Hybrid flashcards and the YouTube spirit

Lately I’ve been putting my faith in YouTube. A language practice session has become a YouTube browsing session. The target is comprehensible input. The ideal video is one that is so interesting it makes me forget I’m watching it in a foreign language. This immediately rules out all educational material.

It’s a leap of faith because, I can’t tell if it’s working. When I make vocabulary flashcards or work through podcasts with transcripts, I can point at what I’ve learned each time. But with this method, where the goal isn’t “learning” per se but language acquisition, I can’t tell. I probably won’t know whether it’s effective for some time.

It’s been easier in French, where my comprehension is so-so and I can rely on the abundant cognates to give me clues. I’ve been watching TED talks and other motivational, edutainment style videos. I don’t think I catch more than 50%, but that’s usually been enough to keep me edutained.

With German it’s more difficult. My language comprehension has been closer to 0%. What I do understand of the content I get from the visual and tonal cues. Because of this, it’s been harder to find videos that hold my attention for more than ten seconds.

The good thing is that I see that if I can just get my German comprehension to the same level as my French, I’ll be able to start really watching. Now the trick is just how to get there.


I haven’t given up on flashcards completely yet. I’ve still been making vocabulary cards from frequency lists, using the Fluent Forever card template. I’ve done this more with German than French, since I can see my German vocabulary is seriously porous. I’m starting with these nouns, because they’re easy, and just because. I can make about two cards a minute, or 120 cards in an hour. It’s kind of fun putting these together, looking on Google Image Search for funny, artistic, or bizarre pictures representing this basic vocabulary. And again, I get the constant reassurance that I’m really learning useful things. Now I know how to say thought (der Gedanke), point (der Punkt), and death (der Tod) in Deutsch!

And I’ve had a few experiences recently that have made me more confident that these work. A few times at the Polyglot Cafe, I’ve been able to recall words from these cards immediately and use them with pretty much no hesitation. Say what you like about vocabulary lists, but building connections between images, sounds, and word concepts — with no English — seems effective.

I’ve also been doing a small deck I made of cloze deletions of sentences from one Slow German dialog. Again, it’s just a relatively painless way to learn the sentences in the dialog so that I can understand them when I’m shadowing them. Then I can more or less keep up with the dialog after, say, 10 repetitions instead of, say, 70. Is that cheating?

When I do this shadowing, however, I’ve noticed that there are a few sentences that I still have problems with. The way I read the sentence to myself when I do the flashcards (i.e., slowly) doesn’t quite correlate in my mind with the sentence I hear spoken when I do the shadowing (tends to be very fast).

New cards

What can I do? Finding how easy it was to drag and drop audio from Forvo into an Anki card gave me an idea. Why not add the audio from the shadowing material directly onto the flashcards? I can make a card where the front is a piece of audio, the back is the German text and, if needed, some translation.

Then I’ll get the shadowing practice and the transcript memorization at the same time. I won’t have to worry about not correlating the two, and it’s just more efficient.

The card creation process

I take an episode from Der Explikator, in this case one about quantum computers. I know, that’s sounds insane as a first choice. I load the mp3 into Audacity. Then I take a snippet of audio, export it, and drag it onto the front of a new card. Finally, I find the corresponding sentence in the transcript, paste it into Google Translate, and copy both the German and the French translation (why not get some French practice, right?) onto the back of the card.

It’s like a combination of the 10,000 sentences Anki deck — good for very basic listening comprehension, I’ve decided, but bad for anything else — and the erstwhile audio-less podcast-shadowing-cheating cards I’ve been making.

The downside is it just took me about 20 minutes to make 15 cards. It’s kind of tedious. If the cards ramp up my listening comprehension as much and as fast as I’m hoping, maybe it’s worth it. If not…

Actually, what I really wanted to do was use this technique to make cards based on a YouTube video. It would be just great if I could do this with some natural, everyday German dialog, since what I really want to get better at is conversation. But I so far haven’t found any such videos that also have (non-auto-generated) closed captions. Oh well. At least this way I get to learn about quantum computers.

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