Flash Cards for Learning Language: The "Solid Red" Method

Flashcards are a great way for a language student to learn vocabulary. While I was studying Spanish in high school, I came across a novel technique for vocabulary flash cards. I have used this method for nearly three decades and half a dozen languages, and I can attest to its effectiveness as an enjoyable learning tool.

I use this to learn foreign languages, but while in college I also used it for Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry. I suspect it would adapt well to almost anything which requires a large amount of memorization.

Blank index cards
Pens or pencils
Red markers
Index card file box (optional, but recommended)

The Point of it All
As you learn new words, write the foreign term or phrase on one side of a blank card with the definition on the other side. Review them frequently, testing your knowledge of the foreign words and their translations. As your knowledge of the word or phrase on the card increases, add stripes in one corner of the index card with a red marker (I prefer red felt tip pen, making lots and lots of stripes at a time). Each time you see the card, the corner gets denser with red marks, white disappears and red fills up that triangular patch. Once you are confident that you know this card (both term and translation), finish filling the red corner, remove the card, and keep a list of your "solid red" words.

This method feels a lot like a game, and it works very well for people who are very results-oriented (and who are amused by simple word games, of course). It can be a lot of fun to watch the cards with the solid red corners stack up, providing a sense of accomplishment and a tangible memento of your progress.

I personally prefer to use larger-sized index cards (4 x 6 inches if you live here in USAvia, probably like 10 x 15 cm in other parts of the world)—this gives a lot of room for long phrases or words with multiple (or complex) meanings. I keep the 'active' ones in an index card file box, and the ones which I have finished live in a cabinet.

The larger cards also come in handy for additional information. When I studied Japanese, one side could hold a kanji character, and the transliteration(s), the other side was for the English meaning. More recently, I have been studying Danish. I often use the bottom of the Danish side for the notoriously tricky pronunciations (and, as Danish has a lot of words with multiple meanings, the English side sometimes fills up rapidly).

How to Play the Game
I take ten cards at a time—first I quizzing myself on ten foreign words, then, with ten more I test myself on ten English words, trying to remember their foreign counterparts. If I get one right, it gets more red in its corner and goes to the back of the box. If I get it wrong, it goes to the middle of the box. It's a simple "game," but it's effective at building a vocabulary fairly quickly.

Of course, I have more specific rules for the way I play the "solid red game," but everyone will develop his own method of playing. For example, I have a rule that I only add ten stripes of red (maximum) per go on any given card. Thus I wind up seeing each card quite a few times before it is filled in. If you are a fast learner, you may want to get some broad-tipped markers and fill the corner up faster. The specifics can be customized based on your way of learning.

Please note that there is no real reason for it to be 'solid red' as opposed to, say, solid blue, green, or black. I use red because red felt tips are easy to find and give a very vivid and obvious track of progress.

Flash cards are inexpensive easy, and can really be a lot of fun to use. Progress is rapid and you may soon find yourself with a towering stack of cards with solid red corners.

This idea came from a (otherwise rather crummy, if memory serves) Spanish learning book for high schoolers. It was probably entitled something like "Let's Speak Spanish."