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.


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