These past few months I have been working to learn the 2000 most common Turkish words. I found a list and set a personal goal to learn all of them by January 1st of 2012 – last week! After a quick pass through the A words back in early November, I discovered that I knew about 70% of the words and so needed only to focus on the remaining 30% – many of which I was familiar with but not confident in. My plan was to use a computer based flashcard program called Anki and a number of other ideas to make sure that I learned all 2,000 words backwards and forwards. Now before going any further I need you to know that I failed at both my goal to learn these 2,000 words as well as my desire to use Anki to learn them. But I learned a whole lot in the process and I want to share that with you today.
I failed to learn the words because I didn’t put in the time – it was November and December after all, months that are notoriously busy. And December is a month that I have never been able to be productive in. I am not sure what it is, but I tend to run low on motivation and will power as each year draws to a close. These are things I should have known. And so I worked very little on the goal I had set.
I also failed to use Anki effectively. I say failed because I did not continue to use it as I said I would. In reality, I quit using Anki of my own accord because I didn’t like it. Anki is a fantastic program that is downloaded to your computer and I plan on having an Anki lover write a guest post about it in the future. I learned a lot from Anki and if it suits you, it is a great learning tool. But I didn’t like using it on my computer. I guess I am old fashioned, but I found I liked using good ole fashioned paper flashcards a lot better – and so that is what I did.
Old Fashioned Flashcards
Because of what I learned using Anki though, I am now using old fashioned flashcards in a much more effective and efficient manner. Anki uses an idea called spaced repetition. By choosing how well you know a term, the program determines when you will review it next. Words you know well might only come up once a week or less. Words you have yet to learn will come up daily. This creates a much more efficient review session as little time is wasted shuffling through cards that you already know.
I am not sure why I never thought about it before, but this can easily be done with paper flashcards as well. I used to have these growing stacks of flashcards, inches thick and filled with every word I had ever written down. It would take copious amounts of time to get through the whole stack and was intimidating to even look at. More often than not, all I did was look at that stack.
Borrowing the spaced repetition method from Anki, I now have four stacks of cards. These have allowed me to more efficiently and effectively review vocabulary using paper flashcards and I find myself reviewing a lot more often because I have removed the burden that a pile of cards six inches thick creates on my delicate mind. Here is how it works.
Pile one is filled with the words that are new or still relatively unknown. This pile should be no more than about 50 cards so that you can review its contents in one to two minutes. If it’s more than that, you probably won’t take the time to review and it will be too bulky to keep in your pocket. Because the review is now manageable, I find myself reviewing this stack a whole lot more – sometimes four or five times a day. More consistent contact with these new words helps move them more quickly into my working vocabulary. As soon as a word from pile one becomes known – meaning I rarely have to think about its meaning any more – it gets moved to pile two.
Before we move on to pile two however, I want to mention that I also keep ten or so blank cards at the bottom of pile one. This way when I come across a new word while I am reading or listening to something, I can make sure and capture it and begin to learn it as well.
Pile two is filled with all the words that you now know. You have given each of these a fair amount of review, but they probably are not locked into your long term memory yet. With regular repetition though, they will soon be. I keep pile two on my desk and review these cards once or twice a week. They take a bit longer to get through as there will be more than in pile one but if you can keep them somewhere in the house where you spend a bit of time – at your desk, on the end table or perhaps beside the toilet – you can revisit them once a week in order to continue to drive them deep into your memory. The key is to keep this pile fluid – words you realize you forgotten go back to pile one while words that you feel are really locked in go to pile three.
Pile three is for words that are locked in. You have reviewed them and know them well. You know their meaning at first glance without a moments hesitation and are using them in speech and recognizing them right away in your reading or listening. But to make sure you don’t loose any of these you will want to review pile three once a month or so. This ensures that they don’t get lost, that you don’t come across them a year from now with that, “I know I learned this word once” feeling. Again, pile three should be fluid and some words will inevitably find their way back to pile two. Finally, when you realize that a word is super locked in and a part of your working vocabulary – for good – then feel free to move it to pile four.
I’ll let you in on a little secret. There is no pile four. There is a trash can however and I would encourage you to put these cards in it. Littering is bad.
Before and After
Using flashcards in this manner will go a long way toward helping you more quickly incorporate new words into your working vocabulary. There is more that you can do to effectively use paper flashcards and quickly grow your vocabulary though. By doing these you will maximize their use and discover even more success with learning new words.
The fist and perhaps most important is to give yourself massive amounts of input so that you increase your chances of hearing or seeing these new words in other places. Flashcards by themselves are devoid of context and emotion – two important elements that stimulate learning. By giving yourself massive amounts of input you will hear more of these new words more often in contexts that are rich in meaning and filled with emotion and this will greatly increase the speed and depth of your learning. So make sure you are:
- Having regular conversations with native speakers
- Reading daily in the target language
- Watching lots of fun movies or a TV series in the language
- Listening to podcasts or the radio in the language
And a few other ideas for improving the use of flashcards are:
- Review flashcards with a native speaker to determine if a word is worth learning or not. When doing this I found that many of the words I was working so hard to learn were actually outdated words or technical terms – words I would rarely use and had never seen. I threw them away!
- Use pictures for objects rather than writing the translation.
- Occasionally review the cards backwards – looking at your description/definition first and trying to say the target language word.
- Regularly shuffle the deck so that they order is not the same every time.
- Write the definition in light pencil so that you cannot see it through the paper.
- Use flashcards for social expressions, idioms and proverbs.
I am looking forward to continue to use flashcards in an effective and efficient manner over the coming year. I hope you too will try some of these ideas and see how they work for you. Remember, experiment and find what works for you!
How you have used flashcards to help you effectively and efficiently learn another language?
Ready to get serious about learning another language?
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