The problems of using flash cards to learn Chinese

Decks and decks of flash cards are one of the many ways of learning Chinese characters. And many ready made cards are available in the market. I’ve seen many with colourful designs, but they all have serious issues. 

I got hold a deck of 1000 flash cards of most frequently used Chinese characters. Eventually I decided that it was not worth keeping them.

Below is why.

The layout of the cards

Below is one of the cards. It looks very nice, colourful and appealing.

flash card to learn Chinese

There is a big Chinese character. Pinyin is printed on top of it. To the right of pinyin, there is an English translation of the Chinese character. There is a cute picture placed on the right of the Chinese character, to illustrate the meaning of the character.  Underneath, four combinations with pinyin are listed. Everyone of them includes the targeted Chinese character. At the bottom, there is a sentence.

The logic of this layout is sound. Starting from a single character, students learn how to read it, its meaning and how to use it in words and sentences.

So, what is the problem? 

Everything is a problem.

A Chinese character, its translation and its picture illustration

The character in our sample card is “”, which is translated into “tomorrow”. The picture is a light bulb shining in the darkness. This is the first major problem that the translation of the character does not align with the picture illustration.

It must be strange for anyone who does not know Chinese to connect “tomorrow” with a picture of “light bulb”.

Only for people who know Chinese understand why the translation is “tomorrow” while the picture illustration is a light bulb.

Let me explain. 

belongs to a small portion of Chinese characters — associative characters (会意字), which can be explained by the arrangement of its components. There are about 9% Chinese characters are associative characters. 

The left part is , “the sun”, and the right part is , “the moon”. Put “the sun” and “the moon” together, we have . The original meaning of is “brightness”. That explains why a shining light bulb is used to illustrate this character. 

However, it must be a light bulb shining in the darkness. A light bulb that does not have electricity running through it can not represent “brightness”. But using a light bulb to represent a character made up with “the sun” and “the moon” is kind of a misrepresentation, which happens often when people try very hard to use pictures to illustrate Chinese characters. To understand more about the connection between pictures and characters, read Pictures and Chinese characters.

Why is translated into “tomorrow”? The reason is that “tomorrow” is one of the derivative meanings of when it is combined with characters such as in 明天, 眀早. The four words listed underneath are 明天,明日,明晚,明白, which mean “tomorrow”, “tomorrow”, “tomorrow evening”, and “understand” respectively. In three out of four, this character is explained as “tomorrow”. That is probably why “tomorrow” is chosen as the translation.

“Brightness” and “tomorrow” are two different angles to understand the character . But due to the limited space for explanation, they were put together. One is an encrypted picture, and the other English. Both are supposed to explain the given character. This style of mis-match defeats the purpose of this flash card.

Expand a Chinese character into words

has many meanings. The original meaning is “brightness”, and there are many derivative meanings when this character enters into words, such as “sight”, “justice”, “understand”, “reveal”, and “clear”. 

In the sample flash card, the four words are 明天,明日,明晚,明白. However, this expansion of words only makes sense if students have already learned four other Chinese characters, , , , and . If they have not, this expansion becomes useless. 

Expand a Chinese character into sentences

At the bottom of the flash card, a sentence is given to show you how to use this Chinese character in a sentence: “明天是星期二”. 

Besides which has appeared in one of the words, four other characters show up, , , , . If students have learned these characters before, they understand it, “Tomorrow is Tuesday”. 

If they have not, this sentence is useless.

The problems of using such flash cards to learn Chinese Characters

Suppose people bought a deck of such flash cards, which promise them the knowledge of 1000 frequently used Chinese characters and how to use them in words and sentences.

But once they get started, they will soon realise that, to fully understand one targeted character in one card, they must learn eight other characters at the same time. But to learn these eight characters, they will have to learn a handful of other characters for each of them. It turned out to be that, if they don’t already know 3000 Chinese characters, they can’t learn these 1000 characters! 

Also, there are some very useful Chinese characters that do not have a fixed meaning, such as , , . (Read about 就 here: The often overlooked Chinese character - 就 (jiù).

Their meanings can only be understand in contexts. There are also characters that only perform structural functions, such as . To teach these characters using this kind of flash card layout is very difficult. 

Possible problems could happen in translation, illustration and limited explanation. All of them will have negative impacts on students’ learning outcome. 

Flash cards can be a powerful tool to learn Chinese, but many flash cards available in the market are a waste of time, money and energy.


April Zhang
Chinese Teacher
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