What makes an optimal Chinese flashcard?

Rule #12 in Dr Wozniak’s 20 Rules for Formulating Knowledge is “optimize wording”. This concerns making flashcards for general knowledge acquisition. While it does apply somewhat to language learning, acquiring a foreign language is something of a special case. How can you optimize wording for flashcards in a language you’re trying to learn?

Because of that, this article looks at how you can improve the flashcards you use for learning Chinese with a set of quick optimizations.

1. Keep it short

Above all else, the best optimization you can make to your Chinese flashcards is to keep them short.

More precisely, the task you’re being prompted to do should be short. It can be great to wrap the task with a lot of natural context (as in the Massive Context Cloze Deletion approach), but the active task that the card is prompting you to engage in should be pretty quick.

The maximum time needed to respond to the prompt on a card should be around 15 seconds, and most cards should be much quicker. This helps you to build up momentum, stay in the zone and maintain your motivation to keep on studying. Big, labourious flashcards will do the opposite.

Longer tasks are definitely an essential part of learning Chinese, but flashcards aren’t the most appropriate way to approach them. Try to keep your flashcards short, and get long-form reading, listening, speaking and writing in with other learning activities.

2. One difficult thing

An important part of acquiring a foreign language is building up a web of connected knowledge. Associations let you use the language in a more native way. Your flashcards should reflect this wherever possible: including associated knowledge in the prompt and response improves your Chinese.

However, it’s generally a good idea to have just one difficult element in a flashcard. This is the main point of the card, and the context that comes with it should be material you’re relatively confident with already.

Taking this approach makes sure that your flash cards follow the minimum information principle. Difficult material gets the study time it deserves without disrupting the rest of what you’re learning.

It’s also helpful and motivating to tackle new knowledge from a base of material that you’re already quite familiar with.

3. Keep a range of difficulty

It’s a good idea to have a wide range of difficulty in your flashcard deck. In other words, keep the old stuff that seems laughably easy as well as the areas you’re struggling with.

Again, this comes back to motivation. Blitzing through some easy cards reminds you of the progress you’ve made and encourages you to keep going. Before long, the difficult cards will fall into that category, and it’ll be time to add more difficult cards.

As well as that, keeping a wide range of difficulty also helps you to build associations between the old and the new. What you’re learning does not exist in isolation, even if flashcards present it that way. When you’re prompted to engage with all sorts of different material, you benefit from the “gaps” between each flashcard.

Finally, you should keep easier flashcards in the deck to make sure you’re building on the basics.

4. Use a range of styles and content

You can have many more types of flashcard than basic “front & back” cards. Varying the style of your cards lets you cover the different areas of learning Chinese, and keeps your deck more interesting as you study it.

Here are some ideas of card styles to get started with:

Single vocabulary items
Comprehension cards (Chinese input)
Production cards (Chinese output)
Traditional and simplified Chinese cards
Picture cards
Audio cards
Pronunciation practice cards
Cloze deletion cards
Pinyin-focused cards
Zhuyin fuhao cards
Character writing cards
Tone-focused cards
These can overlap and be mixed-and-matched, and you can of course experiment to find more styles that suit you.

5. Expand on difficult items

Material that is new or difficult should be covered by several different cards, ideally with a range of styles.

A single card for difficult content is likely to become a leech. Also, a lone card is more at risk of being recalled by bad context – “oh, this is that difficult card about blah”.

This situation can be avoided by taking a defeat in detail approach to flashcards. By covering material in several different ways and expanding on it, you get a more rounded learning experience.

Expanding on existing material is also a good way to build natural, interconnected knowledge of Chinese.