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Note: Please don't assume that because I'm asking about vocabulary, that my only method of language study is vocabulary memorization.

I'm in the process of learning a couple of new languages, and am getting in the habit of using flash cards for vocabulary practice. My primary goal is to be able to converse in the target languages.

My question is whether it might be a better use of my time to use flash a word in my native language (L1), to practice remembering the translation to my second language (L2), or the other way; flash the L2 word and translate to the L1 word?

The latter (L1 -> L2) seems to be the most common method I have seen in my various classes and language learning books. But the former seems more natural, and to more mimic how a child learns his first language (he hears a word, learns that it is associated with a particular object, then over time the word comes to mind when he sees the object). The latter is also far easier, in terms of getting the answer "just right."

It's easy, for instance, for a native English speaker learning Spanish to see the Spanish word "banco" and remember the English "bank." It can be a bit harder to see the English word "bank" and remember if the Spanish word is "banco", "banko" or "banc". But that may also mean that the harder exercise is the more fruitful one.

Have any studies or other relevant work been done that would shed any useful light on this? Does the most effective method vary depending on other circumstances?

  • Clearly my first post on Linguistics.SE. I hope this is on-topic and sufficiently framed for this site. Thanks. – Flimzy May 9 '13 at 3:16
  • Welcome! Perhaps you should define "effective" here: if your goal is speaking the language or writing in it, then I think native to foreign is definitely far more effective. I, for example, can read French and German well enough (as in, a German novel from 1900 is easy enough), and yet my vocabulary totally sucks, so I can't write in German at all. I can't think of the words, they just don't come up. That is because I only know words from German to my own language. If your goal is mainly reading (i.e. passive), however, I'm not sure what is more effective. – Cerberus May 9 '13 at 3:55
  • @Cerberus: Thanks, question updated. My primary goal is to be able to converse. Reading novels and such would be a distant secondary goal. – Flimzy May 9 '13 at 4:00
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    I don't have any citations, just personal experience; but if your goal is to talk with people, I'd suggest exposing yourself to spoken conversations as much as you can. Watch movies without subtitles, travel there if possible, make friends and so on. The reason is, I know people who can read and write fluently but not hold conversations, and vice-versa; and it always seem to be connected to what they do with their languages. If you only read flashcards, you run the risk of not developing the improvisation and quick-thinking needed for live spoken communication. – melissa_boiko May 9 '13 at 13:21
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    IMHO it'd be better to do L2-L2; in other words, explain new L2 words in (basic) L2 words you already know. Naturally, this won't work if you're an L2 beginner. – Alex B. May 11 '13 at 21:06
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What is most effective for you depends on your goal, and partly on your learning type. Basically, if you want to translate from L1 to L2, learn words in this direction. If you want to translate from L2 to L1, then the other way around. If you mostly want to be able to express yourself in the L2, then L1 to L2 is probably better (given these two choices), since learners tend to find this direction harder and have to spend more time memorising pairs for this direction.

You mentioned you are aware of other ways of extending your vocabulary. Rote learning L1-L2 word pairs has fallen a bit out of fashion in language teaching as far as I can tell. Being able to define a word in the L2, or being able to name the target word after reading a definition/description/cloze test is now often preferred than just going for L1-L2 word pair memorisation. Still, you should go with what works best for you depending on your learning style and your aims. Personally, I like learning L1-L2 word pairs since it works for me in many (not all) occasions. But I wouldn't choose it as my preferred method to teach students learning a foreign language.

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    What is a "cloze test"? Is this a spelling mistake or something I've never heard of? – hippietrail Jul 23 '13 at 0:54
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    Whole words or parts of words are missing form a text and have to filled in. – robert Jul 23 '13 at 1:18
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You could consider acquiring vocabulary without translation. That is, neither L1->L2 nor L2->L1.

A very good way to learn a language (all of its components, from vocabulary to grammar, from oral to written language) is to get comprehensible and interesting (or compelling) input.

In the beginning stages, access to comprehensible material is a problem for obvious reasons.

I propose you the following techniques to cope with those limits:

  • Watch cartoons for children. Very young children. The images and movements will explain the language that is spoken. The vocabulary is limited and the grammatical constructions are relatively simple compared to other types of speech and text.

  • If you can read simple texts, begin reading material that is at least 98% comprehensible (i.e. 98% of the words are known). You will begin to learn the rest of the words from context. Comic books and children books are perfect for this stage. Again, if you cannot find suitable reading material at this stage, go back you watching massive amounts of videos, beginning with cartoons and then TV series, movies, etc

Translation is not an optimal way to learn a language because a lot gets lost in translation.

You must attach to each new foreign word new experiences, new concepts and not just the word you think is equivalent in your native language.

For more information please read “MIFS - THE MENTAL IMAGE FLASH” by David Long

Quote from the above article:

This same thing is also true with children as they acquire their native language. Through everyday life, they gain experiences, and thereby build their understanding. This creates in their minds, the mifs necessary to produce their language. The mifs includes such things as grammar, syntax, and vocabulary without the child even being aware that these things exist! Once an adequate amount of mifs are collected, children begin to speak. Practice is not even remotely involved!

The article can be found in the following web page: http://algworld.com/archives.php

  • I am afraid that this does not answer the question of the OP (original poster). – jknappen Apr 21 '16 at 7:47
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    The OP asked "Which makes more more effective vocabulary practice: L1 -> L2 or L2 -> L1?". I tried to make him see that maybe there is not such dichotomy: there are other ways to learn vocabulary other than translation (being L1 -> L2 or L2 -> L1). Anyway, if you could provide more specific criticism, I am willing to provide research papers to back up the thesis that translation in not an efficient way to learn vocabulary or that context is an efficient way to acquire language, or both. – Roland Coeurjoly Apr 21 '16 at 7:53
  • Thanks @RolandCoeurjoly. I completely agree with you... there is no such dichotomy. And my current practice is to use only my L2 on all my flash cards. Thanks for the answer. – Flimzy Apr 21 '16 at 14:44

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