ORAL FLASHCARDS: Tapping into Auditory & Vocal Skills to Improve Term Acquisition

By Julie A. Sellers

Reprinted from the ATA Chronicle’s June 2012 issue with gracious permission from the author and the editor

Language is ever evolving and never static, and interpreters must strive constantly to expand and refine their linguistic knowledge. As such, they must incorporate ways to practice language skills into their daily lives. Many of us have used paper flashcards to help facilitate language acquisition at some point in our career. It is a simple method: on one side of the card we write a term in our first language (L1), and on the reverse we write the same term in our second language (L2). Oral flashcards take the concept of practicing forward and backward translation a step further by turning it into a listening and speaking activity. As we shall see, this technique is particularly valuable to interpreters.

Why Oral Flashcards?
Creating a study method that works for you is key to successful and sustained vocabulary practice and development. Oral flashcards are productive tools for learning new terms or practicing less commonly used ones because the exercise mimics
what interpreters actually do on the job by drawing on auditory and vocal skills far more effectively than traditional paper flashcards. They can also be created easily. Instead of writing on a card, you create an audio recording of the terms you wish to practice. The process involves just a few steps:

• Prepare a list of terms or phrases you want to learn and group them by topic. Familiarize yourself with the terms so that you can pronounce them smoothly when recording. Each recording should be no longer than five minutes. This will facilitate locating terms quickly for review and will keep digital audio files smaller.

• Record yourself saying each term in L1, leave a brief interval to allow yourself time to respond during practice sessions, and then say the term’s equivalent in L2. You should
also make a second recording from L2 to L1, since it is important to create oral flashcards that move in both directions to strengthen backward and forward translation. There are a variety of methods with which to create oral flashcards.

Digital Recorders: These devices are an inexpensive option. Some recorders give you the ability to create multiple files containing word lists, but you will be unable to customize the list names since they will appear simply as numbers on the recorder’s display. This is a disadvantage because you will be unable to scroll through and find specific lists quickly or switch the order of your lists. Some digital recorders come with software that allows you to upload recordings as mp3 files to the computer, where you can rename the list files so they are easy to locate and differentiate. From there, you can burn a CD or transfer the files to an iPod, mp3 player, or smartphone. Although
digital recorders with this capability cost more, it is worth the extra investment to have the flexibility they offer.

Podcasts: You can create podcasts with programs such as Audacity, PodProducer, and WildVoice Studio, which can then be transferred to an iPod or mp3 player or else played directly from your computer. Again, these have the benefit of allowing you to customize the names of your lists so they can be identified and located easily.

GarageBand for Mac: If you are a Mac user, the GarageBand application, which comes standard as part of the iLife suite, provides a user friendly option. GarageBand allows you to select “Create New Podcast Episode” from the main menu. Users can indicate whether their recording is of a male or female voice, which improves quality. Editing features include the ability to change the timing of your recording, split tracks, move portions of a track, and insert new portions of recorded material into an existing track. The recording quality is good and it is easy to export files directly to iTunes and upload them to an iPod, iPhone, or burn them to a CD.

Windows Sound Recorder for PC: PC users might be interested in Windows Sound Recorder. This application, which comes standard on PCs, is user-friendly and allows you the benefit of recording directly to your desktop. This is an especially good option for those new to recording on anything other than a digital or standard tape recorder, since it requires no additional investment. The only requirement is that you have a sound card and an inexpensive microphone.

Software: Free downloads or recording software are also available, such as Audacity (for PC, Mac, and Linux at http:// audacity.sourceforge.net/download) and Free Sound Recorder for PC (http://cnet.co/Free-Sound). If you want something with more capacity, you can purchase a number of software programs. Prices vary, so do your research and find the one that best fits your needs and preferences (see reviews at

Smartphone Apps: Many smartphones come preloaded with a voice recorder. You simply record onto your phone and play it back whenever you want to practice. There are also downloadable apps for purchase that allow for voice recording. For example, I have used QuickVoice on my iPhone for voice recording (www.quickvoice. com/quickvoice).

Tape Recorder: Finally, there is nothing wrong with a good old-fashioned tape recorder, if this is what you feel most comfortable using. A disadvantage will be searching for your lists or locating them using a counter. In addition to helping us learn and practice, an added bonus of oral flashcards is that they are considerably more portable and accessible than a notebook or a stack of traditional paper flashcards. It is much easier to schedule time to practice and study vocabulary into our daily routine when it can be done while walking the dog, running on the treadmill, vacuuming, or cooking dinner. Repetition fulfills important functions in normal, everyday speech. The effectiveness of oral flashcards goes beyond mere convenience. This approach to term acquisition also
takes advantage of certain neurological theories associated with how we learn and retain information, some of which are discussed below.

Learning in Chunks
Research in second language acquisition has shown that attempting to learn a language word by word will not result in the internalization of that language’s overall linguistic structure, and instead can contribute to fossilization because a speaker is unable to create original utterances with the language. Communicative approaches to language learning thus emphasize the importance of meaningful input: hearing the language used realistically and in context so that learners can begin to incorporate it into their ever developing internal understanding of how the language works. Similarly, these approaches stress the importance of learning meaningful chunks of language in context.

According to David Wood, coordinator of the program for the Certificate in the Teaching of English as a Second Language at Carleton University’s School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies, these chunks are linguistic formulas or, “fixed strings …
of words that have a range of functions and uses in speech production and communication and seem to be cognitively stored and retrieved by speakers as if they were single words.”1 Many first phrases spoken by those just beginning to learn a language (e.g., “What’s your name?” or “How are you?”) are common examples of chunks. Similarly, the doublets and triplets common to legal language can be described as chunks (e.g., “give, devise, and bequeath”). Because these word strings follow a set pattern, speakers can remember and use them without variation. By learning the meaning of a chunk, we are able to communicate without having to think
through the nuts and bolts of its construction.

For example, Spanish learners can easily express likes and dislikes using Me gusta / No me gusta long before they understand indirect object pronouns. Such formulaic sequences play an important role in language acquisition. Chunking aids in the internalization of language and contributes to fluency by increasing the amount of
speech produced without a pause. 2

In other words, we communicate meaning rather than simply string individual words together. Novice language learners, for example, can have a completely legitimate conversation using nothing but chunks such as “Hello, how are you? What’s your name? Where are you from? Where do you live? What’s your phone number? Nice to meet you. I’ll see you later,” and so on. Speech patterns and tendencies to use formulaic sequences are such that we become aware of them both consciously and subconsciously. Never was this clearer to me than the time I had a student raise his hand and ask what I was always looking for when I said Vamos a ver (“Let’s see”) as I consulted the list of activities for the day. This type of awareness, as Wood points out, helps, “establish a pattern recognition unit, which is then strengthened by frequent input, eventually leading to single-step memory access … [and] … automatization or retrieval in a single-step process of remembering”3

Thus, we do not have to think of each individual word or form in a chunk; rather, the entire
string is accessed and produced as one unit. Using these chunks or even a series of them allows time for us to attend to other utterances that demand more attention and are not formulaic. For example, a novice language learner does not consciously have to think about the meaning of “My name is…” and can instead pay attention to the information that follows.

Without a doubt, repetition is essential to learning chunks of information. It is not enough simply to listen to something; we need to reproduce the sounds and train our vocal chords to form them. Repetition in language learning has sometimes gotten a bad rap because of its association with the behaviorist audio lingual approach of the 1950s and 1960s. Lee James and Bill VanPatten, both internationally recognized scholars in the field of second language acquisition, note that audio lingualism, which is based on
theories of behaviorism, was originally, “[d]eveloped at military schools (where one did not question authority) … [and it] … explicitly cast the instructor as drill leader.”4 The end goal of this approach is to create good habits in language learners and eliminate bad ones. Therefore, audio lingual learning activities emphasize patterned drills. Central to this approach are compact language drills (CDLs) in which learners repeat what an instructor says.

As a result, repetition is sometimes cast aside because it conjures up the image of rote drills. Nevertheless, repetition fulfills important functions in normal, everyday speech. We need only think of how children parrot everything they hear when learning to speak to know that repetition serves as a building block of language learning and, later, original creation with the language. This is a result of a component of working memory known as the phonological loop, which deals with spoken and written language. In an article in Psychological Review, Alan Baddeley, Susan Gathercole, and Costanza Papagno explain that the phonological loop, “comprises both a phonological store, which holds information in phonological form, and a rehearsal process, which serves to maintain decaying representations in the phonological store.”5 Similar to using chunks, repetition allows us to produce easy to remember formulaic utterances while giving our minds time to craft what follows.6

Second language speakers have to know both content and form to create utterances within a language. Novice language learners tend to remember words in L2 by binding them to their L1 translation; in other words, they do not see a new L2 term as having meaning in and of itself, but rather through its link to the word in L1.7 In an article discussing language representation and processing in fluent bilinguals in Neuropsychologia, Shekeila Palmer, Johanna van Hoof, and Jelena Havelka explain that with increased proficiency, speakers of a second language develop, “an asymmetrically connected linguistic system in which the two lexicons are linked both directly at the lexical level, and indirectly via independent links between each lexicon and the conceptual store.” 8 That is, we make connections both on a word-for-word and a meaning-for-meaning level. As many of us know from experience, the consequence of this asymmetrical system is that backward translation going from L2 to L1 is faster than forward translation because it tends to be lexical, or at the word level. In contrast, forward translation tends to be based more on meaning and concepts. 9

Musical Memory
The concept of listening to a recording also ties into how the brain processes auditory stimuli. Music and memory are uniquely linked. Music often accompanies our memories, and those memories of music come back very accurately. Oliver Sacks, a neurologist and professor of neurology and psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center, has found in his work with patients that, “musical perception, musical sensibility, musical emotion, and musical memory can survive long after other forms of memory have disappeared.” 10

As linguists, we can capitalize on our musical intelligence and the strength of musical memories. If you listen to anyone for very long, you will pick up on the unique rhythmic qualities of his or her individual speech. We can likewise tap into our own musicality the
unique rhythms and sounds of our individual way of speaking to help us remember by following the beat of our speech patterns. Self-repetition of words and phrases plants a rhythmic memory in your brain of the way you produce those words and phrases. Practicing our vocabulary by listening to audio recordings of ourselves repeating terms allows us to draw on the rhythm of speech (and not so much on the linguistical aspects) to retrieve and recall content.

For example, whether you consider yourself a musician or not, you likely have experienced something known as an earworm at some point in your life. Earworms are those snippets of music that get stuck and replay through our minds, often with maddening consistency. When we remember, neurons fire in the same pattern as when we first perceived the object or event we remember. In the case of earworms, it
appears that the pattern is firing repeatedly much like a scratch on a vinyl record or CD.11 As studies of music and the brain indicate, musical memories often outlast other memories since they are stored differently. Tapping into your own musicality by using oral flashcards to learn, practice, and remember is like having a backup rhythmic copy of the concrete.

As country singer Trisha Yearwood sings, “The song remembers when.”12 Oliver Sacks likewise quotes one of his correspondents: “Every memory of my childhood has a soundtrack to it.”13 Many of us would agree with both observations regarding the power of musical memory.

Understanding How We Learn
Taken together, these understandings of the architecture of our linguistic system suggest that oral flashcards are an effective strategy to help us enhance our vocabularies and improve our skills as interpreters. Because we, as linguists, need to be able to move back and forth fluidly between languages, our practice of new terms should challenge us. Our practice of new terms should challenge us to exercise every aspect of the brain’s capacity to learn and adapt to linguistic patterns.
By using repetition to strengthen our proficiency in a language, and by becoming familiar with the musicality of our individual pronunciation, we will become more aware of how these language patterns can affect our performance.

1. Wood, David. “Uses and Functions of Formulaic Sequences in Second Language Speech: An Exploration of the Foundations of Fluency.” The Canadian Modern Language Review (Volume 63, no. 1, 2006), 14.
www.aclacaal.org/Revue/vol-12- 1_art-wood.pdf.
2. Ibid., 13-33.
3. Ibid., 17.
4. Lee, James F., and Bill VanPatten. Making Communicative Language Teaching Happen (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2003), 7.
5. Baddeley, Alan, Susan Gathercole, and Costanza Papagno. “The Phono logical Loop as a Language
Learning Device.” Psychological Review (Volume 105, no. 1, 1998), 158.
6. Rydland, Veslemøy and Vibeke Grøver Aukrust. “Lexical Repetition in Second Language Learners’ Peer Play Interaction.” Language Learning (Volume 55, no. 2, 2005). 7. Palmer, Shekeila D., Johanna C. van Hoof, and Jelena Havelka. “Language Representation and Processing in Fluent Bilinguals: Electrophysiological Evidence for Asymmetric Mapping in Bilingual Memory.” Neuropsychologia (Volume 48, 2010), 1426-1437.
8. Ibid., 1426.
9. Ibid., 1426.
10. Sacks, Oliver. Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain (New York: Vintage, 2007), 373.
11. Levitin, Daniel J. This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession (New York: Dutton, 2006).
12. Prestwood, Hugh. “The Song Remembers When” [Recorded by Trish Yearwood]. On The Song Remembers When [CD]. Nashville: MCA, 1993.
13. Sacks. Musicophilia: Tales ofMusic and the Brain, 37.