Flashcards for vocabulary

I’ve learned Portuguese mainly through conversations. They weren’t exactly common conversations: first, how to talk when you don’t know the language well? Second, how do you learn vocabulary in a conversation? Third, how do you further develop your language, are conversations enough?

My answers:

  1. I used to spend 10-15 minutes in preparation to a 1 hour conversation. I would come up with a rough idea for a topic, and prepare a list of words I wanted to use.
  2. Whenever I encountered a new word, I wrote it down. Initially in a copybook, and later in my phone, in a simple note taking app. I did it assiduously and patiently. These notes were the only tangible thing left after my conversations were over.
  3. Mastering a language doesn’t only happen through talking, you also need reading and writing. And to develop your reading and writing, you need to read and write.

This year, I’ve identified two areas for development:

  1. Extend my vocabulary. When talking to people, I am able to get by, but limited vocabulary makes me feel that I’m repeating over and over again the same set of words, phrases, and even topics. Limited vocabulary is especially afflicting when I’m reading articles or graphic novels. Books are still a long way away.
  2. Learn more sentence templates. They are a great tool, allowing me to just plug in appropriate words to say what I want. Such templates aren’t trivial to pick up from speech. Comprehension from listening doesn’t imply the ability to produce speech. When I hear an interesting turn of phrase, I can, in principle, ask the other person to repeat it to me, but doing so painfully breaks the flow of conversation. I tend not to do that often.

None of these two things comes on its own; at least not enough. They require planned effort.

Starting from the second point, learning sentence templates is easy from written word, especially from books with dialogues. But, to absorb written word, you have to first know what this word means! This means that the vocabulary issue has to be solved first. Once I have enough vocabulary, I’ll start reading more, and pick up the templates I need.

I returned to my vocabulary notes.


Browsing word lists is clearly better than nothing, but my lists weren’t well organized and they weren’t easy to follow. Surely there must be a way of organizing your word lists on paper, but instead, a colleague has shown me AnkiDroid.

After a quick look around the app I learned writing down new words as quickly as in the previous note taking app.

The main difference is that AnkiDroid shows you a notification, that you have flashcards to review. I’ve replaced the Facebook shortcut with AnkiDroid. I continued clicking the same spot, but instead of wasting time, I’ve started learning vocabulary. Success!

But there is a wrinkle.

Learning words from flashcards isn’t the same thing as learning words in a conversation.

Listening, speaking, reading and writing are four separate language skills. Vocabulary from one of them doesn’t necessary transfer to other three. In a sense, we have to learn each word four times. The first time, to recognize it in speech. The second time, to pronounce it correctly.

A digression, I once knew a guy who would say for example “I been thinking”, because he learned English from talking to people, and he never paid attention to detail, and probably hardly read anything. The “ve” ending escaped him. That is, it would escape him every day, three hundred times a day.

The third time you need to learn a word to recognize it in text. The fourth time, to write it down, and spell it correctly.

Where is the difference between words from flashcards and from conversations?

Firstly, in the context, or rather lack thereof.

When I encounter a new word in a conversation, it’s always in a specific context: in a specific place, in a specific company, in a specific situation, sometimes even with a specific problem to be solved. Learning a new word that way I don’t even need to repeat it many times. The use of this word in this specific situation means, that when a similar situation arises again, the word comes back to me as part of this context.

Words learned that way feel very different one from another. There’s a story behind each of them, every word feels different, carries a different mood, color, sometimes even a taste or a smell.

Flashcards on the other hand, have a rather humdrum existence. There’s just me, staring at my phone’s screen. I review 100-120 flashcards daily, so words have little chance do differentiate between each other.

Secondly, that in flashcards, I’m pinning a Portuguese word to a corresponding Polish or English word, and not to the underlying concept. For example, when I see the word “cerca”, I have the appropriate image in my head in milliseconds. I see a human-height wooden or metal divide, surrounding a garden. I see the image and I know the concept, and not the corresponding words for it in other languages. Unfortunately, AnkiDroid is not able to read my thoughts, it can only show me the other side of the flashcard, which contains the corresponding word in a different language. I have to think: this wooden divide around a garden, what is it called in Polish? Ah, “płot”! And this additional step takes me a second or two.

An additional difficulty is that I’m trying to mentally separate languages from each other. When I’m using one language, I’m focusing on it, and I’m trying to filter other languages away. (This sometimes causes confusion when somebody unexpectedly says something in a different language, even if it’s my mother tongue.) When I’m studying the flashcards, I’m forced to switch between languages, while I’d rather not do that. Theoretically, I could prepare flashcards with pictures, but who has time for that?

Thirdly, I’m effectively training myself to associate words from different languages. That is, starting from a word in one language, I can find the corresponding word from another language. Unfortunately, this is not what I need when I converse! When speaking, I need to quickly find words that match the concepts I’m holding in my mind. If I want to use a word I’ve learned from a flashcard, I have to first find the correct word in a different language. Then I have to use the skill I learned from flashcards: find the corresponding word in the other language. This is too a roundabout way for me to do it fluently. I stammer.

I’m hoping that with time the most used words will find their way into appropriate contexts, and I won’t have to do the two-language round trip to fetch them.

What’s the benefit of flashcards then? It’s in the number of words I can cram into my head in limited time.


During the past month, spending roughly 15 minutes a day, I’ve learned ~50 words well, and another ~170 words to a reasonable degree.

Author: automatthias

You won't believe what a skeptic I am.

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