Flashcards Are A Bad Idea: Here Are More Reasons Why

avatarMille Larsen
5 mins read

As the flashcards holy war rages on, I continue to be amazed at how far people will go to defend a bad idea — even after admitting that it's bad.

One commenter said:

Ok, yes I agree flashcards are boring. I've tried using flashcards, but I just couldn't sit through it (Anki software). It is just rote repetition. There is much researched to be done to improve SRS. However, I have to disagree on some points. You refer to the translation step as bad thing. The translation step is vital part of the SLA process...

It might not be clear to you as you read that, but that was intended to be a defense of flashcards. (As I read it, it sounds like an indictment.) But then he even attempts to paint word-for-word mental translation as a good and necessary part of language learning!

Really? You don't think the translation step is bad? Tell that to this commenter:

How do you undo the process of translating in your brain? I hate, hate, hate that habit of mine, but I don't know how to break myself of it. I try to be aware of what I'm doing with German, but every time I check in with my brain, I find myself translating as I go. Hate it!

or this one:

I agree with you on the flash cards. And this is coming from someone who studied Italian for 3 years and now is living in Italy and believe me those flash cards did not help a bit. What I have learned is that I must stop translating. TRANSLATING in your brain is bad. SO now I am learning ways to express myself.

Wow. Three years of study, and then living in Italy, and still unable to break the translation step. Whereas I've been learning for less than a year and I've never been to Italy, but I don't have that problem.

But perhaps the best comment is this last one:

I absolutely won't argue with the argument of not using SRS as it has happened to me. My girlfriend, who I met in my country learned English without SRS, without studying much and by simply speaking and using it. When I moved to her country, I studied grammar books, I built up an Anki vocabulary of nearly 4000 words, I purchased hundreds of books, and I got nowhere. I spent 2-3 hours everyday studying, doing pointless
exercises, etc.

True, I'm actually a walking dictionary, but I have to translate the word first. I can't use the word in context without first seeing the Anki card. This in reality has done me more damage than good.

I've noticed the stuff I do understand without translating is the stuff I use everyday, I hear on TV or in music or I use in conversation. I now simply spend my time watching movies, reading and talking and I'm making far better progress. I realised it was bad when I was reading a blog and saw a word and couldn't think where I had see it before, until I realised it was one of my Anki words and I needed to translate it.

It didn't matter to me at the time that my girlfriend and all her friends learnt English without using flashcards, I believed the method was working for me, and I was wrong. I tried varying the way I was learning, i.e. Using whole sentences, etc. But flashcards have been my greatest hindrance.

Still think flashcards are good?

I have read arguments from people saying that you need to use sentences rather than words on your flashcards, so you can get it in context. But that's not context. Context is when it's used as part of a story, or an opinion, or a conversation. A sentence on a card is just one possible use of a word... some words have several dozen uses! I know you're not doing 40 cards for every word. And if you are, why wouldn't you just read an article?

Other people try redefining the argument, to the point where what they're talking about are no longer flashcards at all. And again I ask, if you're going to do all that work, why wouldn't you just pick up a book, or read a magazine, or listen to a lecture or podcast? There's 1000x more context in any one of those real-world uses than there is in a deck of flashcards, no matter how much time you've spent making them.

This has certainly turned into a hot topic. And frankly, that's good, because that means we're challenging the assumptions and beliefs of traditional methods. But I think it's time that we gather some data.

I know that more of you will find yourselves unable to resist commenting on this topic, so I'm going to ask that everyone who leaves a comment begins their comment by stating how many languages they speak fluently.

I have a strong suspicion that the biggest advocates of flashcards are people who haven't yet finished learning their first foreign language. And I expect that the number of polyglots using flashcards is extremely low. So please, tell everyone how many languages you speak fluently when you write your comment, so we can get some actual data rather than emotion and assumption.