The problems of using flash cards to learn Chinese
Decks and decks of flash cards are one of the ways to learn Chinese characters.
Their unique selling point is alway that learning 2000 characters makes one a reader of Chinese. It is simply not true. Read more here: Learning 2000 Chinese characters is not enough for reading newspapers, and the number of characters is not the problem.
Besides that fundamental misconception, this method is also seriously flawed in many smaller ways.
I got hold a deck of 1000 flash cards to write this article. And I hope it’ll convince you not to waste your time, money or effort.
The layout of the cards
Below is one of the cards. It looks very nice, colourful and appealing.
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 “明”, which is translated into “tomorrow”. The picture is a light bulb shining in the darkness. This is the first major problem. 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”.
Let me explain.
明 belongs to a small portion of Chinese characters — associative characters (会意字), which can be explained by the arrangement of its components.
The left part is 日, “the sun”, and the right part is 月, “the moon”. Put “the sun” and “the moon” together, we have 明. The original meaning of 明 is “brightness”. That explains why a shining light bulb is used to illustrate this character.
Why is 明 translated into “tomorrow”? The reason is that “tomorrow” is one of the derivative meanings of 明, also the most common usage of 明 today.
Therefore, an encrypted picture and an English translation, both are supposed to explain the given character. But this mismatch only creates confusion and defeats the purpose of this flash card.
Expand a Chinese character into words
明 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”, “clear” and “tomorrow”.
The four words listed underneath are 明天，明日，明晚，明白.
In the first three words, this character means “tomorrow”. In the last word, this character means “understand”. “Brightness” is no where to be seen in any of them.
Now you understand why “tomorrow” is chosen as the translation, provided you’ve already learned four other Chinese characters, 天, 日, 晚, and 白.
If you have not, this expansion becomes meaningless and useless.
Expand a Chinese character into sentences
At the bottom of the flash card, a sentence is given to show how to use this Chinese character in a sentence: “明天是星期二”.
In this sentence, four other characters show up, 是, 星, 期, 二. If students have learned these characters before, they understand the sentence, “Tomorrow is Tuesday”.
If they have not, this sentence also becomes meaningless and useless.
The problems of using such flash cards to learn Chinese Characters
Suppose you’ve bought a deck of such flash cards, promising you the knowledge of 1000 frequently used Chinese characters and how to use them in words and sentences.
But once you get started, you will soon realise that, to fully understand one targeted character in one card, you must have already learned eight other characters.
It turns out that, if you don’t already know 3000 Chinese characters, you can’t learn these 1000 characters!
Also, some very useful Chinese characters that do not have a fixed meaning, such as 就, 着, 吧, are neglected in these cards. Because their meanings can only be understood in contexts, no one can draw a picture to illustrate them. Read about 就 here: The often overlooked Chinese character - 就 (jiù).
There are also characters that only perform structural functions, such as 的. To teach them using this kind of flash card is very difficult.
The biggest drawback of flash cards is that everything is just bits and pieces. Students don’t have any context at all. It’s like learning only the names of the ingredients in a recipe.
The conclusion is: Don’t waste your time, money or effort on flash cards like this.