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When trying to memorize new words, a person might have a list like:

boy - ولد
girl - بنت

Here we can assume English is native and Arabic is foreign.

My question is, which 'direction' should I memorize the vocabulary that will be more effective?

Do I conceal the Arabic and memorize: in Arabic, the word for boy is ولد

OR do I conceal the English and memorize: in English, ولد is translated as boy

These techniques are vastly different and I am trying to figure out which is more effective of the 2.

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  • This may come down to personal taste. For flashcards, I prefer to design them, so that I try to recall a word or phrase in the target language. You don't necessarily need to use a translation, but I think whatever you write should be for the purpose of learning to say or write a word or phrase in the target language, for example. "(morning greeting) -> good morning", "(portable computer) -> laptop", "(Eighth month) -> August", and so on.
    – Brandin
    May 3 at 7:29

2 Answers 2

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The question assumes that translation is the proper way to learn new vocabulary in a foreign language. Historically, this habit comes from learning vocabulary lists that had one language (typically the target language) in the first column (i.e. the left column in books for speakers of a language written from left to right) and one or more translations in the target language in the other column.

Whether you go from target language to source language (i.e. Arabic to English in the question) or source language to target language depends on the direction one should eventually be able to translate. When I was learning Latin at school, we only need to be able to read Latin texts and translate them into our native language and never translate texts into Latin. In that case, the direction Latin to native language was sufficient and learning vocabulary in the other direction was a waste of time.

However, when learning a language that you want to be able to speak, you don't want to be slowed down by mentally translating from your native language into your target language. Instead, you want to be able to move from the concept to the foreign term, which should be quicker. For this reason, Gabriel Wyner (author of Fluent Forever) recommends using images on the "front side" of flashcards and the foreign term on the other side. See Gabriel Wyner's Anki tutorial on YouTube: Anki Tutorial 2 - Adding your first pictures from a Frequency List. Since the video dates from 2012, Anki's UI has change a bit but the method Wyner describes can still be used.

For abstract concepts where images don't work and for grammar patterns you can use cloze tests. (For grammar, see my answers to the questions How can I put grammar rules into flashcards? and Creating flashcards for grammatical rules that requires a few steps of thought, such as SPOCK versus WEIRDO. These tips don't rely on translation, either.)

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You are correct that they are different, and in fact, both directions are important. If you only go in 1 direction, you're vocab knowledge may be 1-sided as well - for instance, if you always go English -> Arabic, then the English words will be the stimulus and the Arabic words the response; but then you may have trouble when you encounter the Arabic word later, as you have not practiced with it as the stimulus.

Therefore, it is best to alternate between directions; I like to start with displaying the target language first, going through the words in the language I'm trying to learn and guessing the English. Then I do the reverse, concealing the target language and guessing them while viewing the English words.

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