Theory Friday: Flashcards

One of my sidelines this year is to tutor an hour a week for students who are tutoring other students in introductory Greek. It always seems complicated to explain that. We are only in our second week, and in fact the student-tutors have not yet commenced their tutoring of their students, so we have taken the opportunity to do a little bit of meta-thinking about language acquisition/teaching and methods. Of course, you know this is just the kind of thing I like to do.

What follows is a post-factum write-up of some of the things I covered.


This week we spent some time thinking and talking through Flashcards. Good old flashcards!

What is the quintessence of the flashcard, physical or digital? I take it, that it is the direct correspondence of one discrete unit of information with another. This is both the genius and the weakness of the flashcard approach. For, the flashcard can never get away from this 1:1 correspondence model, even when it becomes something like X:y,z,a,b,c – it is still operating on a correspondence model. At the same time, this segmentation and compartmentalisation is what allows it to work so well for massive rote-processing. Once we accept this limitation, we can think through two related questions:

  1. How do we mitigate the traditional weaknesses of flashcards?
  2. How do we complement the use of flashcards for better learning outcomes?

I’ve gone back and forth on flashcard use. I think that overall they are an inferior method of learning vocabulary in general. But they do have their uses, which is why I swing back to using them occasionally. Their advantage is that they allow massive rote learning of vocabulary by a relatively automatic process. This is very useful for initial stages, at which constructing materials or finding texts that allow high comprehension is difficult. This is one reason flashcards should, in general, be built on corpus frequency – high frequency vocab initially acquired by flashcards can rapidly be both solidified and nuanced by extensive comprehensible input.

The weaknesses of flashcards include some of the following:

  1. Encouraging a correspondence/translation approach to language
  2. Reinforce native-language thinking patterns
  3. Present words in a decontextualized manner
  4. Prioritise Visual-Textual learning processes
  5. Ineffective for structures

Point 1 is the most difficult, because of the quintessence of flashcards. I think it best to mitigate this through complementary approaches. Point 3 can be mitigated by including contextual information on one side of the ‘card’ – a sentence, clause, or even a phrase, can contextual new information in a way that provides more language-oriented material than just ‘mental factoid’ gloss. This sentence or phrase should be relatively simple, it should be something the learner can process without any great mental difficulty – i.e. they shouldn’t operate in a sentence beyond what the learner is already comfortable with and the rest of the words should be familiar and immediately understood.

Point 4 and point 2 can be mitigated in relatively complementary ways: by replacing native-language glosses with pictures, and/or using audio information. Pictures have two downsides: they require a very large ‘up-front’ cost in generating a deck with relevant pictures (I’m thinking digitally here), and specificity of pictures can be problematic. One has to think carefully how to use a picture to represent a concept in a way that is non-ambiguous. I’ve never seen an audio-to –text deck, but I think it would be brilliant, if one whole ‘side’ of the deck were just audio material. I suppose the extreme would be audio-to-pictures.

Point 5 has to do with things like untranslatable particles/modal markers, etc., things that need to be understood as part of a larger unit. In Greek ἄν is my default example. Practically useless on a flashcard. This can be mitigate by embedding these kinds of words/structures into sentence level units and highlighting/underling/otherwise marking the targeted information. The learner then is responding to some actual language use, while being reminded of the target information.

On to my second question, how to complement flash-cards. As I said earlier, flashcards are really like intense boot-camp for acquiring a basic vocabulary. Personally, I think they make best sense when used solo, when other materials are not available. I would complement it by carefully constructed graded reading material, which is going to establish contextually comprehensible input and increase reading proficiency, and verbal practice of some sort. Flashcards would then be used to pass your time on the bus or something, reinforcing this basic information in another form. Next time I’ll talk about intensive and extensive reading practice and gradation.

Would love to hear your thoughts/experiences/relevant research on the topic of flashcards.

Why I do Sub-Optimal Language Exercises

Why bother doing anything but the best types of language acquisition activities?

I’m a firm believer in Comprehensible Input, and fairly sold on Krashen et al., that CI is the key to language acquisition. I don’t quite buy Krashen’s “strong” version that nothing but CI is necessary, because I think he’s framing the question a little incorrectly. Krashen these days makes a strong claim that CI, only CI, is sufficient by itself for language acquisition. I think this might be true, but there are other aspects of language competency that are perhaps not quite ‘acquisition’. The ability to speak, write, produce output is probably a secondary outcome of acquisition, but in my view and experience one still needs some practice in these output skills in order to actually output.

Anyway, I do all sorts of activities that are not optimal CI activities. I read texts too difficult for me. I do ‘composition’ exercises that are really translation exercises of banal sentences from English to Greek/Latin. Lately I have been working on an idiosyncratic but modern translation of the New Testament (I’ll write more about that individually later on). Why? Why waste time?

  1. Don’t wait for the best.

There is no way to get optimal CI in Greek or Latin. There’s no language community, there’s no children’s cartoons, there’s no 5 levels of graded readers about contemporary society, there’s no young adult extensive reading materials available. One will never derive enough genuine CI from currently available resources.

  1. Output exercises are nonetheless moderately useful.

Because (a) they develop output automaticity, even if no new language is being acquired. And because (b) the process of doing the exercises does involve some CI even if suboptimal.

  1. The art of translation is itself an art to be acquired.

While it’s generally and genuinely preferable, in my view, to work mentally in the target language, there are times when one will want to translate – in either direction. There are structures of phrasing and thought that come to one naturally, and in the absence of knowing a target language structure, you tend to code switch or break thought. Working systematically to acquire some of these structures will improve translation ability.

  1. For others

I think a previous generation thought you acquired language competency largely by suffering and toil. They were wrong about that, but using sub-optimal methods requires suffering and toil because the amount of time required to get the same amount of genuine CI is so much more. The only way we will produce teachers who are competent enough to utilise more-optimal methods is if we have teachers who are prepared to suffer a little to acquire by the hard way, and generous enough to pass that on by an easier way.

Like a broken record

Q: Patrologist, why do you talk so endlessly about language acquisition?

A: Because our field is so broken. In no other field do so many people who know their target language so poorly talk with such authority. I honestly wish it wasn’t necessary, that we rather lived in a time, an age, a place, where we took for granted that people who studied ancient Greek literature knew ancient Greek, where people learned in Hebrew had learned Hebrew, where scholars of Latin had been schooled in Latin. But we do not live in such a mythical land, we live in its counterfeit where people peddle outdated methodologies to reach inadequate heights.

I believe this is changing, but slowly, and only because some are agitating – pointing out that the Emperor does indeed have no clothes. You can try it at home – approach a Greek professor or a NT one or whatever, and initiate a Greek language conversation. If you don’t get a quick χαῖρε, ὦ μαθητά, πῶς ἔχεις σήμερον; then there really is something wrong.

On the flipside, all I am saying is that we apply Best Practices from contemporary Second Language Acquisition to classical and biblical studies. This should be the least controversial thing in the world. And all I am discussing is how we can do that. There is a long road ahead of us. That’s why I keep talking about the same things over and over. Until the revolution comes.