How I’m using flashcards to learn a new language

Flashcards are what’s getting me through Thai class with a minimum amount of pain. I’ve employed them sparingly in the past, but for Thai I am going all out. And it’s really helping.

Various apps and programs exist to help you with flashcards, most notably Anki. I’ve used Anki in the past, but I don’t really like it. It’s nice to have electronic cards and their algorithm for showing you cards is convenient, but using Anki means that you need to have a device available whenever you want to study. Plus I’ve found that when I learn things through a screen I do so much less efficiently.

So it’s paper flashcards for me. Lots and lots of paper flashcards. I’m throwing Javanese words in too as I review what I learned over the summer, just so I can keep up with that.

The tricky thing about paper flashcards is that you have to come up with your own system to replace an app-generated algorithm. Right now, my system involves separating the cards into three different categories.

The first stack of cards consists of words or phrases that I don’t know yet. As a subset of this, I include the cards turned over to their opposite side, so that I test for English into the target language instead of the other way around. I do start off Thai into English, though, because that’s usually the easier direction. I then turn the cards over because I don’t want to just be able to recognize the words–I want to be able to produce them myself. The exception to this rule are the few Chinese characters that I have in my cards. Right now I’m happy just to be able to recognize them.

The next pile is made up of cards that I know pretty well but should still review. They’re words that I know but that are still relatively new to me. While I review my first stack of cards whenever possible, I review this stack when I get the chance and I don’t push it.

I anticipate–especially when I go through my cards looking for the words that will be on the next Thai quiz–having a third pile of words that I know really well. This will be a pile of cards that are one step away from retirement and that I’ll only review once every few weeks.

For now, this is my system, and it seems like my vocabulary recall is getting better because of it. I’ll definitely update if the system evolves in the future.

Back to Bule

Just before classes started this semester, I read Benedict Anderson’s memoir, A Life Beyond Boundaries. Benedict Anderson is a quite well-known scholar of Southeast Asia. He wrote the important book Imagined Communities, which compares different societies within Southeast Asia and which will be referenced in most of the Southeast Asia-focused classes that you might take.

The memoir turned out to be very readable. I found it quite interesting to learn about the context surrounding Southeast Asian studies in the United States, especially through a first person point of view. I’m not sure how interesting it would be to someone who has nothing to do with the field, but I really enjoyed reading it.

At one point in the book, Anderson writes that he is responsible for the use of the word “bule” to refer to foreigners. In his story, he didn’t like being referred to by the formal word once used to refer to Dutchmen, so, considering his skin to be similar in color to that of a white water buffalo or an elephant, he suggested to his friends that they use the word bule instead.

I’ve written about the word bule briefly before, but let me say a few more things. Bule isn’t as offensive of a term as, for example, the Chinese word for foreigners. I avoid it, though, and only use it when I want to make a point, usually about a foreigner who doesn’t know anything about Indonesia. I tell my students not to use bule, but I only tell my friends not to use it if they ask (most haven’t). Bule doesn’t personally offend me, but I still don’t use it.

Anderson’s story makes the word much more friendly. Though I think choosing to refer to himself with a word normally used for animals is a bit strange, it’s a nice story about making friends.

Of course, the word has now moved far beyond Anderson’s circle of friends and can have completely different connotations now. At times (and probably often or usually), it’s completely innocuous. At other times, it’s an insult.

So does Anderson’s story change how I see the word bule? Actually, not at all. At this point, it’s a lot more than Anderson’s story.

You might also be interested in this blog post, providing some evidence that the use of the word bule to refer to white people predates Anderson. Does that change the story at all? Again, maybe not really. Maybe Anderson popularized the use of the word. At the very least, maybe he popularized it among his friends.

And it’s a good story.