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.