Flashcards and Second Language Acquisition

A heated debate surged on Randy's site the past week. I was subsequently banned from the site, because of my strong ideas on flashcards. Randy firmly believed that flashcards are detrimental to language learning. I thought differently. At first my comments were strong, but never personal or attacking. Randy interpreted this an attack. I got frustrated and did post a comment confronting him on his blatant disregard for people's opinions and his way of handling the comments. This got out of hand. However, in my final comment I aimed to explain exactly what I mean in the most sincerest way possible. Usually I'm not a person for a pissing contest, but this post is not about that. This post is because this comment got deleted and I feel I spent way too much effort on it to let it just disappear; I did quite a bit of research on how vocabulary is acquired in Second Language Acquisition. Comments added for context:

Hey Randy,

so where do I start? Oh yeah, I was raised bilingually in Afrikaans and English and I've studied Mandarin for three years at University. I also have a degree in General Linguistics. So, technically yes, I'm not fluent (per my definition) in a foreign language. However, please don't use my lack of fluency in a foreign language as an argument against my opinion on flashcards, 'cause I feel this might be the issue.

Alas, let me begin. I hope you give me my time of day to "[challenge] the assumptions and beliefs of traditional methods" [context note: quote from Randy's post]. Let me break this down. First part of my argument (feels like I'm writing an essay here) is that the translation step is not a detrimental step in language learning. My basis for my argument comes from my Linguistic studies, my opinion on vocabulary in Second Language Acquisition and research I have done by looking up how other polyglots study vocab and how the lexicon works in the brain.

Firstly, my linguistics studies taught me that one's First Language, like I've said earlier, forms the basis for one's second language acquisition. You can look this up. This is a well researched topic among SLA linguists. Therefore, SLA almost always includes the translation step [context note: this means to refer back to first language vocabulary as a basis for you second language vocabulary]. Thus, in my opinion, this would not be a detrimental step, but a part of any healthy language learning method. HOWEVER, I must add that, the translation step among some people is very quick and simple. Other people however, as you pointed out by the Italian learner [context note: the learner had trouble with speaking Italian because after three years he still had trouble speaking because he kept thinking in his first language], gets stuck in the translation step. This is not something that is induced by focus on the translation step, but rather the learner themselves not being able to transgress the translation step, or the interlanguage. This is also sometimes marked by the term fossilization, by where the SLA grammar/knowledge no longer develops to due strong interference from the first language, or lack of progress on L2.

My next point, comes from research I have done by asking around and searching a bit on the web on how other polyglots learn vocabulary and if the translation step is at all bad. Coincidentally it led to a forum/site which I remember signing up to in the beginning of this year. One of the first threads I stumble upon is this one - Is translation bad? - http://bit.ly/bWlPVp - it details discussion among polyglots on the validity of translating into one's first language. I quote Iversen, a speaker of 12 languages: "the function of using a translation is that a wellknown word or expression in your own language carries a whole lot of associations with it. These will make it easier both to remember and to apply the foreign word, and by having a translation by a confirmed source you avoid the risk pointed out by Cainntear, namely that you make wrong guesses about the meaning because the context can be interpreted in several ways. Then you can always add more meanings and caveats later. "

This is very much in tune with my idea of the translation step and the theories set out by linguists in using your first language as resource for your SLA. A word is merely a label for a concept. Using a previously known label for a concept merely aids in transferring the already established concept onto a different label.

This is backed by an article I read on how the lexicon works with SLA - http://bit.ly/b4dFEu - heads up it gets very technical! If you want to skip a bit, read the section 3.1 on "Psycholinguistic research on the relationship between L1 and L2 word forms and meaning". But a brief introduction: A word consists of two parts: lemma and lexeme. Lemma = the concept/meaning/semantic message it conveys and the lexeme is the form, literally how it looks or how your hear it. These parts can all be learned separately, thus a word is not a single "slot" but rather made up of parts. The article basically states, that "in early and later bilinguals, L1 and L2 forms clearly have a significant influence on one another. Lemmas in the form of conceptual features, conflation patterns, and projection of clause structure seems to rely heavily but not exclusively on the L1 early in development for adult SLA, but need not fossilize into L1 transferred patterns."

Once again, this conforms with my idea. Note the "not exclusively on L1" part as some research has been found that conceptualization of L2 concepts is possible.

So how does all this evidence tie in flashcards? Flashcards are there to help you build up your vocabulary and is in no way detrimental to your language acquisition, because of the translation step. The only time the translation step becomes a problem is when it forms a bad habit. Also, flashcards, which I can agree with forms part of passive vocabulary at first and only when one starts using them form part of active vocabulary. Furthermore, I would like to add that in languages like Chinese, where the pronunciation can not be inferred by the script, using flashcards is extremely helpful as it learns you how to pronounce a character, which is completely arbitrary. Only when one first learn the pronunciation can one start working it into context and other uses.

Another point I'd like to raise is that, with Chinese characters, I have found that learning words in context, it has been almost counter-productive, as I later discovered that I don't learn characters on their own, but the way they are formed with other characters. Thus sometimes when presented with a single character (which has meaning) I have no idea how to pronounce it or what it means, but only when I see it in context do I remember it. This happens often in Chinese. I get extremely frustrated when I look at signs and I know a character looks familiar, but after checking it up, realise it was the second character of another word I glanced over everytime. This could have been solved by focusing more on one-to-one word meanings.

However, I'd like to end this extremely post in saying that I do not accuse your method as wrong. This is the basis of language learning. One has to find one's own method. If it works you, that's good, by all means go for it. Furthermore, language learning is not a race, or has a homogeneous goal. Some people are content is merely reading and writing a language, where others love to speak it, but hardly touch the writing etc etc. In conclusion, this post is here to help you challenge your belief that the translation step is a detrimental part to language learning. Flashcards can be improved, but their usefulness cannot be disputed. I hope I provided enough evidence for my convictions and I hope this finds you in good taste. If you'd like to discuss this further, I'm eager to hear replies and I would gladly do more research.

Cheers,
NielDLR

That was the comment. I would like to add a bit more. With Chinese, I have found that time and time again that technically we learn two things when we look at a character. The pronunciation and the meaning. That's one of the big reasons why it takes a bit longer to learn Chinese. We learn two "labels"/lexemes for the same lemma when we learn Chinese characters. This sometimes even manifests in a strange phenomenon, where I often read Chinese on my first parsing merely as a test if I can pronounce all the characters, then I go back over to make sure I understand the sentence perfectly.

Thanks for reading this long post, but I hope you learned something in the process. Did I miss something really obvious? Comment below.

Edit: Just remembered, John from WooChinese proposes a solution to some people who use SRS without context. Experience Repetition