5 ways to optimise your Chinese flashcards
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
these-mcds-part-1) 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
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
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
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:
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.
This content was originally published here.