How I learn new vocabulary with parallel texts

In response to my last post, someone asked how I’m currently learning more vocabulary, and my response started to grow past normal comment size, so I figured I’d make it a full post.

What I do is I try to have as many moments of recognition as I can. These are moments where some new word in the foreign language somehow becomes understandable or comprehensible. For instance, I see a Dutch word in my parallel text that I don’t know, so I look across at the matching English sentence and figure out what the mystery word means. This gives me a moment where I recognize that new word. By continually adding new learning moments such as this, my vocabulary increases.

This is part of the natural absorption process as you acquire a language. Each small moment of comprehension adds to your neural networks that are being unconsciously constructed. This is training material for your brain. Instead of trying to explicitly memorize a table or a list that needs to be consciously recalled (which is a slow access method), you’re instead building a net that gives you very fast subconscious recognition. Small moments of comprehensible input are the building blocks for these nets.

If I do this enough each day through my reading time, then I’ll get some repetitions for each of the words, which means I don’t have to use SRS. I usually try and purposely go over the same section of a book later in the day, to specifically repeat any words I saw before. If I were learning the language less intensely, I’d be adding sentences to Anki instead, so that I could get the right repetitions at the right time in order to solidify it, otherwise I might not see it again in time naturally. However, with 5 – 10 hours of exposure per day, I don’t think this is necessary.

Anki is actually quite a good supplement. Vocabulary is one of the few language features where it dramatically helps to “artificially” cram your head full of new items. More grammar rules don’t really help you speak at a normal pace (because a “rule” is something that must be explicitly recalled, and is therefore slow), but more vocabulary recognition actually does help you, because repeated exposure to new words in the context of a sentence that you’ve already seen somewhere, means that it is an exposure that is building subconscious recognition instead of just explicit slow-recall.

To the commenter, Dustin, I suggest that you continue with Anki, but delete any cards that cause you too many problems. Don’t get trapped in the attitude that every single word must be added. There’s a lot of time that can be wasted on cards that are just “hard” and never seem to get easier. Also, they can build frustration, leading to you not spending as much time on your reviews as you might have. The solution is to enthusiastically delete cards that cause you problems. It’s ok, you’ll see those words eventually in some other context, and it’ll be easier then.

There are lots of ways to quickly acquire more vocabulary, and I recommend that people focus heavily on vocabulary specifically when starting a new language, because those first 500 or so words can lead to tremendous amounts of understanding, even without grammar. The method that I prefer for this, though, is just reading a parallel text. Sure, I might not understand any of the new language on one side of the page, but with the assistance of the English section, I can quickly find correspondences for the most common words. In some cases, it’s possible to reach 70% word recognition in a text within the first day!

In summary, I suggest finding ways to make new words at least slightly more comprehensible, and then just do it often. You can even learn a lot just by seeing those common words a lot…just moving your eyes over a lot of unknown words will give you a sense for which words are most common, and which other words they tend to be beside. These are important steps on your way to learning the full meaning of those words. Therefore, simple reading can be one of the best ways to learn new vocabulary, even if you’re very new at a language.

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22 Responses to How I learn new vocabulary with parallel texts

  1. durak says:

    I in advance know what the text means. I read L1 and listen to L2. My recognition is 100% almost always. When in doubt, I use a mouse-over popup dictionary (Lingvo12).
    I don’t memorize anything. I listen to the meaning, grammar and sounds. The first 10-20 pages are usually quite hard, so I stop the recording quite often. Then less and less.
    I don’t review anything. I go from the beginning to the end of the book, the longer the book the better. I do it twice. The third time is usually enough to understand almost everything without having to look at the written texts.
    I don’t use SRS (Anki, etc).
    I study 10 to 12 hours a day.
    Before I begin L-R, I read a grammar or two and make some cheat sheets that I print for quick reference. I read about L2 pronunciation to know what to pay attention to.
    If possible, I choose books I like IMMENSELY (soul-shattering awe – Kafka, Hemingway, Bulgakov, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Camus) to learn a new language.

    • doviende says:

      So when you read it 3 times, you’re reading L1 all 3 times while listening to L2? Or do you switch over to reading L2 and listening to L2?

    • Pejsek says:

      Durak, I too try using the concept of L-R, but I was wondering: do you listen-read even when you need to acquire e.g. technical vocabulary? I don’t see any other way then to use “standard methods” such as SRS or drilling this kind of vocabulary.

  2. durak says:

    I don’t know if you read this blog, it is far from perfect, but worth having a look at.

    I’d like to thank you for your blog. People like you, M. Medialis, MarcoDiAngelo, Volte, etc make me want to prepare more stuff for L-R. And I must say, I’ve been seriously considering quitting.
    Now I’m working on something even better than L-R. I call it mLr – mutltilingual LISTENING-reading.

    Good luck,
    I wish you the best of British, or should I say Dutch.

  3. Dustin Johnson says:

    Thanks, this was a very thorough response. I’ve tried doing the parallel text method, however I can’t seem to find good one to one sentence matches in order to use hunalign in the books I like to read. Therefore I approach it a little more like Andrew mentioned, having one book in English and the other in Russian. As Randy mentioned in the comments over on his blog and you agreed with, it is definitely a pain with physical books. So I mainly just read L2, and reference the L1 in situations where I’m really stuck.

    Anki definitely becomes overwhelming at one point when using the same deck. I eventually abandoned my old deck because it was too burdensome to continue and started fresh. That’s a hard thing to do, Anki makes you feel so guilty to leave things piled up.

    Thanks again for the response.

    • doviende says:

      ya, in the case of physical books, I try to listen to L2 and read the L1 version first, to learn the story, and then start over again listening to L2 while reading L2, and alternating that with some intensive vocab work where I figure out every word in a single page.

  4. Claudie says:

    The way you learn vocabulary is quite new to me. I come from an “old” style of schooling which just made you study the words until you know them by heart. That’s for instance how I learnt English. It’s also how I learnt Spanish. Chatting online in English also helped quite a lot of course — I believe that’s what helped me speak with no difficulties in English once I transferred to an American school, many, many years ago. Yet, I have a really good visual memory, so this wasn’t a problem for me.
    On the other hand, I “studied” Bulgarian in a much more different way. As a child we moved to the country, and I was simply “forced” to learn it since that was the only way I could communicate with others. I couldn’t even watch TV except for the French programs with Bulgarian subtitles. Honestly, I don’t remember how exactly it happened, I think it was just by repeatedly asking my mother “what does that mean? and that?” as well as having her read to me the Bulgarian magazines and translate to me that, within an year, I could speak, read, and write fluently in the language. (I took no lessons whatsoever — my reading ability came from remembering how the words looked and were pronounced as she read to me. As I said, I have a really good visual memory.)

    On the other hand, I’m having a much more difficult time studying Arabic now. The fact that there are no absolutely flawless textbooks out there doesn’t help. I study MSA and don’t want to mess around with dialects yet, so I’m being really careful about my resources… I also go once a week to a 1.5hr class, but am overwhelmed by the material with which I have to deal with on my own afterward… it’s extremely tough to remember all the words, with the correct way to pronounce them, and then their separate plurals if they are irregular. And my visual memory doesn’t want to cooperate at all with those. I’m still trying to figure out how to deal with the language.

    • doviende says:

      Interesting. Bulgarian is on my list for later, but there’s so much more interesting material in Polish that I’m going to try that first.

      For your Arabic attempt, I would suggest making lots of use of Anki. I assume you know all the letters already? Your familiarity with the script will come through continued usage. The more you try to read it, the easier it’ll get, until it’s mostly intuitive. Anyway, I suggest making Anki cards for vocabulary, and when possible, use full example sentences, so that you simultaneously learn the usage of the words. I find this more helpful than just single words, because of the usage and because it’s easier to remember because of the context.

      Also, there’s apparently a site somewhere where a guy made some audiobooks in MSA…I’ll have to ask Judith, since she has the link, and then one of us will post it here.

      • Claudie says:

        I can’t say anything about Polish (although I have several Polish friends), but, in case you ever start studying Bulgarian, I can tell you that what’s really nice about it is that you get to understand pretty much anyone around the region. For instance, I have a Serbian friend with whom I usually speak in English, but if we don’t want anyone to understand us, I’ll speak in Bulgarian, and she’ll speak to me in Serbian. We’ll understand about 80-90% of what we say to each other depending on the situation, and that makes it quite comfortable to have a private conversation.

        Yes, I know all the letters and actually quite a bit of grammar. I started taking a once-a-week Arabic class at the end of last August. (Of course, I’m also studying on my own.) I can supposedly also conjugate in past tense (and now am studying all the forms of verbs in present tense), but just remembering what the words mean and how to write them is my big issue. I don’t know if it’s because I try to focus on sound, spelling, and meaning all at once, but I’m not making the progress I’d like to. And I feel I spend way too much time studying in a way which worked for all the other languages, but not for Arabic.
        I really like your idea about using full sentences. I think that might really help me as a mnemonic device. I’ll try it out starting today and will let you know how it’s going.
        I’ll also try Anki for my next vocab lists — though I’ve been doing something similar with flashcards and envelopes (yup, old style lol).

        And thanks a bunch for the audiobooks! It’ll be really great to have the link.

      • doviende says:

        Here’s the Arabic audiobook link :)

  5. Andrew says:

    Yup, I really think that using some type of contemporary, popular media like a book, movie, or music along with the English translation of it is a fantastic way to learn a language: you’ve got a giant lump of normal, everyday, colloquial examples of the language being used AND you’ve got a contextual definition of every word and sentence in there via the English translation, it’s a FANTASTIC way to learn–have you seen my Shakira posts where I demonstrate how to do this with music (I realize her music may not be your cup of tea, but that’s beside the point since you can do this with whatever it is you enjoy)?

    On another note: I finally got my Spanish copy of The Bourne Identity in the mail today, so I can start actually using this method, I’ll probably reference some of your older posts on the subject, though I do recall you just essentially read very large volumes of text without stopping except to highlight the occasional word to go back and look up later if you see it occurring often enough. I’ll definitely keep track of my progress and will write about it once I’ve got enough data.


    • doviende says:

      Ya, for your level of Spanish, just start reading and keep going. It should add a lot to your intuitive sense of the language. I suggest using a highlighter to pick out words that you want to look up later, and then you can go back and look them up all at once later, so that you don’t have to interrupt your reading flow. That makes it a bit easier to “get into” the book and enjoy it.

  6. Claudie says:

    Thanks for the link! :) already started downloading.

  7. Mithridates says:

    I’ll just add another “vote” for Bulgarian here, a language that turned out to be WAY more fun than I thought it would be in the beginning. I haven’t ever seriously given it a few months like I should (busy with other languages at the moment) but there’s something about it that just feels right. No cases outside of pronouns is really nice, but on the other hand it has a more complex verbal system than other Slavic languages (reminiscent of Turkish a bit) which I actually like, since cases are often obvious by prepositions even in languages that use them (in which case they’re kind of a useless ballast) but more complex verbs = greater precision, and that’s always fun.

  8. durak says:

    Not too many resources, I’m afraid.

    Assimil, Teach Yourself, Colloquial


    Jehovah’s Witnesses Audiobooks
    my My Book of Bible Stories (Bulgarian) – audio + text (pdf) + English
    la A Satisfying Life–How to Attain It (Bulgarian)
    lr Learn From the Great Teacher (Bulgarian)

    Jehovah’s Witnesses Magazines (texts only, no audio)
    The Watchtower


    The only audiobook with a matching e-text and English would be My Book of Bible Stories by Jehovah’s Witnesses.
    I found the book EXTREMELY entertaining – it was one of the first books I used to L-R Japanese.

  9. durak says:

    2000 phrases and sentences, Bulgarian-English, line-by-line audio.
    If you need the complete text, I have it.

  10. Oh right, I forgot about the Bible. That must be some 200 hours of text with matching audio right there. I think it was the audio for the second to most recent translation.

  11. Claudie says:

    I tried to think about some Bulgarian-English resources… but since I’ve never studied it in this way, I couldn’t really think of anything online, however, I will look around, ask friends, and will let you know immediately if there’s anything.
    (For now, I can only recommend this dictionary if you ever need it: It’s free online, and I believe they also have a basic free version for installation with pronunciation. It’s much better than any other Eng-Bg, Bg-Eng dictionary I’ve come across online.)

  12. Aaron says:

    I agree with the thought that vocabulary is one thing that we CAN cram for. I find in my own journey that I fluctuate between feeling like I need to hone a certain form and feeling like I if I just had more vocab, I would move so much faster because I would be getting so much more input. That said, the more vacab we can get in context the better. It sticks better. It gives the words the fuller meaning and is more nuanced when in context. Great post though. I use parrellel text reading every day. A bit different though. I read a section in English at night before I go to bed and then when I wake up the next morning I read the same (short) section in Turkish.

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