I came into Germany not knowing what a Geschoss was, but within a couple days, I knew. And after two months, I still haven’t forgotten, even though I never wrote it down anywhere. The reason was because I encountered it every day, either when I walked through a door, or looked at a floor plan, or looked up the location of a class. And if I ever forgot what it meant, then I could simply walk into another building, look at it again, and instantly remember. The word means ‘floor’ (as in ground floor, first floor), and can also be substituted with ‘Etage’. It’s one of those words that I looked up once and ended up retaining, just like I retained the words for “building” and “school” and “student” from long ago, simply because ‘Geschoss’ became so ubiquitous and necessary for everyday life that it was impossible not to remember it.
The same thing has happened with lots of other words, ones I never even thought of looking up and committing to memory before I got here, but ones that were so common and whose meanings were so clearly demonstrated that I can now say I know them.
As another example, for many weeks, I passed by a blue-and-white sign that read ‘Einbahnstrasse’ and thought that was the actual name of a road. Then I started seeing the sign on other intersections as well and thought it was odd that all of those different roads intersected with the Einbahnstrasse. Then finally, when I was crossing yet another road with that sign on it and saw that it was literally a one-way path, I realized the meaning of ‘Einbahnstrasse’ – one-way road. And I’ll probably never forget it now, simply because I’ll always remember how I learned it.
There were lots of other words and phrases that I can tell similar stories about, like Termin (appointment), Rechnung (bill), Kassenzettel (receipt), and even Einzugsermächtigung, which means direct debit mandate. I looked some of them up once or twice, but I never needed to drill myself to retain any of them, because the way I learned them was memorable, and strongly tied in with my everyday life.
In short, there’s definitely a difference between learning a language purely on paper and learning it out on the street. The second provides opportunities that the first one can’t, namely experience to give life to the definitions of the words, and perhaps even the opportunity to experience the meaning of a word before you have a chance to look it up. Learning by paper has its unique benefits, definitely, because without at least some words in your repertoire, jumping right into the speaking environment will be more overwhelming than beneficial. But for me at least, I know that constantly looking up German definitions of everyday objects won’t help past a certain point. After all, the end goal of keeping a vocabulary journal is to be able to rely on your head for the knowledge and not on the book.