Let's say A and B are words. B is in your target language. A is in your native language. If you look at B and you don't know what it is until you've brought up A, then you still don't know what it is. You'll only know the word when you see B and don't need to think about A. However, if you're using flashcards then you are training your brain to give you an automatic response. When you see B, your brain will respond with A. It takes a number of repetitions or reviews in order to shorten the response time. Most learners feel that a short response time means they really know the word. But again I say, you don't know the word if you need to think about it.
You may think that with enough training you won't need to think about the word. But that thinking is flawed. You've trained yourself to come up with the translation! You're like Pavlov's dogs. It's going to happen without your will. It's going to be hard to break as well.
Besides the trained response that will keep you plodding along slowly, the other bad thing about flashcards is the speed at which you accumulate all of this false knowledge. I call it false knowledge because it's a translation. It would be the same as if I told you about some magnificent place on earth. I could give you all the details and you could paint a pretty picture in your mind. And then you go around telling people that you know this place when you have never even been there. You have never experienced it for yourself. In order for you to tell other people what that place is like, you have to recall the words I used to describe it to you. That is a completely different process than if you had actually been to the place and you could use your own words to describe what you experienced and what you remember about the place.
Now compare that to all of the false knowledge you have about your target language. All the words that you can translate because you have trained yourself to remember something the dictionary gave you. And every time you hear one of those words you have to go through a process to recall the meaning. And not because you want to, but because you are trained to involuntarily respond. Reineke mentioned in a comment to my Feb. 9th post about
results show that the Chinese-English speakers, who'd describe themselves as fluent English speakers who access meaning directly from English without word-by-word translation in Chinese, are in fact accessing Chinese subconsciously.I think that's because, even though they've gotten past the stage of needing to translate, they have trained their brains to do this. Or it could simply be that the researchers misinterpreted what they found and what's really happening is that those speakers just like to use their native language for thinking and analyzing. Just because you may be having a discussion in a foreign language, it doesn't mean you need to think all of your thoughts in that language. Or, perhaps another reason that the researchers are wrong about the findings is that they assume you can only process a foreign language in a different area of your brain than you do your native language.
I know somebody would comment and say that they can first learn the translation and then later get the experience. They believe it is better and quicker to do both. But in that way you are still not replacing your training. First you will be comparing. You will say, how does my experience compare with what I have learned? You will be like the man with two clocks, always looking at both of them to make sure they agree. You may try to make one of them your main clock but you know you've always got that backup clock. Ever heard the statement, "you never get a second chance to make a first impression?" First impressions are strong. They don't disappear easily. So you want to make the right first impression. You want to acquire words the right way, the first time.
Now, while I'm watching Chinese TV dramas, I do have a tendency to think, "oh this word must mean such and such." But what I'm not doing is sitting there drilling it into my brain and reinforcing a translation which would be the truth. What I mean is that when you have looked up the translation you unquestionably accept it as the truth. B = A; case closed. Instead, I keep a very open mind. I'm willing to adjust my understanding of the words in the target language. I want my associations to my native language to be as weak as possible. I want what I see and experience to form the meanings of the words. I just want a feeling for the words.
Language is something that requires not a thought process but a feeling. Just like what I need for a perfect serve in volleyball. I want to serve the ball so that it is as close to the net as possible. If I hit the ball too high, it will go out unless I reduce the power. But if I hit the ball so that it goes just above the net then I can turn up the power because I know that after it goes over the net it will fall into the court. But I can't stand there and be thinking, "ok throw the ball up just the right height and then swing exactly 1.5 seconds after releasing." No, I can't be thinking about the process at all. But once I have the feel for it I can toss the ball and swing to hit it and make it go just over the top of the net. If I were to do any conscious decision making then I would never be able to get it right. Instead, I have to get a feel for the toss and also have a feel for how good that toss was because I can't always toss it exactly the same height. I have to hit the ball without ever looking at the net.
If you have a feeling for the language, you'll be able to go to a level that you aren't able to by thinking about the language. People cannot speak a language fluently while thinking about grammar and words. The more you train yourself to think about the language, the harder it is to break that habit and to get a feeling for the language. Flashcards just reinforce the associations of the target language to English or your native language. You do them and create those connections quickly but you'll have trouble truly getting rid of those associations.
Pierre J. Capretz, author of French in Action says,
"French is not a translation of English. It is not English that has been coded into French. French is French. It is not a code of English. So that you cannot just replace a French word with an English word. It does not really work. When French people say something in French it is not that they really mean something in English but say it in French because they don't know better or to show off or out of perversity. No. When they say something in French, they mean something French. So to understand what a French word means what you have to do is observe the circumstances in which it is used. That's what will tell you what that word means."
Another reason for not using flashcards is simply that you don't need them. When I watch Chinese TV dramas I hear the same words over and over. The words I learn from one drama will be used again in the next drama. I get all of the exposure that I need without any of the labor. I sit back and take it all in. The highest frequency words are the ones I'm going to hear the most often. Plus, I hear them spoken by native speakers with the correct prosody instead of hearing them in my head or from my mouth. If a word is brand new to you, you don't know exactly how it sounds. You don't know which syllable is stressed. It doesn't feel natural to say it. You need to do some mental work to read it, think it, or say it. All of your conscious effort could easily affect your pronunciation. There's really no need to put yourself through learning a bunch of new words. I easily get tons of exposure by watching the drama series. All of my review and reinforcement comes naturally. I eventually learn the meaning of words in the way that Pierre Capretz describes. I observe the circumstances in which the word is used.