Language Learning: Put Down The Flashcards And Just Read

In recent weeks, I've spent a lot of time reading in German. And I'm not talking about tweets, or short little blog posts, I'm talking about reading. It started with stories printed in the newspapers I picked up while in Berlin, and quickly moved on to fairy tales and short stories, and last night I downloaded some full-length Kindle books in German.

Over that time, I've begun to make an interesting observation — one that didn't quite stand out to me in the past, but which is quite obvious to me now due to differences in the times and orders in which I've taken on learning tasks this time around.

Last month, I was feeling very deficient on vocabulary, and not at all up to where I felt I should be by this point in the year, so I started using some apps and games based on spaced-repetition, in hopes of increasing my vocabulary. Even though I wasn't using flashcards, the tools I was using worked in a very similar way. But I was putting in a lot of work, and feeling good because I was rattling off memorized words correctly, so I must have been learning, right?

Nope. Wrong. These past several weeks, as I've been spending most of my time doing full-on reading, not just as exercises but reading for actual content, I keep running into those words I studied. Over and over, I keep seeing words, not knowing their meaning, looking them up in a dictionary or translation, and then smacking myself in the head because I should know that. But I didn't learn those words in any context, I learned them from something that is indistinguishable from a flashcard. They were just random words floating in the ether, with no other thought nearby except a translation that was equally void of context.

But as I've been reading, I've learned a ton of new vocabulary — not the 5-10 words a day that a casual learner might hope for from their flashcards, but something more like 30, 40, or 50 new words each day, and tons of additional context and uses for other words that I had previously learned. So I'm not just learning new words, but I'm learning new ways to use old words.

In one afternoon, I read half a dozen articles in 3 different newspapers about Microsoft acquiring Nokia, and what that means to those businesses. I could have spent weeks with spaced-repetition trying to memorize all the vocabulary I learned in that one afternoon, and I still wouldn't have had any context for any of it. And moreover, I was able to learn much of it, maybe as much as half, solely from the context, without any translation whatsoever.

The following week, as I began reading some of the original Brothers Grimm fairy tales, I quickly picked up a great deal of very useful vocabulary. And I don't have to waste time studying obscure words. It's easy to tell which vocabulary is most useful, because they're the words that keep coming up over and over! At the beginning of a story, I may have to look up new words several times per page, but I usually fly through the last several pages of the story without the need to look up any translations at all.

This all just underscores the things I've said in the past: put down the flashcards, and go read something!

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  • Very interesting read! I share your point of view. I tried Anki once or twice but something just didn't work. I prefer reading a newspaper article or a book. This is the best way, in my opinion, to learn new vocabulary and what's more important: you learn it in context. Apart from that, it's a real pleasure to read an interesting story.

  • Excellent article. I would like to add that not only does reading supercharge your vocabulary, it also functions as a massive exercise in grammar. After reading two full length novels in my target language, I often find myself understanding grammatical concepts without ever having "studied" them. Additionally, I cannot think of a better way to prep yourself to write than to read. And finally, it's fun!

  • I agree that it's much better to learn words in context rather than just a translation from L1 to L2. That's why my cards always have example sentences if possible. Also I know your stance towards flashcards in general. But my problem with a strictly reading approach is that after a while,once you have gotten the majority of the common vocab in a language, you can learn a word found in something you have read but not see it for another six months.I once had a point where I was doing nothing but reading, I found that many of the words that I looked up were not seen again for such a long time that the next time I saw them I had forgot their meaning completely. Some words are just too rare to be reinforced through just reading.In this case would you not see the use of an SRS as an advantage? I learn Mandarin by the way, not sure if you think this makes a difference.

  • Sorry, but I don't share your view. Raising the difficulty of one thing does not implicitly lower the difficulty of all other things -- and definitely doesn't lower it for just the one thing that's convenient to your topic.Building on your example, I'd be willing to be that it has been months, and probably will be months, until you encounter the word cytoplasm, endocrine, polymorphism, philanthropic, ozone, or even carport, yet you manage to understand all of them and without ever having used a flashcard or SRS. So what makes you think that those things will help you learn them now, in a second language?Honestly, my first instinct is that you're making a contrived argument -- if you aren't likely to encounter a word in regular use, then why put so much effort into learning it anyway? There are better things you could do with your time.Still, if you want to learn a word that you know will be rare under normal circumstances, put yourself into circumstances in which the word is less rare. If you want to learn the word "ozone", you could go to Wikipedia and read all the entries about atmosphere, air pollution, or global climate change. If you want to learn the word "polymorphism", you could read up on object-oriented programming. Suddenly, instead of once every few months, the word will come up five times in an afternoon, and your excuse is gone. :)

  • Hi actually think both approaches are equally good, in the same sense as likely Steve Kaufman would advocate: You do what you enjoy doing, and then the language will flow much more easily. Some people enjoy reading books and getting the language from there, other people (like me for example) enjoy running through flashcards or other similar approaches and memorizing words. I myself used to make a PDF list with a bunch of the languages that I studies, and just ran through the pages memorizing different words in different language. It doesn't supposedly make the progress of learning the language faster, but it makes it more enjoyable for me personally, as I enjoy the process of watching and running through those words. And it gives me a fuzzy feeling on the inside :)

  • I think that runs the risk of conflating two separate activities: 1)language learning, and 2)recreation. Advice like that to which you refer is well-intentioned, but vague enough to be taken in the wrong way.Yes, it's reasonable to say that if you find a method of learning that you enjoy, you will likely learn more quickly due to increased interest and reduced frustration. And if you find a method of memorizing that you enjoy, you will more likely memorize.But language is not a fact to be learned, and it's not a statistic to be memorized. Language is a SKILL, to be ACQUIRED. If you set about doing unproductive things on the justification that you enjoy them, you will have found a pleasant recreation but you will have learned very little of the language you are hoping to acquire.

  • Point taken regarding the vagueness. Naturally the process has to have some sort of effectiveness as well.
    For example, if I'm interested in French movies, but I don't know any French and only use subtitles, this will of course not help me almost at all, because I don't know the basics. However, if I've learned the basics of French and the common vocabulary, this tool is of a lot of help in listening comprehension. I cannot use it as a method all alone by itself, especially when I don't have the basics of the language, as otherwise "learning French" just becomes an excuse for watching French movies.
    This happens quite often with people who are into Japanese anime, from my experience. They do not study Japanese, nor know any basics of the structure of the language, but claim they are learning by watching anime all day. As previously said, this wouldn't help unless they simultaneously or beforehand prepared by learning the grammar and vocabulary of the language, in which case watching media is of great help, as it did help me with my Japanese and I use it for other language as well, where I am in a high enough level to understand spoken content in regular native speed.One other point that I would like to relate to is an experience I had with flashcards (or vocabulary lists): I used to frantically study Mandarin Chinese chengyu (4 character idioms) through a list I made for myself. While some people would abhor and condemn these lists that lack context, I used it nonetheless and when I was talking with people on the street or with friends, even when not using the target language, different situations would remind me of different chengyu and other vocabulary I learned. If I forgot, I would check it quickly and remember it much better then. So I think flashcards/vocabulary lists are a great way to increase vocabulary. Even when there is no context at first, it will appear later, and you'd be like "Oh, yeah, I heard that word before!" or "You know, this reminds me of a word I learned a few days ago... what was it again?... Oh yeah, mangrenmoxiang" or something of that sort.

  • Surely it's both...and more. Just like if you want to speak a language, reading will only help so far. Reading helps writing, but it's also limited. And flashcard-style approaches will only support reading in a limited way. But it's a useful limited way. Yes, you learn vocab out of context with flashcards, but this approach gives you a fuzzy understanding of a large number of words that can be clarified once you read and listen. And it helps you learn more words from context, and means you have to rely less on a dictionary.For me, sitting down and reading a Russian novel or a Russian newspaper would be an agonising chore as I would be endlessly looking up words or trying to guess them in a context I barely understood because of my lack of vocabulary. Not only would it be a very ineffective use of my time, but it would be so painful that I wouldn't do it. As Alexander points out, it needs to be fun for you, whether that be using flashcards or reading Pushkin. Maybe there are people out there beginning to learn a language who would happily sit down and read a novel in that language straight away. I'm not one of them and I suspect few people are.My current goal is to build up my vocab to the 3000 word level using flashcards and then to ditch the flashcards and start reading the novels and newspapers, and to listen to Russian podcasts and watch Russian movies. And to write a journal in Russian. And to spend time in Russia speaking with Russians.Learning a language is a combination of skills and knowledge which require a multi-faceted approach.

  • Hi Randy and Scott,I wanted to weigh in because I noticed that Scott is studying Mandarin. I've noticed that there's a lot more flashcard and SRS use among people who study Chinese and Japanese than other languages. I speak French, German, Russian and Spanish and I'm learning Mandarin now, and I think there's a much more persuasive reason to use flashcards when you're learning Mandarin than for other languages. In fact, I've never used flashcards in other languages, but find them pretty helpful for Mandarin. For example, flashcards really seem like the best way to learn radicals (the building blocks for characters). Many radicals don't exist as a stand-alone character and so you would never encounter them if you're just reading a text, but knowing radicals is a major help when you're learning characters.I tend to agree that flashcards are boring and not always the best way to learn (especially if you're learning on your own, not for a test!) but I think they are quite useful for learning character-based languages. Also, I think reading in Mandarin is MUCH harder than in European languages. I've been studying Mandarin for a while and still have a very, very hard time reading in Mandarin - and it's a big pain to look up words I don't know if whatever I'm reading is printed, not on a computer.In general, reading is awesome... but especially for Mandarin, flashcards can be useful, too!

  • Hi, Charles. It's doubtful that your approach will work. At first you might be pleased with the number of words you can remember, but as the number of words you've studied grows, the difficulty of remembering them or recognizing them in context increases. In short, I've found that flashcards are more useful for short sprints (memorizing short lists of key words and then using them right away--or learning a new alphabet or spelling/pronunciation rules when I first start a new language) rather than long marathons (like preparing to read classic literature or newspapers). There is a language-learning concept called "comprehensible input" in which you find easy reading or materials at your level and work up from there. For example, in Russian I'm starting with reading--just the reading portions--of beginner textbooks like _Russian for Everybody_ edited by Kostomarov and _Basic Russian_ by Fayer. Then there are graded Russian readers available that gloss new words at the bottom of each page, followed by the Easy Readers Russian series. At that point, I expect I might be ready to trudge through children's chapter books or teen novels before I even attempt adult literature or a newspaper. If you really want to use flashcards, use them to review new vocabulary you just encountered in your reading (especially if you had to use a dictionary). Then reread the passage. The Lingq website ($10/month) is set up this way: read first, mark new words, then review them and read something else--working your way up from beginners' short reading passages up to advanced, long passages. Or use flashcards for words you want to use in conversation but keep forgetting.

  • Hi, Emily. When I started learning Mandarin I, too, was using flashcards, but now I've given up on them and am reading a Chinese reading textbook series which introduces only 10 new characters per chapter, followed by a page or two of new vocabulary words which include those characters, followed by tons of reading practice with the new vocabulary, building up from sentences to dialogs to narrative paragraphs in each chapter. This book actually teaches the traditional characters first and the simplified characters later, but this approach will permit a person to read texts written in Taiwan as well as mainland China (and anything written over 60 years ago, such as temple inscriptions).The series is 5 thick books long, starting with _Beginning Chinese Reader, Part 1_ (2 ed.) by John DeFrancis, published by Yale. It's keyed to a grammar text in Pinyin by the same author so you can look up the new grammar used in each chapter. (I only use the grammar text as a reference, personally. Much of the grammar can be intuitively learned through the sample sentences with English translations near the beginning of each chapter in the reader.) Yale Press also has CD's you can buy ($40 for each textbook plus shipping) so you can listen to the reading passages--though I haven't bought them yet so I can't rate or critique them.My own approach is to read each chapter of the reader twice--once silently (or muttering) to understand the meaning of each sentence or paragraph--essentially translating into English and not caring what anything sounds like--and the second time through aloud with the pronunciation. One of the difficulties with learning characters in Japanese or Chinese is that there are 3 aspects to each character: it's appearance, pronunciation, and English translation. (In Japanese, there could be multiple pronunciations for each character, depending on what word it's in.) So I learn each character twice, whether using flashcards or not--once just for the meaning and once just for the pronunciation. Once I'm comfortable reading a few hundred characters, I plan to start reading the Chinese Breeze series and other short-novel style readers. At that point, I might use flashcards a little bit together with my reading--to review new words before I reread the passages, or possibly as a prereading exercise.One of the reasons Japanese and Mandarin learners use flashcards is because most textbooks in those languages do not provide enough contextualized reading practice for each new word or character. But some textbooks and readers are exceptions, and can reduce or even eliminate the need for flashcards.

  • After more thinking, I realize that what I wrote above doesn't apply much to you, Emily, since you've already reached the advanced level in Mandarin and are studying in China now or very soon. But it might still be of use to other readers who are in the beginning or intermediate stages.

  • Thanks for the tips and I take your points. Certainly, I won't be relying solely on flashcards to 'learn Russian' and part of my focus on flashcards is because I've found it impossible to find easy reading material on the Internet (at least material that I'd be remotely interested in reading). I'll try and order some of the materials you mention on the Internet and get them posted to me. When I tried Lingq a year or so ago, the Russian reading material was a bit sparse. Can you recommend any other easy readers? (I've tried to look on but found it difficult to work out how 'easy' the readers are).However, the flashcard-style approach (I'm using Memrise) IS working for me, at least from the perspective of language production. I can now rattle off SMSs in Russian and the odd spoken sentence with halting fluency and occasional recourse to a dictionary. Which is a big advance on where I was 2 months ago before I started using Memrise.As I said, language learners need to deploy a range of strategies.

  • I think you aren't using properly the spaced repetition system. If you put only words, it won't be as efficient as if you put whole phrases.

  • I'm relieved that I misunderstood you to mean you were going to hold off on reading until you'd mastered 3000 words. And I'm glad you've got a system that's working for you.My favorite graded Russian reader (by Otto F. Bond, 5 short books bound together) is out of print. It starts with the expectation that you know a certain 100 words and glosses each new word at the bottom of the first page in which it appears. It also repeats each new word in a few sentences soon after it's introduced. I've seen other graded readers on Amazon but don't know how good they are.However, you might be advanced enough for the Easy Reader series I mentioned. The lowest level uses a vocabulary of 650 words--though they're not exactly the same 650 words in each book. They're published by European Schoolbooks Limited in the UK, but the best selection of them in stock that I can find is currently carried by AbeBooks in the US. I haven't tried the Russian ones yet, but I read a French one by the same publishers. They're really short--which I don't like--but they gloss new words either by drawings or by brief definitions in the target language, so your exposure is entirely in Russian (or in French, in my case). And they introduce famous literature so you'll have a better idea of which authors you want to read in the original when you finally reach that level of proficiency.I forgot to mention that when these kinds of readers aren't available, children's picture books are another option.As for Lingq, you can always copy and paste articles of interest to you into the site to create your own reading lessons (which is called "importing" a lesson). The site will automatically look up each word on Google Translate. If you don't trust a particular translation, you can look it up in another dictionary and type in a more accurate translation, effectively creating your own online flashcards or vocab list to study. You can either keep your imported lessons to yourself or share them with other Russian learners. Thanks to contributions by other Lingq users, the reading library is growing quickly in each language. However, it might still not be enough to take you to fluency all by itself (especially since not everything there will interest you). So you will probably want to supplement it with some paper readers or children's books or whatever.I agree with you, Charles: Flashcards still have their uses. Lately I, too, have been using them to help me speak another language (Japanese).

  • I agree that reading is important and I try to do it as much as I can when I'm learning a language, but I have a hard time figuring out how to learn words in 2 situations:* when you're just starting and you know only a small number of words - this may make reading extremely painful as you have to look up almost every single word
    * when you already know a language on a good level, but you want to learn new vocabulary, which is not commonly usedRegarding the second point. In one of the comments you asked: why bother learning uncommon words? My answer is: because if you want to truly dive into culture in the given language, you want to know as many words as possible. I love watching movies in english (often with english subtitles to make it easier) and reading books (I've recently finished reading all published books from The Song of Ice and Fire series) and I find it very frustrating to have to look up words when I'm reading or watching a movie, because it distracts me. What's more, I was reading RR Martin's books in an extended time period, because it's a lot of reading and I was looking up some of the words *multiple* times, which still didn't let me to remember them, while flashcards helped me with this task. What's more, when I manage to memorise a new word with flashcards it makes reading further more pleasurable - I don't have to look it up, I just continue reading.Could you comment on these cases? What do you think I could have done better to remember the words and not have to look them up in a dictionary? What is the best way to start learning a language when you don't know any words yet?

  • Another related question: you talk about reading as a way to learn words, but you still translate them, is context the only thing that your method from flashcards? If yes, what about this: you read, you put every unknown word on a flashcard with a context (a sentence where you encountered it or another sentence where it's used with the same meaning) and you start reviewing it shortly after reading (and then using SRS)? What are the downsides of such approach according to you?I would also like to ask about what you wrote here: According to this post, one should not translate, but associate a word with it's meaning. In that regard, how do you translate words when you read? I find definitions useful, but a lot of the time I read definition and I can't really grasp it. Then I translate a word to my native language (or even to english) and I have the "aha!" moment when suddenly it makes sense.

  • Your argument is disingenuous. You're putting false words into my mouth. What I actually said is "if you aren't likely to encounter a word in regular use, then why put so much effort into learning it anyway?" You see, when I asked the question, it was a genuine question. But when you re-frame it as "why bother", you imply that I'm not asking a question, but rather dismissing the desire to learn. It's intellectually dishonest.But to be even more direct, I'll just ask you bluntly: Why are you putting so much effort into defending a single "learning tool" which is so demonstrably ineffective? I can't imagine that flashcards are fun, or that they bring some kind of joy or value to a person's life. Why do people recoil so hard and fight so hard when I pull the curtain back and reveal their use to be ineffective?

  • Flashcards are -- at best -- a tool for strengthening SHORT TERM memorization. This would be a fine tool when cramming for a history test, if you wanted to ensure that you don't miss the question about when a particular war started, or which King of England followed which other king.But language is not a group of facts being recited by people to one another. This is the fundamental flaw in the thinking of flashcard defenders -- LANGUAGE IS NOT A FACT, IT IS A SKILL. It is a skill like painting, or playing piano, or baking. You can put all the recipes you want onto all the flashcards you want, but only hours spent in the kitchen will make you a good cook. You can memorize all the musical scales you want, but only hours spent at the piano will make you a good pianist. And I challenge you to ask a pianist or a cook if they think flashcards would be worth their time.Language is a skill. It is learned by use, by practice, and by context. If you want to learn faster, generate more context. Give up on the flashcards.The only reason language learners cling so tightly to their flashcards is because they need to believe in some kind of "method" and some measure of progress. Flashcards give the illusion of method and the illusion of progress. But they will not serve you when you're faced with a conversation.

  • I will answer in one comment to keep the conversation thread more concise.Sorry if rephrasing your words offended you, that was not my intent, I simplified the language too much.> Why are you putting so much effort into defending a single "learning tool" which is so demonstrably ineffective?I can ask the same thing: why do you put so much effort into attacking this learning tool? It's surely effective for me. And to answer your question: I disagree with you and I'm using flashcards to learn some of the words and I hoped you could address some of my points. I honestly don't want to use a tool, which is bad, but I haven't found arguments strong enough to make me think that flashcards are bad. Unfortunately you didn't address any specific concerns, so I guess that didn't work out too well.The other part of the story is that I wrote a tool for personal use, which helps me create flashcards based on things I'm reading: either in a browser or on kindle (just like I mentioned, I read Game of Thrones this way). It works for me, so I was thinking about publishing it in some way. Most probably I won't do it, but not because I think this is a bad tool, I rather don't think that it's a viable thing to do business wise with all the other mostly free apps like Anki or Quizlet.> I can't imagine that flashcards are fun, or that they bring some kind of joy or value to a person's lifeI agree that flashcards are not really what I'd call fun, but they let me get to fun part quicker. For example - checking too many words in the dictionary when I read is not fun either. I usually check out flashcards when I wouldn't do anything else, for example when I'm riding a bus. Thanks to the fact that I can learn words quicker I can use them sooner and the fun part is less frustrating (for example I don't need to check dictionary so often).> Flashcards are -- at best -- a tool for strengthening SHORT TERM memorization.It would be true if you were using flashcards as an only tool to learn a language. Without using the words you learned ever again in practice.> And I challenge you to ask a pianist or a cook if they think flashcards would be worth their time.I don't get the comparison to learning to play piano or learning how to cook. It would be more relevant if playing piano or cooking involved knowing at least several hundreds of "facts".> The only reason language learners cling so tightly to their flashcards is because they need to believe in some kind of "method" and some measure of progress.I have other reasons as well, but well, what do I know?> But they will not serve you when you're faced with a conversation.That's interesting. I used words learned with flashcards a lot. In fact, when I was going to Croatia a few years ago I didn't have too much time to learn a language, so I prepared flashcards with words gathered from texts from a study book. Then I was studying it a few days before and while hitchhiking there. I was able to converse in a language and I still remember a lot of the words from that time (I didn't get back to Croatian after the trip).It's really flattering - I guess it makes me some kind of superhuman who is immune to the shortcomings SRS.

  • Hi, I just stopped by to read you article, and I think it is so true what you're talking about. Happened the same to me, when I started learning Portuguese, of course I didn't understand a lot but I started to buy books and novel I d in Portuguese and with the help of a dictionary I commenced to comprehend and talk. so I totally agree with you. By the way great article! thanks for sharing :)

  • I studied Spanish at university and the literature elements of the course were really what helped the most with both vocabulary and general fluency. Thanks for your article.

  • I am very interested in this. I have always wanted to learn Portuguese.

  • Without using SRS or some other memory aid, how would a Japanese learner learn kanji?

  • I learned most of kanji just by reading lots of visual novels in Japanese. Also, I was more focused on learning words, and not separate kanji. Kanji is just a tool.

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