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How to make your own flashcards super sticky

My recent holiday to Cuba was so luxurious that it came with a butler service. I confess that this didn’t quite live up to my expectations. The butler refused point blank to wear the outfit that I’d brought for him, and I had to do all my own wiping. I would have been upset, but the never-ending supply of drinks brought to my sun lounger provided a remarkably calming experience. So much so, that I had to occupy my mind or risk falling into a vegetative state.

To stop my brain turning into mush and dribbling out of my nostrils, I decided to learn a little Spanish. If I was going to bark orders at minimum wage staff, I would at least have the decency to deliver my commands in a broken parody of their noble language.

I started by using a spaced repetition system (SRS) to memorise common verbs.

If you are forced to recall something just before you would have forgotten it, the strength of that memory greatly improves. An SRS takes advantage of this by tracking how well you can remember individual flashcards, predicting when you will forget them, and prompting you to answer them at the right time. This makes studying far more efficient because instead of having to review a couple of hundred flashcards every day, you only review those that you were about to forget.

A side effect of this is that you quickly weed out all the easy to remember vocab and spend most of your time trying to recall the toughest words. This can be psychologically draining; by the tenth time you’ve flubbed the same word, it’s obvious that the prompt and recall study method isn’t working. However, instead of changing approach, the system doubles down.

The first change I made was to use phrases rather than just the individual words in abstract. My aim is to stop similar sounding words from interfering with each other by making their meanings clearer.

I use simple sentences featuring the target verbs in their most basic (infinitive) form, built from words that are similar in both languages and the 100 most common Spanish words.

An example for the verb ‘to run’ (correr) would be:

Q: I have to run for the bus
A: Tengo que correr para el autobús

I put these in a free SRS system called Anki and use the AwesomeTTS plugin to create sound clips for them. To keep the study process fast I answer verbally and only score the cards based on whether I got the target verb correct.

My second change is based on the idea that using a new word in a few different situations helps to make it stick. So, in addition to continually reinforcing the same mental connection, I add more.

The process works like this: if I’ve struggled to memorise a particular word for a few days, I add in two additional cards. These new cards use the verb in different phrases and translate in opposite directions. Creating them is really easy for Spanish because there are so many good resources – SpanishDict.com has loads of usage examples for every word.

If I continue to struggle, I just continue to add more phrases. By the time I’ve used the same verb in a dozen different contexts, it’s firmly stuck in my head, and there’s always the option of adding mnemonics for especially slippery ones.

Verbs that are synonyms are tricky. I think the best way to deal with this is to associate each one with a specific English synonym and stick with it. For example, terminar and acabar both mean to finish. By consistently translating terminar as terminate and acabar as finish I can avoid confusing myself by jumbling the words up.

I love how powerful SRS systems are, but it’s worth remembering when you make your own flashcards that prompt and recall isn’t your only option.

After starting some of this work, I stumbled across a Spanish shared flashcard set for Anki called ‘Sentences from the book Webster’s new world’, which quizzes you on both the infinitive verb forms and phrases with the verbs used in context. Whilst I prefer the cognates approach (words that are similar in both languages), I’d weigh that against the fact that they’ve created some 3000 flashcards for you!

Study like a BOSS - because gentlemen have better things to do than cram for exams

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