In language, there is no substitute for vocabulary

By Greg Turnquist

Greg L. Turnquist worked on the Spring team for over thirteen years and is a senior staff technical content engineer at Cockroach Labs. He was the lead for Spring Data JPA and Spring Web Services. He wrote Packt's best-selling title, Learning Spring Boot 2.0 2nd Edition, and its 3rd Edition follow-up along many others.

October 8, 2014

anki-logoIn war there is no substitute for victory –General Douglas MacArthur

This famous quote from Douglas MacArthur shows that in certain situations, there are certain intrinsic requirements that cannot be ignored. At one time in my career, I was a group leader. That meant I was responsible for soliciting and delivering annual peer reviews for fellow software developers. One of my people had gathered a lot of nice, secondary things on his record. But he wasn’t at the top in writing actual code. I laid it in plain truth that our first duty is to write software. These other, secondary things like volunteer groups, etc. are used when we are trying to pick between two top performers.

As I said in the title, when it comes to learning a new language, there is no substitute to learning new words. After all, that is a core piece of a new language. Four months ago, I downloaded Anki and got set up with a review deck. About two months ago, I bought the iPhone app ($25 app!) That’s when I got serious.

Everyday, I review about 100 cards. Takes me 10-20 minutes every day. I do it in the morning, afternoon, or at night. And at first it was HARD. It’s also a bit demotivating considering that the cards you see the most are the ones you know the least. When you knock out a card right away, it gets pushed out to a later time. Some words that I already knew when I started (months of the year and colors), I won’t see for months. That’s because there is no use in reviewing stuff you know on a daily basis.

So, the stuff I see everyday are the ones I DON’T know so well. But my intrinsic desire to learn German has grown by leaps and bounds, especially after last month’s SpringOne conference. Chatting with Christoph, Ollie, Michael, and Sam was exciting. So I pushed through, and actually only slacked off towards the end of that week’s conference.

And it is finally beginning to show. I actually wrote a German blog article, German tweets, and find myself trying to chit chat with myself while driving errands in German. Instead of speak practice sentences, I imagine something I’m currently doing, and try to express it in German. I feel like I can do a LOT more than I could four months ago.

owl_mv_12da7b721e1d96fbe5092d33a6c9f584Contrast that with how I started on a year ago, and the results are surprising. I learned much including grammar and sentence structure with that iPhone app. But I haven’t felt as strong as the past few months. Building up a working vocabulary using SRS is a fundamental building block. Since then, I have gone back to do more duolingo lessons, and suddenly I can knock them out of the park. I closed out one box, which had five separate lessons, in one sitting.

As some will point out, nothing replaces actually speaking with live people. I totally agree. But having a beginning vocabulary is a necessary foundation upon which to build.


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