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The hard part of language learning

Are flashcards a key part of your language learning strategy? In this article, I hope to convince you there's a better way.
First, let's acknowledge the smart thing about flashcards: spaced repetition. A digital flashcard system can optimize the scheduling of each card so you learn with "maximum efficiency". But, as we'll see, this idea is a bit misleading.
In any case, there's a much more efficient way—don't study isolated vocabulary at all. If you focus on language structures, as described below, you'll learn the vocabulary as a side effect of mastering the patterns.
Because the hard part of language learning is not learning the words—it's knowing how to combine them into sentences—and being able to do so automatically. That's where you should focus most of your language practice.

The problem with isolated words

Here's a really basic example from Spanish where knowing the individual words doesn't help:
Spanish: Hace calor.
Literal: It makes heat.
English: It's hot.
In Spanish, to comment on the weather, you have to say It makes heat. The flashcard learner is more likely to say, Es caliente, (lit., [You/he/she/it] is hot.) which describes a quality (eg., fire is hot), but not today's weather.
In other words, even if you know the words hacer and calor, you won't know how to use them correctly in this case. Even with such a basic sentence, there's a total divergence between English and Spanish.
Now you might think this is a special case and that most sentences are not like this. Let's see.

The divergence of English and Spanish

Below, is a very simple conversation. I've added footnotes for every place where English and Spanish diverge. You'll see that there's only one sentence without a footnote—and it's a one-word sentence.
Marita: Querido, Juanico se llevó1 mi coche.
Literal: Darling, Juanico took himself my car.
Marita: Darling, Juanico took my car.
Esposo: ¿Lo2 necesitas3?
Literal: It [you] need?
Husband: Do you need it?
Marita: No, pero no me2 pidió3 permiso.
Literal: No, but not me [he] asked permission.
Marita: No, but he didn't ask my permission.
Esposo: Bueno, se olvidó1,3. Así4 son los chicos, mi amor.
Literal: Well, [he] forgot himself. Like that are the kids, my love.
Husband: Well, he forgot. That's the way kids are, my love.
Marita: Ah, me equivoqué1,3. No se llevó1,3 mi coche.
Literal: Oh, [I] mistook myself. [He] didn't take himself my car.
Marita: Oh, I made a mistake. He didn't take my car.
Esposo: ¡Menos mal5!
Literal: Less bad!
Husband: Thank goodness!
Marita: Pues, se llevó1,3 el6 tuyo.
Literal: Well, [he] took himself the yours.
Marita: Well, he took yours.
Esposo: ¿Qué? ¡Qué7 travieso es8 ese chico! ¡Llámalo al9 celular de inmediato10!
Literal: What? What naughty is that kid! Call him to the cell phone of immediate.
Husband: What? How naughty that kid is! Call him on his cell phone immediately!
[1] Spanish has many so-called "pronominal" verbs where the pronoun is obligatory for certain meanings. If Juanico took my car to the shop, we'd use llevó by itself, but since he simply took my car, we need to use se llevó. It's tough to learn these distinctions without context.
[2] Unlike English, Spanish puts its object pronouns ahead of the verb. You would never say ¿Necesitas lo? (Do you need it?). With certain verb forms (eg., infinitive, gerund), however, you can (and sometimes must) add the pronoun as a suffix: ¿Necesitas verlo? (Do you need to see it?).
[3] The default in Spanish is to omit subject pronouns (I, you, he, etc.). They are inferred from verb endings. It is a rookie mistake to constantly say Yo hablo ..., Él dice ..., etc., but that's what the flashcard learner often does.
[4] Así is a handy word meaning like this or like that, which often doesn't translate very directly into English. You pick up how it's used from examples.
[5] Menos mal is just a phrase you need to know. It's very common.
[6] Spanish sometimes requires the in front of yours, mine, etc..
[7] Qué can mean what, but also how; learning when to use qué and when to use cómo (also, how) requires context.
[8] Another example where Spanish likes to reverse the order.
[9] In Spanish, we don't say call him ON his phone we say call him TO his phone. The easiest way to develop your ear for this is by exposure to correct speech.
[10] Although one could say inmediatamente here, Spanish also allows this construction using de + the adjectival form (inmediato).

The real work of language learning: Making language structures second nature.

It's not news to anyone that you can't translate language word-by-word. But my point here is how deep this problem goes. It's not just the occasional sentence—it's the norm. Each one of those footnotes represents a language structure from Spanish that an English learner needs to practice and practice until it becomes second nature.
Personally, I had to learn about a thousand sentences before direct objects started to occur to me automatically in typical Spanish order. That is the real work of language learning. There are, of course, many, many other divergences between Spanish and English not encountered in this brief dialogue.
Once you realize this, you start to think about language learning differently. A strategy of learning lots of isolated vocabulary makes no sense—you're working on the wrong thing. Instead, you start wanting to learn lots and lots of sentences. Every single sentence in that simple conversation (above) gives you a chance to practice something in Spanish that we don't have in English. To internalize these divergent structures, you need to encounter them again and again, in various contexts, and practice using them.
The nice thing about this approach is that you pick up all the vocabulary you need incidentally. You don't need to practice it separately—you can even learn two or three new words in a single sentence, which is a kind of efficiency unrelated to spaced repetition.

The ideal unit of learning: the story.

So then, is the sentence the ideal unit of learning? Should we trade in our vocabulary flashcards for sentence flashcards? I don't think so.
Learning isolated sentences with flashcards is probably better than isolated words, but still has serious flaws.
First of all, sentences—like words—depend on context for meaning. In isolation, meaning is lost.
For example, one of the biggest challenges for an English-speaking learner of Spanish is the verb system. It's not learning the conjugations that's especially hard—it's learning how to use them correctly. There is no direct mapping between Spanish and English tenses and moods. Even the simple present tense in Spanish is often used differently than in English. You can only learn that in context.
Consider these two sentences, which both have the same English translation (My brother's getting married.):
Simple present
Spanish: Mi hermano se casa.
Literal: My brother gets married.
English: My brother's getting married.
Marta: What's new, Pedro?
Pedro: Mi hermano se casa. I'm going to be the best man!
Continuous present
Spanish: Mi hermano se está casando.
Literal: My brother is getting married.
English: My brother's getting married.
Marta: What are you doing right now? Wanna talk?
Pedro: Mi hermano se está casando! I'll call you later!
Second, learning sentences out of context robs them of emotional content. You may think that emotional content is for entertainment value only and serious learners don't need it—but science suggests you'd be wrong. There is ample experimental data showing that emotional content is one of the greatest learning accelerators that we have.
In other words, it's a huge mistake to put up with the boredom of learning by flashcards. Your spaced repetition system can calculate the ideal moment to review some random word, but only relative to what your bored mind is capable of retaining.
If the content that you're learning is interesting and infused with emotion, you'll absorb it faster and retain better—and of course you'll enjoy the process much more and be less likely to give up. That's simply the way our brains work.
In short, the ideal unit of learning is the story. A story is made out of sentences and provides each sentence with a context that allows it to express a precise meaning. And if it's well-written, it generates interest and emotion.

How to study languages.

If the unit of learning is the story, then how should one approach language learning? Rote memorization of stories? Watching lots of Spanish TV?
If your primary goal is to learn to speak Spanish, you probably want stories in the form of conversations. The ideal system will teach through conversations that have rich, emotional content—that tell stories, even if simple ones. You'll return to the same conversations again and again, absorbing the structures they embody. (There's just no way to get all the juice out of a conversation in one pass.)
But just because you're returning to the same conversation repeatedly doesn't mean you're memorizing it by rote. In SuperCoco, for example, you practice a conversation, and then leave it at least overnight. The next time you practice it, you may remember some by rote, but mostly you'll be practicing generating it. The more Spanish you know, the more you'll rely on generating it—because it becomes the easier thing to do.
For example, you had to memorize Hace calor by rote the first time you encountered that structure. But then in another conversation, you encounter, Hace frío. (It's cold.). You don't have to memorize that by rote—you know the formula. In fact, if SuperCoco notices that you've already learned all the components of a sentence, it may prompt you to generate it the very first time it teaches it to you.
Learning becomes a mix of rote memorization and language production. You are constantly practicing producing Spanish based on what you already know. This is exactly the kind of practice you need to become comfortable speaking Spanish—and not just taking tests or playing with an app.

Conclusion

To sum up, flashcards are poorly suited to language learning because they require us to learn out of context. There are some specific topics where drilling out of context can be helpful (eg., numbers; country names; conjugations), but the vast majority of language learning is best done in context.
Your primary task as a language learner is learning how to put words together to make meaning. It can't be done word-by-word and out of context—which is how flashcards teach. It is best done in contexts rich in emotion—through stories.
That doesn't mean we can't apply spaced repetition techniques. SuperCoco applies spaced repetition to each conversation. That's a compromise, but one well worth making, since it allows us to practice actually using language, and not just studying its building blocks.

Like what you're reading? Then you probably want to try SuperCoco:
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Want to get in touch? We'd love to hear from you what your dream language learning app would be like. Contact us at ideas@supercocoapp.com or @supercocoapp.