A Science Daily article from March 2007, Kids Learn Words Best By Working Out Meaning, states that the kids observed in the word-learning experiment could acquire new words better by watching, observing, and guessing on their own than by being told directly the names of new objects.
I wonder who will be the first commenter to tell me, "adults can't learn like children." The subjects of the research were toddlers, 36 to 42 months old. If adults can't do what children can, then it would be a pretty sad world. You'd have a hard time convincing me that adults cannot use the same innate strategies.
Take for instance, the situation where you meet a new person. You meet them, they tell you their name, and you can't recall their name less than a minute later. Why? Because there was no connection made. Even when we try to put that name into memory it often is impossible to recall. And when that person comes from another country that uses a language completely different from our own, it is even harder to remember their name.
If the situation were different and you were not told a certain person's name, but those around you kept talking about that person, your curiosity would grow. First you might not even know that the word is a person's name. Once you realize that it is, you start to wonder who it could be. Every time you hear the name, you try to connect it to what you heard before. You make some guesses. You know the name before you even know who the person is! When you finally figure out who it is, the connections are so strong and so familiar.
Now what adult couldn't do that? Hopefully you can see how the situation creates a powerful connection that wouldn't be easy to disconnect. Even though after awhile, I can't recall the names of people that I used to know, I still know exactly who the person is after someone mentions that person's name. I think the same goes for vocabulary acquisition in foreign languages. Of course, if the connections to the words are weak to begin with, then it's possible to not remember the meaning of words that you haven't heard in a long time. Even though you thought you knew those words, you didn't.
If you study a word beforehand, or look it up in the dictionary right away, what you get is a weak connection that requires you to go through your native language which makes the connection even weaker. Since you've got that weak connection already, there's no wondering, no curiosity, and no need to grow. So don't expect that you can make up for taking shortcuts. In fact, a dictionary shortcut is the long way around.
Say for instance, you are doing some reading in your target language and you come across a word you don't know and you can't figure it out from the limited context you are given. If you look the word up, what you are doing is going through a process. Every time you do that process, you build a habit. Even if you do it in your mind by recalling what you found in the dictionary when you looked the word up, you're repeating the process. Perhaps you will get good at that process and it will become automatic, just a split second for you to recall the meaning of the word. Even so, that is still far slower than native speed. That is the reason why most language students will never reach the ability of natives.
Most language learners will find this limitation to be acceptable. As long as they are speaking the language fluently, they will be happy. That is why they will not aim for higher standards. Others believe it is impossible or that trying to attain native fluency is unrealistic or would take too long. I find that these people have pretty strong opinions or a strong reluctance to take an honest look at what I write about. If they want to achieve lower standards or whatever, it is ok with me. I'm not writing to try to convince everyone to change their ways.
This blog is more of a documentation process. Some day, when I've finished learning Chinese, somebody will ask me how I did it. I am keeping a detailed record here for everyone to see. Then when I go on to learn another language, I will use only what I think works best and then I will hopefully be able to have a language learning experience that is not filled with trial and error.