Why Flashcards Don’t Work: Language Students Can Learn More From Netflix!

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Why should you replace language learning flashcards with a Netflix subscription or, alternatively, more time on YouTube?

Well, you may not want to run a global media empire or work with the Mexican drug cartels but you’d be surprised how much Logan Roy from Succession or Walter White from Breaking Bad can teach you about language.

There is good evidence to suggest that students learn best when they’re relaxed, stress-free and at ease in the learning environment. Finding these types of environments should be a basic goal of both the teacher and the student of foreign languages.

What’s more relaxing than an episode of your favorite TV series?

The question is: how do we bring those two worlds together for language learners? How do we make it so that watching a movie or TV show is not just about kicking back, enjoying a beer and letting the action flow in one ear and out the other — but instead becomes a fun learning experience?

That’s what we explore here:

  • Stephen Krashen’s three factors that affect language acquisition
  • High-anxiety learning
  • Why flashcards don’t work 
  • Where Breaking Bad fits into all of this
  • Why video is the ultimate in low-anxiety learning 

Let’s get straight into it…

Stephen Krashen and the factors that affect language acquisition

Linguistic expert Stephen Krashen said that we all learn in exactly the same way: by understanding messages (comprehensible input).

This is important to understand before we consider the question of how to deliver those messages most effectively.

If language learning was a simple one-size fits all matter, we’d have cracked the code ages ago and would have definitive answers to how to best teach foreign languages. We’d all be conversing freely in our chosen second (or third or fourth) languages.

The fact that we’re still discussing means it’s far more complex than that.

Krashen referred to the “affective filter”, which identifies three factors that affect an individual’s success in acquiring language. These three factors are:

  1. Motivation
  2. Self-esteem/self-confidence
  3. Anxiety

We need all three of these to be in a healthy state to acquire a language effectively, i.e., for the input to be understood and “hit home”. If any (or all) of these three factors are exerting a negative influence, the input will be understood but an obstacle to learning will be present.

Motivation often comes from inside (“I need to learn this language to further my career”) but can also be enhanced by an inspiring teacher. The same applies to self-esteem and self-confidence.

The third factor (anxiety) is the one that language teachers have the most control over. Krashen proposed that a zero-anxiety environment is the healthiest for language learning and, while he recognized that in some learning situations, stress can have a positive influence, he came down heavily on the side of the following statement:

“Comprehensible input in a low anxiety environment is the best way to acquire a language.”

A raised heart rate or excessive sweating may be the physical symptoms of anxiety but something also occurs in the brain. It affects how we decide what to pay attention to in our environment (an obvious key to learning).

Krashen proposes that a mental block or imaginary wall (“affective filter”) appears and keeps learning and cognition out in anything but low-anxiety environments. Feelings of anxiety, fear, self-doubt or embarrassment make it difficult for language acquisition to occur.

That’s an important observation when we consider traditional language learning techniques and classroom setups.

High-anxiety classroom vs a low-anxiety classroom

Let’s imagine two language-learning classrooms:

Classroom A:

  • Students sit in rows, isolated from each other (traditional classroom style)
  • The teacher reads and tests student comprehension via worksheets
  • Students are disciplined for speaking out of turn or breaking classroom rules 
  • Speaking is only allowed in designated conversations in the target language that students have been taught
  • Flashcards are used as prompts by the teacher to compel students to talk at their designated time
  • The only other teaching aid is a whiteboard

Classroom B:

  • Students are encouraged to design then own seating plan/classroom setup and activities around the target language
  • The teacher makes it clear that risk-taking with the target language is encouraged and there are no repercussions for errors
  • Students are encouraged to work in groups and nobody is “put on the spot” or instructed to speak unless they want to
  • Videos, picture books, music and other multimedia teaching aids are available
  • Storytelling is sometimes used by the teacher to engage students

One is a highly motivational, low-anxiety environment that can build self-confidence and promote fun and engaging learning. And the other is a surefire “affective filter” creator, to use Krashen’s expression. You know which is which.

Ultimately, learning is tough enough for students already without increasing anxiety with poorly thought-out teaching methods and classrooms.

Why flashcards don’t work for language learning

Flashcards are a common language teaching tool, used to aid the memorizing of new words, characters, letters, and rules like verb conjugations.

Some proponents of flashcards say they promote active recall in your brain, helping move a learnt item from short-term to long-term memory.

But apart from the fact that they can overburden the brain with too much information, remove context from the target language and are quite boring for learners, flashcards can also be quite anxiety-inducing for many learners — especially if we try to force output too soon with them.

When foreign language learners are put on the spot (especially in front of their fellow students), it creates the opposite of a safe, learning environment — instead turning it into a threatening and potentially embarrassing environment, inducing stress and anxiety.

Even those who argue that some stress is good for learning recognize that too much stress or stress at the wrong time may inhibit learning.

Krashen said: “learning is seen to be heavily dependent on the mood of the learner, with learning being impaired if the learner is under stress or does not want to learn the language.” 

Doubtless, he would argue that flashcards, therefore, rarely work — and we would agree.

So where does Breaking Bad fit in?

The question we need to answer for more effective language acquisition, then, is this: how can language teachers help lower the affective filter that may naturally be raised by students?

Or how do we create an anxiety-free learning environment?

Enter Walter White…

Regardless of whether you’d like to know the recipe for making blue crystal meth, Breaking Bad was an engaging and entertaining series for millions. Life-like interactions occurred between the characters using language that people actually use. 

So, if Breaking Bad, Succession or any other series is/was engaging for you, it could be a powerful learning tool.

Anything that engages the brain and helps it relax (in the way that many TV series, movies, documentaries, and other types of video content do) can be your language-learning buddy. Remember, if it provides comprehensible input in a low-anxiety environment, it’s your friend.

That’s always been the case but now, more than ever, you also have the tools to assist. AI and language learning apps have homed in on video learning to create never-before-seen tools that can help foreign language learners elevate their proficiency quicker than ever.

Video subtitles aid learning in an interesting, anxiety-free, safe and comfortable environment that most people are highly familiar with — and provide informed language-learning exposure in multiple contexts that can be selected to model the target language.

Unlike flashcards, each interaction provides context and visual stimuli as well as the spoken word. It’s learning through absorbing the language — true language acquisition just as Krashen proposes when he suggests  “sparking interest, providing low-anxiety environments, and bolstering the learner’s self-esteem.”

Being aware of the affective filter and the impact of anxiety on learning is a game-changer for many foreign language teachers and students.

Learn a foreign language through video: the ultimate in low-anxiety learning 

Give your language learning a boost and take it to the next level with a simple Chrome extension that helps you acquire language through video using YouTube subtitles and ChatGPT Download it here to get started.

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