A unique way of learning languages


I love Paris, and I try to go back there as much as I can. In December 2014, I was there for my birthday and I was glad to see some old friends. One of them was Zaur, a Chechnian guy studying in Paris. One night he introduced me to Julien, a friend of his – half Italian, half French. “This one is a language mastermind, Luca, and the two of you have to meet up to talk about how the two of you learn languages. You can learn a lot from each other” – Zaur told me with a big smile over the phone.

We met. Zaur was right. Julien turned out to indeed be a language wonder. We spoke French, Italian, Spanish and he spoke them all without an accent. He told me he knew German and Japanese to a very high level because he lived in Germany, and had a Japanese girlfriend).

We were sitting around a table and all of a sudden Julien said “you know Luca, I want to know how you learn languages. I am currently learning Russian and this is what I do every day”. He took out a stack of cards. On the side of each card he had written a vocabulary word in Cyrillic, and when he flipped the card, you could read the corresponding vocabulary word in French – his mother tongue.

“Interesting” – I said. I was a bit perplexed though.

Learning a language with a stack of cards? I was a skeptical even though I know that a lot of people use them.

Julien told me that this is not ALL he did to learn a language. It was simply a system to remind himself constantly of the words he had learned.

“I can take these cards with me everywhere” – he said proudly.

It got me thinking if I should start using flashcards and integrate them into my way of learning languages, but my conclusion was a resounding no.

Let me explain to you why.

5 Reasons I Don’t Use Flashcards to Learn Vocabulary

1.  Paper Flashcards are cumbersome.

When Julien showed me his stack of cards, I immediately thought: “how the heck can you carry them around ?”. Well, I remember he had a bag with him. Sure, you can carry a bag everywhere. But if you want to carry your cards with you all the time you’ll also need some sort of container. Imagine using them on the metro and spilling them on the floor. Not the best solution for me.

Flashcards are also difficult to handle. In fact, when I took the cards into my hand, I had a hard time holding the deck with my left hand and another card with the right hand. Then I had to flip it and put it at the bottom of the deck. Not ideal.

2.  Flashcards with just one vocabulary word are an artificial way of learning.

While I liked the fact that Julien was actually using paper and his own handwriting, I found it a bit limiting that he put just one word on each card. I always say that one of the most important factors in acquiring vocabulary is context. You can memorize a word, remember it on the fly and pronounce it with perfect pronunciation. But a word in isolation out of a sentence or phrase is like a fish out of the sea. A word needs to be alive, needs to be used to convey a message. It can’t just sit there and be remembered on and off like a piece of information. To keep using the fish analogy: a message is like shawl of fish. They travel together as a unit and the always live together. I believe that that’s the way you should learn them: in groups of words, that is, in sentences. Native speakers do exactly that. They learn words by using them in sentences to convey messages others. As adults, we often do the exact opposite when learning a foreign language. Using flashcards to learn words in isolation is a fine example. You might succeed to some extent, but it might require double the time and the effort.

3.  No images, no audio.

We learn words efficiently through our senses. The more senses we use, and the more active we are and the better we remember. Imagine walking with a German friend in Berlin while learning German. Your friend says in German “oh, was fuer eine schoene Katze” and caresses a cat, it’s very likely that you won’t forget the word Katze if you don’t know it. You’ll eventually associate it with the English word Cat. That’s because you would have heard the word in a phrase with the relevant context. It might take only one of these experiences to commit that word into long term memory. With a flash card with no image and no audio, you’ll probably try to memorize that vocabulary word a number of times without it sticking. That won’t only be frustrating, but also a waste of time and energy, but you can learn words in much simpler and natural ways.

4.  It takes time to build a bunch of cards.

When looking at the big stack of cards I was trying to handle, it also dawned on me that it must have taken hours to write a vocabulary word for each of them on both sides. There were probably 100 words. What about the next 100? or. And then the next? Imagine having to add one image, or audio to integrate everything together for each flashcard?. It requires motivation, discipline, effort, and enthusiasm. That’s my idea of hell. That’s absolutely not for me.

5.  I find them boring.

This is probably the main reason I don’t use flashcards. I don’t do anything I don’t find interesting efficient. This is a key factor for independent language learners, because if you can’t find a way to push on and then reward yourself, you simply won’t keep learning and eventually you’ll give up. Since I’ve already found a way to learn languages that’s very efficient for me, I have never tried to add or change my method for something that doesn’t seem interesting and efficient.

Want to know exactly how I learn thousands of words without flashcards? Click the button below and I’ll send you an exclusive video where I’ll guide you through exact process I’ve used to learn all of my languages, step by step.

Here’s a short description of the 5 tips you’ll get:

1.How I use a notebook to store thousands of words and why it’s beneficial to have all words in one place. Hint: always learn words with context!


2.How I review words and phrases (with context) to commit them to long term memory in a way that’s both pleasant and interesting.


3.The “linking method” I use to literally stick words and phrases into my long term memory and how this makes them easily accessible when I need to use them.


4.The process I use to activate the vocabulary and phrases I learn. Recognizing words when you see or hear them is one thing, but making them available when you want to use them requires activation. I’ll show how I activate words and phrases deliberately.


5.How I choose which words and phrases to put into my notebook. Learners often waste precious time and energy learning useless words and phrases. I’ll show you how I carefully select words and phrases to increase my language learning efficiency.

Watch Video Now

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  • Вад

    Hello Luca!
    To my opinion, there exists a situation where using some kind of cards is useful.
    For examle, I start studying complete unknown language.
    And in some context (a simple sentense) I learn a new word to me, say “winter”: “Today is a wonderful winter day”. Then I can immediately learn such words as “summer”, “spring”, and “autumn”. I do not need any context in such a case. I simply write them on cards and try to remember.
    By using cards one can easily learn a lot of unknown words, using only that context: morning, evening, night, terrible, warm, cold, hot, E.g., Today is a terrible autumn evening.

    Using only dozen of simple setences and “word” cards one is able to remember hundreds of words of the beginner level.

    One simply creates different sentences using card words by oneself, not fearing that somesing might be wrong.

    And besides you do not need to carry all the cards with you.
    As a student I wrote up to 8 words on a sheet of paper having a halfsize of a postcard. And learned the list all the day. In the evening I marked the card with a + and put it for tomorrows repetition. Tomorrow a made another card, Studied a new card and repeated the old one. And marked eatch wiith a +.
    The card with one + I put for tomorrow, and the one with two pluses – for the day afer tomorrow.

    The period of time gaps for the cards with 3, 4, 5 pluses everybody can determine by himself. Each day “arrive” for repetition your cards with different numbers of pluses.
    And every day you have only up to 6 cards to carry along with you. (If you decide to create two cards daily – up to 12 cards)

    For keeping all the cards, that have 5 or less marks (pluses) I use now an old container for CDs. The pockets of the container are numbered. In the evening I distribute the cards according to the number of pluses from pocket No 1 to the next ones. Such No 1 becomes empty. Next morning I move cards from No 2 into No 1, No 3 into No 2, and so on. Thus I have a stock of cards for todays repetition. I take them with me and repeat.

    The cards with 5 pluses I see as being remembered and put away.

    This method is good for remembering words that are not abstract. The names of different things: cow, horse, writer, fork, sea, milk, water desk, door, window and so on.
    Simultaniously one works with other aspects of studying the language: hearing, pronunciation, reading texts, remembering phrases.

    With best regards and excuses for my poor English

  • Francesca Di Pippo

    Luca, perchè non provi ad usare un samsung note invece del notebook?
    Io lo trovo utilissimo per applicare i tuoi consigli.
    Si possono appuntare le parole o le frasi all’istante e cercare degli esempi in contextreverso, è possibile scaricare i testi, sottolinearli, scriverci su con il pennino, ascoltare contemporaneamente l’audio, scarabocchiare a mano libera in vari colori e spessori, fotografare un testo e scriverci sopra sempre con il pennino, spedirlo ad un amico. ecc. ecc.. Sicuramente non è lo strumento definitivo. Anche a me a casa piace stampare i podcast. Ma poi, dopo averli usati, di solito li rimetto dentro con una foto e li porto con me. L’esperienza d’uso nei nuovi modelli si avvicina molto alla carta, con tutti i vantaggi della flessibilità e della possibilità di usare internet o di condividere il materiale con gli altri.

    • Luca Lampariello

      Ciao Francesca,

      ho un samsung ma non ho mai usato Samsung note.

      Ti riferisci a un modello di Samsung specifico? Io ho il Galaxy A3.

      Comunque grazie per il suggerimento.

      In realtà anche se sono un fan della carta, non disdegno appuntarmi le cose anche sul cellulare.

      Dico sempre che la combinazione di varie azioni è tecniche è la vera chiave del successo, una cosa non dovrebbe mai escludere l’altra

      Ti ringrazio molto per il suggerimento :-)

      Un saluto!


  • Ketutar Jensen

    Sounds to me like that “language mastermind” and “language wonder” knows how to use the flashcards.

  • JTapp

    I use Anki which is a long-time favorite of language learners, it’s powerful and free flashcard software that lets you use images and sounds, customize things however you want, and share them easily with other language learners. It also has apps for Android and iOS. Search their database for decks others have uploaded for various languages, it’s quite helpful.

  • Patrick Bucher

    One word is usually a bad idea, especially when learning verbs. Take the verb “to talk”, which I’d like to learn in Russian. There it’s говорить/сказать. That information doesn’t help me using the verb correctly. So it’s better to write: “to talk with sb. about sth.”/”говорить с кем-либо о чём-либо”. It’s out of context, but what improvement would it be to write “to talk with Luca about vocabulary building”? I think trivial nouns and adjectives can be learned as single words, verbs only accompanied by some prepositions (and maybe the case they require, as implicitly stated in my Russian example).
    Digital flash cards used in a SRS system such as Anki fix most of the problems mentioned, when used the right way. Writing by hand is important. So when I’m studying with Anki, I’ll try to write the words down. This requires a pen and an additional notebook next to the smartphone, though one could also use a napkin when in a restaurant (they have pens) or do a session without writing when commuting.
    Flashcards/SRS is just one type of learning I’m doing. Reading and translating is something that helps to use the bricks (the words I learn using Flashcards) to build up structures.

  • Silvio

    Hola luca, ¿podrías recomendarme un libro similar a ” American Accent Trainning” (Ann Cook) pero para Francés?

    Muchas gracias.


  • Alex

    Hello Luca! Thanks for a new post! I really appreciate the experiences you share. That’s a fact. Nevertheless this is a rare topic where I have to disagree with you, at least partially. In this case I think that 5) is one main reason for why you don’t use flash cards. And another reason is probably that you have another technique for that, which you are comfortable with.

    Anyway, we have to repeat somehow everything we learned, otherwise it will be forgotten. That’s a fact with very few exceptions.

    I can’t afford to travel for long periods of time and it’s hard to find someone to talk via skype. But I want to learn Italian now and doing so since a year. Flashcards help me a lot. They are by far not the only thing I do, but it is an essential part of my language learning. Apart from flash cards I do several things in Italian: reading news several times a week, watching a film every now an then, exercising on duolingo web site on week-ends and also reading a food blog and watching cooking videos (I love Italian cuisine & attitude towards food culture). I also visited Italy personally twice this year. From all these sources I learn a plenty of words and phrases. And a damn good way to memorize them all effectively are flash cards.

    I agree with you on 1) 2) and 3) regarding paper cards. I don’t use them, I use free software called ANKI. I am a very pro-digital person, I barely write by hand anymore. Hand work to create paper card just makes no sence to me. I need everything to be in my computer/smartphone and be backed up on an external drive for safety. I know, some people have other opinion, but I don’t see a point in their arguments.

    ANKI allows to create cards with multiple fields and to design front and back side using css. This means that I have flash cards nicely designed exactly the way I want them to be – see attached images (edit mode, front side, back side). The software decides when I have to repeat the cards (I only need to evaluate my answer as ‘again’, ‘hard’, ‘good’ or ‘easy’). I have additional fields for image, audio, hint, context and source. I also have tags for the cards. Yes, it takes time to create cards – that’s what you write in 4) – but not as much time as one could think of, thanks to plugins. For instance, adding audio from Google Translate is fully automated by a plugin, I just press a keyboard shortcut. Context is usually copy-pasted. I add images manually from google images search results, but that’s easy. I find it a best practice to type a word into google images search and see what comes out anyway, just to verify that it really means what I think it means. Because some different Italian words have the same translation but vary in meaning and in usage. Examples: frozen – surgelato & ghiacciato, fire – fuoco & incendio. Image search clarifies the difference.

    So, after a year of learning, I have a collection of 2000+ simple cards (one word or a short phraze, often with context) & 800+ complex cards (longer phrazes, sentences, grammar examples) and I review daily about 60 cards. And the whole stuff is backed up on my external drive monthly and on the ANKI server as well, daily! Thanks to the built-in syncronisation in ANKI.

    So, all in all, if you find something else better that flash cards – fine. But there are zillions people around like me who use ANKI or other software and have well-organized cards packed with context, images and audio.

    • Alex

      Forgot to mention – on the front side there is a text field to type the answer in, as seen on the screenshot. When I do so and submit my answer, it highlights me the errors and also plays audio automatically. Typing additionally trains spelling.

  • Anthon Deutsch

    Hi Luca,
    I find them very useful but I use them differently. I have a computer program that created Flashcards . I incorporate pictures and even sound when I can. So a lion will say Lion, have a picture and then say Leon or Löwe and I will add a roar from a sound file or I will roar myself (I am not as scary as the real thing 😉). When I can I also bring fragrances to the Flashcards, different things that smell which have something to do with the word I am learning have helped me learn fast. I also have the Flashcards by dragonfly which are in German, English or French. The last thing I try to do is try to use the words I learned that same day and write sentences so that they are not isolated. I hope this sounds interesting to you. My language skills are now where as good as yours I like learning from you but maybe this tip will interest you. Than you Luca….

    Anthon Deutsch

  • dolphus

    omg a new post from Luca!!! yay!!! i’ve been worried because you’re not posting any new videos on your youtube channel :( hope you are making progress with the book, can’t wait to buy it!

  • eol

    Have you ever heard of computers? Or cell phones? There is actually a lot of applications out there that deal with all the problems you talk about.

    1. Paper flashcards are cumbersome – yes, they are. Just take your phone with you.

    2. Flashcards with just one vocabulary word are an artificial way of learning – true again. That is, if you think this is the only type of flashcards in existance (some applications allow you to enter a missing word or phrase into a sentence).

    3. No images, no audio – I actually use flashcards mainly BECAUSE there are images and audio…

    4. It takes time to build a bunch of cards – yes it does. That is if you do do it yourself and not use a premade set. There are also ways to automatically build a set out of a spreadsheet dokument or a simple txt file.

    5. I find them boring – they are certainly less boring than reviewing a list of words over and over. Most flashcard apps space your reviews in time and optimize the way you memorize things.

    My personal favourites are Anki and Memrise.

    • “4. It takes time to build a bunch of cards – yes it does. That is if
      you do do it yourself and not use a premade set. There are also ways to
      automatically build a set out of a spreadsheet dokument or a simple txt

      Exactly. E.g., there’s Epwing2Anki, a tool that takes
      EpWing dictionaries and a list of vocab words, and cranks out flashcards
      with L1 and L2 definitions, as well as example sentences. There’s no
      need to create cards tediously by hand even if you choose to make your own deck.

  • Chris

    Haha, Luca, you are totally wrong. I read that carefully and the result is not only a resounding YES for my use of flashcards but also I feel I can convince you that you should at least try.

    Let us start from things bottom up:

    5. Boring? If you are bored of learning the language, find other hobby. If it is a job, don’t expect it would be fun in every single respect. It is the rotten time of ours that we are encouraged to search for fun. In my childhood we were encourage to reach for achievements and satisfaction. This is MUCH more rewarding. For fun go to the cinema.

    4. If you are making cards by yourself, it takes time. The advantage may be that you will learn words before you ended writing it on the card. Still, you can save all that time, if that is the important factor, by buying the ready-made set. In many countries this is available and down here in Poland you can buy a 1000-strong set for a fraction of SINGLE foreign language lesson. They money you risk is neglectable.

    3. No images no audio.
    That is actually very good. Contrary to modern views, the multimedia lessen the ability to learn and memorize in the long term. I can see it that my kid and all my students who were educated with aid of multimedia are about 5 to 7 years back in their overall development of skill, knowledge and PERSONALITY than my generation when we were at their age. The kid today do not use IMAGINATION.
    True, word should not be an empty sound, it has to MEAN something. So you have to imagine the sound of the word spoken by native speaker and imagine the picture of what the word means, be it a thing or action or quality or number – whatever. If you imagine, you got it already. And you will never forget. If you do, you did not imagine that one right.

    2. I totally agree. Flashcards with only one word on it are of little use if at all. The ready-made sets I talked about earlier offer much more, because they also put the word in context of a useful phrase. And example. You learn the word plum. And there is a phrase ‘Can I have a plum, please?’. Now, imagine that you would like to have an apple instead. Once you memorized the phrase you already know how to ask for it – the only missing part is the apple, once you checked it out in dictionary, you are there. And you can ask not just for the fruit, also for vegetable, cars, holidays, the whole Universe in reality. And that one came from the single card containing the word ‘plum’.

    1. You do not need a paper flashcards to last forever. Once you wear out them, put them to recycle bin. By that time you have them in your head.
    Ready-mades come in handy containers. You can get a handful of them, tight them with rubber band – you can use it everywhere. If you fell you can spread them out in metro, use another method of learning in the metro. Metro is not a good place to learn anyway. You are not focused enough. You need to watch your station, keep an eye on your belongings, be kind to others and you are constantly disrupted. It is better to repeat the things you know (telling yourself a story of travelling the tube) than to learn new ones.

    Go for them, Luca, and let us know.
    It was hudge mistake by you to postpone them without trying. You are full of prejudice and that certainly does not help in the learning process.

    Ah, important disclaimer. I am NOT selling flashcards!


    • Everton Pacheco

      I believe you should keep working with flashcards since you like it, and respect those who find enough reasons to dislike them. I personally agree with Luca, and I don’t think he was disrespectful, just exposing his views.

      Also, I’ve been watching Luca on Internet since about 2008, and he went a long way before he started selling stuff, unlike a lot of other so-called “hyperpolyglots”. Even so, I don’t believe he is being too pushy. Although I never bought his materials (except for the Assimil books he endorses), I would rather buy them than any flashcard set.

    • bingobastard

      Word cards may seem antiquated nowadays. But research shows they can boost the acquisition of new vocabulary tremendously. “Vocabulary” here can be more than just single words (phrases, expressions, etc). Google the research done by Paul ISP Nation.

      There’s a proven technique for using word cards. You don’t carry them around with you 24/7. You review them for, say, 10 minutes a day, twice a day – this allows time to force the chance for recall. You can write short sample sentences, or draw pictures on the cards to get the meaning across. Review a dozen or so cards at a time, and add new cards as you remove the ones you’ve already learned.

      For whatever reason, electronic versions of “flipping” cards, or smart-phone word games don’t perform as well as index cards. Probably, taking the time to create your own cards helps cement the meanings.

      I do enjoy this blog! But word cards can work really well, if used correctly.

  • Vincenzo Lagioia

    Hey Luca. Once more, you surprise us at the same time you motivate with some of the funniest but effiecient ways to learn a language. Down to the article, I agree on every thing you said. Even me, put behind this tool of flashcards. I perfectly understand this fits for me, while for other are the best. Now, what you sad, store in a notebook and further recalling, would you agree that after a while jotting words down, and applying the review schedule as it goes, the amount of words on a given day would be gigantic”

    • Luca Lampariello

      Hi Vincenzo.

      Very good point and many of my students who apply all these techniques end up having this problem in the long run.

      The amount of words that you “collect and store” can get gigantic only if you let it get gigantic.

      My piece of advice is to jot down a limited amount of words every day.

      Establish a cap, a limit.

      5 vocabulary words a day.

      If the list gets too big anyway, the daily cap should be even lower.

      Hope this helps :-)


    • Luca Lampariello

      Hi Vincenzo.

      Very good point and many of my students who apply all these techniques end up having this problem in the long run.

      The amount of words that you “collect and store” can get gigantic only if you let it get gigantic.

      My piece of advice is to jot down a limited amount of words every day.

      Establish a cap, a limit.

      5 vocabulary words a day.

      If the list gets too big anyway, the daily cap should be even lower.

      Hope this helps :-)



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