How I learn new vocabulary with parallel texts

2011-01-27

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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