Flashcards: That’s not how it works!

My partner at Mandarin Companion, Jared, recently created this meme for a blog post:

Flashcards: that's not how it works!

The blog post is a learner story, and it touches on flashcards, but that’s not really the main point of the story. Still a useful read for other learners of Chinese, though.

But the meme struck me as very timely, because I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about flashcards over the years. Back in my ChinesePod days, my friend John B was always quite the flashcard software (SRS) “believer,” and my co-worker JP was always against it. At the time I was somewhat neutral (probably more on the pro side), but over the years I’ve gained a lot more insight into the issues surrounding flashcard usage. One of my earlier posts, Misgivings about SRS, touches on some of the ideas, but I wrote that the same year I started AllSet Learning, and since then I’ve come into contact with many different kinds of learners and gained far deeper insight into how flashcards work for whom, and how they don’t work.

I’m still organizing my thoughts for an upcoming blog post (it’s going to be rather long), but if you have your own flashcard story to tell (for or against), please don’t hesitate to leave a comment or send me an email. Links to academic studies of flashcards are also very welcome.

I’ll end with a thought related to extensive reading, which is what Mandarin Companion is all about: Chinese graded readers. Reading is the original spaced repetition. (For many cases, it’s still superior.)


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. James Theron Says: August 31, 2018 at 11:01 am

    Making and using paper flash cards along with a college course was indispensable, and I would to it all over again.

    When I was using ChinesePod, flash cards was less useful. Trying to use FCs on Pleco was also underwhelming.

    I am a fan of graded readers. The story lines can be quite ridiculous, but for character reading and learning, they are great. However, they didn’t help with learning to write characters like paper cards did for me.

  2. I feel like Anki is the best thing that happened to me when learning Chinese.

    I did use my own paper flash cars at the initial stage of learning the language, but Anki was so much better.

    I did use Anki along with having Chinese language classes at a university in Shanghai every morning 5 days, also with trying to read magazings, trying to watch movies with subtitles, practising with my Chinese friends and trying to immerse myself in the language as much as possible in general.

    But I think spaced repetition flash cards is a close as it comes to free lunch in learning a language.

    I was using it regularly for 6 months, with 5 new characters / words added everyday on average, and up to 10 new words during some intensive periods.

    I was reviewing Anki characters for 20 min every morning right after waking up, when my brain was “fresh”, and I feel like it is my secret recipy for learning Chinese language. First of all, because after getting into a habit, it took me almost no effort to do this for 20 min. However, I feel like it was incredibly efficient way to learn many new characters, and helpled my to pass my HSK 6 (old version) and later study Finance in a Chinese university all in Chinese, together with Chinese classmates.

    I would recommend to add flash cards to such software by yourself, because this way you feel like these characters are really usefull to you, as opposed to standard Anki sets (for example HSK level 5 etc), because you often find unnecessary / boring words in such sets.

    I feel like that if you are really disciplinned and stick to the 20 min every mornign routine, you can learn 5 words / characters everyday for a prolonged period of time. So that would be 150 characters per month, 1500 per year, and 3000 in two years, which is the amount usually cited to be necessary to read newspapers. I wasn’t able to test it myself because I started using Anki after I already had a certain level of Chinese, but I think this is possible based on my experience. I think learning 3000 characters in 2 years by spending only 20 minutes every day is a great deal!

    • Denis,

      Thanks for sharing your experience!

      So would it be fair to say that you used Anki a lot as you moved from beginner into (high) intermediate learner?

      • Yes, that’s correct.

        I stopped using the software once my vocab was large enough to read economic news/textbooks without encountering too many new characters. I think if one day I feel like I want my Chinese to be good enough to ready fiction in Chinese, I might use Anki again. Would be an interesting experiment, considering I’m 10 years older than when I used it the last time. Would be fun to test how well my memory works now.

  3. I agree that reading is the best form of spaced repetition, and have written about this quite a bit on chinese forums.

    Here’s one post on it (keep reading the thread for further discussion), and you can find a bunch more by following the links in this post and reading the threads, which mostly focus on regularly deleting flashcard decks and using regular reading to catch up on repetitions.

  4. Flash cards work for characters, especially if you learn for recall – that is, learning to write from memory. You deeply embed the characters in this way, and there are many advantages such as being able to take dictation. Be that as it may, my success with vocabulary and sentences has been mixed. I recommend marrying the card with sound – a real human voice is best – and to have two cards for the same item: one for reading and one for listening. How a learner engages with the cards matters – a low or high engagement depending on what learning strategies are used. I agree with the commenter above: learn less to remember more and keep the sessions short. Question: is SRS a learning tool or a reviewing tool? Question: why do we all seek certainty and efficiency with our language learning and avoid ambiguity and doubt? Question: will Mandarin Companion incorporate SRS? As someone who fell for the learning without understanding trap one too many times, I warn people NOT to be over motivated. In my experience, SRS – due its supposed efficiency – turns you into a time keeper: as in, it will take this amount of time with this amount of effort to reach my goal.

  5. Flashcards are good for things you need to know but will not encounter fully w/ regularity in the context of your every day reading, like when I was in massage school and needed to learn anatomy (origin, insertion, movement).

  6. My current conclusion with flashcards: keep things simple.
    When I started learning Chinese and read online on how to study vocabulary, everybody kept recommending Anki. It’s a nice software, but in the end I spent a lot of time on creating and organising cards instead of actually studying. I also found it very problematic that cards were doubled or tripled when creating multiple study directions (ENG-CH, CH-ENG,…), so it felt my deck just blew up.
    Maybe 1.5 years ago I tried the flashcard function of Pleco. If I want to put a word in my flashcards, I just look it up and click a +. And maybe add it to a category. And maybe change the english translation. Done. But no hazzle of creating each card from scratch and messing up the whole library when I want to change something about my study process.
    If I have 20 new words that I want to put in my flashcard app on my phone, I don’t want to go to my computer and take half an hour to carefully create perfect cards. I want to be able to create them in 5 minutes, so that I can study the rest of the time 🙂

  7. […] to acquire vocabulary and, therefore, grammar. As linguist John Pasden puts it in a post entitled Flashcards: That’s Not How It Works!, “reading is the original spaced […]

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