(Scary) Pro Tip: Delete Your Old Flashcards!

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This is something I’ve been doing lately and wanted to share. It is… Wait for it… to DELETE YOUR OLD FLASHCARDS!

Or throw them away, or reset your language-learning app at a new level. The point is: Don’t be afraid to start again.

Doing so can help you focus on high-priority, more frequently occurring words and phrases, without having the hangup of having to study (or guilt of having forgotten) older content.

Many of us language learners have a “hoarder” mentality. I’m generally not a hoarder (I mean, I live out of a suitcase, I can’t afford to have more than 23 kg / 50 lb plus carry-on of possessions), but I do enjoy collecting stuff related to anything I love.

In the past I used to collect language learning books. I still have a box of them, including some tapes that came with “Teach Yourself Spanish”, 1999 edition.

Later, I hoarded digital copies of books in huge folders, thinking I’d get to them. And these days, I hoard flashcards.

I have thousands of flashcards in many decks for languages I’ve either studied, am learning, or am “drip feeding” myself over a long period of time (something I like to do and that works quite well).

But lately, I’ve been enjoying deleting them. Here’s why.

Throw away or delete your old flashcards
Throw away or delete your old flashcards!

Hoarder Mentality in Language Learning

There are a few ways in which people adopt a “hoarder” mentality in language learning.

If you ever studied with paper, you probably find it hard to throw away old lecture notes. Textbooks, too, cost a lot of money, and they’re hard to get rid of for anywhere near the new price. (You can sell them second hand, but what if you need to look up a Fourier transform in twenty years?)

Language learning gamified apps encourage you to collect streaks, points, or other rewards. It’s a little addictive, which is why they’re fun (and educational). The idea of losing a streak is anathema to many students.

And people who make flashcards based on their study — like I do — feel proud of our massive decks of useful words and sentences, especially as we put effort into organising them.

But keeping masses of old notes isn’t especially useful, for a few reasons:

  1. There’s a study frequency mismatch with daily life
  2. Old words/phrases become irrelevant over time
  3. Having a huge number of cards becomes overwhelming!

Oh and what to do instead? I’ll leave that for the end.

Frequency Mismatch with Daily Life

Far and away, visiting or living in another place emphasises the importance of mastering everyday transactions.

I’m writing this post from Italy. While I can say and do quite complicated things in Italian, the majority of my daily interactions are greetings and basic phrases like “Hello” and “See you”, “No, I don’t need a bag,” and “Is there a table for two outside?”

My flashcards, of course, are not like that. My Anki software (see here for a beginner’s guide) weights everything equally. So, I study old phrases like this one:

Flash card example Italian

… as often as “Hello”, “How are you?” or “Oh I’m sorry, I forgot to weigh the fruit”.

OK yes, “I want to live a life without regrets” is an important phrase and concept, but still. It’s not as important as “hello”.

“But Dana,” you cry, gesticulating wildly to get my attention from wherever you are. “Surely if you learn it, you learn it. Frequency of study doesn’t matter.” OK, true.

But the effect of learning everything equally is that it’s equally hard recall every phrase. This means you make the same effort in having a polite conversation of nothings about the weather as when talking about complex topics. This is weird! Saying “Hey, what’s up,” should take zero effort.

The frequency of study doesn’t have to match usage 1:1 of course. I’m just staying that it makes sense to practise the basics more often.

Practising the basics often is a very common concept in many fields, like in sports for example. Pro boxers still jump rope and spend time on the bag!

Old Words and Phrases Become Irrelevant

One good reason to delete old words and phrases is that old words and phrases become irrelevant.

There’s little point knowing the sentence “I’m 39”, when you no longer are (nor if you are not, yet). I suppose it’d be convenient if you met someone who was 39…

Similarly, when I look through my old flashcards, I realise that a) I know the words and phrases quite well, and b) if I do need to re-learn anything, I can create a new, more relevant flashcard.

A common language-learning tip (that I quite like) is to learn to say the things that are around us every day. Describe what you have to do today, what you are feeling or thinking, or even keep a diary in a foreign language.

While you should learn important new words and expressions from that process, I think it’s also important to realise that everyday stuff that happened a long time ago doesn’t matter as much any more.

Reduce the Overwhelming Factor

Finally, it’s really easy to get overwhelmed by flashcards. When I’m overwhelmed, I don’t study as effectively. Sometimes, I don’t study at all.

Every time I even do a 30-minute class on italki, I end up with at least a dozen new words and phrases. Sometimes, many more. Adding that many a day means that my flashcard pile can quickly become way too large — over 100 a day is just too much time on flashcards, and not enough time on other things.

The easy way out is to start over by deleting cards. This doesn’t mean stopping study. It just means refreshing everything!

So I regularly go in and delete flashcards that I’ve studied more than 10 times and / or have a due date of more than a month from now.

Of course, it doesn’t have to stop with flashcards. You might find a new teacher, a new text book, or a new TV show. Your brain will now act like a natural filter. You’ll forget what you never have to use, and re-learn anything that you do actually need.

This is, of course, assuming you’re not studying for a specific test. In that case, you need the flashcard deck for that test until it’s over. Once it is, you’re free!

Out with the old, In with the new

Out with the old in with the nucleus
One of my favourite lame Simpsons jokes

“You don’t owe anything to the yourself of yesterday,” is a refrain I often tell myself.

Because digital media is so prevalent, there’s a natural tendency to think of our brains as computers. This is a mistake. Computers have perfect recall of data, but our brains don’t.

I rather think of language study as being just like eating as a child. When we eat, it doesn’t stay in our belly forever. It gets processed and the remnants are excreted. The next day, we eat more food. Over time, we gradually grow.

But the process of growing is a mystery (well, to a kid it is). All we know is that in goes something, out goes another thing, and in the process, we get bigger!

The same goes for language study. We constantly study, constantly forget, and along the way, our knowledge of the language grows — at times, imperceptibly.

This is by no means a scientific analysis. But having studied a whole bunch of languages so far, it’s definitely what it feels like.

Wrap up

I hope this idea has been useful to people. At best, it’s a new language-learning tip for your arsenal, one that you can use to both refresh your learning and reduce the baggage of old words and phrases.

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