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.)
This answer seems obvious to me, but I’m still asked this question often enough that it’s worth a public answer.
Q: What do you think about just downloading an HSK vocabulary deck for my flashcard app and learning vocabulary that way?
A: That’s a pretty terrible way to learn Chinese, even if you can accept that it’s just mindless vocabulary acquisition and not really “learning Chinese.”
Q: What? Why?
A: I’m glad you asked…
Unless you’re studying for the test, the HSK vocabulary list is not the vocabulary you need. It’s an arbitrary list full of vocabulary you don’t need. Sure, there’s some useful vocabulary in there, but how much useless vocabulary do you not mind memorizing?
Downloading a free, ready-made list of vocabulary is the worst way to study new words. It’s because it’s instant and effortless. To your brain, that makes it devoid of value. Your brain doesn’t like to retain information it deems devoid of value. The nice thing about studying something devoid of value, though, is that it’s so very easy and painless to give up on.
Curating your own list of useful vocabulary, taken from real-life situations or texts you actually want to read is a much better way to learn new words. You made the effort to go out and find that vocabulary, and the vocabulary itself is a means to an end: having a real conversation or reading a passage you’re interested in.
You know what’s better than curating your own list of vocabulary in your flashcard program? Actually getting some cards, and writing the words you want to learn on those flat dead-tree rectangles, all caveman-style. Put pen to paper and actually physically create your implements of vocabulary review. That’s effort, and your brain respects that.
Requiring personal effort makes the learning process memorable, and as a result, what you learn sticks better.
But hey, go ahead and download the free HSK vocab list. It won’t hurt anything; it’s easy to delete a week later. Your brain won’t mind at all.
You’ve probably heard of analysis paralysis, but where does it come into Chinese studies? Studying a language is fairly straightforward, right? I’m referring not to being overly analytical about grammar, but rather about vocabulary. How can one be overly analytical about vocabulary? This is something that technology has made easy in recent years.
Most of my AllSet Learning clients use Pleco or Anki to review vocabulary. Both have built-in SRS flashcard functionality, so doing occasional reviews pretty much solves that problem, right? Well, maybe… SRS drawbacks aside, certain personality types like to take a more active role in the vocabulary categorization process. Yes, categorization. That’s the trap.
You see, when you save a word to your flashcard system, you can also categorize it. Where did this vocabulary come from? What type of vocabulary is it? How high priority is it? You can go as deep down this rabbit hole as you want. And you can spend a lot more time organizing and re-organizing your flashcards than actually reviewing them.
So typically when a client comes to me with “flashcard organization problems,” the way forward is pretty clear: it’s time for some serious vocab axing. The situation can be as bad as physical packrat (or even hoarder) tendencies, except with vocabulary data instead of old newspapers or whatever. In most cases, the learner is much better off chucking the majority of this carefully collected information. Usually the most exquisitely categorized lexical items are the least useful. Reducing everything to one “high priority” list is the way to go. This really is all you need, and you get back all that time you used to waste endlessly organizing words (without actually learning them).
For those that are seriously attached to their accumulated lexical data, technology offers a solution: you can back it up! Back up the data, dump it somewhere, and keep your active word list as simple, focused, and clutter-free as possible. (Chances are you’ll never go looking for that backup.)
If this problem sounds vaguely familiar, you may be thinking of the bookshelf problem. It’s amazing, isn’t it, how we humans can be motivated to do something related to learning a language, but actually pour the majority of our efforts into useless activities? The worst, part, of course, is that even a meticulously curated collection of lists which are somehow regularly reviewed don’t guarantee any kind of conversational ability. But then actually talking to people is a bit too random for the analytical brain to handle.
The solution is simple, though: less organizing, more talking. A more bare-bones vocabulary list will help you move in that direction. If you’re a vocabulary hoarder, I strongly urge you to reconsider your approach.
This link was too good to not post: Flashcard apps. I really dig the graphical feature display (just mouse over the icons).
Personally, though, so many choices almost makes me want to ignore all these options altogether. So far, Anki and Pleco are a good combination. I do wonder if these 100+ apps offer anything special, though.