Saturday, June 09, 2007


I read a comment on a forum somewhere about whether or not it was beneficial to memorize vocab/grammar from your target language (TL) to your native language (NL) or from your NL to your TL. In other words, should I study that an elephant=象 or should I study that 象=elephant. Tough question.

A lot of people associate this problem with the differences of active learning and passive learning. Specifically, that by forcing our NL programmed brains to think of a word in a foreign language is far more active and therefore more efficient than doing it in the other direction. I disagree. The degree of activeness or passiveness in the learning process depends on the presentation. It takes just as much thought process to translate a word to your NL as it does from your NL to your TL. In addition, learning from your TL to your NL is far more practical (assuming you are living in an area that speaks your TL) in the sense that everything you read or hear will be in your TL. TL to NL best reflects the process your brain goes through when immersed in an environment that uses your TL.

There are also many who argue that studying from your TL to your NL inhibits your speaking ability. To some extent, I do agree with this since the process runs reverse when we translate what we want to say before we speak. However, the words we use in conversation is only a small percentage of the total words we know. In addition, that small amount we know can cover a lot. In other words, since my NL is English, I would like to know the meaning of scarlet, crimson, ruby, flushed, ruddy, etc. when I read or hear it. But for all intents and purposes, just saying red when speaking is good enough. The same applies to foreign languages.

So far, the only exception I've come across is the Heisig process. For the purpose of learning to write Chinese characters, he makes valid points. I mean how can you learn to write Chinese characters from memory if it is write there in front of you to copy? I know first hand that this works because if given the keyword, I can write from memory 2042 characters. But AFTER learning to write, I found myself having trouble recalling the keyword when I come across the character. Of course I could work out the story, but that takes a little too much time when I'm trying to get through some reading. I just prefer not to think about rabbits jumping out of holes and running around trees when I'm reading a news article. I'd rather have my brain recognize the character as fast as possible. I really do think that in the case of characters, it is better to start off with NL to TL but then finish with TL to NL.

In any case, whatever the direction, any study is better than no study. If you do it often enough, retention will happen. However, when the dust settles, I believe you get more out of studying from your target language to your native language to better train your mind for the environment you are in.

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