Why Reading Trumps Flashcards for Language Learning

In previous posts I’ve talked about how much I like Skritter, which is a spaced repetition software app specifically designed for practicing Chinese (and Japanese) characters. I still think it is a fabulous program that has helped me remember how to write characters, but I’ve also gotten to thinking about the limitations of flashcards in language learning.

This is the first time I’ve used any kind of flashcards for learning a language. In general, making flashcards and studying flashcards is boring (at least in my opinion), whether it is online with a program like Anki or on index cards. I don’t have the patience review a bunch of vocabulary while looking at either my screen or a big stack of cards.

To analyze why I’m not crazy about flashcards, I think I would say it’s the lack of context that annoys me. Flashcards are just another format for long vocabulary lists from a textbook. Usually textbooks at least provide a short (and often quite stupid) text to introduce vocabulary, but flashcards just hit you with the word in total isolation.

I might not love flashcards, but I do love to read, and I have nothing against reading young adult or even children’s books. The only book I’ve purchased since arriving in Beijing three weeks ago is Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. I’ve managed to read about four pages so far (and it’s a good thing I choose a book I’m already familiar with, because reading is not easy…). Of course, the advantage of being in China is that books aren’t the only thing I’m reading in Chinese. There’s also the banner on the construction site near our apartment, maps, signs at the mark and product labels.

The funny thing is, a couple times I’ve looked up a character only to realize it’s one of the characters I’ve already learned on Skritter. This is surprising because it is much harder to write a character than to read it, and these are characters I can write easily when Skritter gives me the prompt. But when I encounter the character in its “real” context, I don’t recognize them.

Why? I think it’s its the context issue. If I only practice a character in Skritter, I can’t use it or relate to it outside of Skritter, which is of course what the whole point of using Skritter is.

But Skritter does help me solidify my knowledge of characters. Once I’ve both mastered a character in Skritter and run into it a couple of times in a sign, product label or book about a boy wizard who lives in England, I’m quite comfortable reading and writing the character.

I think the challenges involved in writing Chinese characters are particularly well-suited to a flash-card system, because learning the characters well requires training both your brain and your muscle memory. Individual characters can appear in many, often unrelated words, so learning a character in an “out-of-context” setting isn’t actually that strange.

I’m not certain how useful flashcards really are for other languages or situations, however. If your goal is to learn magic-related vocabulary, shouldn’t you read a translation of Harry Potter instead of slogging through flashcards for words like wand, cauldron, and wizard?

Don’t let me stop you if you really enough looking at flashcards. But don’t despair of your language learning potential if you would rather spend an afternoon washing your hair than staring down a stack of index cards.