A couple of charming German words

I sat down a few minutes ago and flipped through a few pages of Using German Vocabulary, not really looking for anything in particular – just enjoying seeing new words, really. I landed in a section on the animal word. Looking over some of the words for animals and their associated parts, a couple of the words made me genuinely smile: das Nashorn, and der Stoßzahn.


Das Nashorn is basically “nose horn”, if you take the elements apart, and means rhinoceros. Der Stoßzahn is a little trickier. Der Stoß can mean a push, shove, punch, as well as stab or thrust. I suppose the most menacing literal translation of Stoßzahn would be stabbing tooth. To me, that has so much more character than tusk. 🙂

Words in context vs. word lists

In poking around at the How to Learn Any Language forums, I’ve come across many good discussions on vocabulary acquisition. One of the things that the discussions usually revolve around is whether one should avoid using word lists, relying solely on items in context. For a long time, I had stuck strictly to context items, basing my usage of SuperMemo and Anki on the strategies given at antimoon.com. However, based on one of the forum member’s (Iversen) posts, I’ve been giving word-to-word cards in Anki a try, and they’re working well, depending on the type of word.

Iversen views wordlists (or simply learning L1-to-L2 and vice versa translations without context) as a stepping stone, not the end of the road. He figures (rightly, I think) that by exposing himself to the translations of words, when he encounters the words in context, he’ll either A) understand it correctly or B) have something to work with in regards to figuring out what the word does mean, if the translation he learned doesn’t work.

Furthermore, while I see the value in learning words in context, particularly verbs, with many words, the context just isn’t needed, because the usage in L2 corresponds so closely to the usage of its translation in L1. For example, do I really need context to understand der Hund (dog), die Stadt (city), der Korb (basket)? Certainly, by simply learning that der Korb means basket, I won’t be learning any idioms, but I wouldn’t be doing that anyway, even if I had a sentence with Korb in context. To learn the idiom I’d have to see it in context or look it up in a dictionary, and then add that to my SRS program.

I’m coming to see that it’s not really a matter of “words in context vs. wordlists.” Instead, I see them both as things which have their purposes along the way toward proficiency in a language. For many words, context is vital, and trying to learn the words without it is a waste of one’s time. An easy way to see this is to pull up the English-German translation of “to go.” Here’s the page for the translation at Reverso. For the vast majority of those words, you really need some context to figure out what exactly is going on.

On the other hand, for many words, context isn’t really needed. I think by obsessing over “words in context only!“, people have made it sound as if languages have no correspondences whatsoever, that if you learn the word der Hund, you better learn how it’s used. To that, I say: unless I’m missing something, dogs in German-speaking areas behave essentially like dogs everywhere else in the world. And, again, learning anything about a word in your target language, even if its a simplified idea about it which will be refined through reading and use, is better than learning nothing at all. (As can probably be gleaned from that last remark, I don’t go for the idea that making mistakes in your target language is devastating; if that were the case, no one would ever learn any foreign language decently – let alone their native tongue.)

Farewell, SuperMemo; Hello, Anki.

I’ve finally given up on SuperMemo, the beefed up flashcard program I’ve been using for vocabulary acquisition. After having used it for a few months, I had become accustomed to its idiosyncrasies, if not having fallen in love with them. However, I was poking around in the forums at How To Learn Any Language, and came across a thread about SuperMemo alternatives. In it, there was a link to Anki – and there, I found true love (at least in regards to a piece of spaced repetition software).

Anki does everything that I used in SuperMemo. What it doesn’t do is cause me to pull out what little hair I have. Whereas SuperMemo was bloated beyond belief, with menus, sub-menus, and sub-sub-menus (I’m serious), Anki is pure simplicity. You add cards; you repeat them, grading how you did on remembering the answers; and Anki does the rest. There’s some basic customization available in the cards, such as bold, italics, and underlining, but there aren’t complex template registries; there are no branches; there are no leeches; in short, most of the “extra” stuff that’s in SuperMemo isn’t in Anki, and the program is better because of it.

Anki also has a quite useful feature that SuperMemo doesn’t have: you can sync up your data with an online version of the program. This will solve a problem I’ve had for a while now: how do I handle vocabulary that I want to put into SuperMemo when I can’t access SuperMemo? Between classes at the university, I often read foreign language articles. When I see vocabulary that I don’t know, I typically want to record it and learn it. However, not being able to access SuperMemo from home, I’ve been, up until now, saving the sentences and vocabulary into a Google Docs file, and then transferring them into SuperMemo at home. In essence, I’ve been doubling my work. Being able to add stuff into the online version and have it all sync up at home solves this problem wonderfully. By the way, even the online aspect of the program is free; it isn’t subscription based or anything like that.

My experiences with SuperMemo (and now Anki) highlight an important aspect of language learning: the tools you use. If you don’t like the tools you’re using, your language learning will suffer from it, guaranteed. I know that I’ve slacked on entering vocabulary lately, specifically because I’ve grown to dislike the clunky SuperMemo so much.

A new age has arrived. The age of Anki. Bye, SuperMemo. I won’t miss you.

Take the con.

I’m in the middle of reading The Mote in God’s Eye, a science fiction novel by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. A lot of the action takes place abord the ship MacArthur. I’m around page 100 at this point, and three or four times, I’ve seen the phrase “take the con”, usually spoken by the Captain to one of his subordinates. It was clear that he was saying “take over control of the ship”, but I was curious about the usage of the word con. I thought that it was perhaps an shortened form of control; I was wrong.

Apparently, the verb con can mean, on top of its meaning in the sense of a “con artist,” to direct the steering of a ship. Furthermore, the word con can be a noun, meaning “the action or post of conning a ship.” The word is indeed a shortening of another word, but not control; instead, the word is a shortened version of the now-obsolete cond, ‘conduct, guide’, which comes from the Old French word conduire.

(All of the information in this entry is from Oxford Online Reference.)

What in the tarnation are you doing?

I’m from southern Ohio. Throughout my growing up here, I’ve heard the word tarnation slung around, as well as used it quite a lot myself. For example (or e.g., now that I know how to use the abbreviation correctly):

Just what in the tarnation do you think you’re doing?

Or a shorter expression, which conveys confusion or dismay about something that’s happening or happened:

What in the tarnation?

It was only today that, after saying something with the word tarnation in the sentence, that I realized I didn’t know what it meant. So, of course, off I went to the OED. The word tarnation is a variant of darnation, which is a variant of damnation. If I fill in damnation where I would normally say tarnation, the result sounds surprisingly weird to me:

What in the damnation are you doing?

Odd. Very odd.

The Gold List vocabulary method

In the set of Russian language learning videos I linked to a few days ago, there were two that dealt with the “Gold List” method of learning vocabulary, created by “Uncle Davey“. After watching the videos, I checked out his page on the system. While I’m not sure if the system is for me, it’s still a very interesting one.

What he does is this:

  • Writes out 25 head words in the top left of a page, along with their translations and any other pertinent information (gender, special constructions, etc.)
  • Waits at least 2 weeks (but no more than 2 months). He then selects 70% of the words that he remembers the least, thus “distilling” the words. In his words: “You are looking to distil out the “hard to learn” expressions and obtain a concentrated, whisky-like list of distilled words that are an absolute bugger for you to learn (by which time you will, of course, actally have learned them, because they will have gone through this distilation process ten times with two weeks’ break in between each time).”
  • With that smaller list, he simply repeats the process: he waits at least 2 weeks, and then distils the list again, selecting 70% of the words that he remembered the least (or removing 30% of the words that he remembered best; same thing).
  • After you’ve done this process down to the third distillation, for a number of different head word lists, you combine the third distillation lists into a new head word list. This further “concentrates” the list of words that you’ve had trouble remembering.

That is, of course, a very short overview of the process. If you’re interested in it, check out his full explanation as well as the videos.

One thing that I thought was intriguing about his process is that he says that it works best if you don’t really worry about remembering the words. When you’re writing out the words, you shouldn’t be cramming them; instead, you should just write them out slowly and neatly, enjoying the process. His explanation for this is the following:

The long-term memory is not a conscious function. Its samples are taken automatically and subconsciously out of the material which is run through the conscious. What we decide to memorise or forget only relates to short term memory. You cannot decide to learn to the long term memory any more than you can decide to forget to the long-term memory. … We banish unpleasant experience from the long-term memory and garnish pleasant experince to the long term memory.

Following that train of thought, he believes it makes little sense to suffer during vocabulary learning, because suffering won’t help you remember it; in fact, it might make it less likely to be remembered. I’m not an expert on how memory works by any means, but it’s an interesting idea. Can anyone vouch for the validity of his claim?

I do have some aversion to the system, mostly because it sounds rather clunky. I’m particularly against the idea of having multiple books to continue lists in; I can’t really say why that turns me off, but it does. Perhaps I’m thinking too far into the future with the system, and envisioning stacks and stacks of A4 notebooks all over my desk. (Not that that would be much different than the state of my desk now, but I digress.) Perhaps that is the reason I’m hesitant about the system: I’m a terribly disorganized person, and the idea of dating all of my lists, and keeping track of when a list is due to be distilled, sounds like a nightmare for me. There’s a reason I like computer programs to keep track of when a word needs to be reviewed. 🙂

The other concern I have is that using this method, I don’t think a lot of contextual information can be given easily. If you were to put a sentence with each word you want to learn, you’d need far more space than he’s allowing. Furthermore, when you distilled your list, would you copy over the example sentence again? How does one deal with words that have multiple meanings? Do you put all of the meanings under one head word and hope you know when to use which word, or do you make a separate head word for each meaning?

How does one deal with various expressions that one can build with one word? There are some words in my German dictionaries that have dozens (literally) of different expressions. Do you make a new head word for each expression, or include all of the expressions you care about under the pertinent head word?

At any rate, as I said, it’s an interesting system. I especially like how he stresses that one shouldn’t “cram” while writing the words out. Just write them out and enjoy the process; it’ll probably help you remember them.

Google Translate now has a dictionary

Google recently released their new dictionary feature on their translate page. While they offer fairly simple translations (and don’t give any contextual information about the translations – yet), something I thought was pretty cool was that they do offer a large number of “related phrases” for whatever you search for. For example, if you search for an English-German translation for “language”, for the translations, you get:

1. Sprache f 2. (Fach)Sprache f 3. ordinäre Sprache 4. Spr, Sprache

While I won’t list all of them (you can see all of them here), here are some of the related phrases that are offered:

Certainly, it needs a lot of work – plural forms aren’t given, irregular verbs aren’t marked, nor are the irregular forms given, etc. But I think it’s a good start, and the related phrases thing is nice, even if the definition section leaves a bit to be desired.

The languages available right now are:

  • French <-> English
  • German <-> English
  • Italian <-> English
  • Korean <-> English
  • Spanish <-> English