Flashcards are not new. They’ve been around for as long as any of us can remember. In their original form, they were nothing more than a stack of blank cards. Later they came with a hole in the corner and a handy ring to keep them together. My early experiences learning languages revolved around these cards, which I faithfully filled in at my parents’ kitchen table. Wherever I went, I took a set with me, bringing them out to look at when I had a few spare moments.
Although paper flashcards have a special place in my heart, I accept that they have now been superseded by a new generation of digital flashcards that can be accessed from anywhere via a smartphone app. The move to digital has had considerable benefits. Digital cards cannot be accidentally lost or destroyed (and there is little chance of spilling coffee on them). In many cases they can be enhanced with pictures and audio. They can even be turned into games or quizzes.
How are languages learned?
It’s not glamorous or exciting, but a big part of learning a new language is memorizing words and phrases. The advantage of flashcards over word lists is that they can be shuffled to prevent serial learning (a fancy term for memorizing the order of the words rather than the words themselves). While almost all flashcard apps are capable of shuffling, an elite few offer an even more significant innovation, the ability to present the learner with an individual word at the right moment to maximize the likelihood that it will be retained long-term.
The technique is known as ‘spaced repetition’ and it’s the gold standard for how flashcard applications should work. In case you are hearing this for the first time, here are the basic principles behind spaced repetition. A newly learned word is likely to be forgotten if it’s not encountered again within a relatively short period of time. If the word is reviewed prior to being forgotten, it becomes more firmly fixed in memory. As a result, it is possible to wait a longer interval before reviewing it again. With each successful retrieval of a word from memory, the more firmly it’s fixed and the longer you can wait before studying it again.
Spaced repetition as a way to improve learning was first suggested in the 1930s, but the idea did not gain serious attention until about 40 years later. The first one to make a direct connection between spaced repetition and flashcards was Sebastian Leitner, who used a series of boxes to create a review schedule that would increase the efficiency of learning. According to Leitner’s method, flashcards were sorted into groups according to how well the learner knew each one. If the learner successfully remembered the content of a card when tested, it was placed into the next group. If he or she failed to remember, the card was sent back to the first group. Each succeeding group had a longer interval before the learner was required to study the cards again.
By Zirguezi – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23147588
When it comes to language learning, a high standard is attached to what it means to ‘know’ a word. Most teachers would agree that being able to correctly identify the meaning of a word (e.g., on a test) is different from being able to use the word in conversation. If the goal of language learning is communication, then it’s more effective if words and phrases are encountered in context and thus embedded with meaning.
For this reason, it’s not absolutely necessary that teachers choose a flashcard system that features spaced repetition (though it may be desirable). More important is that teachers see word learning as part of a larger strategy focussed on communication. Flashcards will always have a place among the trusted tools of the language learner, but they are a means to an end rather than an end themselves.
Here is a list of some of my favorite word learning applications (in no particular order):