This is a bit of a follow-on from what I previously wrote on Mastering Foreign Vocabulary.
Did you know that the most common and erroneous way that a lot of us try to learn foreign language vocabulary, phrases and expressions is by repetition of the foreign language word/s and the translation in our native language?
If somebody reads a vocabulary list in French and wants to learn the word livre for example, they’ll say or think “book…. livre…. book….” and hope it sticks.
Likewise, if you were trying to learn “where is the hotel?” in Turkish, you’d probably try to remember it by repeating “where is the hotel? otel nerede?” and then hope that between that and actually using the expression you remember how to say it.
This is how most people generally use flashcards – by flipping back and forth between words.
I’ve done this so many times before in a lot of languages and it’s always been a very inefficient method and waste of time.
Why this common approach is a mistake
First of all, it’s highly unlikely to anchor in your mind.
You’ll forget it quickly and need to go over it again…. and again…. and again.
Ultimately, it’ll take a long time depending on the extent of your immediate use of the word for it to stick permanently.
The second and biggest problem is that you end up associating the words with other words.
When you hear or read livre spoken by a French speaker, you’re going to naturally want to translate it to book in your mind. You’ll hear livre and picture the English word book, instead of an actual book.
Now this might help you in some ways but in a conversation with a native speaker it’s too slow and unnatural. I touched on this before.
It’s better to associate words and expressions with ‘meaning’ or ‘images’ rather than lexical equivalents
Any lexicographer (person who makes dictionaries) or semanticist (person who studies meaning in language) will tell you how difficult or even impossible it is to fully articulate the meaning of many terms in a definition.
This is why dictionary definitions are so contentious.
A word as simple as book is easy enough to directly translate but most things aren’t.
For example, in the Arrernte Aboriginal language of Central Australia, the choice of the prefix’ petye- (come) or lhe- (go) depend on whether or not the person or object traveling are moving in a direction which passes by the speaker.
It’s difficult to explain but this illustrates why memorizing words and expressions by anchoring them with words in your own language is problematic (come and go aren’t adequate), and why it’s best to associate them with meanings and images.
If you were learning the Arrernte language, you’d acquire petye- and lhe- a lot faster and more accurately by seeing a picture or a demonstration illustrating the difference then by trying to connect them with come and go.
This is my main concern with text-only flashcards and SRS methods (i.e. LingQ and Anki). They’re great if you want to improve your translation skills but as conversation tools they’re not very effective.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying they’re bad (I often use Flashcardlet on my iPhone), but for memorizing vocabulary and language chunks for real conversation there are better ways to do it.
Using meaning and images to learn more effectively
One of the first languages I ever studied was Koine Greek back when I was in college.
It took me a while to develop my own learning methods and systems but I eventually aced the subject and went on to take a few more years of Greek exegesis.
Now, granted this is a dead language and not used in conversation anymore (it’s quite different to Modern Greek) but the reason why I did so well and found memorization so much easier than most people was that I treated it like a conversation and learned it by associating the text with actual images and meanings, rather than English translations.
For example, I’d speak the word δενδρον to myself while looking at a tree outside the window rather than its English equivalent in the vocabulary list. For θανατος (death), I’d say the word or a sentence using it while conjuring up images in my mind of death and suffering.
By doing this, I attached meaning and feeling to the words rather than attaching other words to it.
Another bit of advice I can give you is to use all of your senses.
Don’t just rely on sound and sight to learn language – touch the objects you’re trying to learn. If it’s food, smell it or taste it. Whenever I hear the Arabic word for orange (برتقال) I always remember the smell of a particular marketplace in Egypt where I learned the word.
If it’s more difficult to articulate or an emotion that you can’t physically touch, try to conjure up images in your mind of a time when you felt like that.
Think of something that made you angry, confused, happy, upset and anchor that to the new language you’re trying to learn.
As you probably know, I started teaching myself Irish a few weeks ago.
[UPDATE: I taught myself fluent Irish in 9 months, travelled to the Gaeltacht and it was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had!]
You know how I taught myself numbers and how to tell the time? By counting my repetitions at the gym and using the clock on the wall to time my cardio – in Irish.
I anchored that language to a real, sensory activity that I’ll never forget.