If you’re learning Spanish, you’ve probably had some experiences with Spanish flashcards.
But if your goal is not JUST to memorize vocabulary, if you actually want to talk deeply and personally with the Spanish speakers in your life, it’s easy to get stuck. Simply memorizing words from flashcards isn’t the same thing as having fluid conversations.
However, at Accelerated Spanish, our experience working directly with thousands of Spanish learners has shown us that flashcards CAN be one of the best ways to learn and practice your Spanish — if you use them effectively.
In this article, I’ll share our top seven tips for using flashcards to prepare you for real-life conversation with native speakers.
1. Review Consistently
The number one reason that flashcards don’t work for students is that they use them inconsistently.
The rest of the tactics in this article will be all about how to transform your flashcards into real-life Spanish experience. But none of that will be valuable unless you’re actually making a consistent habit of implementing these tactics.
The thing is, if you’re not quizzing yourself on a daily basis, your flashcards might not actually be getting you any closer to Spanish fluency. And that’s because when learning a language, consistent daily exposure to what you’re working on is the only thing that will move you forward.
So all the other advice in this article assumes that you’re quizzing flashcards every day. If you haven’t yet made a daily ritual out of working on Spanish, you should read Atomic Habits and Language Learning. (That’s by far one of our most popular and influential articles for Spanish learners, so if you’re new here, that’s a great place to start.)
2. Start with English, Not Spanish
I’m guessing a lot of your flashcards have an English word or phrase on one side and the Spanish version of that on the other side. This is a good place to start, but the most important rule for making this work is to review your flashcards by looking at the English side first. Try to guess the Spanish from the English, not the other way around.
Remember: Your ultimate goal is to think in Spanish, not English. If you’re a native English speaker, your thoughts are largely occurring in English right now. This isn’t a bad thing; we can actually use that as an advantage on our path to thinking in Spanish. If you use English-Spanish flashcards, you’ll accelerate your ability to transition to thinking in Spanish. Eventually you won’t need the English side of the flashcards at all, but for now, it’s is kind of like using training wheels to help guide your English mental models and reframe them as Spanish mental models.
Meanwhile, if you instead start with Spanish and try to guess the English, you’re subtly training your brain to do the opposite of what you want: Every time you see a Spanish word, you’ll think about the English version of that word. We want the opposite. By training yourself to come up with the Spanish from the English, you’ll have an easy time redirecting your thoughts to be in Spanish instead of English, all the time.
Note, however, that many of the most important words in Spanish have no direct equivalent in English. For example, Estar doesn’t exactly mean “to be”, and por doesn’t really mean “by”, although that’s the best general translation. For words like these, you should give a little bit of phrasal context. For one of your Estar cards, you can put “to be at home” on the English side and estar en casa on the Spanish side. Of course, these tricky words require quite a few sentence examples in order to encompass all their most common uses. To get better at making Spanish flash cards that teach you the true meaning of the words, watch for the next article, How To Make Spanish Flashcards.
3. Quiz Out Loud
If your goal is not merely Spanish knowledge, but Spanish fluency, you need to be practicing speaking Spanish out loud at every opportunity. One of the best opportunities is your daily flashcard quizzing.
When you’re going through your flashcards and trying to guess the Spanish word or phrase, say it out loud. Granted, there are times when you can’t do this, like if you’re in the quiet section of the library, but when possible I recommend finding a time and place where you can speak Spanish in a full voice while quizzing. Make it a goal to do your review out loud at least 3 times a week, but preferably every day.
This will help enormously with transitioning from studying Spanish to fluently speaking Spanish. Remember that head knowledge of Spanish is one thing; saying Spanish phrases out loud is another thing, and it’s actually a physical skill. The more you condition your mouth with the muscle memory of saying as much Spanish as possible, the more easily you’ll be able to speak fluid Spanish in real-life situations.
At some point in the future, you’re going to be in a conversation with one or more native Spanish speakers who are looking at you expectantly for a witty and well-thought response to something they’ve said. At moments like these, there are all kinds of things you could possibly be hung up on or stressed about. But if you’ve been speaking Spanish out loud every day while quizzing with your Spanish flashcards, that will be one less thing to worry about. After hundreds of hours of speaking Spanish out loud, you’re going to find your Spanish flowing faster and more naturally than you ever thought possible.
So start clocking those hours! Whenever possible, quiz out loud, with your mouth, not just your mind. Your Spanish muscle memory will develop very quickly if you make it a daily practice.
It’s not enough to review Spanish words and speak them out loud. In real life, unlike when you sit down and study, you never know what words or phrases you’re going to need at the drop of a hat. The only way to prepare for this is to throw yourself surprises when you practice on your own. Quiz yourself in a way that challenges you to come up with Spanish words and phrases in a spontaneous and unexpected way.
One of the best things about flashcards is that you can easily shuffle them and quiz them in a random order. Now, you may not always want to do this; when studying Spanish, there’s a temptation to work on one category of things at once: First study your Ar verbs, then study direct object pronouns, then practice writing a lot of sentences that use esto or eso.
But research shows that although practicing one thing at a time feels productive, if you instead mix up your practice randomly, you’re preparing yourself for long-term fluency. When you practice one thing over and over, you can feel immediate progress, but you’re likely to lose a lot of that progress after the study session. But if you shuffle together flashcards with a bunch of the different things you’ve been learning, it will feel less productive in the short term, but it will pay off a lot better in the long term.
Here’s how to do that. Let’s say you’re working on conjugating Ar verbs, and you’re practicing with several flashcards with forms of Hablar. Work on these until they’re ALMOST easy for you, but not quite. Then stop yourself. Shuffle those Hablar cards among several other flashcards, especially among other verbs. Then go through the stack of flashcards and see how well you do.
Not only does research show that this leads to better longs-term retention of what you’re studying, it also does a better job of simulating real life. In conversations with native speakers, you’re not going to use Hablar by itself over and over in different forms. You’re much more likely to encounter one or two isolated Hablar examples mixed in with all kinds of other Spanish elements. Practice for that now! Shuffle your flashcards.
For more on the value of shuffling your cards, see our article on Learning Spanish by Changing the Subject.
5. Expand Into Sentences
Most Spanish flashcards have just one word or very short phrase on them. That’s useful for learning tiny bite-sized pieces of the language, but it’s not enough to bring you to fluency. In real-life Spanish conversations, you’re not going to be using one word or phrase at a time; you’ll be speaking and listening in entire sentences.
The best way to practice for this is to make a habit of inventing Spanish sentences from your flashcards. Don’t just recite the word; invent a whole sentence that uses that word. This will enormously raise your confidence in speaking in entire Spanish sentences when you have conversations with native speakers.
There is a challenge, though: It’s easy to get stuck with the same sentences over and over. For example, if one of your flashcards is agente de seguros (insurance agent), you might be tempted to say the same basic sentence structure every time you quiz with this word: “My friend is an insurance agent” or “my dad is not an insurance agent”. It’s a bit bland and basic. In real life, if you some day find yourself mentioning the term “insurance agent”, it will probably be in a complicated, creative sentence context. How do you prepare yourself for that while you’re at home quizzing your flashcards?
One way is to make a game out of it. Each day, when you sit down to study your flashcards, choose a real-life conversation topic. Then, as you quiz each flashcard, try to turn the term on that flashcard into a relevant sentence, as if it were part of that conversation. For example, let’s say the topic is “talking about my group of friends in high school”. When you pick up the card “insurance agent”, this may not seem to have anything at all to do with your friends in high school! But you can find a creative way to integrate it in the topic: “My friend Charly would be miserable if she ended up being an insurance agent.”
Strategies like this can help you turn your tedious, rote study into a conversational game. Now you have to come up with an entire sentence (and a grammatically complicated one!), just like you would in real life.
6. Combine Cards
Speaking of games, let’s talk about one of my favorite ways to make a fun challenge out of studying Spanish: Combining two flashcards when you quiz.
This solves two problems at once. First, you get through your flashcards more quickly, and second, you simultaneously have an easier time coming up with imaginative sentence examples for each word or phrase.
Here’s what you do: When you’re quizzing, pick up two random cards instead of one. See if you can combine those two cards into one Spanish sentence. For example, let’s say you pick up the words “hometown” and “to mean (definition)”. You have to come up with a Spanish sentence that involves both pueblo and significar, maybe “this means that he can visit his hometown”: Esto significa que puede visitar su pueblo.
To make it even more challenging but fun, see if you can do this while playing the game that we mentioned above! Try to use both words or phrases in a sentence on the topic that you’ve chosen. This is a fairly advanced technique, but it’s a great way to come up with sentences that you would never have thought to come up with otherwise. An upcoming article goes into detail on how to play that game.
7. Use Spaced Repetition
Spaced repetition is one of the best ways to put lots and lots of information into long-term memory.
If you’re already using a spaced repetition system, I don’t have to convince you! But if not, you can use this strategy to get a serious upgrade to the way that you learn Spanish or any other subject.
I’ll explain spaced repetition by oversimplifying a little. Basically, it’s a method for reviewing things you’ve learned less and less often as time goes by. For example, if you’ve just learned the idiom sí o sí, which roughly means “either way”, you don’t need to review that flashcard every day for the rest of your life. Instead, you might review it tomorrow, then two days later, then four days later, then a week later, then at increasing intervals until it’s permanently in your long-term memory.
Here are the two reasons this approach can shortcut your learning.
First of all, research shows that reviewing things at increasing intervals is actually better for long-term learning. Reviewing something that you’ve reviewed every day for the last week isn’t nearly as valuable as waiting a bit. If you let some forgetting set in and then review it again *just* when you were on the brink of forgetting it, it gives your mind the message that it’s something you’re likely to need much later, and it will store it in long-term memory.
Second, when you review with spaced repetition, you’re actually doing less work to learn more! Reviewing each flashcard less and less often means that you can work on learning thousands and thousands of Spanish words and phrases without overwhelming yourself. Since each flashcard is reviewed only a few times, at increasing intervals, you’ll never have to review a thousand cards in one day.
So how do you make this work?
There are free online platforms for using spaced repetition, such as Anki. I’m not a huge fan of Anki’s interface, but it’s a great place to start.
Another technique is to use a “Leitner box”, a system that uses index cards. And this is what I personally do! Index cards are great because there are all kinds of boxes and filing systems you can easily buy to sort them. Once you’ve set up your Leitner box system, you can learn 20 or 30 new Spanish words per day without ever having to spend an enormous amount of time reviewing them.
In an upcoming article, I’ll share my own Leitner Box system that you can imitate. In the meantime, here is the system that Gabriel Wyner of Fluent Forever recommends: Gabriel Wyner’s Leitner Box
If you follow the 7 tips in this article, you’ll accelerate your path toward fluency by not only learning new Spanish words and phrases faster than ever, but also learning to use them so that you’re ready to have deep, personal conversations with the Spanish speakers in your life.
The final step for you is to make sure that the Spanish flashcards that you’re using are the best they can be. In the next article, I’ll go over how to create good Spanish flashcards, including where to get the most useful words and phrases that will bring you to fluency the fastest.
Are you ready to finally become fluent in Spanish? Start the Accelerated Spanish course for free.