How to learn vocabulary efficiently without flashcards
I love Paris, and I try to go back there as much as I can. In December 2014, I was there for my birthday and I was glad to see some old friends. One of them was Zaur, a Chechnian guy studying in Paris. One night he introduced me to Julien, a friend of his – half Italian, half French. “This one is a language mastermind, Luca, and the two of you have to meet up to talk about how the two of you learn languages. You can learn a lot from each other” – Zaur told me with a big smile over the phone.
We met. Zaur was right. Julien turned out to indeed be a language wonder. We spoke French, Italian, Spanish and he spoke them all without an accent. He told me he knew German and Japanese to a very high level because he lived in Germany, and had a Japanese girlfriend).
We were sitting around a table and all of a sudden Julien said “you know Luca, I want to know how you learn languages. I am currently learning Russian and this is what I do every day”. He took out a stack of cards. On the side of each card he had written a vocabulary word in Cyrillic, and when he flipped the card, you could read the corresponding vocabulary word in French – his mother tongue.
“Interesting” – I said. I was a bit perplexed though.
Learning a language with a stack of cards? I was a skeptical even though I know that a lot of people use them.
Julien told me that this is not ALL he did to learn a language. It was simply a system to remind himself constantly of the words he had learned.
“I can take these cards with me everywhere” – he said proudly.
It got me thinking if I should start using flashcards and integrate them into my way of learning languages, but my conclusion was a resounding no.
Let me explain to you why.
5 Reasons I Don’t Use Flashcards to Learn Vocabulary
1. Paper Flashcards are cumbersome.
When Julien showed me his stack of cards, I immediately thought: “how the heck can you carry them around ?”. Well, I remember he had a bag with him. Sure, you can carry a bag everywhere. But if you want to carry your cards with you all the time you’ll also need some sort of container. Imagine using them on the metro and spilling them on the floor. Not the best solution for me.
Flashcards are also difficult to handle. In fact, when I took the cards into my hand, I had a hard time holding the deck with my left hand and another card with the right hand. Then I had to flip it and put it at the bottom of the deck. Not ideal.
2. Flashcards with just one vocabulary word are an artificial way of learning.
While I liked the fact that Julien was actually using paper and his own handwriting, I found it a bit limiting that he put just one word on each card. I always say that one of the most important factors in acquiring vocabulary is context. You can memorize a word, remember it on the fly and pronounce it with perfect pronunciation. But a word in isolation out of a sentence or phrase is like a fish out of the sea. A word needs to be alive, needs to be used to convey a message. It can’t just sit there and be remembered on and off like a piece of information. To keep using the fish analogy: a message is like shawl of fish. They travel together as a unit and the always live together. I believe that that’s the way you should learn them: in groups of words, that is, in sentences. Native speakers do exactly that. They learn words by using them in sentences to convey messages others. As adults, we often do the exact opposite when learning a foreign language. Using flashcards to learn words in isolation is a fine example. You might succeed to some extent, but it might require double the time and the effort.
3. No images, no audio.
We learn words efficiently through our senses. The more senses we use, and the more active we are and the better we remember. Imagine walking with a German friend in Berlin while learning German. Your friend says in German “oh, was fuer eine schoene Katze” and caresses a cat, it’s very likely that you won’t forget the word Katze if you don’t know it. You’ll eventually associate it with the English word Cat. That’s because you would have heard the word in a phrase with the relevant context. It might take only one of these experiences to commit that word into long term memory. With a flash card with no image and no audio, you’ll probably try to memorize that vocabulary word a number of times without it sticking. That won’t only be frustrating, but also a waste of time and energy, but you can learn words in much simpler and natural ways.
4. It takes time to build a bunch of cards.
When looking at the big stack of cards I was trying to handle, it also dawned on me that it must have taken hours to write a vocabulary word for each of them on both sides. There were probably 100 words. What about the next 100? or. And then the next? Imagine having to add one image, or audio to integrate everything together for each flashcard?. It requires motivation, discipline, effort, and enthusiasm. That’s my idea of hell. That’s absolutely not for me.
5. I find them boring.
This is probably the main reason I don’t use flashcards. I don’t do anything I don’t find interesting efficient. This is a key factor for independent language learners, because if you can’t find a way to push on and then reward yourself, you simply won’t keep learning and eventually you’ll give up. Since I’ve already found a way to learn languages that’s very efficient for me, I have never tried to add or change my method for something that doesn’t seem interesting and efficient.
Want to know exactly how I learn thousands of words without flashcards? Click the button below and I’ll send you an exclusive video where I’ll guide you through exact process I’ve used to learn all of my languages, step by step.
Here’s a short description of the 5 tips you’ll get:
1.How I use a notebook to store thousands of words and why it’s beneficial to have all words in one place. Hint: always learn words with context!
2.How I review words and phrases (with context) to commit them to long term memory in a way that’s both pleasant and interesting.
3.The “linking method” I use to literally stick words and phrases into my long term memory and how this makes them easily accessible when I need to use them.
4.The process I use to activate the vocabulary and phrases I learn. Recognizing words when you see or hear them is one thing, but making them available when you want to use them requires activation. I’ll show how I activate words and phrases deliberately.
5.How I choose which words and phrases to put into my notebook. Learners often waste precious time and energy learning useless words and phrases. I’ll show you how I carefully select words and phrases to increase my language learning efficiency.
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