This is an interesting question that applies not only to language learners but also to those trying to expand their vocabulary in their native language.
Flashcards are synonymous with learning. Everybody has used them at some point in their life whether it was to prepare for a biology test, a quiz in Spanish, the GMAT, etc. It’s a method that never fails if you give yourself enough time to use it.
Personally, I’ve never been a big user or advocate of flashcards. From my perspective it’s always seemed that you need to put just as much time into making them as you would using them to study, especially something more short-term like a college exam.
Nowadays there are applications like Quizlet that allow you to streamline or even skip the creation process of flashcards all together. This carries a lot of value for some things like standardized tests or maybe the 100 most common words in a language if flashcards are your thing.
In the past I would highlight words that I didn’t know in paperback versions of German books that I was reading.
Two of my favorites were Der Sandmann by E.T.A. Hoffman and Die Physiker by Friedrich Dürenmatt.
I would later go back through sections of the book to write these unfamiliar words down in the first column of an Excel spreadsheet, then look up the definitions in an online German-English dictionary, normally dict.cc, and write down an English equivalent in the second column.
I would upload this spreadsheet to “AnkiApp Flashcards” through AnkiApp Nexus. (I will point out here that there are multiple Anki apps in the Apple app store from different brands. You can find information about the one that I used at https://www.ankiapp.com/ )
Uploading my spreadsheet would automatically create flashcards of my vocabulary for me. It’s a great way to efficiently create your own flashcards.
As I said before though, I’ve never been a serious user of flashcards and this stint of using them to study German vocab was short-lived.
Shortly after I began using Anki to study new words, I started using LingQ on a regular basis. One significant reason that I’m not fond of flashcards can be explained by analyzing the way LingQ functions.
A major flaw of flashcards is that they lack context.
When you’re reading through content on LingQ you’re often reading complete pieces of writing. Even if you put a word into a sentence on your flashcard, the sentence itself is still missing context.
Read my review of LingQ: LingQ – The Best Language Learning App?
An additional negative aspect of flashcards is their tedious nature. Quite frankly, they can be boring. Reading an article that interests you on LingQ or a book on Kindle that covers a topic you’re passionate about brings an element to vocabulary acquisition that flashcards can’t provide. Knowing the meaning of a new word in the middle of a great book or compelling article may seem like a necessity in the moment.
The emotion of the moment will not only push you more attentively through the content, but that word is more likely to end up in your long-term vocabulary.
I have distinct memories of learning some words for the first time. While watching a basketball game in Brazil in 2019 with a friend, one of the teams scored a basket and passed the other team to take the lead.
After the basket, my friend enthusiastically said “virou” which most often literally means “turned” but in this case he was trying to say that the other team took the lead. It was an important game and the excitement of the moment stuck with me.
Reading content that you’re excited about can elicit a similar response.
While I was earning my master’s degree in finance, I read a couple of books on Kindle by a Brazilian named Thiago Reis.
The books covered different methods for evaluating stocks. Given I was studying finance at the time this was a topic that I was very passionate about.
Learning more about finance through Portuguese was an exciting experience for me. I was learning more about investing and gaining new knowledge that could help me in my academic studies.
For those that are interested, the names of these books were Guia Suno de Contabilidade para Investidores and Guia Suno Small Caps both written by Thiago Reis.
You can check out my article on using Kindle for language learning here: Kindle and Reading in Language Learning
There’s one final point that I would like to make about tools like Kindle and LingQ in this article that is essential.
These tools function the same way as flashcards but more efficiently.
When you are reading through content on LingQ or Kindle you’re automatically coming across the most relevant vocabulary. As you read, you’re going to see the most useful words and phrases most often.
For instance, let’s say you’re learning German. You have a strong interest in politics, so you begin studying German by reading political articles on LingQ every day. You will pick up some words that you see almost daily like Kanzlerin – female chancellor quickly.
Words that you see only once a year, you’re likely not going to remember unless there is some kind of personal attachment to it.
Flashcards work the same way. The more consistently you see a word throughout the long-term the more likely you’re going to learn it.
As you read through a book in a foreign language on Kindle, every time you click on a word that you haven’t internalized yet, you’re checking the definition of it like you would a flashcard.
However, in this case you’re getting a full context around the word and depending on how frequently it appears in the book, there’s more purpose in learning the word because it fits into the topic of the book.
If a word only appears once in an entire book, then it’s likely not important that you learn that word. You might overlook this and make a flashcard for it anyway if you were using the strategy I mentioned earlier of highlighting words on a paperback and making your own flashcards.
Flashcards have never been my thing and never will be, that doesn’t mean they don’t work. However, with the tools available to language learners nowadays, using flashcards seems tedious and inefficient. You can have a much more intriguing experience reading a good book or article.