8 Better Ways To Learn A Language Without Flashcards

My last post turned out to be every bit as controversial as I thought it would. I expected that, because whether right or wrong, people react passionately and defensively any time their beliefs are challenged. (If you want to test that theory, just put a muslim, a christian, and an atheist into a room together!)

I received many comments of agreement, and I also received many comments if almost violent disagreement, but the one thing I was most shocked to see was a comment accusing me of bashing flashcards without telling people what to use instead. This comment surprised me the most because I've published more than 200 posts already this year, and I feel that a large number of those involved ways that a person can learn and practice a language. And none of them involved flashcards!

Still, as a followup to the previous post, and as an answer to that complaint, today I'm going to briefly discuss ways to learn a language that are better than flashcards.

1. Write to an email pen pal.

The single most effective way to learn a language is by using it. Email is slow and patient. You can look up words you don't know — even go learn whole grammatical constructs — without the other person getting impatient.

When you know what you want to say, you'll know what you need to learn. That means the words you learn will always be useful. And when the other person responds, you'll see how the language is used, and learn colloquial expressions.

2. Chat with someone.

The single most effective way to learn a language is by using it. Chats are a little slower than live conversation, so you have a little bit of time to look up words you don't know, or to use Google Translate when you don't understand something. You can also ask your chat partner to explain things you don't understand.

When you're having a conversation, you know what you want to say, so you'll know what you need to learn. That means the words you look up will always be useful, not just vocab on a list. And when the other person responds, you'll see examples of how the language is used, and learn colloquail expressions.

3. Talk to someone

The single most effective way to learn a language is by using it. (Are you seeing a pattern here?) Talking to someone is faster than email or chat, so you don't have much time to look things up, which forces you to find other ways to say what you want to say.

Having a conversation forces you to speak and listen, two things you completely avoid with antisocial things like flashcards. And as I've said, when you're having a conversation, you know what you want to say, so you know what you need to learn. Any time you have trouble in your conversation, write down the words or thoughts you had trouble with and go learn them for next time. Or better yet, just ask the person to whom you're talking!

4. Listen to music

The single most effective way to learn a language is by using it, even when that's just for the purpose of enjoying a song. Songs have choruses which are repeated, and you can always listen to a song again, so it has all the repetetive benefits of flashcards, but with the advantage of forcing you to use your ears and understand someone in the new language.

5. Listen to podcasts

The single most effective way to learn a language is by using it. (I'm getting tired of saying it.) A podcast can be paused and played back when you don't understand something, and if forces you to use your language to understand what is being said, rather than just memorizing words on cards.

6. Start a blog at Lang-8

The single most effective way to learn a language is — everyone say it with me — by using it. Writing a blog is slow and patient. You can look up words you don't know — even go learn whole grammatical constructs — and then come back and finish.

When you know what you want to say, you'll know what you need to learn. That means the words you learn will always be useful. And at Lang-8, you have a whole world of native speakers to give you corrections and help you understand how things work.

7. Read a book

Can you guess what is the single most effective way to learn a language? If you said "by using it", you were right! There is no race when you're reading, so you can take as much time as you need in order to understand things. You can even put the book down and come back to it weeks later, and it will still be right where you left it.

As a bonus, there are side-by-side "readers" printed in just about every language, so you can turn to the translation on the opposite page when you have trouble. This is particularly nice because it allows you to read translations of whole thoughts, rather than the word-by-word translations you would get from flashcards.

8. Watch a movie

The single most effective way to learn a language is by using it. Watching a movie is a great way to do that. Leave the subtitles off. Just listen to the dialog, and pay attention to what you see on screen. Figure out what's happening based on what you hear and see, rather than cheating with subtitles.

Movies, like music and podcasts and books, can be watched again and again, so you can continue to practice and improve your ability to hear and understand what is being said. And movie conversations are more like life, in that the dialog is usually mixed in with noises and other sounds like in the real world, rather than being perfectly recorded in a quiet studio.

So now I've given you eight ways of learning a new language that are better than flashcards. They are all better because they require you to use the language. And in all cases, you get the bonus of knowing you're using this new language, rather than hiding and being antisocial while you memorize words on flashcards. After all, you learn a new language to communicate — not as a way to become a hermit!

Want to see my favorite language resources and courses?
I listed them here.

Author: Yearlyglot
I'll lead you through a 12 month journey from knowing absolutely nothing about a language to having professional fluency.

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  • Randy Yearlyglot

    I agree with you on the flash cards. And this is coming from someone who studied Italian for 3 years and now is living in Italy and believe me those flash cards did not help a bit. What I have learned is that I must stop translating. TRANSLATING in your brain is bad. SO now I am learning ways to express myself. Phrases I used a lot in English and use a lot in Italian. The fun thing about learning and speaking in a new language is you take on a new persona..crazy isn't it?

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    I absolutely won't argue with the argument of not using SRS as it has happened to me. My girlfriend, who I met in my country learned English without SRS, without studying much and by simply speaking and using it. When I moved to her country, I studied grammar books, I built up an Anki vocabulary of nearly 4000 words, I purchased hundreds of books, and I got nowhere. I spent 2-3 hours everyday studying, doing pointless
    exercises, etc.

    True, I'm actually a walking dictionary, but I have to translate the word first. I can't use the word in context without first seeing the Anki card. This in reality has done me more damage than good.

    I've noticed the stuff I do understand without translating is the stuff I use everyday, I hear on TV or in music or I use in conversation. I now simply spend my time watching movies, reading and talking and I'm making far better progress. I realised it was bad when I was reading a blog and saw a word and couldn't think where I had see it before, until I realised it was one of my Anki words and I needed to translate it.

    It didn't matter to me at the time that my girlfriend and all her friends learnt English without using flashcards, I believed the method was working for me, and I was wrong. I tried varying the way I was learning, i.e. Using whole sentences, etc. But flashcards have been my greatest hindrance.

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    Those who like using flashcards are saying you can use the target language in all ways - speaking, reading, writing, listening AND facilitate vocabulary retention by flashcards.

    But the point Randy was trying to hammer home was - you DON'T need to use flashcards if you FULLY engage in natural activities using the target language!

    You see - if you FULLY enjoy life in the target language, all the activities combined CONSTANTLY make your mind to learn, use, repeat, and re-activate vocabulary that you use on a daily basis - a purpose that flashcards were invented for.

    Of course, you can build HUGE vocabulary consisting of words OUTSIDE your active vocabulary in the target language using flashcards but what would be a practical application of that?

    If Randy's blog would be called 'How To Become a Walking Dictionary in a Year', he would probably advocate using of flashcards as a great way of automating massive data input into your brain.

    However, Randy's blog happens to promote learning languages through 'living' them and using them as means of experiencing things we enjoy in life. Therefore the argument of using flashcards simply falls BEYOND this blog's scope!

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    Here's another one: Talk to yourself, narrate your life. Making breakfast? Describe what you're doing out loud. Ask yourself questions, justify your answers. Waiting in traffic? Practice your alphabet and numbers by reading the license plate number of the car in front of you. If you're lucky enough to live in a place where products are often labelled with your target language (eg. Spanish in some places in the US or French in Canada), read all of it and use that as a source for new vocabulary. If you're holding something or doing something you don't know the word for, reach for your dictionary and look it up. Have imaginary conversations with imaginary people you're having over for dinner (naturally this works better if you live alone).

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    I think you did absolutely the right thing by making your next post about the what TO do instead of flashcards now that you've said people shouldn't use them. All of those are good methods, and though I do think SRS is useful, I agree with you in that the MOST useful thing to do is to actually use the language, preferably by interacting with a native speaker in some way.


  • Randy Yearlyglot

    +9 Write Comments on Blogs
    - Search Blogs that are related to your passion.
    - Don't be afraid, Write a comment!

    Thanks for your tips.

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    You are doing really well and have got the idea! Don't give up! :)

  • Randy Yearlyglot


  • Randy Yearlyglot

    Totally! I do those things all the time. Every moment when I feel "bored", I begin a conversation with myself in the language I'm learning. It helps my recall and also helps me figure out what words I still need to learn.Great comment. Thanks!

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    That was a really great way to sum up. Also, if you live the language, you are soaking in a lot of grammar that most find really boring. I cannot stress that enough. For example, my grammar is as good as it is (not waanting to sound pretentious here) because I lived english. I did not use flashcards or read grammar books!

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    If you FULLY use the good list, there's no need for SRS.If you LIVE through the target language, life itself becomes like a natural SRS.

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    I don't use SRS to keep my English. Why would I need it for any other language?

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    srs is just like flashcards, just with the order being decided by computer software, which you don't want. You are the one who needs to be in control of your learning.

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    You nailed it!;-)By the way - I personally know a Latvian chap who learnt English EXCLUSIVELY by using it in his personal business. He started off five years ago part-time and now he's a business mentor. He works with the UK market and when someone occasionally finds out his not British, they're stunned because his English is absolutely natural.He's never picked up a grammar book, textbook or a flashcard in his life. He soaked in the English language by living through it!

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    I think this is the most valid argument one can use to refute the need of using flashcards or SRS!

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    Is latvian a difficult language to learn, would you say? I'm interested in learning it after I've done spanish, and finished off my french and italian (hopefully that won't take long)

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    As for KEEPING the language - if one has to put extra effort in keeping it, then doesn't one have to start questioning the reasons of learning it? I mean - if you don't use the language at a degree that it retains itself naturally through USING it, then you most likely won't use it anyway, I think.

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    Exactly! USE it.No one can ever convince me that flashcards are worth using when you could spend the same amount of time USING the language and retain it much better.

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    Well, that's a good question! A couple of months ago I would have said it's difficult, but now I'm more inclined towards opinion that perceived language's difficulty is a very relative term.
    If you analyse grammar constructs, and verb and noun conjugations - then yes, it's difficult. If, on the other hand, you learn the language through natural use and your brain soaks in grammar naturally, then no, because you won't need to judge it by terms 'difficult' or 'easy'.
    In other words - if one tries to learn Latvian by trying to make sense of grammar, it would probably be head-racking. If you just accept the way things are spoken and learn them without asking yourself "but why this word here is used this way, but in the other sentence in a completely another way? It makes no sense!" it wouldn't be more difficult than learning French I guess.

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    For what it's worth, I don't know Latvian, but I know some Lithuanian (which is similar) and I speak fluent Russian (which is in my opinion much more difficult), and I don't think the grammar is as bad as people make it out to be.It's all a matter of thinking in a new way. If you try to speak Latvian while thinking in English, it will be the hardest language you ever learned. But if you allow yourself to learn to think in Latvian, it's a piece of cake... just like any other language.

  • Randy Yearlyglot


  • Randy Yearlyglot

    Yes, Lithuanian and Latvian are sister languages; I suppose it's like comparing Spanish and Portuguese or Irish and Scottish Gaelic.And I agree - if you speak Russian, Latvian would be a piece of cake! :-)

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    You're off to a good start! :-)) Lūdzu!

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    I disagree. I'm immersed in my new culture and I'm daily faced with new words to remember and retain. Sometimes I do a pretty good job and other times I just plain forget. Maybe it's a thing of there being so much input that there's only so much I'm going to remember at one time -- I'm not sure. But I'm constantly speaking, writing, emailing, SMSing, worshipping, joking, etc. etc. amen in my target language. Maybe I'm just impatient, but there are still words/phrases/etc. I forget -- then again, I do that also in my mother tongue, and still find myself looking up words in my mother tongue, so...

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    I think you already know the answers. Two things you said:"maybe I'm just impatient" - Yes, you probably are. It's natural."I do that also in my mother tongue" - Exactly. We forget what we don't use, no matter what language it is.

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    Totally agree with you about the talking to yourself thing, and using time spent out in traffic. Whenever I was on the bus or train or a passenger in the car, I had my dictionary with me and liked to look up the words on signs I didn't understand. If I looked up the words and still didn't get the meaning, I asked my husband or whoever I was with, or wrote them down to ask someone about later -- more often than not it was something idiomatic that did need a bit of explanation.

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    I think I'm finally starting to get the argument. So, if I use the language extensively every day, and I'm forgetting words here and there that I'd like to remember (I don't mean stuff like the the similar expressions for "soap", "ball", and "mother"), it's just a matter of accepting that I'll either get the words over time, if I truly need them, or either it's no big deal because they're not words I'll be using very often? Would it be counterproductive to write down a list of words that slip my mind and make a review of them? I don't meant to sound like an idiot; just want to make as much progress as possible, as soon as possible. Or maybe I should be more relaxed about my rate of progress; I don't know.

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    I think you've got it.The words you use regularly get remembered. The words you don't use regularly got less importance. As your skill improves in the language, your attention naturally turns to more subtle things.

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    This is a REALLY good point!

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    Thanks! ;-)

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    Thank you for this comment. This is exactly what I'm trying to help people to see.Would you mind if I quote this in a future post?

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    I don't think it's so crazy. Each language has characteristics that make it different from others, and those characteristic have an effect on our thoughts. I recently read about scientists who had done brain imaging of people as they used their languages. Even simple words like "mother" lit up different parts of the brain when said in English vs Mandarin, for example.There is also the fact that our understanding of a language is inseparable from our exposure to it. Hence the reason Italian makes me feel in-touch and artistic, while Russian makes me feel strong and independent. It's not just the language, but the people and the culture you experience with it.Thanks for commenting!

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    Not at all, please do

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    See - here's the problem.
    While journal entries and podcasts and chatting and e-mailing penpals are all good ways to learn language, they require you to ALREADY KNOW a small amount of the target language first.

    And to start with learning words like "eat" and "go" and "cat" and other simple words, the only way to memorize them is flashcards, isn't it?

    Do you have any language learning methods for COMPLETE BEGINNERS that doesn't involve flashcards?

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    So, how is someone learning Mandarin or Japanese and dealing with 1000+ characters supposed to learn how to read?
    Do you have a bettter way than flashcards? It's not quite as simple as learning your standard alphabet or syllabary. SRS flashcard type things, like WaniKani's system seems like it'd be the best way, no?

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