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Why You Should Use Flashcards to Learn a Language

Learning a language is a lot of fun, but it can be challenging sometimes. The older you get, the harder it is to pick up a second language. In fact, a new study has found that the age at which your chances of reaching total language fluency is 10 years. On top of that, basic learning abilities fade by 17 or 18.

No one knows the real reason why our language learning ability starts to drop after this age but possible reasons include lifestyle changes, alterations in brain plasticity or it may simply just be the unwillingness to learn new things.

But Norman Doidge, psychiatrist and author of The Brain That Changes Itself, says the following about language learning:

“Learning a second language, after the critical period for language learning has ended, is more difficult because, as we age, the longer we use our native language, the further it comes to dominating our linguistic map space. Because plasticity is competitive, it is so hard to learn a new language and end the tyranny of the mother tongue.”

However, it is still possible for adults to learn a language if they are willing to try. After all, hard work pays off because anyone who takes the time to learn will inevitably make progress. Plus, we live in a world where learning is not limited inside the four walls of a classroom. With the internet, anyone can learn any language through online courses and language learning communities and platforms.

The Rise of Digital Flashcards

Flashcards have been an indispensable tool for studying lesson material since the 19th century. But now, they are digitalized. Apps and online language learning platforms are simplifying on-the-go studying and raising learning to new heights!

1. The Power of Learning, Minus the Clutter
Digital flashcards function like traditional ones but you don’t have to worry about misplacing them, or having too much that they take up most space on your study table. With digitized flashcards, you don’t have to worry about losing track of them or keeping them organized.

2. Visual and Auditory Information
Combining multiple learning styles will generally maximize retention. Digital flashcards can have pictures, texts as well as audio to guide you on how to pronounce the words right.

3. Learning with Context
Some apps not only include the basic information about the word but also show it in a context. This way, you are able to harness the power of contextual learning and activate your brain to move newly learned vocabulary to your long-term memory.

4. Portability
Since digital flashcards are saved in apps or online platforms, you can take them anywhere you go! This means you can work on learning a new language whenever and wherever you want.

How Flashcards Aid in Language Learning

A flashcard is simply a card that contains a small amount of information to aid learning but in this day and age, there’s an app for everything. Flashcard apps make learning even more effective by including additional features to support your learning. A lot of language learning programs makes use of flashcards to help learners retain information faster and more efficiently. But what makes them so effective?

1. Active recall
As you practice with flashcards, your brain is “forced” to recall what is on the back of the card correctly. In doing so, using a mental faculty known as active recall. Active recall is the process of remembering information. It is an efficient way of moving information from short-term to long-term memory so that you can easily draw on it again when you need it most. Active recall makes you learn the words faster and retain them longer.

2. Instant feedback
There are no complicated scoring when using flashcards. Your answer is either right or wrong. That means if you make a mistake, you become consciously aware of it so when the next time you come across that same card, you can make the correction in real-time.

3. Spaced repetition
This is a learning technique that incorporates increasing intervals of time between subsequent review of previously learned material in order to exploit the psychological spacing effect. This basically means that learning is more effective when information is learned in intervals rather than try in absorbing it all in one day. With flashcards, this is a breeze. You easily separate them into piles based on when you need to study them again. Some flashcard apps also have a Spaced Repetition System, where it automatically predicts the exact time when you need to review something you have learned. This way you spend an optimal amount of time learning exactly what you need.

4. Metacognition
When using flashcards, you are able to access your performance on the spot. This act of self-reflection is known as metacognition. Metacognition refers to “thinking about thinking” and is considered a critical component of successful learning. According to John Dewey, the act of reflecting back is the most important part of learning actively: “As long as our activity glides smoothly along from one thing to another … there is no call for reflection. Difficulty or obstruction in the way of reaching a belief brings us, however, to a pause. In the suspense of uncertainty, we metaphorically climb a tree; we try to find some standpoint from which we may survey additional facts and, getting a more commanding view of the situation, decide how the facts stand related to one another.”

5. Gamification
This is a relatively new method of learning where it uses game-based mechanics, aesthetics and game thinking to engage people, motivate action, promote learning, and solve problems. Gamification leverages our natural desire for socialization, learning, competition, mastery, and achievement into learning outcomes. Flashcards can be used as a game to make learning more effective and many flashcard apps game-like features like achievements and mastery information which encourages you to do better next time.

6. Visual learning
It’s been proven by numerous studies that the brain absorbs more information when it is presented in visual form. It makes sense since our brain is mainly an image processor since much of our sensory cortex is devoted to vision. Many flashcard apps include images to accompany the words making the brain process the information quicker and easier.

7. Limited space
Unlike a page of a book which usually contains several paragraphs, a single card only has a few words and an image. It turns out that the limited rectangular space in flashcards is very helpful in learning as it enhances one’s focus.

What to Look for in a Flashcard Learning System

There are tons of flashcard apps available in the market. Some of them are free and some are paid and each one is claiming to be the best at what they do. But how do you know if a flashcard learning system is really effective? Here are some characteristics that you can look for:

1. Different Sensory Cues Integration
As mentioned above, the combination of multiple learning styles will maximize the retention of information. A good flashcard learning system usually has an image, the text that tells what the image is and an audio file that teaches how the word is supposed to be pronounced.

2. Presented in Good Context
Again, having the basic information is not enough-the word must also be presented in context. Contextual learning is a method of instruction that enables students to apply new knowledge and skills to real-life situations and this approach is considered to be one of the most effective learning methods today.

3. Spaced Repetition System
A good flashcard learning system will have an automated spaced repetition system that will algorithmically determine the words you need to study to keep the newly learned words “fresh” in your mind. The app plans the learning sessions according to an optimal schedule that minimize your practice time but maximizes its efficiency.

The Most Effective Way to Learn a Second Language

Take your time.

It’s just not always possible to learn a language in a very short time span. This is why spaced repetition is an important aspect of effective language learning.

In order for us to understand this theory, we first need to know how the human brain works. The brain stores information it deems to be important but it gets rid of things that we don’t need.

German psychologist Herman Ebbinghaus thought came up with the idea of the “forgetting curve”, referring to the rate at which you forget something once you learn it, either for the first time or after reviewing. This is why cramming is a bad way to learn. But by reviewing the information at particular intervals, you are able to soften the curve and move those information to your long-term memory.
According to According to Prof. C. A. Mace in 1932 in his book Psychology of Study:
“Perhaps the most important discoveries are those which relate to the appropriate distribution of the periods of study…Acts of revision should be spaced in gradually increasing intervals, roughly intervals of one day, two days, four days, eight days, and so on.”
Learning a language doesn’t have to be frustrating. In a way, we are very lucky that we have a lot of language learning tools such as flashcards (digital or not) at our disposal to aid us in our quest for second-language proficiency.