Monday, August 19, 2013

Why I use flashcards (and you should too): Dealing with the lack of one-to-one translations

Randy explains his second major issue with flashcards as follows:
And the other bad side-effect of learning from flashcards is that they encourage you to believe in one-to-one translation. They make you narrow-minded and unaware of the language you think you're learning.

When you learn a foreign word and an English word together, and burn them together in your mind as a pair, you create the illusion of a world where every language is exactly the same, just with different words. But that world doesn't actually exist.
Assuming that there's always a one-to-one translation between any two languages is simply a patently false assumption. Now that you've been disabused of that notion, you no longer need to worry about flashcards "encouraging you to believe in one-to-one translation".

Now that that's out of the way, we can turn to the more interesting question: how do you deal with words that have multiple meanings in one language or the other? This is a real issue when using flashcards—and when learning languages generally—but hardly one that can't be overcome.

All you need to do is find some way to differentiate the slide of the flashcard that would become the same, and there are numerous ways to do that.

Let's look at some examples of the three possible scenarios when trying to determine how to say a given word in your target language.

Scenario Target language Native language Flashcard(s)
1 Target language word corresponds to native-language word dieci ten dieci ten
2 Target language word corresponds to multiple native-language words bae stomach bae (body part) stomach
boat bae (means of transportation) boat
3 Native-language word corresponds to multiple target language words 아주 aju very 아주 aju very (more commonly spoken version)
매우 maeu 매우 maeu very (more commonly written version)
carro car carro car (Lat. Am.)
coche coche car (Spain)
する suru to do する suru to do
なさる nasaru なさる nasaru to do (respectful level of politeness)
致す itasu 致す itasu to do (humble level of politeness)

Scenario 1 is the simplest situation: the word in your target language corresponds exactly to a single word in your native language. To get a useful flashcard, all you need to do is put the word on one side and the translation on the other. Contrary to what Randy argues, this does happen often enough that a good number of your flashcards will be just this simple. (But, of course, don't let that encourage you to believe in one-to-one translations.)

Scenarios 2 and 3 are where you'll need to put a little more effort into getting a useful flashcard.
  • Add a minimal amount of context to the target language side of the flashcard. In the normal course of exposure, words will always come with context. This is how native speakers are able to distinguish words with multiple meanings. So when there's a target language word that has multiple meanings, it can be helpful to include a little bit of context, although I like to keep this to a minimum so I'm as close as possible to recalling the meaning of the word from the word alone. Take for example 배 bae, which means both "boat" and "stomach" in Korean. The context I've added to the target language side of these cards is that one is a "body part" and the other is a "means of transportation". These will give me clues to the meaning, but as they are similar to the clues I'd get in actual exposure, it's a reasonable trade off to avoid the possible confusion.

  • Include multiple definitions on the native-language side of the flashcard. Sometimes you'll come across a word with closely related meanings, a number of which could make sense in the context in which you encountered the word. In these cases, I'll throw all such definitions into the native-language side of the card. Generally, I'll use only one part of speech (noun, verb, adjective, etc.) per card and at most two or three definitions; I've found that with more than two or three definitions, you're typically better of adding some context to the target language side to make multiple cards, as explained above.

  • Use a target language definition on the native-language side of the card. When there's a long string of equivalent words in your native language, you'll nevertheless often find that there's a single, concise definition available in your target language. If your language is up to the point where you can do target language definitions, by all means do so.

  • Figure out how the words are used differently in the target language and note that on the native-language side of the flashcard. Googling can often lead you to resolutions of this issue, but if they don't help then put up a question to native speakers on Lang-8 or italki. For instance, I recently encountered 아주 aju and 매우 maeu in Korean, both of which mean "very". I ultimately needed to put a question up on italki to finally be able to differentiate their usage, and I modified the other side of the flashcard as appropriate. Here are two similar examples on Lang-8 in Japanese. The basic difference between all three of these examples was that one was more informal/spoken, and the other was more formal/written, and that is a very common difference between words that otherwise seem the same.

    Another common differentiator is the geographic region where words may be used. For example, "car" in English translates into carro and coche in Spanish. Both mean exactly the same thing, but carro tends to be used in Latin America while coche tends to be used in Spain (this one's confirmable with a quick Google search). Were I to make a flashcard of that, I'd use that regional difference to differentiate the flashcards.

    Level of formality is yet another common example. Before factoring in conjugations, Japanese has three basic ways to say "to do", depending on the level of formality. The way to deal with this is to simply add the level of formality on the reverse side.

    And there will be many other kinds of ways to differentiate the usage of words. Some words with the same meaning will be used more in one context than another.  Some will be differentiatable by negative or positive connotations. Some will be used more my one gender than the other. And on and on.

  • Deal with additional meanings of words as you come across them. One of Randy's comments on this issue is as follows:
    A sentence on a card is just one possible use of a word... some words have several dozen uses! I know you're not doing 40 cards for every word.
    A single word's multiple uses will have varying frequencies of use. Generally, once you're down past the first few uses of a word in a dictionary, you're typically into some pretty obscure stuff. For this reason, Randy's certainly right that you shouldn't be trying to grasp every possible use of a word.

    However, that's not an indictment of flashcards. Here's how I prevent this issue from becoming a problem. Let's say I find a word I don't know and make a flashcard of it with meaning A. Later on, I come across this word again. If things make sense based on meaning A, great. If not, I'll head back to the dictionary. Let's say I've now found the word used under a second meaning: meaning B. Well, I'll make a new card for meaning B. And I'll keep doing it as I come across the various meanings of the words. This might mean I'll end up with 40 cards for that particular word, but statistically speaking it'd be pretty unlikely that I'd encounter all those various meanings of any given word.

I'm sure you can probably come up with other ways that words in one language won't match exactly with words in another or that otherwise cause ambiguity in flashcards, but I'll contend that there's pretty much always going to be a way to resolve such ambiguities. In fact, just the act of trying to resolve them will be building more connections to those words in your brain, making them even easier to learn.

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
  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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