I Tried to Learn 50 Foreign Words in 100 Minutes with Basic Flashcards – Here are the Results


Time for something new.

I always thought it would be great to run some tests and publish the results on Smart Language Learner.

You know, testing the efficiency of language learning methods and sharing the results with you.

Problem is:

Some things simply can’t be measured.

For example:

You can’t measure exactly how much a pronunciation exercise has improved your accent.

You would know it has improved. Native speakers would know. But you most likely wouldn’t have any data to back your conclusions up.

Fortunately, it’s a lot easier to measure the efficiency of vocab learning methods:

  • Choose a method
  • Create a list of words you want to learn
  • Get to work … and finally
  • Test yourself to see how the method has worked for you

Not complicated at all, and the results should be pretty accurate.

Well, I’m going to do just that in a new series called: Vocab Wars.

In each installment, I’ll try to learn 50 new words in 100 minutes by using a different vocabulary learning method.

After the learning sessions are over, I’ll do a test to see how many words I’ve learned.

Then — and this is the interesting part after two months I’ll do a long-term memory test to see how much I still remember.

Rules of the Game

  • Pick a vocab learning method.
  • Try to learn 50 foreign words in four 25 minute sessions spread out over four days.
  • On day five, do a short-term memory test to see how many of the 50 words you remember.
  • Then forget about the method and the words as much as you can and do a long-term memory test two months later. These results will be announced at a later time.

The long-term memory results are what really interest me:

Some methods are slow, heck, they might be so slow I won’t even be able to use the method with all 50 words. But maybe they perform better over the longer term.

So, will I come across a method that has superior long-term results? Or are all vocab learning methods basically the same?

Disclaimer: This isn’t science. Some methods may work better for me than for you. I also spend some time selecting the words to learn which preexposes me to them, and the time spent won’t be consistent for every method. Note that the words I use are in Spanish. I’m already pretty fluent in Spanish which makes it easier for me to learn new words. In spite of all this, I still believe Vocab Wars could give a good indication of the efficiency of various vocab learning methods.

VOCAB WARS #1 – Basic Flashcards – Words Only

When starting a new series like Vocab Wars, it only makes sense to start with something used an awful lot: Flashcards.

Let’s start with the most basic flashcard variety:  A single foreign word and its translation (on the other side).

So I loaded up Anki (spaced repetition software) with 50 Spanish words I didn’t know and their translations.

Spaced repetition software Anki in action

Before we get to the results, here’s a quick summary of how I studied:

  • I reviewed both the basic and the reversed cards. So from Spanish to Dutch, my native language, and from Dutch to Spanish.
  • I said every word out loud while going through the flashcards, especially the Spanish words.
  • After going through the deck, I’d keep learning and reviewing until the session time was up. You can do so in Anki by clicking unbury or rebuild.
  • I paid extra attention to difficult words by clicking the “again 10m” button which would ensure another repetition later in the deck. In the beginning all words were difficult, of course.
  • After a little while I’d go through the deck rather quickly, so I passed through the deck multiple times in a session, always having more repetitions of the words I found hard to remember by clicking the corresponding difficulty buttons.

The Results

Here are the numbers you want to see.

Take a look at the table below. Right now there’s only one method and its results, but with new Vocab Wars installments coming soon, there will be more so you can compare them.

Method: The method used to learn the words.
Word List Size: The number of words I started the experiment with.
Total Learning Time: The total time spent learning the words.
Learning Sessions: The number of learning sessions. Sessions are limited to one a day.
Nr. of Words Attempted to Learn: The number of words I could use with the method (in 100 minutes). An important stat as some more advanced (slower) memory system won’t allow me to attempt to learn all 50 words in 100 minutes.
Average Word Length: The average length of the words (number of letters).
Short-Term Test Recall Rate: Recall rate one day after the last learning session.
Short-Term Test Duration: Duration of the test done one day after the last learning session.
Long-Term Test Recall Rate: Recall rate two months after the last learning session.
Long-Term Test Duration: Duration of the test done two months after the last learning session.

As you can see, in the short-term memory test, I didn’t make a single mistake, even though I had to review 100 cards (front and back).

I guess that’s the power of spaced repetition at work. You focus more on words that give you a hard time.

In fact, I feel I could have easily stopped after the third session and still score 100% in the test. And it was exactly from the third session onward that it all became quite boring because it was too easy. I frequently found myself checking the clock.

What’s clear is that you can very easily cram 100’s of words in your short-term memory with nothing but straight flashcards.

So the answer to the title question of this article must be a resounding yes.

However, what I’m really interested in are the long-term memory test results. I will publish them in early April.

Before that, though, I’ll post a new Vocab Wars with short-term results.

And this time, I’ll be writing down sentences with the words I want to learn. That is: with good old pen and paper!

Some studies have suggested that writing down something is superior, memory-wise, to just typing it.

So let’s put that to the test, shall we?

Stay tuned!


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  1. I enjoy reading your posts and have learned from them, but I feel I must make a comment on this one.

    The Ebbinghaus curve suggests that recall drops off over time, but that the curve can be shifted out by repeating the training. Having learned the items over 4 days the scheduling algorithm in Anki or any other SRS sofware is not going to suggest waiting 2 months before the next review.

    In the post above you used the Anki software to enter the cards, but it doesn’t seem fair to say you are evaluating the Anki tool (or any other tool) if you are not following its schedule for learning. In effect you have invented your own SRS algorithm and that is what you are testing, not Anki.

    1. Hi Mike,

      Thanks for your comment.

      Anki is just the tool I use to execute the method. The method has to fit in the Vocab Wars time frame, therefore I have to make adjustments to the method. I don’t pretend to follow a method to the letter. I clearly state how I study in the article. The adjustments are there for anyone to read.

      Also, I think you misunderstood the whole two month thing. It’s not really a review. It’s a test to see how a method works long term if I leave it alone for two months.

      Can I still remember a good portion of the words without actually studying the words for two months? I think this this could be vital information on how to spend your time learning foreign vocabulary.

      Thanks for stopping by!

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