Why Randy Hunt is wrong about flashcards

I recently came across this article by Randy Hunt arguing that flashcards aren’t just a waste of time when learning languages, but are actively bad for you.

Stop using flashcards. Stop using SRS. Stop learning vocabulary from lists, or decks, or programs. Stop. It doesn’t work, it’s a waste of time, and it’s creating bad patterns in your brain.

As you might expect, I strongly disagree.

The interesting thing is that in the article Randy makes a good point which I think is true and worth repeating here, but I completely disagree with the conclusion he draws from it.

The translation step

Randy’s article points out that relying on translation is not a good way to speak a foreign language:

…learning anything (words, phrases, ideas, whatever) against its translation is creating extra steps in your brain. It’s making you slow. It makes you think slowly, hear slowly, speak slowly.

This is definitely correct. In the early stages of learning a foreign language, you inevitably continue to think in a language you’re more comfortable with (usually your native language, but not necessarily). You rely on a very slow conversion process to get from that to the target language.

But I’ve never known anyone who doesn’t naturally get past that stage. As far as I’m aware it’s simply a phase in learning a language, and with enough effort it isn’t long before you don’t need to involve your native language.

More accurately, my understanding of the process is that you become increasingly able to simply exist in the target language. There isn’t an absolute cut off point where this occurs, and a learner reaches this state faster for some situations than others.

As an illustration, the course of conversations you have will depend hugely on what language you are speaking. From similar starting conditions, a conversation will develop in a completely different way if Chinese is being spoken compared to English being spoken.

This is because the speakers are relying on a different catalogue of linguistic experience depending on what language they are speaking. This applies just as much to language learners as native speakers.

(*Citation needed for all of the above – it’s my own understanding based on experience, not research.)

Languages do not correspond one-to-one

Randy also makes the point that no two languages in the world have a one-to-one correspondence between them:

That false reality is where ignorant explanations like ‘that word is untranslatable’ are born. There is nothing that can not be translated. Nothing. But in order to understand that, you must first understand that words in one language do not match up with words in another language on a one-to-one matrix.

Again, this is true and an important point to understand. I would think that most people, especially language learners, are intuitively aware of this point, but there’s no harm in repeating it.

It’s also good to see the old “untranslatable” trope being shot down. That’s a common way for people who don’t know much about a language to romanticise it and project their own stereotypes on to it.

The point about no two languages corresponding exactly should be taken further. It’s not just that no two languages have a perfect correspondence to each other, but also that no two speakers speak exactly the same language.

I’ve always liked this quote to express that idea:

There are as many languages as there are speakers.

John Norman — Totems of Abydos

Everyone has a personal model of the languages they speak, and no two models are entirely the same. We can communicate because there is enough common ground to make things work. The goal of a language learner is to work to increase the common ground of their model with that of other speakers.

Binary thinking

Randy seems to think that because languages do not correspond perfectly to one another, if you involve translation in your language learning then you must believe in this false “100% correspondence” idea.

As far as I can tell from his article, he believes you either work 100% with this translation and correspondence approach, or you work 100% with a more organic, native-like approach.

This is a false kind of binary thinking. As I wrote above, it is entirely true that languages do not correspond one to one. But that is separate to how translation can be a useful part of language learning.

The second false dichotomy that Randy sets up is that flashcards by their nature must use one-to-one translation and that the flashcard model can’t be utilised in other ways.

A misunderstanding of flashcards

Flashcards are a prompt and check model of language learning, not a question and answer one. By that I mean that they are not about getting things “right” or checking your answers against an absolute goal.

That’s why Randy’s concerns about translation and correspondence don’t apply to flashcards in the way he thinks they do.

In this prompt and check model, the prompt is far more important than the check. The prompt causes you to work actively with your knowledge of the language, and it’s that mental work that leads to deeper learning. Because you’re prompted and have to respond (not answer), there’s the potential to be wrong and you learn from that.

The check is completely secondary to this, and is there as a reminder or example of a possible response to the prompt. The real benefit comes from responding to the prompt, not in checking your “answer”.

With flashcards for language learning, “response” is better term than “answer” as it focuses on the mental work that goes on more than the conclusion of that work.

Translations in flashcards aren’t there as an absolute correspondence or correct answer. They’re there as a convenient way to check your response to the prompt (again, response, not answer) when necessary.

When I use flashcards for improving and maintaining my Chinese, I don’t religiously compare my response to what’s on the other side of the card. I respond to the prompt, without any translation or English involved.

With output cards, the English on the prompt is there to put an image or situation in my mind, which I then try to express in Chinese. At no point am I aiming to do any kind of translation or conversion between the languages.

Similarly, with input cards, the Chinese is there for me to read and get the benefit of trying to understand as immediately and intuitively as possible. I’m not trying to convert it to the English on the other side. The English is just there if I need a quick confirmation of my understanding.

The long-term benefit of the card comes from a kind of kata of repeated exposure and exercise which leads to mastery. In the first stages of learning Chinese, simply identifying each character in a sentence is challenging. Later, you gain the ability to comprehend chunks of text in a glance.

Flashcards are not the only way to work towards that mastery (and should not be used in isolation), but they are an effective way to increase your daily input and output.

Sometimes I may use the check to confirm that I was along the right lines, but I don’t worry about matching what’s on the card or about getting a “right answer”.

Clearly the situation is different for a beginner, who will need to rely more on the check to confirm that they’re producing valid Chinese. But the point remains that the goal is not to produce a correct answer, but to exercise your Chinese to keep it fit and healthy.

Randy suggests using pictures and images to remember words in your target language. This is a great approach, but gathering pictures takes up a lot more time than simple translations, plus they often may not capture everything needed in the prompt. Rosetta Stone language learning software takes this approach, and it quickly becomes cumbersome once you get beyond words like “car” and “tree”.

Flashcards are holistic and granular at once

I think Randy may be viewing the learning process in an overly simplistic way and underestimating what the brain is capable of. Your brain is a not a dumb machine: as you respond to the prompt of a flashcard, multiple avenues of learning are being reinforced at once. You’re certainly not just learning to mechanically convert the prompt into the check.

I don’t add sentences to my flashcard deck expecting to ever use them. Not one. I add them expecting to reinforce my 语感 for the vocabulary, grammar and idiomatic Chinese contained in the sentence. This is greater than the sum of its parts, and has nothing to do with conversion or translation.

Again, it seems like Randy’s article expresses excessively binary thinking. Flashcards are not perfect and can’t compare to constant, active communication with native speakers. But flashcards can provide active mental exercise in a cheap and effective way.

Another advantage of flashcards is that they provide a granular way to get holistic learning. That sounds like a contradiction, but what I mean is that you can gain some control of your daily exposure to Chinese.

Reading real Chinese text is important and has great benefits, but it’s also good to add some longer term guarantees that you’ll keep what you’re learning in your active knowledge and ability. Flashcards provide an excellent way to do that, and again, it’s not about translation or a two-step process.

We’re not allowed to disagree

Unfortunately, this article has been a waste of time, as Randy has made the most convincing defense of his opinion that exists:

Don’t argue, just accept it … I know that the flashcard lovers are already forming their arguments as they read. … But I’m not wrong.

Randy is right because he says he’s right and no-one is allowed to disagree.

Interestingly, his final point is one that I completely agree with:

The only way to ever actually learn, is by using the language.

That is true, and where we differ in our opinion is whether you’re using the language when you study with flashcards. In my view, you are: you’re being prompted to actively engage in mental work involving the language, which helps you learn it and definitely counts as using it.

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