Mandarin learners are often divided on the topic of flashcards. How useful are they? How should they be used? At what stage are they most useful? In this guest post, Mandarin learner and computer programmer Karl Baker assesses the pros and cons and describes his hybrid approach to studying Mandarin.
My journey into learning Chinese began when I met my partner, an amazing woman from Chongqing. Her English is great, but I wanted to be able to speak to her family and friends in China and connect with them on a deeper level without having to ask her to translate too often.
With a potential trip to China in the future, I wanted to make progress as quickly as I could. After doing a little research, I became convinced that using flashcards to build my vocabulary would be a great way to learn Chinese. I quickly became immersed in vocabulary building and addicted to using flashcard apps to learn new words. So much so, that for the first 6 months, I forgot about all of the other language learning methods that students should make use of, for example: conversation practice, listening to native speakers, and reading Chinese stories or news articles.
Having learned around 1,500 of the most common words using flashcards, I soon realised that although I could say most of the words for the topics I wanted to talk about, I still struggled very hard to put together basic sentences. If I tried to read some simple Chinese stories, I would understand almost every word, but the meaning of sentences would still be utterly incomprehensible because I didn’t understand the grammar.
I regularly exchanged simple Chinese sentences with my partner but, feeling like I wasn’t ready, I kept putting off longer conversation practice with her. Frustrated with my lack of progress, I did some more research and found out about graded readers. This is an approach where you read very simple stories in your target language first, and gradually build up to a more advanced level. These can be physical books, apps or websites. If you use a good graded reader app then they will usually let you easily discover the definition of any words you don’t know in the text simply by clicking on it. Some good graded reader apps I’ve used are DuChinese and LingQ.
Using graded readers was very hard at first, even with the most basic stories, but I quickly began to understand the grammar and was exposed to a whole range of contextual information about the words I had been learning which I couldn’t get from vocabulary flashcards. My Chinese received a great boost from this but I still found that I could acquire new words faster through flashcards than I could through graded readers.
I eventually adopted a hybrid approach where I used both on a regular basis. While using a graded reader, I don’t usually learn and remember new words unless they’re repeated many times in the text. However, with the hybrid approach I found that if I’ve put down the graded reader for a few days and used vocabulary flashcards to drill in a few hundred words instead, upon coming back to the graded reader I’ll realise I’ve acquired many of the words.
If I’ve learned the basic meaning of a new word from a vocabulary flashcard, seeing it used properly in a sentence for the first time in a graded reader often leads to an epiphany. It opens up a whole wealth of new information about the word; the structure of the sentence it was used in, the mood that the speaker of the word used it in and the other words it’s commonly used around.
Part of the reason why I did, and still do find vocabulary flashcards so addictive is because the progress I was making was measurable. The number of words I know is a very easy metric to track in many flashcard apps so I get instant feedback on my progress every day which boosts my motivation. It’s also a great activity that you can do yourself with a little spare time. Unlike with conversation practice, you don’t need a language partner and you can even do it offline with physical flashcards.
I would also argue that vocabulary flashcards are something even advanced speakers of a second language can get benefits from. The difficulty you face when you’re at an advanced level is that you’ve already learned all the simple words and you need to learn more advanced words to progress your skill. These more advanced words show up less often in day to day use so you need a way of being exposed to low frequency words.
Vocabulary building flashcards can be very good for this task. Most of the good vocabulary building apps let you pick specific “packs” or “decks” of words which can be a great way of learning words which you would otherwise see only very occasionally in everyday use. You can even make an effort to find and study word packs which are related to your area of technical expertise that you specialise in.
Keeping these advantages of flashcards in mind, I was frustrated with the selection of vocabulary building flashcard apps available. Many of them simply track a count of words known without any interesting graphs to monitor your learning over time, or the known word count is a simple one dimensional count, when in reality, it’s hard to tell at what point you truly “know” the word. The ability to be able to measure your progress is one of the main advantages of flashcards as a whole, so I really wanted an app that capitalised on this aspect.
For this reason, I ended up writing my own flashcard app called Mandarin Vocabulary Builder. It has a great stats section where you can track your known words over time in a graph or table format, and I added the concept of “Familiar words” (guessed correctly once or more), “Known words” (five correct guesses or more) and “Mastered words” (ten or more correct guesses). This method gives a slightly finer grained measurement of how well you know a word.
I also offers multiple choice flashcards, rather than just asking you to self assess whether you remembered the word or not. In addition to creating packs with HSK vocabulary, I also created a lots of others that focus around everyday words for different areas of life like colours, numbers, foods, sports, and so on (and obviously ran them past my partner to make sure everything was correct).
After using this app every day for a few months I massively improved my comprehension when using graded readers. But I still feel that it’s important not to depend too heavily on flashcards. It’s true they can help you to learn a lot of new words quickly, but the gains in speed and quantity come with a reduction in quality. It may sound strange to describe vocabulary in terms of quality; surely you either know a word or you don’t, right? Well, not quite. The more experienced you are in language learning the more apparent it becomes that ‘knowing’ a word is a nuanced process and there are many aspects of a word which can never be learned from flashcards alone.
Collocations are one aspect. In English, the phrase “I have a powerful computer” sounds more natural than “I have a strong computer”, but “I have a strong cup of tea” sounds more natural than “I have a powerful cup of tea”. All of those sentences are grammatically correct and roughly have the same meaning, but collocations are the reason why some sentences sound more natural than others. This is when certain words are commonly used with other words more often than you would assume by chance. You could always include some sentences in your flashcards, but in general it requires exposure to large amounts of content to pick up collocations and as a result it’s an area that learners who over-rely on flashcards often struggle with.
Overall, I believe vocabulary building flashcards should ideally always form part of your Chinese learning toolkit, whether you’re a beginner or advanced. I place a very large emphasis on the phrase ‘part of’ because I think a diversified approach to language learning is key and you should also make use of immersive techniques on your language learning journey, such as using graded readers, conversation practice with native speakers and watching watching media content.