Why I Don’t Use Flashcards (And You Shouldn’t Either)

avatarMille Larsen
6 mins read

I know that this post is going to upset a lot of people, but if you believe in something strongly, you can't worry about what other people think. So in spite of the fact that SRS is the hottest thing in language learning right now, I'm going tell everyone to stop using it.

Stop using flashcards. Stop using SRS. Stop learning vocabulary from lists, or decks, or programs. Stop. It doesn't work, it's a waste of time, and it's creating bad patterns in your brain.

When I started this blog, one of the first things I talked about was the way pathways are formed in the brain, and what that means for language learning. But if you haven't read that, or you forgot it, or if you just didn't care, here's the summary: whatever you do repeatedly, whether good or bad, becomes the path of least resistance. And if that doesn't trouble you, it should!

Whatever patterns you strengthen will become your habits. In fact, that's the basic principle you're counting on with those flashcards, isn't it? That's really the whole point, right? You're repeating something, with the explicit intent that it gets burned into your brain.

But what if the very thing you were working to make stronger just happened to be a habit that was actually slowing you down? What if you were working to make a hurdle stronger?

You are. Specifically, there are two things that make flashcards bad. And I don't just mean "bad" as in ineffective... I mean bad as in working against you!

I'll explain...

NOTE: If you do want a language course that gets away from typical flashcards and dry grammar, instead focusing on learning naturally, I highly recommend Rocket Languages (I've had great success using it).

The translation step

As I said in my original post, learning anything (words, phrases, ideas, whatever) against its translation is creating extra steps in your brain. It's making you slow. It makes you think slowly, hear slowly, speak slowly.

Here's an example. I'm learning Italian this year. Let's assume that I learned Italian vocabulary from flashcards. I might have a card that says vedere on one side, and to see on the other. Learning this way forces my brain to associate the word "verdere" with the word(s) to see.

Then, if that wasn't enough, someone will pull out a verb conjugation chart and tell me I have to remember that vedo is a form of vedere, and so is vedevo, and a few dozen other words, which all get their own one-to-one memorizations.

By learning in this way, when someone says "l'ho visto a casa", my brain would have to do the mental steps of relating visto to vedere, and then translation vedere to see, and then back up through the sentence with that value and start again on the next word. And before the first sentence is over, my mind has already failed to translate what it's heard and the speaker is already on the next thought.

I have a feeling that many of you reading this have experienced this frustration. I have experienced it, and it's horrible. There are few things as frustrating as knowing that you know what something means, but not being able to understand it when you see or hear it.

But the problem is that learning incorrectly is creating a maze that your brain has to run through as it processes every word. You don't do that to yourself in English (or whatever your native language), so why are you doing that with a foreign language?

One-to-one translation

And the other bad side-effect of learning from flashcards is that they encourage you to believe in one-to-one translation. They make you narrow-minded and unaware of the language you think you're learning.

When you learn a foreign word and an English word together, and burn them together in your mind as a pair, you create the illusion of a world where every language is exactly the same, just with different words. But that world doesn't actually exist.

That false reality is where ignorant explanations like "that word is untranslatable" are born. There is nothing that can not be translated. Nothing. But in order to understand that, you must first understand that words in one language do not match up with words in another language on a one-to-one matrix.

In Mandarin and Gaelic (and others), the word "yes" does not exist. In Spanish and Italian, people say "it makes much time" instead of "long ago". In Russian, you have to say "near me is something", because Russians don't use a verb for "to have".

But that fact doesn't fit into the one-to-one world of flashcards. So you end up learning that a word means one thing, and then beating your head on a translation because you can't understand the way it's being used somewhere else.

Don't argue, just accept it

I know that the flashcard lovers are already forming their arguments as they read. Of maybe they've already stopped reading and skipped to the bottom to tell me I'm wrong. But I'm not wrong.

Some will say, "well that's why I use phrases on my flashcards," but believing in one-to-one phrases isn't much better than believing in one-to-one words, and it has the added drawback that learning a whole phrase leaves you incapable of forming your own ideas from individual words.

Others will say, "well three is always three, and blue is always blue", to which I say no, it's not. Three can be три, or трёх, and blue can be синий or голубой. You have to know where to use one or the other.

Maybe you'll say "but when I was a kid, I learned a lot of things using flashcards." But I challenge you to think about what was on those flashcards... because it wasn't a foreign language. You may have had "1+1=__" on one side and "2" on the other. Or you may have had "apple" on one side and a picture of an apple on the other. But you were not learning one-to-one translations. (And at some other time, I'll be happy to tell you that those flashcards were bad, too.)

And this isn't just limited to flashcards. The same problem applies whether you are memorizing against flashcards, or vocabulary lists, or phrasebooks, or anything else. Each of these things has a specific way it was intended to be used, and in which it can be beneficial, whether for review, or organization, or quick-reference, but none of these things were meant for learning.

The only way to ever actually learn, is by using the language.