It’s not a secret to anyone who knows me or who has followed my teaching career: I hate flashcards, I discourage anyone and everyone from wasting their time with them when it comes to language study.
I know some people like them. I know some people swear by them, and swear that flashcards have been integral to their language acquisition; I call bs. On the SpanishPod website I was once chastised for allowing my limited personal bias to cloud my judgement and give terrible advice regarding a tried-and-true study tool that millions of people have meow meow meow meow meow meow. Regardless, I maintain that flash cards are a horrible waste of people’s lives; they do zero for language acquisition, and that advocating for flashcards actually victimizes people who could be using their time and energy on activities that are actually beneficial.
In my professional opinion, it is unethical to advocate for the use of flashcards. In my personal opinion, it is at best a waste of time, at worst a form of sabotage.
Ok, let’s all calm down.
I used to have a long, reasoned lecture about why flashcards were a stupid waste of time, but nowadays I’ve boiled it down to a couple of simple sentences….
Flashcards train memory recall; language acquisition is not memory recall.
Memory recall is great. It impresses people, it will help you pass quizzes and exams that reward discreet item recall. I wish I had better memory recall.
Language acquisition, however, might as well be a different organ. Multilingual people can feel the difference between recall and language acquisition… whether or not they advocate for flashcards.
Memory recall is trained; it is practiced. People use association and other techniques; to some people these are intuitive; others attend high energy seminars to learn how to build memory mansions and rhyme “one” with “bun” and “two” with “shoe” and to fixate on someone’s big nose to remember that their name is Nathan.
Language acquisition, however, is instinctive. When people talk about language acquisition, they say things like “pick up;” he picked up a British accent after two weeks; where did that kid pick up all those swear words? They’ve been in Japan for seven years and haven’t picked up a lick of Japanese.
Language professionals and experienced multilinguals will tell you… with words… that language acquisition is a function of meaningful communication; entire languages are “picked up” because humans are driven to be part of a conversation. That’s why your language teacher keeps trying to have real conversations in the target language about the vocabulary; that’s why students who are too cool to engage in real conversations suck at remembering the vocab. Suuuuuuuck.
Look at me, do you think I study vocabulary? Hells no. I use it; that’s the reason for all my language learning successes. If I don’t know vocabulary in a given language, it’s because I haven’t used it yet.
Anyway, some monolingual people are not ready to hear this yet.
Check out this video: 5 Canadian polyglots are trying to explain to a reporter that language acquisition is different from memory. The reporter remains incredulous.
Seriously, five polyglots… how many polyglots does it take before she will believe that memory is different from language acquisition?
This is the source of a lot of frustration in my professional life. People ask me who to become a more successful language learner, and then when I tell them, they disbelieve.
Later they tell her that language keeps growing even when you stop using it, and she doesn’t believe that either. I’ll have to write another post about that later… but for now, you should know that that’s totally my experience as well… my French sounded like garbage while I was in France, but sounded great a year later.
That may not square with monolingual logic. Well, kids, if you want to stop being monolingual, you will have to start letting go of monolingual logic.
PS. I hate flashcards.