Learning a Language with Flashcards

Today we have a guest post by Andrew Cohen.

Having been a reader of the Omniglot blog for quite some time now, I have seen a lot of discussion about the usefulness of flashcards for help learning a language – particularly as a tool for practicing vocabulary and verb conjugation. Spaced-repetition systems (SRSs) like Anki seem to have gained traction as the preferred vocabulary study method among the language-learning blogosphere.

Yet despite their popularity, SRSs have so far mostly remained limited to vocabulary memorization. I find it surprising that no SRS manager has yet attempted to develop a way for people to actually learn a language from scratch using audio flashcards. It’s as if language theorists are afraid of innovating too much in the flashcard realm, lest they be accused of advocating diminished human interaction.

That’s why I created Brainscape. We’re a web & mobile “smart flashcards” platform that has developed a fully flashcard-based language learning methodology called Intelligent Cumulative Exposure (ICE). (See our 30-page white paper (PDF) about the cognitive science behind ICE.) We basically took the often-overlooked body of research suggesting that adult language learners benefit most from practicing output, and we found a way for the learner to systematically practice output of full sentences.

Intelligent Cumulative Exposure is based on the following tenets:

(1) Use translation to solicit the learner to generate each foreign-language sentence in the form of a flashcard;
(2) Play a natural-sounding native recording of the full sentence on the back of the flashcard
(3) Introduce only one new concept (k + 1) per sentence, beginning at the most basic sentence possible;
(4) Provide grammatical annotation in the learner’s native language where appropriate; and
(5) Repeat previously seen sentence-generation exercises in a spaced repetition pattern driven by the learner’s own confidence levels.

We’ve spent the past two years carefully sequencing a curriculum that applies these principles on both the web and iPhone – and we are finally releasing the product today! Brainscape Spanish starts from the most basic Spanish concepts for novices, toward much more complex words, grammar, and phrases for the advanced user. The app is currently available to use for free on our website (for a limited time) and for $40 on the iTunes App Store. It contains over 6,000 flashcards and will continue to improve based on user feedback over the coming months.

Please check out the app for yourself – and tell us what you think! And thanks again to Simon for letting me share this new innovation here on the Omniglot.

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