Thursday, March 05, 2009

don't use flashcards!

You do yourself a great disservice when you use L2-L1 flashcards. Studying with flashcards is only training your brain to respond to the language you are trying to acquire by giving you the language you already know. That is how you are checking your supposed knowledge. And yet you don't know the word in reality. So you are just fooling yourself.

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.


  1. Interesting point of view. I think I understand what you are trying to say.

    I think it is a bit 'extreme' to claim that you don't know a word if you only know it through translation.

    Eventually, one might be able to 'know' a word without going though 'translation in his brain'. But I don't see any problem having the word translated in the brain during the learning process.

  2. I agree for the most part, however, I disagree slightly on the use of flash-cards (SRS Entries). Through personal experience I've found them utterly worthless and a waste of time until a certain threshold of understanding is reached. If the words and structures you are learning are still statistically high in frequency, an SRS will only hinder you. If you are sufficiently versed in the language such that new words and structures are of a statistical infrequency, an SRS will become of some benefit. This benefit is nothing more than artificially increasing exposure and is only of use when one can effortlessly use a L2->L2 dictionary.

    You can think of it as a natural exponential growth function, f(x) = e^(x-offset). Where f(x) is the value of the SRS, x is your current experience in your L2, and offset is the value, that when subtracted from x, will yield zero at the threshold. At any point before threshold of zero, flash-cards(SRS Entries) have little to no value. As soon as the zero threshold is broken, the value begins to climb, quite literally, exponentially fast. The SRS is only of use once its value is of one or greater.

    With all of that said, even when an SRS is of use, it still is no replacement for reading. I'd rather read through hundreds of books to learn a handful of words than fake an understanding by repeating a handful of sentences!

  3. I started dabbling in Japanese a few weeks ago. While looking for learning resources online, I've seen SRS raved about everywhere.
    You seem to be the dissonant voice, but your point of view makes more sense the more I think about it.

    Now I wonder if you're looking at this solely from a perspective of an advanced learner. What about from-scratch learners? Aside from picking the target language's sound patterns, how much help will they find in watching TV when they can't understand a single sentence of what is spoken? What if they're still a long way from reading actual content in the target language?

    Also, would it be a good alternative using audiovisual-L2 flashcards (that is to say, no L1 involved)? That could train one's brain to match a L2 word with an idea rather than a L1 word. From what I've heard this is pretty much what Rosetta Stone does, I just don't know how effective it is.

  4. Edwin, why would someone claim to know a word if they then needed to check what it means?

    Solar Wind, instead of using the SRS for infrequent words, find some input that happens to use those words more frequently. I agree with your last sentence!

    Idio..., I think I have both perspectives. I'm still a beginner in Chinese. Acquiring language naturally is a process like baking or something that requires certain steps to be gone through in order and a certain amount of time to be observed. Rushing through the process or doing the steps out of order will affect the final product.

    As for the alternative flashcards you mention, it would not cause harm if you did it correctly. However, it won't help your listening ability. You still need to put in the hours of listening. Another point is, how many flashcards can you go through in an hour? You'll get much much more exposure just watching TV and listening. Flashcards can get tiring.

  5. Hi, I basically agree with all you said about translation, but what I fail to see is the connection with flashcards. I mean, most people out there using and recommending flashcards work with monolingual stuff, for a start, Antimoon, the site that started this trend. You can also use videos and pictures.

    So, if you wanted to dismiss the SRS concept, I find your post rather pointless.It's like saying that movies are not good for language learning because there are dubbed versions. It seems that you know very little, if anything, about the thing you're criticising.

    I've been using an SRS programme for 2 years and I've read a lot about the subject, but this is the first time I read about L2->L1 cards. That's plain silly, so maybe you're using this tool in the wrong way, if it turns out that you have any experience with this at all.

  6. Dear Mr. Anonymous,

    SRS is not flashcards. I never mentioned SRS in my post, and I specifically stated that I was talking about L2-L1 flashcards. That is the standard flashcard type. Take a look at these examples which are published and sold.

    White Rabbit Press:

    Chinese in a Flash

    These are but two examples of L2-L1 flashcards. Many people will go and make their own. Edwin, who posted the first comment here, is somebody who uses L2-L1.

    Not many beginners work with monolingual stuff. How do you suppose this guy is going to use monolingual flashcards when he's just begun studying Vietnamese? Do you think learners of Chinese and Japanese can use monolingual written materials and study L2-L2 flashcards from the beginning? I think most people have heard of and have probably used L2-L1 flashcards.

    Again, this is not a post about SRS. SRS is a different concept. Solar Wind brought up the SRS reference, although SRS and flashcards are not the same thing and do not serve the same purpose. If you are not familiar with what a flashcard is, please look at the two examples that I linked above. Those are physical flashcards that you can actually, believe it or not, purchase.

    So, please, no more mentioning SRS. You will only confuse the people who do not know the difference between SRS and flashcards.

    I don't know why criticizers like to post anonymously. It feels like a hit and run. They could at least sign their post with a nickname so that each time we can know it's the same person.

  7. What if you're training to become a translator, or better yet, an interpreter? It seems that those who have the highest level of command of their L2 languages are professional interpreters. I'd like an example of a language learner who's done absolutely no interpreting in their life-time, who's not become hopelessly isolated from their L1 culture and language. I think that your argument is not very practical for beginners. I do agree that dictionary translations are not always 100% correct, but they're still useful to learn if only to get the feel of a word.

  8. ender_555, I think translator work is very difficult and something that ought not even be considered until one has already achieved the highest level of fluency they can reach in the language. If you're still learning the language, then translation work is going to be very burdensome.

    I'm not sure I understand the example of the language learner you are looking for. I think you are trying to make a point so please feel free to elaborate.

    You say my argument is not practical for beginners. It is practical even for beginners as long as you can go about it the right way. If, however, your circumstances dictate what you need to know, such as for a person who is living in a country where the language is used and must rely upon using the language right away, then my advice would not be ideal in that situation.

    But don't expect to get the same results from various methods. We can see many different people having studied or acquired a foreign language in different ways and we can see many different outcomes.

    A dictionary is a shortcut, but not one without consequences. An easy shortcut for instant gratification. It's not the same as getting a feel for a word through experiences, which is how we learn our first language.

  9. Sorry for the quick post, I'll elaborate. I think that your view of keeping an open mind about the vocabulary is dead on. For example; if you were describe what a nectarine looks like to a person who's never seen one, you would tell them that it's like a hybrid of a peach and a plum. The inside tastes like a peach, but the outside is smooth like a plum. So meld a peach and a plum together in your mind and you have a nectarine. The problem is that a nectarine is neither a peach nor a plum, and the images do not switch back and forth all the time, a nectarine is a nectarine all the time. The same is true with L1 definitions of L2 words. They're not always an exact translation, and thus you have to train to get a feel for the word. This also applies to "grammar," and other so called rules of translation. This is a great lesson to teach to beginning language learners, so that they do not make unnecessary mistakes and develop bad habits.

    However, I don't think that translation, or use of flashcards is necessarily bad, as long as the student is aware that direct translations are inappropriate for output (speaking/writing). I still think that these tools are useful for recognition, especially for a beginner.

    I'll give an example from Vietnamese: you can study the word "to teach," but it's not appropriate in all situations. If I say (to an older person) "I'll teach you English" (in Vietnamese)(con se~ da.y tieng^' anh cho chu'), then it's considered extremely rude. Instead, you have to use the word "show/guide," (con se~ ch?i cho chu'). So, even though you've learned the word "to teach," it is not translated the same way as in your L1. However, again, I think that it's safe for beginner's to learn vocabulary to heart, as long as they realize that the translations cannot necessarily be immediately utilized in their L2.

    I only brought up the examples of professional interpreters and translators (professional certified translators - not the lousy scanlators), because they're often overlooked in this type of scholarly debate. Their ability to provide accurate, simultaneous interpretations are, in my opinion, the best sign of native-level proficiency in both L1 and L2.

    Examples of language learners who've become isolated from their L1 culture and language, and thus learn the language without reference materials, are political prisoners, abandoned children, etc. I wanted to omit these examples, because they often forget their L1 entirely after a number of years.

    I also think that it's important to realize that language in itself is a translation of the world and human situations. People internalize and translate words in different ways even in their own L1 language. You say potato I say potahto. I think you make some great points in your argument, but I also think it's impossible to rule out translating and use of dictionaries entirely.

  10. Sorry, but this is nonsense. I appreciate the idea behind it, but you're wrong. You *always* learn by translation at first, no matter what method you use. Fluency, and the ability to think in the language you are speaking in, comes not from learning but from usage.

    I speak three languages fluently (now), but even so in certain situations I will find one more natural than the other two. This is not because I don't know the relevant words in the other two. It's mainly based on which language I had used the last time a similar situation arose, or the last time I was speaking about that particular subject.

    I did not learn any of these by flash cards, I learned them the old fashioned way i.e. living in a place where they were spoken. And initially, I was always, *always* translating words. Its only with extended usage that I began to think in the language that I was speaking in.

    tl;dr translation is how we learn languages, no matter what. Internalization comes later, through usage.

    I also find it amazingly arrogant that you are willing to dismiss the research (and make wild speculations) about the Chinese translating subconsciously without so much as reading the relevant paper.

  11. Anonymous, I do not write in an arrogant manner so I don't know why you would feel that way. Look at how my sentences begin:

    I think that's because... Or it could simply be t... Or, perhaps...

    These statements do not have an arrogant attitude. It is your comment that comes off very arrogant and hidden behind an Anonymous name.

    Don't say "without so much as reading the relevant paper." Give me the paper and I will read it. Then I will show you that the researchers do not know anything about language learning. They are probably the same as you. Are you one of the researchers?

    No, we don't always learn by translation first. What an arrogant statement you make. As if nothing can be learned without a translation. Your statements show how little you understand about language acquisition.

  12. hi,
    i hate this kind of generalisations "don't use flashcards"!
    i use them! my main language is french, but thanks to flashcards, i've managed to learn engish (my english is far from being perfect, though), swedish and thai. using flashcards is one of the many ways of learning a language because they help to memorise new words. besides we are all different, what you dislike i may just like it


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