Thursday, October 20, 2011

Flashcards a bad thing?

Flashcards a bad thing? Perhaps. For some people they most certainly are.

Why does it work for me?

I happen to believe everybody translates, to begin with. You can try to guess as much as you want to, you can stare at a book page or a newspaper as much as you'd like, but if you haven't learn one word of this language, it won't open to you.

Take kids, for example. I remember showing all kinds of things to babies, going "this is a ball... ball... ball... where's the ball... look at the ball, look, a ball, here's your ball!" Just like with the dog.
I am teaching the child - or the animal - to translate the picture of a ball, the sensitory experience of a ball into a word 'ball'. 

Take the English words you don't know, like "discerpible". You go to a lexicon to find out what it means. You translate it. Sure, people can use it in all kinds of sentences, tell you about all the things that are discerpible, things they have discerped or seen discerped, but if you haven't translated it, you won't be any wiser. People can spell it to you, and it doesn't change anything. (It means "something that can be torn to pieces").

You have to translate it, explain the meaning of the word in terms you know, to understand the word. Whether you believe it or not, you have done this with EVERY WORD YOU KNOW at some point of your life.

I moved to Sweden after 6 years of studies in school. I had probably a good level C Swedish. I could read a book, slowly and bothersomely (if that's a word). I could do the shopping, use the public transportation and even have small conversations with people. Then I went to Tolkien society. People were talking so dang fast, I couldn't even separate the words! I could understand if it was a question or not, I could understand if the subject of the conversation was important, or how the speakers felt about it. But... I was desperately hanging on the few words I had learned by heart - not with the flashcard method, that doesn't exist in Finland, but by having a list of words in Finnish and Swedish, side by side, and covering one column with a piece of paper so that I could check if I knew it or not. In all practical purposes flashcards, but not as convenient and functional.

When you are reading a foreign text, you need to translate the words that are foreign to you.Whether you do it by looking up them one and one in a dictionary, or by looking at a translation and trying to figure out what part of the sentence means what, it doesn't matter. You have to translate the words to be able to have any idea of what the sentence means - and you translate the sentence, simply to understand it.

(Guess what, that's exactly what the flashcard hater does too!
"In the earlier chapters I had to look up a lot of words as I read..."
Look up what? Where? How? I would guess... a dictionary, perhaps? What is a dictionary anything but a list of words, a glorified pile of flashcards bound together into a book? Nothing.
"when I hear a new expression, I write it down and learn it"
Oh... write it down and learn it. Like "hauki on kala"? The "translation" of the sentence is not even in your backhead? Sure... You write down "здравствуйте" on a piece of paper, you go around thinking about it, you repeat it to yourself and learn it. During this whole time the phrase "welcome" doesn't enter your mind, neither does the idea "something to say when guests arrive to your home"... of course not, that would be translating, and you don't do that. So - now you have a word. What do you do with it? Nothing.
What do you say when someone says you здравствуйте? Repeat it back? Look at others and do what they do?
Have you learned any Russian? Of course not. 

I suppose the problem here is the misunderstanding of the concept of studying and translate:

translating doesn't mean "translating rigidly word by word". Translating is interpreting, explaining, changing something into something else I can understand. When a language is foreign to me, I MUST translate it to a language I understand to understand what is being said. There just are not other possibilities. I can't stare at a sentence and hope I will understand if I look at it long enough.
I love Zucchero's and Paul's "Senza una donna", and I can listen to it over and over again, but Zucchero's words don't mean a thing to me. I just have to have something to hang it on. I thought it was "sense of madonna". What? It was only recently I realized it was "senza una donna" - 'sans' - without. I learned 'sans' with flashcards, BTW.I snap up "mare", that's sea, ocean. That's about it. But that's because I know the word "mare". I could have learned it with flashcards.

Nõiaks nimetavad paljud rahvad isikut, keda usutakse suutvat oma teadmiste, oskuste ning eriliste võimete või sidemete abil suutvat mõjutada maailma ja seda kontrollivaid jõude.

Er... as a witch name a lot of people people, whom are believed able own knowledge? huh? skills and different forces or bindings helping... what? ... get angry? ('suuttua' in Finnish) "poised in the control of forces" That doesn't mean anything.... okay "poised in" influence the world and thus kontroll the forces. Oh... now I see it was used earlier in the same sentence, and there it was "to be able to". Poise?

Let's read it again, with the words, and see if there's any more sense to it. If we can translate it better...
oma teadmiste - omaa tietämistä, of course. "their own knowing".
oskuste - skills... I assume it's some sort of  'osaamista' - knowing, being able to
'ning' (and) is probably "niin" - thus, some times used as "and". "omaa tietämistä, osaamista niin erilaisten voimeitten kuin sitomien avul"
Estonian verb suutma - frankly, I can't think of the corresponding Finnish verb... oh yes, "saatan". Of course.
"avul saattavat [influence]maailmaa ja sitä kontrolloivat voimat"
mõjutada is difficult... can't think of anything in Finnish to help me with that... mõju is impact, effect, influence. So - in i flashcard pile, it's just to learn the word.

The thing is that if you actually go through what happens in your head when you try to understand (translate) a line in a book, magazine or newspaper, you'll realize that you actually ARE translating, word by word, until you have accumulated a vocabulary big enough (learned enough words by heart) to be able to guess and figure out what the other words in the sentence mean by association. Anyone saying anything different is probably really stupid, or work in some magical, mysterious, miraculous, otherworldly ways. Or is a robot who gets the language uploaded, or something.

ANY activity you do to learn something is studying. It's not limited to classic, traditional, conventional forms of school studies, where you sit by the table with a text book, grammar and dictionary, and repeat sentences and words like a parrot.
Listening-Reading Method is studying languages.
Benny's Dive In - Stop Speaking English method is studying languages.
Yearlyglot's "learning, not studying" method is, I'm sorry to say, studying languages.


Of course, knowing thousands of words doesn't mean you know the language. Language is a lovely, but complex combination of words, grammar and history.  
There really are only two ways of learning a language, and those are listening and reading. 
There really are only two ways of becoming good at using the language, and those are speaking and writing. 
HOW you get to using these methods is irrelevant.
(P.S. Yearlyglot suggests 8 ways of using the language, and they are all good. Go for it!)

I suppose flashcards work for me, because I'm not stupid.

"By learning in this way, when someone says “l’ho visto a casa”, my brain would have to do the mental steps of relating visto to vedere, and then translation vedere to see, and then back up through the sentence with that value and start again on the next word. And before the first sentence is over, my mind has already failed to translate what it’s heard and the speaker is already on the next thought."

 What? I learned all the strong verbs in English and Swedish this way. Oh, yes, I have The Lists in my head. I don't go through it every time I hear a word from the list. It doesn't work that way.
It's like the multiplication tables I also learned by heart. I don't need to go through the whole list to get to one line - 7 times 8 is 56, and it takes shorter time to get there than it takes to write it.
The same way with all the words I've learned by heart with flashcards. (Even though I have to point out again, that there were no flashcards when I grew up, only lists, and I think flashcards are better.) Your brain is incredibly much faster than any computer. If you learned the conjugation of verbs in flashcard method, your brain would NOT go near the verb vedere, but straight to 'ho visto' - 'I saw'. If it doesn't... back to studying the flashcards until it does. Just like with the multiplication tables. I know a lot of people still harping with "7+7+7+7+7+7+7+7 is... er... 14 and... 21... and... er..." That's what your brain does when you have NOT learned something by heart, when the thought, "translation", understanding isn't automatic, and automation is what we are after when we use flashcards.
But - it really doesn't matter. I don't think you MUST do it one way or another. Do it the way that suits you. Lists and flashcards work for me.

I don't think a word is a monolith. Most words have several meanings and possibilities inbedded - even such simple and clear words like "cat". Also, I don't think about all the synonymes of a word when I use one or see one in my mothertongue either, why would I do that when it's a question of an other language? And what are the translations anything but synonymes?
I don't think language is a monolith either, but a living organism.
The flashcards are crutches, support wheels of a bike. As long as I can't walk or bike, I need them.
When I first have a page of foreign text in front of me, I have to check every word in a dictionary, to even have a chance of understanding what it says.
If I write these words on flashcards and learn them by heart, I'll transfer the dictionary into my head, and check the words in the inner dictionary, until I do it so quickly and automatically, that I'm not even aware of that that's what I'm doing. Later I'll recognize the words I know by heart and can guess the meaning of the new sentences, and learn more words and understand more.

There ARE "untranslatable" words. Like "lagom" - "suitably, so that there's enough for everyone", or "sisu" - "will, determination, insistence" - of course the IDEA can be translated, and the meaning mediated. There is no idea that is limited to only one group of people speaking a certain language. Nevertheless, the word cannot be translated on word-by-word basis. Nevertheless, "the world of flashcards" is not monolithic either. There is room for the "untranslatable" words. There is room for words, expressions and idioms you can't make a flashcard for. Flashcards are a tool, an aid, they don't exist for their own sake. 

Now, you don't NEED to create the vocabulary - your inner dictionary - by using flashcards, you really can allow the words to form the dictionary in your head by themselves. If you find it tedious, difficult, boring or what ever to study flashcards, of course you shouldn't be using them. But bluntly condemning an idea as "bad" and bad for everyone, because it doesn't work FOR YOU is stupid. And not only stupid, it's arrogant, ignorant, offensive, closed-minded, ego-centric... miserly, even. I understand he is trying to help others not to do the same mistakes he did, but that you do by sharing your own experiences with flashcards, by telling why they don't work for you, why you don't like them, why you think it's a bad idea, and let the others make their own decisions, experiment for themselves if there really were a better way of learning a language than the one they are using right now. You don't need to tell people to do what you think is right. Human learn better by example than by being told to do something.


There is one more reason to me to like flashcards. I enjoy immensely the feeling of being rich when I look at the pile of words in my vocabulary... Being able to read a book is just a skill, it's not a measure. I want to be able to measure my skills, knowledge... when it comes to languages, it's not an easy thing to do.
We talk about fluency, but what is fluency?
Some people manage to express everything they need in a language they are not very good at.
Some people are wizards in figuring out the meaning of what is being said, without really understanding the words, while others understand the words well, but don't get the meaning.
Some people can read, but not write, and wouldn't understand spoken language.
Some understand well, but can't say much.
Some people can speak but not write.
We each should have our own appreciation of what is fluency, when can I say I know the language, but being so subjective, it's also a measurement that can be used on ourselves alone. I have no right, nor reason, to tell whether YOU know a language you say you do. Barry Farber says he speaks one language and studies 26.

I don't look at the pile of flashcards and believe "I'm fluent in Estonian, I know 10.000 words!". That would be really stupid. I look at the pile and think I have 10.000 words' active vocabulary in Estonian, and that makes me feel pleased, satisfied, rich and proud. With other words, really good.

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