Multimedia Index Cards: Why and How

Some time ago I posted a product review of Anki, a freeware electronic flashcard program. I confess that I am a heavy Anki user. A quick check (something that Anki make easy) shows that today I have something over 67,000 "mature" cards—that is, cards that have passed the initial learning phase—spread across my various decks. Lately I've been engaged in adding images and sounds to many of these, which appears to be a win from almost any angle. Here's a summary of the advantages of doing this, and some tips on doing so.

Advantage #1: Pictures and sounds make study easier because it's more fun. As a kid, my least favorite school subject was "social studies." As an adult, I am amazed at how school could take the idea of traveling the world and encountering exotic places and peoples—and suck therefrom every vestige of fun and excitement. A big reason I am attracted to languages is that languages carry the flavor of their place (and sometimes their time as well). But it can't hurt to supplement written words with pictures and/or voices.

For example, the rather rare Chinese character


has the definition: "an amphibious beast resembling a tiger with one horn." But surely in this case it is more fun to see than merely to imagine:

Advantage #2: More sensual ideas stick in the mind better. This is backed up by research, and is the foundation for most methods of memory training. One of the most striking examples I came across was the Hawaiian name Molokini, which was defined as "the crater in the sea a little ways off Maui from Ma’alaea." After several failures at remembering this name (what does "crater in the sea" mean anyway?), I went to Google images and found the image at the top of this post. Pow! Suddenly it was a vivid image and I never forgot the name again.

Some other examples: 

For Cantonese I decided to learn all the place names I had seen in Noble House (that's the "fun" factor again), such as Po Shan Road. Since I've never been to Po Shan Road, I put together a visual description using Google Maps and Google Street View:

Now I feel like I've been there. (It happens that the road is not very long and looks pretty much the same along its length.)

I used this triptych to visualize the city of Rabat:

Finally, the Tibetan word ཤ་བག་ལེབ་, defined as "bread with meat stuffing." The picture is so much more vivid:

Advantage #3: You can improve your accent for "free." For some of my languages—French, Mandarin—I feel that I have the pronunciation "down." This is not to say my pronunciation is perfect, but it won't be improved further by simple listening and repeating. Others (such as Vietnamese with its implosive consonants) still require deliberate effort to pronounce, and I think I benefit from hearing the language spoken, even when not actively repeating. By adding spoken words to my flashcards, I get daily exposure to the spoken language.

(I'm making a distinction here between adding sound to cards as a "bonus" and making the spoken word an explicit cue or response, which is certainly possible and may be a good idea.)

Advantage #4: You learn a word better when it comes in through multiple sensory channels simultaneously. Okay, this "fact" is unproven—but plausible. It's one thing, for example, to see that "son" in Romanian is "fiu", but hearing and seeing it simultaneously might imprint on the mind more firmly. I do seem to have an easier time absorbing words if the card includes audio.

Some tips for making this happen.

Tip #1: You will want some software tools for editing images and sound, if you don't have them already. I use Audacity for sound editing and an old version of PixVision for images, both reasonably-priced shareware. Both have ample capabilities for this kind of work. All I really need to be able to do is crop and resize images, and clip out and save bits of sound files.

Tip #2: You probably want to place any image on the side of the card that contains the English version of the term (or whatever your base language is). It's generally far easier to go from the picture to your native description then to make any of the other possible connections.

Tip #3: Google Image search is generally an easy way to find appropriate images. Cut and paste the foreign term into the search window and see what comes up. Even "bread", for example, may look considerably different depending on which language your search term is.

Tip #4: One way to ease your way into reading a foreign script is to put single syllables on the front of the card and the audio reading on the back (or even vice versa), even if the syllable is meaningless. For example, I can put the Thai syllable /ซี/ on the front and the audio reading (which sounds something like "see") on the back. So far as I know this syllable has no Thai meaning; this is nothing more than an exercise in reading. The // marks are a clue to me that the syllable has sound but not meaning (which means in practical terms that the "English" field of the card is empty).

You can then ring variations on the syllable. Change the consonant but not the vowel, or vice-versa. Enough of these and you can soon read any single syllable on sight.

I also have, for example, a pair of cards, one with the cue
/สี/ /ซี/
and the other with the cue
/ซี/ /สี/.
Both of these syllables sound rather like "see", but with different tones (which is a thing in Thai). The back sides of the cards present the corresponding audio clips in the appropriate order. Presenting both orders keeps me from unconsciously memorizing which tone comes first. Any other contrast which might be tricky can be handled in the same way. (BTW I took the audio clips from the reading lessons for Pimsleur's Thai course, the Pimsleur method being a subject for a future post.)

Tip #5: Remember the Anki principle that the response side of the card should be as simple as possible. It is bad strategy for example, for Chinese, to put "cat" on the front of the card and demand of yourself that you produce the traditional word 貓 and the simplified word 猫 and the romanization māo and the audio pronunciation. With so many moving parts the odds of failure are just too high.

Rather, create several cards for the same fact (which Anki makes easy). I use, for example one card with the English cue and the romanization as the response. This is the only card that relies strictly on English as the cue, on the principle that the spoken word is the one I must be able to produce on the fly, whereas I can read or write at my own pace, however slow. A second card has both the English and the romanization as the cue and the traditional word as the response. A third has the traditional form as the cue and the simplified version as the response. I can add audio as a bonus feature to the back of any card, and also create a card with the audio as the cue and the English as the response.

With this system, theoretically I can work my way around from the English term to any of the other items, once I have learned all cards from the set. I have found it takes less time to master a set of cards each with a unitary response, than a single card with a multicomponent response.

Time Has a Way of Catching Up with You

—especially if you're standing still.

(quote from Rocky Balboa)

(image from

When Did Barney Fife Take Over the Police Department?

The old Andy Griffith show (1960-1968) is naive and simplistic by today's standards, but it is a classic. I find the world seems to be divided into those who are intimately familiar with the show and others with at most a vague recollection of hearing about it, so here is a quick synopsis: Sheriff Andy Taylor (played by Andy Griffith) maintains order in the small, idyllic North Carolina town of Mayberry. Sheriff Taylor is notable for refusing to carry a gun; he relies instead on quiet confidence and homespun wisdom to resolve threats to the town's peace and quiet (which never reach the level of serious violent crime).

The best years of the show were the early ones with the character of Barney Fife, Andy's deputy. It was a running joke that Barney was the one obsessed with pomp and police procedure, and all the weaponry he could find an excuse to wield (generally limited to a revolver and a single bullet carried in his breast pocket). In fact Barney was bereft of talent for police work or any real courage (his single outstanding character virtue being his unshakable loyalty to Andy). A recurrent scene was Barney quaking with fear as he faces some imagined threat while fumbling for the bullet in his breast pocket.

The following bit of by-play is typical:

Unfortunately, for some reason nowadays a lot of people take Barney Fife as a role model. They don't get that he's a joke.

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A Self-Help Taxonomy

Photo by lamentables

The bookstore has a whole section labeled "Self-Help." I wonder—do other countries have such a section in the bookstore, or even such a concept? The Oxford English Dictionary (on-line) gives the earliest citation for the term "self-help" from 1834, so certainly the concept could have spread world-wide by now. And yet to me, the term self-help seems quintessentially American, bound up with Horatio Alger and the whole "all men are created equal" thing. Surely people living in monarchical France did not believe that the difference between the king and a peasant was a mere matter of pulling oneself up by one's bootstraps.

In the broader sense of any book with an educational purpose, "self-help" books would be available in any country. The broader definition including also books on diet, exercise, fashion, relationships, organizational skills, etc.

But the hard-core self-help book focuses on no specific aspect of life but simply exhorts (according to whatever precepts): be better. Get more. A fairly well known example would be Stephen Covey's The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. What these people are effective at is not specified.

(Disclaimer: These are example for discussion, nothing more. I neither to endorse nor criticize.)

I have mixed feelings about the self-help industry. Surely the great majority is snake oil. As Chip Overclock says, "90% of everything I say is crap because 90% of everything is crap." And yet clearly some people are more effective than others, sometimes by huge margins. It's not unreasonable to think that "effectiveness" might be a learnable skill. So there could be that other 10% out there that actually has some value.

Besides taking a normal interest in improving my own quality of life, I have a general fascination with art or science of self-help in and of itself, with the human being's ability to remake himself or herself. There are "self-made men." There are no self-made animals. This is reflected in several of my previous blog posts.

And so I have noticed that self-help works fall along a certain spectrum—indeed most are one end of the spectrum or the other. On one end, the target audience is dysfunctional people, or at least at those with low self-esteem. These products promise to take you from pathetic to normal.

For example, there is Ed Wheat's How to Save your Marriage Alone. I haven't read the book—haven't even peeked inside. But clearly Wheat is not targeting those who feel satisfied and secure in their marriages. (By the way, if you want to guarantee yourself an interesting evening, come home and announce to your spouse that you are going to save your marriage alone).

Or consider Jackie Warner's This is Why You're Fat. Been looking for the perfect birthday gift for your wife? Ha-ha. Who buys a book with a title like this? Maybe fat people, maybe thin people, but surely no one with a healthy body image.

And then there is the elder statesman of self-help books, the "Big Book" of Alcoholics Anonymous. I'm no expert on this, but it seems to me that the twelve-step program probably considers it "success" if n alcoholic reaches the same point of sobriety where the average non-alcoholic starts out.

This is one end of the spectrum. At the other end are self-help books that promise to take one from ordinary to extraordinary. For example, consider Bill Phillips' Body for Life. Bill is a bodybuilder and marketer of dietary supplements. His big innovation was to push the sport of bodybuilding beyond a small cadre of enthusiasts to become an avocation for anyone who aspires. Body for Life is both a diet and exercise book, but the point is not to go from "fat" to "normal." Whether your preferred physique is the body-builder's type or something else, Bill doesn't want you to settle for "normal."

It would be instructive to compare Donald Asher's How to Get Any Job: Life Launch and Re-Launch for Everyone Under 30 (or How to Avoid Living in Your Parents' Basement) with Tim Ferriss's The 4-Hour Workweek. Asher's book appears targeted at people who want jobs but don't have them, and probably feel a job is necessary to become a full-fledged adult—a widespread sentiment, and one I mostly agree with. The goal of Asher's book is to become "normal." Ferriss's book is mostly targeted at people with jobs, and says essentially: jobs are for "normal" suckers. Give your job up and spend your time on what you really want to do. Ferriss's book is all about leaving "normal" behind.

I point out that in not a few cases, people have managed to take themselves all the way from pathetic to extraordinary. It makes sense, in a way. Once you get in the habit of self-betterment, why stop?