Recall or Produce? The Way of the Flashcard

See a sentence: Repeat that sentence out loud. Use your memory to understand (recall) that sentence. Then optionally write that sentence. Rinse and repeat. This is the recall method style of learning, and what you see here on the Jalup decks. This is great for those who want to listen and watch and read Japanese.

What about when you want to actually produce your own Japanese? You want to connect with another human being. You want to speak and write! What now? You’ve been merely recalling information. You’ve been passive the entire time. What’s your fate? To never engage in conversation?

Let’s touch on what production cards actually look like.

There are a 2 main ways people practice production with flash cards

1. The English is shown, and you must turn it into Japanese
2. A Japanese sentence is shown, with a blank, and you must fill in the blank

There are other ways, but I want to focus on these 2.

First, there is nothing wrong with these. Plenty of people do them with varying degrees of success. However, I wanted to explain my reason for not liking them and not incorporating them into the Jalup decks.

1. You are looking at English. Then artificially changing it into Japanese. This has a few problems.

Eventually, when you get good at your recall cards with Japanese on the front, and English on the back, you stop looking at the back. You read the front Japanese sentence, know that you know it, and skip the back. This is the goal. This is how you breeze through the easy cards. You don’t want to be reading English where you don’t have to, especially once you get to J-J.

The other problem is that as you get better, you can start translating sentences in a variety of ways. The answer on the back isn’t the only correct way, and you don’t want to mark yourself wrong for not having picked the exact way.

2. Fill in the blank or “Cloze sentences” I just find boring, and make me feel like I’m stuck in an eternal classroom environment. Some people love and swear by them though, and say they hold great power.

I’m not putting down either production method (or others not listed here), so if you think it might be for you, giving it a try never hurts. You may find it is exactly what you’ve been looking for.

However, what I really want to focus on is:

Production cards are not necessary to learn to produce Japanese.

During recall flashcards, you are “mimic producing.” You are repeating the sentences. Through native immersion, you are repeating and shadowing. The effect is obvious immediately. You are able to produce Japanese on your own, but it’s not anywhere near as close as your ability to recall it. Your passive knowledge is much higher than your active knowledge? Does this sound familiar? How about your own native language?

From beginner to intermediate level, you feel it the most. You can’t produce what you want, despite understanding it. This can feel a little frustrating.

However, I guarantee you that the more you continue with these recall cards, the more you immerse, the more you shadow, the more your production ability will grow.

Ask yourself this:

Would you rather be able to “understand” a conversation or “speak” in a conversation?

You can always simplify your words, make mistakes, and sound awkward, but be able to talk. But you can’t simplify what the other person is saying. “I just had a conversation with a Japanese person, and I couldn’t say anything!” This sound familiar?

How many conversations have you had so far?

2? 5? 20? 50?

While you may not need production cards to learn to talk, you absolutely will need conversation practice. Its the only way to get your mind used to converting all that passive knowledge into active knowledge. No amount of flash cards or immersion is going to prepare you for conversation.

Your only option is to start doing it. Dive right in. Have those first dozen awkward conversations (which they definitely will be). Then watch and smile as your internalized Japanese starts being converted to externalized Japanese. Life will be good. You are in it for the long game. No need to rush the process.

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Founder of Jalup. Spends most of his time absorbing and spreading thrilling information about learning Japanese.


Recall or Produce? The Way of the Flashcard — 16 Comments

  1. I definitely feel you when you say that cloze deletion sentences can feel like a classroom chore. This is why I think RTK is so unbearable after a certain point. RTK isn’t necessarily cloze deletion but, you are expected to at least try to produce in your mind the kanji. I guess one could just give up on this and only attempt to produce the english when a person sees the kanji, which would make things a lot easier. I might consider doing this if I ever return to Kanji Kingdom.

    • It does depend on the person, as some people on Jalup love them. But as I always say, after you try something for a reasonable amount of time, and discover you hate it, stop.

  2. To practise, I record myself talking. Just talking about whatever (rather painfully slowly at the moment). I know I make mistakes of course, and it’d be ideal to have someone correct them, but the nice thing about prioritising input over output is that when I watch the recording back I can often hear my mistakes then.

    I’m not too worried about getting myself a conversation partner until I have a bit more vocab (i.e. I’ve finished JALUP intermediate). Is there a point where you recommend starting conversation practise?

    • Self-correcting is a great natural occurrence that happens when going in this order. I’m impressed that you can record yourself and then listen to your own recording. Most people hate hearing themselves on a recording (including me).

      First, I generally recommend conversations anytime you feel you will enjoy them, which could be from day 1. Early conversations, while not necessarily hugely effective, are very motivating. And that can mean a lot.

      As for serious and frequent conversations to improve your conversation ability, I think after Jalup Intermediate is a good place to really focus on stepping up your game.

      • Thanks Adshap! I’ll pencil in more conversation practise for then.

        I admit, I don’t enjoy listening to myself *wince* but I’m a figure skater, and I’m used to recording myself and watching it back to correct mistakes (which are always easier to see/hear when you’re not in the middle of doing your thing). I’m definitely the kind of person who would rather KNOW how much they suck and be working on fixing it.

        I find it helps to just listen and not watch – then I’m not self conscious about my appearance too!

  3. I tried cloze-deletion and it is indeed very effective because production makes stronger and more in depth memories.
    BUT, is this effectiveness enough to justify the added difficulty?
    I don’t think so. I see Anki as a review tool, so it must be as easy and as fast as it gets. I prefer to spend the extra time and brain energy with actual japanese content (light novels, drama).
    The things which I liked about cloze-deletion was that it helps so much with listening comprehension. If you’re able to produce a word, you’re able to understand it.
    While with vanilla sentences the extra layer added by kanji, which is often an hint about the word’s meaning, makes it harder to recall the same word when in spoken form.
    I’ve resolved this issue with cards where the target word is in hiragana. Being it phonetical it’s a direct rapresentation of the spoken form, so it’s sort of like if you’re listening to it.
    Even better would be to have audio cards.
    Does the jalup decks give the option to review with audio on front?
    Are the sentences short enough to make it fast to review them?

    • Thanks Kinoko for your thoughts and experience with cloze-deletion. It sounds like it’s worked quite well for you.

      In answer to your questions:

      1. Yes, you can review with the audio on front. You just need to re-arrange the audio field to the front of the card through Anki. (This was recently added in the last update of the decks, as the audio and definition used to be part of the same field.)
      2. I’d say most of the sentences are short. Some with complex grammar tend to be a little longer. But the goal of the deck was always to make reviews easy and fast.

    • I am using in order to get audio for the Jalup Intermediate+ decks. ( has translations of the words which is bad for J-J so I use instead) I have an audio field set aside for the new vocabulary word. It plays on the front so I get the association of the sound with the kanji right away. I used to use cloze deletions and the audio to prompt the writing of the kanji but this was starting to slow my reviews down, so I eliminated the cloze deletions and just have the audio play, and it is as if I have to guess which kanji the audio belongs to. It isn’t really that much of a challenge but it is something.

        • Note, that with Forvo I am only getting the audio for the new word. I have to be able to recall how to pronounce everything else. I also find that the audio, in most cases, makes it easier for me to remember how to pronounce the word in later cards than harder.

          • I might need to take a step back here. Hearing the audio and then drawing the kanji really was what shored up the reading for the word. Ever since I removed the clozes, it has been harder for me to remember the readings of the words in comparison with when the clozes existed.

            However, for the sake of efficiency, the fact that I don’t have to hit again because I don’t have to recall the reading for the word means my reviews don’t pile up. For me it is a cost and effect. I find the trade-off is worth it for me. The benefit is I get less reviews piling up, therefore I get through my reviews faster, however sometimes I have to look up the reading for a word in the definition. The psychological effect of having to look up a reading vs having to hit “again” is astronomically better for me. In the end, I’m just trying to avoid burn out.

            • Fair enough, whatever works for you :)

              I’m the opposite in that I have minimal qualms in hitting the again button. I try to keep the cards I have trouble remembering the readings of on a relatively short leash, even if that means I review them more often. Once they enter the “mature” stage, it’s relatively rare that I will forget their reading. (Cards that I have trouble understanding the meaning of are a different story!)

              If I’m hitting again on a card, subsequent reviews take less time too, so even if my review pile number is bigger, it might not take that much extra time to go through it.

              One thing I’ve found myself doing, is if I don’t remember the reading of a word in the definition, but I DO remember the meaning, I don’t bother looking it up. I just wait until the card with that word comes around for review again. Not sure if there is value to this or not… It saves time and, I’m going to see that word’s card again sometime anyway.

  4. When did you guys start practicing writing in Japanese? I’m going through beginner at the moment, and besides some very basic sentences, I can’t recall enough from memory to write proper sentences without forgetting what proper grammar I should use, ect.

    Do people usually improve at it naturally as they progress through the decks, or should I dedicate time to just practicing writing my own sentences?

    • I started writing right away and it was not very fun. I experienced the same thing you did. I got on Lang-8 and submitted some simple stuff, and even the simple stuff had lots of errors. I stopped trying to write for a while after that. Four months later, I’d say I was about level 10 – 15 I submitted a pretend letter to pretend host parents in Japan and it was over twenty sentences long and there were far fewer errors per sentence, 0 at times even. So, I guess I would suggest to start writing anywhere between half-way through Beginner and the end of beginner. I think it is also a safe bet to simply wait until you have started Jalup Intermediate or the equivalent.

      • Awesome, thanks for the advice! I was considering waiting until I started intermediate, and it sounds like that’ll be the plan I stick with.

    • I believe I was in intermediate when I first started writing. It just started coming out naturally on twitter. They were extremely simple sentences and I wasn’t fully able to express everything I wanted to say. Eventually the desire just kind of went away. A while later I was going over a textbook as review and I started writing by hand. This had a much bigger impact on me. I immediately started to feel a deeper connection to the language once I started writing sentences by hand.

      I’m not sure when the best time to start writing is, but at some point when you are immersed neck deep, you’ll probably get the urge. When that happens, just start writing even if they are the simplest things.

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