Flashcards for language learning

Western education does not encourage memorization. Almost to a ridiculous extent, there is an expectation that if one simply learns the principles, one will be able to figure out the details. As nice as it is to learn the principles, there is no principle of a language that will save you from having to memorize thousands and thousands of new words. (How many thousand? One claim is that it takes a vocabulary of about ten thousand words before you’ll stop being caught by your inability to express yourself. Do you believe now that you need some organization to help you?)

The lack of emphasis on memorization in Western education means that people educated under that system don’t have either the patience or the resources for memorizing vocabulary. This is something that I ran into right away in language learning. It is something that I have been able to overcome to a large extent through using flashcards.

If you just want to get started, you can download Anki. This is excellent, free software that will keep track of your flashcards for you. It works on Windows, Apple, and Linux. (There is a paid version if you want to use it on an iPod, iPad, or iPhone.)

If you’re not technical, paper flashcards can work just as well. It would be worth learning about the spaced repetition technique, to make your learning more efficient. Basically, you see harder facts more often, easier facts less often. Anki implements this automatically.

If you’d like to learn more about Anki, this is a helpful 12-minute YouTube video. It’s well-paced and shows you exactly what to do. Just a couple of points:

  • Around the 2 minute mark, he talks about getting a shared deck from the Anki web site. You can do that with Dari (Persian), but you can also download decks from our Online Resources page.
  • He suggests taking up to fifty new cards per day. If you do this, then you will very quickly be reviewing thousands of cards every day! I myself generally choose to see 5-10 new cards per day, depending on how difficult I’m finding the cards.

Here are the important points of Anki if you’re not a video person:

  • Every day you open Anki and review the cards that it tells you to review.
  • You’re given a prompt, and hit Spacebar to see the answer. At that point you choose “Again” (if you got it wrong), “Hard,” “Good,” or “Easy.” Anki will automatically show you easy cards less often, and harder cards more often.
  • As you’re exposed to more cards, you’ll see more cards every day. As you successfully memorize more cards, you’ll see fewer cards. If it gets to be too much, you can change the “New cards/day” setting.
  • You can change the options for a deck. The “New cards/day” setting is the most important. I find I can absorb 5-10 new cards per day. Set this to zero if you don’t want to see any more new cards for a while.
  • Don’t think about catching up or taking a break. Anki knows when you need to see a card; just go along with what it says.
  • The per-day time commitment is not large: I find I go through about 65-75 cards in about five minutes.
  • But, you’ll learn best if you study every day. If you leave it for a week, you’ll find hundreds of cards that you need to review, which is always discouraging.

Anki decks

You can create your own Anki decks. This is a great thing to do with the words you get from your language lessons. There are also some Anki decks for Dari available through the LCP online resources page. If you feel the urgent need to build your Dari vocabulary, that would not be a bad way to start.