In Fluent Forever, Wyner suggests making SRS flash cards for the top 1,000-or-so most common words in the target language. For most languages, this short list of words comprises around 80% of daily communication.
The cards Wyner proposes have several possible templates. The front might be a vocabulary word, and the back could have a picture, the audio pronunciation (which one can find on Forvo.com), the phonetic spelling, a reminder of a personal memory connection to the word, or all of the above. Another type of card could use the picture as the front, and have the word on the back. The guidelines say to use two or more different types to build multidirectional connections. One should also make sure each card has only one answer, otherwise they get too complicated.
The idea is to use all this sensory input — and not the English translation — to create strong, multifaceted connections to these vocabulary words.
My initial reaction is to question the effectiveness of single-word vocabulary cards. Most of what I’ve heard and my personal experience so far says that sentences are better. But why are sentences better than words? Because they add context. When one learns a word in the context of a sentence, one learns how to use the word at the same time that one learns the word itself.
So sentences are good. But doesn’t Wyner’s approach make up for the lack of a sentence with the other contextual information — the image, sound, and personal connection? Is an out-of-context sentence really any better than an in-context word?
The day before yesterday I spent a couple hours adding pictures to around 80 French flash cards from my 10,000 sentences deck. I searched Google Images for the whole sentence or part of the sentence, chose the image that I felt was most interesting, funny, or evocative of the given sentence, and put it on the back of the card right under the French text.
Reviewing these cards yesterday, I wasn’t sure what the result actually was. Is having this visual association really strengthening my ability to understand the sentence? Maybe it’s too early to say, but I suspect that the format of these cards doesn’t lend itself as well to this kind of augmentation as the type outlined above.
What skill are these cards strengthening, after all? Audio comprehension is part of it, clearly. Making sense of the grammar and sounds of the language is another. However, one major problem is that the back of the cards still have the English translation on them. This means I’m actually still learning to translate these sentences into English instead of internalizing the meaning in French. Even if I were to only look at the English once, when I first see the card, this may create a lasting connection with the English, which I certainly don’t want.
Further, most of these cards are both similar and abstract. Is it really feasible to have a separate image for “she didn’t tell me yet” and “I don’t know yet”? Does it make sense to connect this to personal memories — that one time I was waiting to know something, as opposed to that other time I was waiting for her (whoever she is) to tell me something?
The English problem is easy to solve. I could do away with the English translation completely. Would this cause problems? Maybe it’s worth it to be unsure about the meaning of the sentence in order to keep it in the target language. Wyner would surely suggest I do it this way. If there are particular words I don’t know, I can search for them on Google Images and — assuming they aren’t too abstract — infer the meaning from the results.
The second problem, that the sentences are too similar and abstract to lend themselves well to images and memories, seems harder. In particular, it suggests to me that I’m really dealing with two different categories of cards, and it’s fruitless to mix them.
I’m going to try two things. First, I’ll remove the English field on the 10,000-sentence deck cards. Will this make it easier for me to avoid mental translation? Will the deck seem more useful once I do this?
[Update]: Unfortunately, the 10,000-sentence deck is formatted in such a way that I can’t just remove the English translation and keep the French. Should I just not look at the back of the card at all?
Second, I’m going to experiment with making a French vocabulary deck the way Wyner suggests.
To make sure I have enough time to do this, and while I’m deciding whether it’s worth it to keep doing the 10,000-sentence decks, I’m reducing the number of new cards on these decks to five per day (for German too).