How to use and how to not use flashcards to learn words

Why you should do your own flashcards

I bought a set of flashcards to learn German words but soon after the initial enthusiasm I realised that they were almost useless and I ended up using them very little. Later, I started to do my own flashcards. I bought some blank cards and wrote on them the words that I wanted to learn. It turned out that this method worked much better, but why? After all they were not very different than the flashcards I bought.

I then realised that the difference was that by doing my own flashcards I was forced to choose which words I wanted to learn and to ask myself which words are more worth to learn?

The problem faced by the language learner, especially the beginner, is that there are so many words in a language that one cannot learn them all in a short amount of time (actually not even in a large amount of time). So it is essential to make some priorities.

The following are my criteria to choose which words write down on my flashcards.

Learn the most commons words first

To get the higher return for the amount of time that you invest to learn new words is better to learn first very common words. Learning these can be useful to give you a quick start in speaking and understanding. A classic and easy way to find out what are the most common words is to search on google for a list of the 100 most used words in your target language, or the most 1000 used words. You can do the same with verbs.

Learn the words that are relevant to the type of books and articles you read, or the radio programmes you hear.

For example, I read science news in German and when there are new words I select some of them and write it down on a flashcards. Also in this case I do not write down all the new words, I select the words that I think are going to be more useful in the future.

Create word clouds with Wordle

Wordle( EdWordle) is an on-line program that takes some text as input and gives as output a graphical representation of the most frequent words in the text. Basically, you can copy the newspaper article that you are reading on-line and past it in wordle as a result you would know what are the most essential words (and sometimes concepts) used in that article.

What to write on the flashcards

Instead than just writing a word and a translation you can write also a sentence and its translation. By doing this you will learn the words in their normal context.

How to use your flashcards

In two previous posts I explained how to use improvisation games and theatre improvisation to learn a language. You can use your flashcards as a prompt to do improvisation games and to start an improv scene in your target language. By doing so you are forced to revise the words several times.

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