Linguistics

Why Monolingual Flashcards?

Olly Richards is a polyglot who runs a language learning blog over at iwillteachyoualanguage.com. He speaks a gaggle of some really challenging languages, and he’s done excellent work on both his blog articles and his really prolific podcast.

Recently, a Fluent Forever reader let me know that Olly chatted a bit about Fluent Forever’s methodology on his podcast and had some detailed objections to the method. The reader thought it might be useful for me to explain my method in a little more detail. So…I began reading Olly’s points and I realized that his objections were well thought out, and are likely shared by a lot of people. As such, a discussion of his points might be a valuable blog post, since it would let me clarify and expand upon some of the logic and theory behind what I do and what I teach.

I believe that the better you understand the logic and theory of what you’re doing, the better you’ll be able to practice it and improve upon it. So without further ado, let’s chat about some of Olly’s points! (And Olly, if you’re reading this and I misrepresent something, let me know and I’ll correct it asap!) 

Flashcards are for practicing output, not input. In other words, flashcards are for practicing the recall of stuff you’ve already learnt.

I wholeheartedly agree with the second half of this – flashcards are absolutely for practicing recall of stuff you’ve already learnt. It’s one of the reasons I so strongly discourage people from using pre-made flashcards; they’re going to be skipping the ‘learning’ step. That said, there are a lot of different degrees of depth with which you can learn a particular sentence.

Suppose I’m working with a particularly complex sentence in my target language, a sentence that I really need to work hard to understand. I’ll play around with the translation of that sentence and try to understand what’s happening. I might look up words individually if they’re really giving me trouble. Eventually, I’m going to figure out what each word is doing, and at that point, I’ve “learned” the sentence.
But…that learning is very shallow at first. If I don’t see that sentence for a month and then return to it, I’ll likely need to look at translations all over again to figure out what’s going on. It’ll take less time to figure it out now (I did learn something the first time), but I’m not going to instantly have mastery over all the words in that sentence.

The purpose of using an SRS for this is to gradually bring all the components of that sentence to a high level of mastery, so that if I encounter any of those words or grammatical constructions in any other context, I’ll be able to immediately understand how those words are used. As I build more and more sentences into my SRS, I’ll start to have *multiple* associations to many of my words. I’m building a lot of depth into my memories of each word, which means that they’re going to be easier to recall, more versatile when I want to use them in new contexts, and they’re actually going to help me recall related words.

If I’ve created and learned flashcards related to “The dog wagged its tail” “My dog likes to chase cats” and “Lately, I’ve been working on getting my dog sponsorships on Instagram”, then every flashcard involving those sentences is going to strengthen my recall of words like ‘sponsorships’ and ‘cats’ and ‘wag’ and even ‘lately.’ This works in a few different ways: It can help for active recall: If I’m speaking to someone and I want to recall the word “lately,” but it’s not coming to me, I may find that I can remember that I used it in some story about dogs…and Instagram…and….(there it is!) – “lately!”

It can also help the next time I encounter a sentence like “I’ve been pretty stressed out lately.” If I’ve built a really strong association between “lately” and my Instagram story, then that Instagram story is going to pop up into my head when I encounter “lately” in this new context. Hebb’s Law – Neurons that fire together, wire together – now kicks in, associating the new sentence to my old sentence. Because additional associations like these make all of the linked information easier to recall in the future, I’ve just made my new sentence easier to recall, and I’ve strengthened my old Instagram-related sentence.

Rather than “Flashcards are for practicing output, not input”, I’d say that flashcards are useful for practicing output and deepening input. It takes input you’ve already learned and then adds value to it. And since you’re using a Spaced Repetition System, by the time that you’re pretty comfortable with all of the content in a particular sentence, your SRS is only going to be showing it to you every 6+ months, so effectively all of the content you’re looking at during your flashcard reviews is challenging and worthy of a few more seconds of your time.

The role of English in the flashcards is as a prompt – your task is then to recall the word or phrase in the target language.

When I’m speaking a foreign language and I run into a word I can’t recall, the following sequence of events occurs in my head:

1.  I’m speaking (“Sí, tengo hambre! Querría mucho u…”)
2.  I hit a blank and stop. (“un… una… uh.…”) I panic a bit while my brain goes searching for my target word.
3.  I can’t find it in Spanish. It arrives a moment later in English – “Hamburger”
4.  I then choose what to do next (Ask for the word in English, figure out a way to talk around it ‘un Big Mac’, etc.)

The problem is that steps 2 and 3 actually take time. I search (takes time), I fail (takes time), and I mentally switch to English (still takes time).

So if my only route to una hamburguesa is through the word “hamburger”, then I have to take the time to switch to English to find my target word, and I’m not going to have the fluent speech I’m after.

Flashcards build associations between their front sides (the prompt) and their back sides. If my front side is the English word “hamburger,” then the association I’m building is between the English word “hamburger” and “una hamburguesa.” I can only access it at the end of Step 3. If, instead, I associated “una hamburguesa” and the sensation of hunger (“hambre”), or delicious burgers I’ve eaten (imagery), then I’m going to have access to that word much earlier.

I don’t actually think it’s bad to have a connection between hamburger and una hamburguesa. Translation, over all, is a nuanced and challenging skill to develop, and if you find the process of translation interesting and engaging, then it may be worth your time to play around with translations. I tend to encourage people to stick to methods that they find engaging; engagement breeds high retention rates and more time spent with the target language, and those are always good things. It’s why I don’t discourage people from playing with Duolingo when they enjoy it; it’s not like it’s doing any harm, even if it’s largely translation based.

That said, I don’t find translation extremely efficient, when your primary goal is fluent, comfortable speech. Coming back to hamburger <—> una hamburguesa, I don’t think that you’re using that particular connection when you’re speaking Spanish comfortably. So I try to work on building up the connections I will be using when speaking, so that I can maximize the efficiency of my study time as it applies  to my personal goals of fluent speech.

Images are indeed powerful, but are best created in your mind (i.e. mnemonics). The potential for memory exists firmly within your mind – the extent to which you employ your brainpower and imagination when you attempt to learn new vocabulary determines how well you remember it.

The concept you’re discussing – that we possess the ability to imagine excellent imagery – is an excellent point. Self-generated imagery and mnemonics are super valuable, because those images are more personal than random images from Google. That makes self-generated imagery really useful for the purposes of retaining new words and concepts.

But…our brains are designed to be efficient, which means they’re going to work as little as possible. Whenever it’s possible to study a word or answer a flashcard without thinking about imagery, we’re going to skip the imagery part unless we consciously force ourselves to take the time to imagine images. It’s conscious work.

When I’m doing my flashcard reviews, I want that process to be as painless and rapid as possible. To that end, I find that actual images on my computer screen take the smallest amount of time and effort during those reviews, and that means that I can progress through a lot of content (i.e., a lot of flashcards) very rapidly without getting too fatigued. I save my mental energy for the moments when I really do need to imagine a mnemonic, to help me retain something abstract, like a grammatical gender.

It’s vital for flashcards not to become burdensome – Keep it simple!

This is absolutely true and it may be the most important point here. In the last paragraph, I talked about keeping flashcard reviews painless and rapid, specifically to avoid fatigue. But right now, all of the time and effort I’m saving on my reviews is something I’m paying for during flashcard creation. The hardest part of the Fluent Forever method is currently the process of creating flashcards.
Some of that flashcard creation process is necessary and important:

As discussed above, flashcards are only useful if you’ve already learned the material. So if you’re playing with a new sentence, you need to interact with that sentence (with translations, most likely), until you really understand how that sentence works. That’s time well spent, and I don’t think there’s any way you can skip that step and successfully learn a language, no matter what methodology you’re using.

Then there’s the process of breaking down that sentence. You need to make decisions about which words you think are important, and how to learn them. The process of making those choices is also really important. I’m not sure if it’s necessary, but I think it does a lot for the learner. Partly, it means that you’re never going to see a flashcard that you didn’t want to create. On some level, you know that everything that happens during your reviews is only happening because you thought it was important. So you’re never learning some word that’s totally irrelevant and feeling like you’re wasting your time. That helps with fatigue and motivation.

Last, there’s the process of choosing images and shaping exactly how you’re going to test yourself in the future. The choices you make here are really important – making choices is a really memorable process. In going through that process, you’re not going to hit a flashcard and think “What on earth am I supposed to do here?” Granted, you may get stumped by a particular card, but you’re never going to be completely flabbergasted about what on earth that card is doing in your flashcard deck.

But…there’s a lot of time and work within the card creation process that isn’t helping you learn a language. It’s navigating around tools and messing around with your computer.

There’s a ton of time you’re spending setting up and getting used to all the moving parts – Multi-search (and figuring out how each of the websites within it work, and potentially how to add websites), Anki, the increasingly complex Model Decks, how the flashcards work, etc.

Then there’s the workflow itself: finding sentences to learn, typing your words into a multi-search window, looking through images (and re-searching when the results are poor), finding and dragging around audio files, copying and pasting definitions.

All of this time and work is *not* time you’re spending interacting with a language and putting it into your head. It’s just busywork, and it’s probably the most frustrating thing about teaching this method to others – all that busywork puts so many obstacles in front of learners and distracts from the really cool things you get to do, once you’re used to the tools and can move through the workflow quickly. Ultimately, I think that the busywork is worth the time; it produces a learning system that builds fluency and long term retention really well. But that doesn’t make it less frustrating.

This is the criticism that hits home the hardest. To that end, I’ve spent the last six months investing a great deal of my time (and more money than I’ve ever spent before) on designing a way around all of that wasted time. It’s going to be an app that gets rid of most of the initial learning curve and nearly all of the busywork. I’ll be posting about it more in the next couple of months, and releasing early glimpses of it to everyone on the Fluent Forever mailing list, so we can better tune it to everyone’s needs before we start raising funds to complete its development. But yeah – for any of you who have been frustrated by the busywork, you’re not alone. I’ve been upset about it since 2010! 😛

I hope this discussion has been interesting and helpful for all of you! If you have further questions or would like me to expand on anything, shoot us an email to learn@fluent-forever.com.

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