Wednesday, June 23, 2010

flashes of brilliance

Well, of "above averageness," at least. (Mostly I was just looking for a catchy title for this post.)

I have long been skeptical of flashcards as a way to learn languages. The thought of a parent forcing a child to sit still while showing him one unrelated card after another, making him repeat the word aloud, telling him to stop fidgeting and memorize--well, that just makes me cringe. (I once played the role of a precocious but screwed-up teenager whose mom-with-unreasonable-expectations subjected her to Greek and Latin flashcards as a baby in a very good play called Eleemosynary by Lee Blessing. This is perhaps what turned me off kids and cards.)

Now, mind you, I have no problem with using flashcards as a study technique, which I've done with every foreign language I've ever studied. But there are so many other (better) ways to introduce words and concepts!

Yet when I saw this cute box of bilingual (French-English) flashcards when I was pregnant with Griffin, I bought it anyway. (I'm such a sucker for kids' French stuff. I'd probably buy a new set of knives if they had drawings from Le petit prince embossed on the handles.) The company that makes them is eeBoo. Other companies that make French flashcards are here. (I have a few other sets, too, but this is the one that Griffin is drawn to.)

Flash forward 2.5 years, and we discover a toddler with a propensity for dumping things out and transferring things from one container to another. Translation: a toddler who loves flashcards!

As long as this post began in a negative light, let me get my critique of this set of cards out of the way: the sample sentences illustrating the target vocabulary are often either dorky, very dorky, or decontextualized.

For example, "The pig is happy." Really? How do you know? I can't tell. Will this sentence help a learner figure out what "cochon" or "content" means without reading the translation on the back? Nope.

Even worse: "The dress is for my sister." Oh? I don't have a sister. It's not like we're reading a story and we know who the narrator and the characters are, so when someone says "The dress is for my sister," we can nod and say, "Oh, yes, that does look like something Fifi would wear."

A few other pickier complaints: the wrong gender is provided for the word "shirt," which is even featured on the cover of the box; four of the eight "nature" cards show the same tree in different stages (ie, no leaves for winter, buds for spring, green leaves for summer, and other colors of leaves for autumn), which Griffin simply doesn't understand (having, say, snow accompany the winter card would help, but I would have prefered just using different pictures to represents other elements of nature, like a lake, a forest, a stream, an acord, roots of a plant, a garden, rocks, a flower....).

And this is probably a good place for me to mention that you don't even need to buy bilingual flashcards for your babies, toddlers, and preschoolers: if they can't read, it doesn't matter what language the words are written in! (On the other hand, if your husband is trying to learn French along with your kid, he might appreciate seeing the sentences written out.) Or you could just put Post-it notes with your translations on the English flashcards.

And for that matter, you don't need to buy flashcards at all. They're handy, yes, but also limiting. Make your own! (I haven't created any for Griffin--but I could, right? Especially if I'm not happy with this company's nature cards.)

Anyway, here are a few non-flashy things that Griffin and I do with these cards (in addition to the simple displacement of them from their box to his play kitchen to the slats on his crib to behind the changing table). We play flashcards a lot, but it hardly ever involves my holding up the card and asking what's on it.

We put them into categories--all the animal cards together, all the food, all the objects found in nature, etc. What's really cool is that my toddler is not constrained by the categories we grown-ups would create.

For example, he put la lune in the pile of pictures of things in the house. When I asked him why, he pointed out that the moon is in his room. And right he is--his nightlight is a 3D replica of the moon which lights up in different phases. (Yes, we're geeks, and proud of it. It's inevitable when a teacher-librarian marries a rocket scientist.)

Griffin also assigned this card to the "dans la maison" category:

He says it's because he has a stuffed cow that he sleeps with. That works for me!

We also practice identifying colors using these flashcards. But rather than holding up the, say, bleu card and asking him what color it is, I hold up the color card with an object and ask if the combination makes sense.

"Le lait est bleu, Griffin?"

"Non!" (giggle giggle giggle)

"Le lait est noir?"

"Non!" (more giggles)

"De quelle couleur est le lait?"


Trust me, this is endless amusing when you're two years old.

And finally, a few other ideas to try:

--Set out examples of objects pictured in the cards. (We do stuffed animals, his toy food, and other toys.) He has to put the card beside the real object like a label.

--Place three cards in front of him. Ask which one is in the middle. Then move it to the left, to the right, up, down, behind, and so forth to practice the prepositions.

--Give him five cards and ask him to put them in order from his favorite one to his least favorite. (Griffin can't do this yet--he either likes something or he doesn't. And that can change from day to day. Just ask the carrots.)

--Count the cards. (Griffin can only kind of do this--and he's better at counting in English, because he always skips "quatre" and gets very confused in the teens.)

--Have I mentioned throwing the cards around and hiding them behind furniture? (That's more of a linguistic challenge for me than for him--I have to work hard to express my displeasure without teaching him words he doesn't need to know yet.)

What other language-rich activities could we try with cards like this? Please share your flashes of brilliance in the comments!


  1. I bought my daughter some french flash cards as well, but they don't have sentences on, just the words of a few basics. She also has English flashcards and little books with words in them describing basic things. Since she is only 16 months old, she cannot sit still for too long with a story book, except close to bed time. So I go through the cards or the little books with her, spelling each word, describing the picture, etc. All depending on how willing she is to sit still for how long. Sometimes we just throw them around, or match the English flashcards to the French ones.

    She can't read yet, but on some level I do believe she is soaking up the words already. She already recognizes sounds form the ABC song which her care taker sings to them.

    All in all, I think at the end of the day it is about giving her a language experience, whichever way it happens in.

  2. We've used these flashcards since Ben was around 11 months. They're not as 'advanced' as the ones you describe, but they're great for making silly animal noises (daddy is much better at that than me!), teaching animal names is both German and English, putting into boxes and throwing around the room. They have the animal with a touchy feely bit on one side, an the animal in context on the reverse (e.g. a rabbit in a hutch with a carrot). Lots to talk about!

  3. @Keda--She must be soaking up so much language with you and her caretaker. You've figured out how to have fun with her with these cards (and her books) without making it too "teachy."

    @Anonymous--I had never seen tactile flashcards before! These look really cute. Your comment that they provide "lots to talk about" is key--you (and Keda) are using the cards as a springboard to spontaneous, contextualized input for Ben.

  4. This isn't a use for your cards, but could be a good toddler flash-card craft for your rainy day repetoire. I learned Spanish using the grocery fliers. How about letting him fly with the kiddie scissors, then pile or paste the pictures in groups, veggies together, fruits together. Perhaps little boys would prefer flash cards they can destroy daily.

    1. On one trip to France after becoming a teacher, I asked the supermarket manager if I could have 30 copies of their current flier so I could have a class set! I loved teaching about French food and culture and language via the grocery ads.

      What a good idea to put Griffin to work! And since he's not reading yet, we could just use the American grocery ads for now.

      Yes, little boys prefer anything they can destroy!

  5. Well, they are a great help with the words , but when it comes to sentences that's a whole different problem.

    1. Yes, if you're using the flashcards as individual entities--but if you and the child are interacting with them, they're more like prompts for communicative language use--which by its definition means you're eliciting sentences!

      Thanks for your comments--looks like you've been exploring my archives.

  6. mr printables has great printable French resources

  7. Hello! Thank you so much for sharing all these great resources with us. I just bought some French and English flashcards for my 21 month-old daughter. I'm from the French speaking part of Cameroon and my Husband is from Ghana. So, we are trying to teach Scarlette (my daughter) both English and French as well as my husband's native language. I could teach her my tribal language as well, but that would be too much I think. We haven't really started to work with the flashcards but your ideas will sure help us to do so. Merci beaucoup! J'adore le blog!