Over the course of my time studying Mandarin, I’ve used three types of flashcards:
- Picture flashcards (for visual review)
- Written/ typed flashcards (for verbal review)
- Software flashcards (for intense review-style cramming)
Each type of flashcard system has served a unique purpose for my vocabulary review needs. But all of them also had very important limitations.
Here’s a link to a great infographic that tries to answer the question “Are Flashcards an Effective Learning Tool?”
Here’s my take including my ideas for how you should use flashcards to study for the TOCFL or for everyday learning/testing. [For TOCFL specific advice, go straight to the bottom.]
But first, a mild disclaimer about flashcard reviewing versus flashcard learning.
Using Flashcards to Learn Isn’t a Good Idea
Flashcards can be a decent system for reviewing information—if used appropriately. For example, I occasionally use flashcards to study for vocabulary exams and quizzes. And I think they typically work well.
As a general rule: Flashcards help you review words that you’ve already learned but have trouble sticking in your memory. They aren’t a good main method of learning new words in Mandarin, because:
Flashcards Are Translation Dependent. Flashcards tend to force you into an “English word = Mandarin equivalent” mindset which isn’t always helpful for understanding the context and complexity that culture adds to language. (Example: 關係 = relationships? Not quite.)
Some characters have a lot of different meanings and usages. But when you go through a stack of flashcards, you are limited to that one translation completely in isolation. As a result, it gets frustrating and confusing when you learn that a word has a certain meaning, but then read it in a context that doesn’t fit the translation you learned. (Example: 沒關係 should mean “it doesn’t have a relationship” but it really means “it’s okay; never mind”) (A really good explanation of this is on Yearlyglot’s blog.)
Parts of Grammar Don’t Translate Well: Using flashcards to learn how words function in grammar doesn’t always work. Many particles and parts of speech have bizarre explanations/ definitions (Example: 得, 了, or 把). Learning these very technical definitions out of their specific grammatical context doesn’t help you understand the word at all.
Mandarin Has Many Easily Confused Characters: Sometimes you might see a character on its own and you think you know what it is, but if you’re careless and not paying attention to all parts of the character, you could be burning the wrong word into your memory.
For example, when I returned to the United States and got my first private tutor, I typed my first homework as 弟一課 (little brother one lesson) instead of 第一課 (lesson one). I had forgotten the top radical. My teacher scolded me. Many characters that look extremely similar—especially if you’re trying to hurry through a time pressured stressful situation like an exam! Words like: 例外 and 到处 have similar elements or characters like 土 and 士or 專 and 尃 look almost exactly the same.
Flashcards don’t really give you the opportunity to distinguish the differences in characters because you’re just looking at them one at a time (in isolation) and trying to get through them as fast as you can.
Everyday Review with Flashcards
Learning Visually with Picture Flashcards
Typical foreign language flashcards, especially those for adults, use the format: Mandarin word on one-side and English translation on the other side. Picture flashcards, however, often eliminate the translation step and just feature the target language, forcing you to associate word in Mandarin with a (representative) image.
Now, you have to create visual associations with the object or idea (rather than with its translation). To some extent, I think that really helps you start on the path of “thinking in the language.” You don’t have to translate. You only have to visualize.
They are also great source material for language learning games.
Limitations: Picture flashcards are extremely limited in that you can only really use them for things that can be depicted representationally. That means they’re best for learning vocabulary of concrete and simple to illustrate nouns (ex: food, clothes, body parts, sports) or verbs (ex: running, crying, dancing). Sometimes it can work with abstract ideas though like “greed,” “failure,” “frustration,” “bliss,” (think of those once popular motivational posters) but not always.
Moreover, if the concept in Mandarin is different from the concept in English—using only one picture to represent that idea, noun, or verb might cause you to start making incorrect assumptions about similarities across the two languages. So, you’ll have to be careful.
Audience: Some people think picture flashcards are just for children or elementary learners. I disagree. Using pictures isn’t limited to a particular language learning level—just a particular language learning task. Here, the task is to reinforce your Mandarin associations by replacing your translations with easy to understand images. Nothing more. Nothing less.
Learning Verbally with Typed or Written Flashcards
Handwritten flashcards are extremely cumbersome and often impractical. If you remember from an earlier post, I once handwrote lots of flashcards. That didn’t work for me at all. I was drawn to this method because I thought it would give me a chance to practice handwriting the character. But there are better ways to practice your writing.
When you hand-write your flashcards, you have to make sure you print each character perfectly, so you aren’t learning/ remembering it incorrectly. If your goal is to work on your writing skills, I recommend that you do it in a space where you can train your muscle memory through repetition—rather than trying to painstakingly reproduce a word once for each card.
Typed flashcards have all of the benefits of handwritten cards with less of the stress. When I have time, I try to type out my class vocabulary and attach them to ring cards by cutting out and pasting the characters. Although less time consuming than handwritten ones, these cards still take some effort.
On one side, I color code the word based on the tone. On the other side, I have the zhuyin and the definition(s) in Mandarin. In the past, I used to use the English translation, but these days I try to stick to Mandarin as much as possible.
After I’ve made the cards, some teachers have required me to write my own example sentence for each word as homework. Other teachers have made me come up with the sentences orally on the spot during class. Both are good. But when I have to type my example sentences, I keep them in a folder for reference, so I can see how the word is used in context. This is a great resource.
Also, ring cards are extremely portable.
Memorizing with Software Flashcards
There are electronic flashcards with really cool features (audio, easy image uploading, character writing practice, etc.) that make them similar but more convenient to use than paper flashcards. Then there’s SRS.
SRS (or Spaced Repetition Software) is all the rage in flashcard technology these days. How it works: You go to a specific SRS site to create (or select) a deck of online “flashcards.” Then, the software uses an algorithm to manage the cards. It calculates how long it will take before you “forget” the word based on your input about how difficult it was to recall. Then, the software schedules when it’ll be best for you to review those words again.
One of the most popular SRS for Mandarin language learning is Anki. Specifically, this company has several premade vocabulary decks (including a complete set for TOCFL). There are also versions of the software that will work with your computer, phone, and tablet. So, yay for portability!
However, after a few tries, I discovered that I don’t like SRS. Or at least, it doesn’t live up to the hype for me—not even close. I understand the arguments that SRS is supposed to make learning more “efficient.” I have some pretty strong feelings… but in short, the goal of SRS seems to be to keep you in a perpetual state of context-deficient review.
I think my personal use of SRS and non-SRS electronic flashcards would be similar to how I use paper flashcards. I’d review a manageable amount of words for a finite a period of time with the goal of preparing for something specific. For example, I might use SRS to study for weekly vocab quizzes and tests where I have to translate meaning. I’d create my own decks from class lists, inputting the words after I’d already learned them and then I’d go through the cards once a day until it was time for the quiz. I’d repeat for the next quiz.
For more long-term results (the goal of SRS), instead of using flashcards, I’d make a point to continually and consistently apply my new words to things in my everyday life. Regularly interacting with words in multiple contexts (reading, listening, writing, speaking them) just seems more beneficial in the long run.
Purchasing vs. Creating Flashcards
I prefer/ recommend homemade flashcards to store bought flashcards or premade SRS decks for a couple of reasons:
Going through the process of creating the card yourself (whether you’re entering it into the software database or painstakingly drawing each stroke) gives you yet another opportunity to be exposed to the word. You have to make an association with the character, the sound, and the meaning in that moment before going to the next.
I also like the fact that homemade cards are customizable. My homemade cards are color coded (not all “store bought” cards are). I use zhuyin (most use pinyin). I can always have them in the right size to fit my bag or pocket. If I want to color code the cards based on parts of speech, I can do that—and the colors can be based on my personal associations. (Here’s one guy who color codes his cards based on tones.)
Customizing flashcards works best if you’re limited to a few dozen cards a week. If you have to make hundreds of cards all at once (like for the TOCFL). That’s just not practical.
TOCFL-Specific Vocab Review
TOCFL has both listening and reading sections. Thus, it’s important to know the meaning of a word, what the characters look like, and how the word is pronounced. There are huge vocabulary lists for every level, but TOCFL is not a vocabulary test. Rather, it is a test of overall language comprehension. TOCFL is multiple choice. Thus, being able to recognize a word is more important than being able to reproduce it.
All of these facts really dictate how you should study TOCFL-specific vocabulary.
Because the vocabulary lists are so large, using picture, written, or typed flashcards for the bulk of your vocabulary review would probably be too tedious and time consuming.
On the other hand, Anki (SRS) cards aren’t necessarily the best either. The preloaded TOCFL cards (labelled TOP) give you the vocabulary word with its pinyin pronunciation. But you don’t get to hear it. As a test that encompasses both listening and reading—that’s an important limitation to be aware of.
Also, Anki is preloaded with one list per level. Although the choice of when to review a card is systematic and very calculated, which words to review and how words are grouped is not. That makes it harder for you to make certain connections between families of words. Another problem with Anki for TOCFL is that you have lots of random grammar flashcards (for things like adverbial particles or other parts of speech) that come out of nowhere and don’t really allow you to see how the words are actually used in practice.
My Recommendations for Studying TOCFL-Specific Vocabulary:
- Really assess your current level before choosing which exam to take. Don’t stress yourself out trying to learn all kinds of unfamiliar vocabulary for the exam. (Take at least one exam at your current level)
- Use the vocabulary lists to guide you, but don’t obsess over memorizing every single word.
- Learn the vocabulary first.
- Give yourself opportunities to read vocabulary in context through newspaper articles, advertisements, stories, and other reading material. Listen to vocabulary in context on the radio, on TV, from podcasts, and other listening material.
- Review with flashcards—understanding their limitations—after you’ve learned the words. (In other words, don’t use the flashcards expecting to learn words you’ve never encountered before)
- Use software but make your own decks. Don’t rely on mammoth preloaded decks (like the ones in Anki). You should group words thematically or in ways that make sense to you.
- If you can, upload audio (preferably from a native speaker) or find cards that already have the audio! There’s probably some pinyin-to-audio software out there you could use.
- Create a space for learning grammar specific vocabulary (like particles). Learn how and when to use grammar not just the technical definition.
- When you’re reviewing each card, pay close attention to what the character looks like so you don’t get it confused with a similar looking character.
- Occasionally review in reverse. Start on the English side and see if you can visualize the character and remember how it sounds.
That was a lot of information on flashcards, and studying vocabulary. I hope this helped. Ultimately this is my, “I wish I would have known these things before I started studying for the TOCFL” post. But feel free to let me know if you disagree.