without flashcards, I’d start to get this nagging feeling that my vocabulary learning had slowed down dramatically. So I’d download the app and start the cycle all over again.
The right way to remember words
Over the last few months I’ve been using flashcards consistently for the first time ever and they’ve become my trusty secret for speedy word learning.
I realised that there is a right way (and a wrong way!) to learn vocabulary. So I’ve been integrating wisdom from memory research, together with advice from renowned polyglots, to find ways to make flashcards more effective and minimise their shortcomings.
I’ve broken it down into 8 strategies that will help you get the most out of flashcards. When you put these ideas into practice, you’ll be able to remember lots of words without taking up too much time or turning study sessions into a yawn fest.
1. Make your own
This one’s first on the list because it’s by far the most important. Flashcard apps usually give you two options: use your own, or the sets other people have made. Making your own takes a little more effort in the beginning, but it’s infinitely better to use words you have met in real contexts through listening, reading or conversations. This is because memory is highly context dependent – decades of research show that we remember information more easily when we associate it with the context we first learned it in. When you make your own sets with words you’ve already met, you can link them back to the original context and remember them much faster.
A man named Harry walks into a café. Eliza Doolittle, who is working in the restaurant as a waitress, greets him with her dodgy cockney accent, “Ari”. He orders a slice of cake with layers of sponge, cream and forest fruit: a “gateaux”. When Elisa brings over his order, Ari looks at the gateaux, and says “thank you”.
Ari-gatou – you’ve just learned how to say thank you in Japanese through mnemonics, a memorisation strategy inspired by the ancient Greeks and endorsed by memory champions as the most effective way to quickly remember large amounts of information. Linking new words to things you already know such as images or rhymes makes them instantly easier to remember. The more detailed and unusual the imagery, the better – think Eliza Doolittle with a black forest gateaux in hand.
3. Be ruthless
It’s really tempting to record every new word you come across. Don’t do it. I know it sometimes feels like you need to learn the word for bunsen burner in Spanish, but you don’t. The impulse to learn everything is an asset, but if you don’t keep it in check you’ll soon find yourself with unmanageably longs lists of words you’ll never actually learn. Our mental and time resources are precious and we need to spend them on stuff that’s going to be useful. Choose words that are important for you, add those to your flashcard sets and forget the rest for now.
4. Make flashcards Robin, not Batman
Flashcards should be your trusty sidekick, not the star of the show. When you spend too much time using flashcards, you have less time to engage with language in a real way and meet words in authentic and varied contexts, aka the most important stuff. Also, turning a language into nothing more than a list of words makes it more boring than eating rice cakes.
5. Learn little and often
Flashcards work best when we study in short 5-10 minute bursts. Longer periods of time lead to inefficient learning as our brains get tired and can’t absorb new information as easily.
6. Learn whole sentences
There’s no point in learning lots of isolated words without knowing how to use them. Recording the whole sentence (or a short snippet if it’s too long) gives you information about the sentence structure so that you can build new sentences with your word. Learning sentences also helps you associate the word with the original context, giving you an extra memory boost.
7. See it in your mind’s eye
Associate new words with images you already have in your mind. For instance, if you review the word “el río” in Spanish, try conjuring up a mental image of a river. This technique helps you link new words to your existing mental representations, making them more relevant and memorable.
8. Use it or lose it
The more you use your new words, the faster you’ll remember them. There are lots of different ways to put this into practice: you can build new sentences in your mind, write a few examples, or try throwing the words into a conversation when opportunity arises. Always be on the look out for opportunities to bring your new words out of books and apps and into real life contexts.
Et voilà, 8 different ways to make the most out of flashcards. Everyone has different learning styles so I highly recommend giving them a go to see if they work for you.
If you choose not to go the flashcard route, the above tips can be integrated into almost any vocabulary learning strategy to help you remember words faster.
Now I’d love to hear from you. How do you like to study vocabulary? Let us know in the comments below!