On flashcards for language learning
After the dissing in the last post, I figure I should jot down my current opinion on flashcards. Naturally, I can only speak of my own experience. I find that, for me, flashcards are good for things like:
- Memorizing arbitrary vocabulary and other pointless associations to get good grades on exams (and forgetting everything after the exam);
- Learning for the first time a phonetic writing system (alphabet, abugida, abjad &c.), including kana (but not getting fluency—that will come later and naturally after a lot of reading);
- Memorizing arbitrary trivia to impress the ladies (e.g. which month corresponds to which flower in hanafuda);
- Perhaps kickstart a few common kanji; say the first 80, or a short list of the most common components.
At the moment, I find that flashcards are not useful, and even a hindrance, for:
- Learning a language.
- Learning kanji.
On second thought, scratch that. Even these goals are wrong. You don’t learn a language, much like you don’t learn, say, playing the flute. There’s no such thing as “learning”. There’s no cutoff point where you finish “learning the flute” and start “playing the flute”. From the first day you’re playing the flute, or reading Japanese; you just do it progressively better. And kanji are a means, not an end.
I won’t get better at reading texts in Japanese by flashing flashcards. I’ll get better at reading texts in Japanese by reading texts in Japanese. Luckly, that’s a much more interesting game than flashcards.