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How to Use Flashcards to Learn a New Language

by Gabe Wood
Flashcards showing how to say "hello" in different languages, all laid out on a desk

When you’re learning a new language, you have a lot of information to remember. One linguistics professor estimates that you need to know at least 800 words (as well as their different forms, like plural, past tense, etc.) of a language in order to speak that language in everyday life. That’s not even taking into account all the other parts of language, such as pronunciation and grammar rules.

That’s a lot of memorization! You need to use every tool available to you if you want to learn that much information quickly, and one fantastic option is flashcards. Flashcards are a classic and effective study resource, and they’re especially useful when you’re practicing a new language. Keep reading and we’ll dive into how you can use flashcards to support your language journey.

What are flashcards good for?

Flashcards are effective for learning subjects that involve memorizing a lot of individual pieces of information. This makes them a great fit for studying languages, which require speakers to learn new words, characters, letters, and rules like verb conjugations.

So what makes flashcards effective for memorization? Flashcards take advantage of a learning theory called the testing effect (also known as active recall). By prompting you to remember elements of your new language, flashcards stimulate your memory and help cement what you’re learning for the long term.

Another big strength of flashcards is that they’re portable, so they make it easy to take advantage of short amounts of free time you have during the day for language learning. If you’re on the bus, stuck in a long line, or waiting for your order at a restaurant, you can take out your flashcards for a quick practice session. That way, you’re frequently exposed to your chosen language throughout the day.

How to use flashcards

Part of the appeal of flashcards is that they’re simple to use. Even still, there are techniques you can practice with flashcards to speed up your learning, such as the Leitner system. With this study method, you categorize flashcards according to how often you answer them correctly (often by using boxes or clips labeled one to five). 

When you go through your flashcards, you move the ones you get right up to the next numbered stack, while you move the ones you get wrong back down to stack one. You review the lower stacks more frequently and the higher stacks less frequently. With this schedule, you spend more time practicing material you don’t know as well, while still occasionally reviewing material you have a good grasp of so you remember it long-term.

Here’s an example Leitner system review schedule:

  • Stack one: review every day
  • Stack two: review every other day
  • Stack three: review every 3-4 days
  • Stack four: review every week
  • Stack five: review every two weeks

On days when you’re reviewing multiple stacks, you can shuffle them together to test whether you truly know the higher stack cards.

Here are a few other tips to get the most out of flashcards: 

Limit your cards

Try to limit the amount of material you have in your flashcard deck at once. If you have a thousand cards you’re trying to review, you’re going to see each piece of material so rarely that it won’t sink in. It’s more effective to work with 30 to 50 flash cards at once. Once you can consistently get a flashcard right without looking at the answer, take that card out for now. Put it to the side and use it for another review later, and swap in another card.

Practice with pictures

Also, when learning vocabulary, you don’t just need to practice with the written forms of words. Instead of a word, draw or attach a picture that you have to identify and translate. You could also try learning common phrases involving words you’re practicing, or flip the flashcards over and try to come up with the right word to fit the translation. Varying up the material will help keep you on your toes and give you different ways to recall what you’re learning.

Don’t just rely on flashcards

Finally, even though flashcards can be useful, it’s better to think of them as a supplement to learning rather than the main course. Flashcards work better when you use them to review things you’ve already covered in order to fully memorize them, and aren’t so effective at helping you learn brand new material.

What kind of flashcards should you use?

You have a couple of choices when it comes to the flashcards you study with. 

Paper flashcards

The old standby. Some companies sell packs of pre-made flashcards, but it’s cheap and easy to make your own with a stack of index cards and a marker. Also, the act of writing the flashcards will help you remember the information you’re trying to learn.

To make flashcards, write the word, character, or whatever you’re trying to learn on one side. On the other side, write the translation. You can also include a pronunciation guide with the translation so you can make sure you’re getting the phonetics right while you’re practicing.

To help stay organized, you can buy index cards in different colors and color code your flashcards. For instance, you could put letters on blue cards, words on yellow cards, and conjugations on green cards.

Digital flashcards

Instead of paper, you can use digital flashcard apps and programs. Depending on how fast you can type on your phone, these apps can make creating, organizing, and going through flashcards faster. Some apps, such as Anki, will even let you attach images, sound clips, and videos to your flashcards, which give them more versatility than paper cards. 

On Rosetta Stone, you can try the feature Phrasebook, which is like a deck of digital flashcards that helps you learn common phrases you’d use in daily interactions. It even includes on-demand pronunciation examples from native speakers, and Rosetta Stone’s speech recognition engine TruAccent will give you feedback on your own pronunciation while you practice speaking out loud. Head to www.rosettastone.com to get started today.

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