Language Learning: Put Down The Flashcards And Just Read

avatarMille Larsen
4 mins 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!