Can practicing vocabulary from a second language to the same second language instead of from a second language to your first language be more effective?

Example: Suppose I know German and I’m learning English.

Instead of learning that brain means the same as Gehirn, I would learn that brain means the same as the organ that is used for thinking and that is in the head.

I would imagine that when you are already more experienced with the second language, it could be really effective since you are only doing L2. On the other hand, you need to read much more. However, a dictionary from one language to the same language often explains things better than a dictionary from one language to an other language.

If I want to focus on learning new vocabulary, is second language to second language or second language to first language better? Has any research been done?

  • 2
    Could you be clearer about what you mean by "more effective"? Do you mean "more effective" in learning the particular words that you're practicing? Or in furthering your overall level of language ability?
    – Dan Getz
    Commented Apr 5, 2016 at 17:49
  • @DanGetz I guess that both can be considered.
    – wythagoras
    Commented Apr 5, 2016 at 17:50
  • 2
    Related: languagelearning.stackexchange.com/q/11/76
    – kenorb
    Commented Apr 5, 2016 at 23:05
  • If you edit your question to ask something more along the lines of "If I want to focus on learning new vocabulary, is method 1 or method 2 better" we might be able to reopen it. Right now your goal is too broad.
    – intcreator
    Commented Apr 6, 2016 at 8:17
  • 1
    Rather than asking "Can X be effective?" (to which the answer is almost certainly always "Yes, it can, in some circumstance"), it would be better to ask "What are the advantages (and/or disadvantages) to X?" This changes it from a near-meaningless yes/no question, to an interesting, in-depth analysis question.
    – Flimzy
    Commented Apr 8, 2016 at 8:38

3 Answers 3


Ultimately, the goal is to "think" in the second language.

So if you follow this process by thinking of a "brain" as "the organ that is used for thinking" you think about not only the brain, but the other words in the second language.

The downside is that this is not as fast as translating "brain" into "Gehirn" in your own language. But if time is not an issue, I would use the slower but ultimately more rewarding method of creating a "stream of consciousness" in the second language.

  • 1
    You may eventually find that while you are thinking in L2, you are unable to quickly translate between L1 and L2 (either direction, even into L1). So if you expect to often translate between L1 and L2 at a later stage, it may be beneficial to use a combined strategy.
    – Ansa211
    Commented Sep 15, 2016 at 14:35

For learners at low levels using L1 is recommended as L2 definitions will probably comprise more unfamiliar words making it difficult to comprehend and require retaining too much new information.

For higher level learners L1 translations provide easier and faster opportunity when you aim at learning just particular words. If your aim is to improve overall language level L2 definitions are good option. Because they will make you learn more phrases and more words in the long run. Notice that L2 definitions are more time consuming.

And of course, combining two strategies may give you benefits of both methods.

L2 vocabulary learning and testing: the use of L1 translation versus L2 definition

the results showed that the students’ recognition of the L2 vocabulary was significantly higher when asked to match the target vocabulary to L1 translations than L2 definitions. Furthermore, there was a significant interaction between study language and testing language, such that when study and testing language matched, the participants scored significantly higher. However, overall, the language in which the target vocabulary was studied did not matter for test scores.

Using L1 in Teaching Vocabulary to Low English Proficiency Level Students: A Case Study at the National University of Laos

Using 169 students of a low proficiency level, it was found that using learners’ mother tongue (L1) to teach English as a foreign language in Laos enhanced their retention of new vocabulary items both in isolation and in context. This is possibly due to clear definitions and explanations in L1, dictation quiz and translation exercises in the classroom.

The Effect of L1 on Learning New L2 Vocabulary among Intermediate Proficiency Level Students

The overall findings of the study indicated that there was no significant difference between the comprehension of those who received Persian translation of new vocabulary and those who dealt with the paraphrase of the same new words and those who did not receive any L1 translation or paraphrase. The results for vocabulary test showed those who received the mother tongue definitions in front of each new word in the passage did perform significantly better on the vocabulary test than the other two groups. However study would help teachers and teacher trainers to construct and implement L1 and paraphrase in English classes more effectively.


Vocabulary is stored as networks of connections in the brain. Native language speakers have rich networks of associations; for example, if I say "brain" you will immediately think of "skull," "mind," "head," "think," etc. In contrast, most language learners have scant associations for words they know. This may account for the difficulty in building a strong vocabulary among non-native speakers. Therefore, it's a good idea to practice L2 - L2 associations; put synonyms rather than definitions on your flashcards.

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