Are You Raising a Bilingual Genius or a Bilingual Dummy?

"Bilingual Genius or Bilingual Dummy?
Having great language-learning potential is not enough - the approach matters!

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It’s all over the news these days:

Not only are young children linguistic pros by nature, but learning languages makes them smarter too!

Those are fantastic news for young children learning languages – but what the news doesn’t tell you is that there are good and not so good ways to introduce a child to a new language.

In fact, some practices out there are so bad that, if you are not careful, you may end up flipping the coin and turning your little language Einstein into little language Frankenstein!

Let me tell you about a few common practices that may be hurting your child right now:

  • Are you using flashcards with your child? That is, showing your child a card with an image and asking the child for the name of the image in the target language?
  • Is he or she playing games that teach a foreign language word here and there? (For example, you touch a moving object and you hear its name)
  • Are you watching videos that translate words back and forth? (“It is an elephant” / “C’est un éléphant”)

Well, there you go! With rote learning practices like those, you are well on your way to turn your child into a linguistic dummy.

I’ll tell you why most flashcard-style products are BAD NEWS for children learning languages in a moment, but first let me share with you 3 tips not to fall under their spell:

Tip #1: Learn to Recognize Flashcards Regardless of the Package

As the humorous Spanish proverb says, “Te conozco Bacalao aunque vayas disfrazado,” which literally means, “I know you Cod, even in that costume.”

"Te conozco Bacalao aunque vayas disfrazao"
Like codfish, the intense flavor of flashcards is hard to hide!
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Have you noticed that codfish has a heavy smell and taste? It is hard to disguise it in other dishes[1]

Well, you may not be currently aware of the strong smell and taste of flashcards, but they are certainly stinky and fishy too!

What are language-learning flashcards? Flashcards’ main use is to help people memorize foreign language words or phrases. In the case of young children, the most commonly used flashcards are colors, numbers, days of the week, animals, etc.

What you may not realize is that – just like cod – flashcards can be disguised within expensive yellow boxes, fancy CDs, DVDs, TV programs a la Dora the Explorer, mobile applications… you name it!

Ah, but don’t let the glamour deceive you! Not even if you see news about these types of programs on CNN, CNBC, Fox News, Univision or even on the front page of the New York Times. Your child is still learning colors, numbers, clothes, animals, etc.

No matter what the sophisticated look, a flashcard is a flashcard is a flashcard. “I know you Flashcard, even in that costume.” Remember to always look beyond the packaging.

So that’s tip #1: Learn to recognize the cod when you see it! The flashcard approach has permeated other media, but the goal remains the same: memorizing small segments of language out of context.

Tip #2: Understand Why There Is This Flashcard Mentality

The flashcard mentality originates in the (false) idea that a language is a group of words or small parts of language put together.

Therefore, after you have mastered a few colors, numbers, food, furniture, and similar stuff, all you have to do in order to master a language is… you bet! String words!

Word 1 + Word 2 + Word 3 + Word 4 = A sentence!

For example:

La + manzana + está + sobre + la + mesa = La manzana está sobre la mesa.


The next step is to change some words by others. For example, “manzana” (apple) for “naranja” (orange), or “sobre” (over) for “debajo de” (under), etc.

I think you get the idea. There are different variations of this approach, by the way.

In reality, languages are like forests. You won’t ‘get’ a forest by aligning trees in rows, and you won’t ‘get’ a language by aligning words in rows either. Better to park the tractor and leave the row cultivation to the farmers!

So that’s tip #2: Realize that the flashcard approach places undue merit on words and small pieces of language. Languages are much more than strings of words, and this is not the best way to learn them – although one would think so, judging by the gigantic flashcard industry.

Tip #3: Don’t Let Yourself Become a Flashcard!

You don’t want to stink like codfish yourself, right?

Unfortunately, you may be doing this unconsciously…

Given flashcards’ omnipresence and the astute marketing behind them, it should come as no surprise that many people end up internalizing the message and start teaching and talking in a flashcard manner – go to YouTube and watch a few videos of people teaching or learning languages and you’ll see what I mean.

At home, you may find yourself:

  • Showing a thing, saying its name in Italian and then translating it in English immediately.
  • Or singing English songs with a Spanish word here or there.
  • Or reading books in English that contain German expressions every once in while.
  • Or playing with your child a game on the iPad that teaches Arabic words while waiting at the pediatrician’s office.

See what I mean?

And if you don’t do it yourself, you may send your child to a program where that’s what they do – memorize lists of words, even if in an animated fashion.

But, Why Are Flashcards So Bad for Your Children’s Language Development?

Because the time you spend using flashcards is time not spent using fluent language, and time is ticking…

Remember that I told you that young children have the very best language learning brain? Then, why spoon-feeding them words? Why not learning fluent language? Why wasting your child’s incredible linguistic potential on flashcards?

This is what happens when you spoon-feed your child words and phrases:

  • Your child doesn’t need to apply higher levels of cognition to figure out how the language works – to ‘get’ the forest.
  • Your child doesn’t need to increase his or her usual range of attention in order to stay alert and understand the meaning.
  • Your child doesn’t need to get over the fear of saying something wrong or sounding funny.
  • Your child doesn’t need to make the effort to understand native speakers.
  • Your child doesn’t need to make the effort to engage other speakers in a conversation (or play with them).
  • Your child doesn’t need to make the effort to understand a new concept explained in the other language.

[By the way, it is challenging tasks like these ones that make of language learning one of the best exercises for the brain and also for social development.]

And then, there is the last drop in the bucket:

Your child will get used to flashcards and will give up easily when trying anything more complex than learning words or small chunks of language (“This is too difficult!”).

The result?

If you are not careful and continue down the flashcard road you will end up turning your little linguistic genius into a linguistic dummy. And let me tell you, it will be very hard to change your child’s negative attitude toward learning in a fluent manner after the damage is done (the same thing happens to adults as well, by the way).

A second result is that your child will not experience the intellectual growth that new research shows in children learning languages. Intellectual growth typically takes place when you challenge yourself and get out of your comfort zone, not when you are spoon-fed knowledge.

As you can see, not all language-learning approaches are created equal. In the case of flashcards, you are simply wasting your money – and your child’s prime time for language learning, which is much worse.

*On a final note to this blog post, I want to clarify that flashcards can be beneficial, but only if used smartly. I will talk more about it in a future blog. *

Until then, please share this blog post with other parents and teachers of young children learning languages.

Together, we can defeat the Flashcard Goliath.

Best wishes,

Ana Lomba

P. S.: As a program owner told me once, “Since parents don’t know the difference, why should I care?” Please realize that the Mighty Flashcard is the ultimate cash-machine in language learning. Cashing! – YOU and your child may be unsuspected victims if you are not aware of this.

P.S.S: Establishing good language-learning strategies and habits is crucial in early childhood. It will be VERY hard to change habits once they are well established. The moment to act is NOW. You will never get those early years back.

P.S.S.S: If you want to get informed about best practices in early language education, join my list on this website and follow me on Twitter and Facebook.


Ana Lomba is changing the way people think about and interact with young children learning languages. Her Parents’ Choice award-winning books, lively songs, games, stories, and mobile applications are quickly becoming favorites with teachers and parents who want to nurture young children’ inborn language abilities. Key to the success of Ana’s break-through method is a focus on the family as the ideal environment for early language learning – even her signature curriculum for language programs is built with parents in mind. Ana has taught toddler, preschool, elementary school, and college-level Spanish courses, and held leadership positions with some of the most influential language organizations in the US, including ACTFL, NNELL and FLENJ. After graduating with a law degree from Spain, her native country, Ana pursued graduate studies at Binghamton University, Princeton University, and NYU.



[1] In the Mediterranean countries, cod is salted to make it last for many months. The taste is very strong.


  1. Vanessa Bueno says

    Dear Ana,

    I really appreciate your blog post on this topic. I, like many teachers have also used flashcards. I am trying to get away from them by using storytelling and story books instead. However, I still have mountains of flashcards and wonder what might be an appropriate use for them? On the blog post you mentioned the following “On a final note to this blog post, I want to clarify that flashcards can be beneficial, but only if used smartly. I will talk more about it in a future blog.”

    I am very interested in finding out how flashcards can be beneficial and used “smartly?” I appreciate in advance your time and attention in responding to this question.

    • Ana Lomba says

      Hi, Vanessa
      Please hold on to your flashcards! I am currently writing a blog on another topic which I think people will find quite interesting (it’s actually a series), but as soon as I can I will get back to the flashcard issue. I haven’t forgotten :)

  2. Jeff says

    I read this post with interest, and as a teacher (not of languages) I can agree that a piecemeal approach, which is what flashcards offer, is not very effective for learning any subject. I am learning French along with my son, who was struggling with French in school. We do use flashcards, but only as a part of a wider programme. I recently bought one of your storybooks, and once he is used to the story, he will be using it to read the story dramatically to his younger brother and sister. Perhaps the three of them could then make a play of the story. I’m a teacher, but not a language teacher; your book and website are giving me good ideas.

    I very curious as to what you consider the proper use of flashcards, and I look forward to your blog post on this topic.

    • Ana Lomba says

      Hi Jeff,
      Thanks for your comment and question. I know I’m delinquent on my promise to write the blog on how to use flashcards, but I will do it as soon as I can.

  3. says

    Thanks for the great article, Ana! Folks interested in more tips for using language in context may wish to read our blog article about the topic:
    We need to ensure that children are being offered “high quality” learning opportunities and interactions at young ages… and it can be so much more fun that simple flashcards!

    • Ana Lomba says

      Thanks Anneke! As you know, I LOVE and highly recommend your books in… what is that, over 50 languages? Your blog post is right on target too :)

  4. Meli Mondragón Smith says

    Immersion is the best method, no doubt about it BUT it only works when enough amount of time is dedicated to the new language. Unfortunately most foreign language classes are 30 to 45 minutes once or twice a week. I don’t see videos about what you’re preaching. Show us some kids in a classroom setting that use your curriculum and are speaking Spanish. Are they really bilingual geniuses???

    • Ana Lomba says

      Meli, I invite you to watch my presentation about teaching toddlers and preschoolers at ACTFL 2011. My co-presenter Karen Nemeth and I talk about the issue of short instructional time. As for the rest of your comment, I am playing with words borrowing from a well-known presentation called “The Bilingual Genius of Babies.” I do not claim, preach, or pretend in any way to be manufacturing bilingual geniuses. My intention with the blog is to create an awareness as well as a dialogue about current language learning practices.

  5. says

    Ana,i’m with you on this one!
    I have met so many parents who say to me…. ‘my child can say xxxx word in Spanish’
    having learnt it from a flashcard and/or certain TV programmes……but their repertoire is limited to those few words and the inability to apply/transfer knowledge to other situations is evident.
    I find that ‘language in context’ is the best way forward and repetition of the same language (for reinforcement) using different methods/ scenarios, truly builds upon the child’s ability to recognise and apply Spanish effectively.
    P.S. I have used your ‘Pre-schooler e-guide’ and added my own creative twists and the children love it!
    Thanks! :)

  6. says

    Excellent blog, Ana! I couldn’t agree more! A child who hears words or phrases on a TV show, such as Dora, may or may not have interest in retaining them, but if his friend in the Preschool comes from Colombia, he will want to understand those words so he can actually use them!! Those words have a real life usefulness the child can understand. Playing with a child is the best way to go. Play is the child’s world, where he is in charge, when the imagination is unleashed, and learning it is truly meaningful. Learning should be fun! Flashcards will not do the trick… flashcards help children to memorize words and associate them with specific picture, what it will make it very difficult for him to put all these words in different real-life situations.

  7. says

    An excellent article, Ana! Thank you for explaining so clearly why simply memorizing vocabulary words (a la flashcard) doesn’t work well. I will be passing this on to families I know.

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