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Cracking the flashcard problem: “Not getting around to it”

I had tried out learning extra vocabulary with flashcards (using software called Anki, which we previously wrote about). Trouble was, it’s great for memorizing new words in a new language, but I never remembered to go back to it!

Spoiler alert: Anki’s smartphone widget shows you that you are due another flashcard session, right on your phone’s home screen. So it reminds you when you should review your flashcards.

What’s so great about using flashcards as part of your language learning

Ok, first of all, see how an Irish language flashcard looks on my phone:

Irish language flashcard on Android
Screenshot of a simple Irish language flashcard on my phone. Looks simple? It is. In this flashcard I downloaded, you listen to the phrase to test yourself, and the press the card again to the the answer.

Anki merges these two basic ideas:

  1. Use flash cards to store each word or phrase you want to remember in the new language. First you see the front of the flashcard (perhaps with the English language phrase), and you test yourself on whether you know the Irish language phrase, which is written on the back of the card.
  2. Use spaced repetition – a method for remembering things as efficiently as possible. Basically, it gets you to review words just when you are about to forget them.

You can make your own Anki flashcards, or go searching for ones that others have created.

Digital flashcards was a great concept, but why it didn’t work for me until now

Learning a language is great, right? Well, when you get around to it.

I had installed Anki, created flashcards for new words I wanted to learn, and completed a round of reviewing the flashcards.

Then, guess what happened? I forgot to come back another day to learn with the flashcards.

This is actually kind of ironic: the spaced repetition method teaches you words in a new language, just as you are about to forget them. But it didn’t remind me to review the flashcards in the first place!

The icing on the cake: Smartphone widget with reminders

Screenshot of Anki widget on Android to learn language
That’s a screenshot of my Android phone. That big blue button with orange messages is the Anki widget. It tells me that there are “24” flashcards I should review, and that it will take “4” minutes.

I’m using Android, but it seems that Anki 2 should soon be also available for the iPhone (at the time of writing this).

The beauty about the widget on the smartphone homescreen is that it tells you that you have more flashcards to review.

This is a tiny, yet huge step. You no longer need to remember “Oh! It was six weeks ago since I last reviewed some new language vocabulary.” That was the trap I fell into, and what these reminders resolve.

Adding a widget in Android

I don’t have instructions for iPhone (see instructions below to use on your computer), but here’s how it worked on Android 4:

  • Open Google Play
  • Search for and install “Anki”
  • Browse the apps installed on your phone
  • Open the “widgets” tab
  • Find an Anki widget, and drag it to your homescreen

Next time you create a new set of flashcards in Anki, you’ll get a reminder on your widget if there are any more cards needing reviewing.

Get started learning new vocabulary online, computer, and smartphone

This Anki software I’m writing about is open source. In some ways that’s good, in particular that you have free access to it. On the downside, the interface (including web site and app) are not as helpful as they could be. Work through that, it’s worth it.

How do you get started in the world of Anki flashcards? Go to their web site and start downloading.

Once you have it installed, you can go search for flashcard decks in the Irish language that other people have already prepared. That’s both good and bad, the bad being that they may contain lots of words that you have any interest in learning yet.

A final caveat

I’m still afraid of seeing the reminders but not acting upon them.

The reminders will all be well and good, but I have to be sure to take the time to review the flashcards.

Over to You

Over to you: what methods do you use to make sure that you get around to learning your new language (Irish included, hopefully!)? Any advice on how to keep going with language learning, even if you have the best of intentions? Please reply below.

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4 thoughts on “Cracking the flashcard problem: “Not getting around to it””

  1. keiron Shaun O`Neil

    Hi i use the Duolingo app for Irish and i find it very helpfull and it reminds you every day to keep practicing. The only down side for me is that it doesn`t have many sound examples and i find it difficult to relate the sound of a word or phrase to the spelling and pronunciation . it´s a good app though

  2. I also like to learn vocabulary with digital flashcard and wanna share another app for you:superflashcard.com. It has rich data and supports main languages and exams as well. I often use these premade flashcards to study and sometimes create my own flashcards. I highly appreciate its calendar schedule to help me keep track my study progress. I love it