Monday, August 12, 2013

Why I use flashcards (and you should too): Translation is not the end result of flashcard use

This week I'll take aim directly at one of Randy's main criticisms of flashcards: that flashcard users will end up being trapped in some abyss of always needing to translate from their native language to their target language.

This is just plainly false. Flashcards that use your native language to explain the meaning of a word in the target language are merely using an associative mnemonic device (namely, a meaning of the target language word in your native language) to connect the word in the target language to its actual meaning. At some point in your learning, you will rely on that mnemonic device to recall the word—that is the point of the mnemonic device, after all—but that will be temporary; as with any good mnemonic device, you'll eventually stop needing the mnemonic device to recall what you want to recall. In other words, translation should never be the end result of flashcard use.

Let's walk through this step by step with an example borrowed from Randy.

Randy describes learning as follows:
We learn by creating pathways. The first time you do a thing, your brain connects a pathway, and each time you repeat that thing, the pathway is strengthened.
Nothing to disagree with here, but Randy goes on to state that when you connect a target language word with a native-language word via flashcards, you make yourself dependent on that connection to get yourself to the ultimate goal: connecting the target language word with the concept represented by that word.

Randy then describes a linear process for when you want to use a word in the target language, e.g., using the German das Auto ("the car") as an example:


However, the issue with his explanation of this is that the connections that your brain builds are not simply linear. When you're learning something, your brain doesn't just build simple point-A-to-point-B pathways; it builds networks of pathways. When A connects B and B connects to C, and you repeatedly go from A to C, your brain not going to be blind to the connection between A and C. Your brain is lazy; it's going to find the easiest way to make this connection, which obviously is going directly from A to C without B at all.

So rather than a straight line, the das Auto example should look like this:


The goal here is to connect das Auto with the concept of a car. However, when you first see das Auto, it may not be easy to do so directly. So you use "the car" as a tool to help you build the connection between das Auto and the concept. The initial connection between das Auto and the concept might be weak, but, as Randy says:
The first time you do a thing, your brain connects a pathway, and each time you repeat that thing, the pathway is strengthened.
So each time you connect das Auto to the concept via "the car", the pathway between das Auto and the concept is strengthened. This will continue until the pathway is so strong that you don't need "the car" at all. In other words, the "translation" step will disappear altogether, and whatever slowness was created by relying on the native-language word will disappear with it.



As the example above demonstrates, when you learn a new word in your target language, your ultimate goal is to be able to understand that in what Arkady Zilberman calls a "code language", i.e., a "language of images and associations". Randy describes the concept similarly:
[I]t is essential that you connect a thought with a [target language] word — the same thing you do now in [your native language].
So if we again call a given concept in this code language "C" and the word expressing that concept in your target language "A", the connection you want to have automatically available in your head is:
A = C
Simple enough. And to get A = C into your head, what better way than using a mnemonic device? After all:
Academic study of the use of mnemonics has shown their effectiveness. In one such experiment, subjects of different ages who applied mnemonic techniques to learn novel vocabulary outperformed control groups that applied contextual learning and free-learning styles.
Boom. Mnemonics learning > contextual learning.

In fact, Randy himself is a fan of mnemonic devices:
[M]nemonic (μνημονικό) devices do help the learner. They’ve definitely helped me!
So what exactly is a mnemonic device? To paraphrase Wikipedia, mnemonic devices are learning techniques that make memorization an easier task by employing information already stored in long-term memory. Their use is based on the observation that the human mind more easily remembers relatable information as compared to more abstract forms of information—abstract like the seemingly arbitrary combinations of sounds that so often make up the words of your target language.

So what to use as a mnemonic? Well, what if you already know B, and you know that B = C? If you could also associate A with B, you'd have the connection made:
A = B = C
B, of course, would be the word in your native language, as is the typical set-up on flashcards (although, as noted before, it doesn't need to be in your native language). In other words, the "translation" step is really nothing more than the use of a mnemonic device.

In the das Auto example, you want to connect the abstract das Auto to the concept of a car. You've got "the car" in English—relatable information that's already in your long-term memory—that connects to the concept. So a flashcard with das Auto on one side and "the car" on the other is clearly a mnemonic device, and a set of such flashcards would simply be a systematic application of mnemonic devices to connect the target language to the native language.

And as with all mnemonics, the more you make the connection of A = B = C, the less you'll need B, and B will eventually fade from the picture completely, leaving you with just the original connection you were looking for: A = C. To put this in the terms used by Arkady, the overall end result is that you stop going through B—a "translation" step that traverses your native language speech center—and start building a foreign-language speech center with all those A's you'll have connected with all those C's. Or, to recycle my crappy animated gif:


Or, to reiterate what I noted before:
[Y]our use of your native language to remember a word in your target language is nothing more than a mnemonic device to remember the actual meaning of that word in the code language. And just like with any other mnemonic, once the link you're trying to establish has been sufficiently established, you won't need the mnemonic device any longer and it will gradually fade away into oblivion.
So if you're using flashcards correctly and notice that you needed to rely on your flashcard mnemonic (e.g., a translation in your native tongue) to recall a word, you haven't driven your language-learning truck into a translation ditch; you've merely run into a word that isn't far enough along in the learning process for you to get by without the mnemonic. (In fact, you'll encounter the same issue whenever you use a bilingual dictionary to determine the meaning of a word in the target language, regardless of whether or not you're using flashcards.) So don't fret; keep at it with your flashcards and that too shall pass, and you'll be linking flashcard words with code language before you know it.

This post is part of a series on using flashcards written in response to Why I don't use flashcards (and you shouldn't either) and other related posts on Yearlyglot.com.
  1. How to use flashcards the right way
  2. When to use flashcards
  3. How much to use flashcards
  4. Learn more with flashcards than without
  5. Learn faster with flashcards than without
  6. Translation is not the end result of flashcard use
  7. How to deal with the lack of one-to-one translations

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