How To Use Flashcards For Language Learning

There are so many high-tech options for language learning these days. But have you considered the flashcard?
A woman using flash cards to learn a language

There’s something fundamental about using flashcards when you’re in the process of learning. You probably have some memory of using flashcards to learn the parts of a cell, important dates in history or your multiplication tables. But when’s the last time you used them? Flashcards can seem a little passé as you get older, but that shouldn’t be the case! Using flashcards for language learning is a great way to reinforce words and concepts.

If you’re not convinced, we have some advice that might change your mind. Whether you’re thinking of getting back into pen-and-paper flashcards or looking for a more modern option, we’ve got tips that will make learning easier.

Pen-And-Paper Flashcards

We understand if writing out a bunch of flashcards doesn’t seem like your idea of fun. But flashcards are one of the most flexible tools at your disposal. They’re fully customizable, they don’t need to be charged and they’re compact.

Pen-and-paper flashcards might seem intuitive, but there are a lot of ways you can use them efficiently. Here are a few options you might consider.

  • Only make flashcards for the stuff you’re struggling with. When you were a kid, you might’ve gone through and made flashcards for every word on a vocab list. But if you do that now, you’ll end up with thousands of cards. And do you really need to make a flashcard to remember what bonjour means? Skip the easy stuff and save yourself some time.
  • Swap out flashcards pretty frequently. If you have a single stack of flashcards you’re actively studying, you’ll want to reevaluate which ones you really need. Have you gotten one flashcard right every single time for the past few days? Move it to the side. Keep in mind, you shouldn’t throw the flashcards out entirely, and you might want to review them later on. Just because you know how to tell time in German today doesn’t mean it’ll stick with you forever.
  • Go beyond direct translations. The most obvious way to use flashcards is to have a term in your learning language on one side and that same term in your native language on the other, but that’s not the only method. Maybe for verbs, you’ll want to include conjugation charts. Or maybe instead of including your native language, you can write definitions in your learning language instead on the other side (that way you’re forced to really think in the language you’re learning). Again, you can be as creative here as you want.
  • Use color to your advantage. You can get flashcards in several different colors, and you should definitely go beyond the plain white ones. Using colors in your learning can create subconscious connections that will help you with your learning. You can use colors to mark words by their parts of speech or grammatical gender. Not only will that make organization easy, but also it may help certain ideas stick in your head more easily.
  • Keep the flashcards organized. One of the biggest differences between learning a language in school and learning a language as an adult is that you have no one around to test you. You don’t have a quiz coming up specifically about weather terms in Russian, for example. That doesn’t mean your flashcards need to be in disarray, however. Keeping related concepts close to each other can help reinforce what you already know and what you need to master. 
  • Bring them everywhere. The main advantage of flashcards over other study habits is that you can use them pretty much any time. You can flip through them on a crowded subway, quiz yourself as you wait for your friend to show up at a cafe or refresh yourself on vocab right before you go to sleep. And if you’re the kind of person whose eyes feel sore after a day of staring at screens, flashcards present a nice, non-blue-lit option for filling your spare time.

Digital Options

If physical cards aren’t compelling (or if you just don’t want to deal with your handwriting), you can go with an electronic version of flashcards. You’ll lose some of the flexibility, but they also have other conveniences.

One of the most popular options among students is Quizlet. It started as purely a flashcard website, but has added more and more tools over time. Based on the information you input, you can take quizzes, play match games and more. But perhaps one of the biggest advantages of something like Quizlet is that you can use flashcards that were made by other people. Your options are practically endless; even Babbel has a few practice sets for French. If you want to skip the creation process and jump right to studying, Quizlet is a good option.

If you like the idea of customization but still hate physical flashcards, many learners swear by Anki. The user experience isn’t as seamless as other options, but this app offers more flexibility than most other flashcard tools. You can add any media you want to your cards — audio, video, image and more — and it’s open source, which can be a big plus for people who like seeing exactly how their apps are made.

No matter your learning style, you’ll probably greatly appreciate at least one of the two apps mentioned above. This is the age of the app, however, so we would be remiss to not mention that there are countless other options out there. If neither Anki nor Quizlet is exactly what you’re looking for, you can do a little digging to see if there’s something else out there. Learning is a personal process, and the whole point is to find what works best for you.

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