In one of her books she advocates reading foreign language texts without using a dictionary at all, just trying to figure out the meaning from what little you already know (of course you have to be at a certain level to even try this, although you'd be surprised how little you need to know to start.)
This process forces you to think logically about who words are constructed, and to use your own current knowledge to e figure out meanings of words. For example, you might already know a small part of a compound word in german, and use this along with the context of the sentence to figure out the meaning of the whole word.
Words in one language do not have a one-to-one mapping with words in any other language. As the saying goes, "The map is not the territory." Each language has its own peculiarities of dividing up the Universe of experience into words, and especially each language has a different approach to arranging words into sentences and longer utterances with grammar and syntax.
I know of a Web page that lists some language-learning resources, especially useful for the case of learning one Indo-European language (like the blog post author's native langauge) while already knowing another.
The best single bit of advice I can give for someone who wants to learn a language thoroughly is to do a lot of what the blog post author is doing: reading in the target language. The section "Suggestions for Study" in the front matter of John DeFrancis's book Beginning Chinese Reader, Part I, which I first used to learn Chinese back in 1975 has great advice: "Fluency in reading can only be achieved by extensive practice on all the interrelated aspects of the reading process. To accomplish this we must READ, READ, READ" (capitalization as in original).
AFTER EDIT: The comment posted by _feda_ before this comment was posted that it is important to read target language text for meaning beyond one's current reading level, using context rather than a dictionary to figure things out, is correct. That has much to do with improving understanding of the second language, just grappling with the language directly a lot, not always relying on bilingual reference books.
My experience, as a native English speaker who has learned German as an adult, is that different stages in language learning benefit from different kinds of study. There have been times where memorizing grammar rules have been enormously helpful to me, others where reading a lot is what I needed, and still others where holes in my vocabulary were holding me back. After a certain level of proficiency, the only new thing you encounter in the language is unknown words and phrases, so it makes sense to focus on learning them.
> Words in one language do not have a one-to-one mapping with words in any other language.
As you have mainly studied non-European languages, this might be more true in your experience than for those who are focusing on European languages. There are certainly many words that map one-to-one between German and English, especially in common usage.
What I like about the author's technique is that it seems like a smart way of priming the pump for real and detailed learning: when he encounters a new word in the text, he has a general idea of what it means from the definition, but he can sharpen that meaning with the particulars of the context where he finds it. Otherwise, he might get only the vaguest sense of what a word means from context, or have no clue at all.
I have little experience learning languages, but it seems that this sentence is pretty meaningless; we can replace the word "read" with any verb ("jump" is an amusing one) and retrieve the old adage "practice makes perfect". Is it your opinion that an hour spent reading Chinese is better than an hour spent practising with a speaker, or writing translations from English?
Er, sure, there's tons of other important aspects to learning language, but words are really important. At some point (once you're somewhat competent with basic grammar and conversation flow, and have the core vocabulary down), lack of sufficient vocabulary can be a big hurdle for conversing with adults about non-trivial subjects. Educated conversation uses an amazing number of words... ><
Of course you're right that it's really good to learn words in context (e.g. by reading), not in isolation (on flash cards or whatever).
[Memory is also weird: for a huge number of words, I remember the exact context (e.g. book title/page/sentence or conversation topic) where I first learned it; I hate to think of the number of brain-cells all that info is using up, but it gives these words a nice ... familiar feel.]
So yes, learning a language is far more than learning words. In fact, to underline what you wrote above, most trained translators explicitly attempt to map ideas, not words (although there are in fact multiple "translation paradigms" on how exactly to go about this). So absolutely, many words and phrases are specific to a given language, and don't map one-to-one.
Nonetheless, as an adult learner, basic vocabulary -- combined with grammar -- provide you with a foundation upon which to build your language learning. Nouns like "man, woman, head, shoes, etc" and verbs like "go, speak, find, search". Without a basic vocabulary, it's pointless to try to build up oral fluency, or to read books. No serious language learner that I know willingly picks up a book in a foreign language and starts to study it without some preparation, or dives into in-depth spoken interactions with a speaker of the target language with no background in that language. Most try to establish the most common words of a language, memorize them, find a good grammar, study it, and only then do they start to interact with the spoken and/or written language.
(Background: native English speaker who learned one foreign language as an adolescent and several others as an adult / ATA-certified translator with a decade of experience doing technical/medical translations. Currently: transitioning back to professional web development!)
It provides a breakdown of the words in the text, and even does lookups to supply definitions and frequency in an external corpus, so you know how common that word is in a broad range of texts. You can then take the output and paste it into a spreadsheet program, and from there import it into an SRS flashcard system like Anki for long-term memorization. Kind of a DIY solution but it's pretty handy for serious learners of Chinese.
It's also available as a web frontend here, under the "Wordlist" link:
With full end-to-end integration with Anki and a mobile e-reader, it would be very powerful indeed.
(I should also mention that the mobile app Pleco has a reader component that allows directly adding words from an ebook into its flashcard system, along with high-quality definitions. Pleco's probably the fullest Chinese-learning suite available on smartphones.)
edit: For mouseover definitions of Chinese and Japanese words in your browser, there's the extremely useful Perapera-kun Firefox addon. It allows you to add words to a wordlist which you can then export as a text file along with definitions. Tada, more cards for your Anki deck.
In 1985 (!) he wrote SuperMemo, a piece of software that utilized this spacing effect:
"SuperMemo is based on the insight that there is an ideal moment to practice what you've learned. Practice too soon and you waste your time. Practice too late and you've forgotten the material and have to relearn it. The right time to practice is just at the moment you're about to forget. Unfortunately, this moment is different for every person and each bit of information."
The full article is a bit long but if you're interested in this stuff, it's well worth the read.
SuperMemo seems to have fallen behind as far as software goes, but there are great alternatives, like Anki  that use the same method.
The method I described is from a Lifehacker post earlier this year.
As an aside, Anki is excellent. In the past few months version 2.0, a new version deserving of a major version number, was released for Windows/Mac/Linux, and just recently for iOS. The corresponding Android version is a little behind but I imagine it will be out soon too.
His software actually picks things for you to read based on words that it knows you still need to learn.
At https://github.com/darius/spaced-out I tried to do something vaguely similar: from an aligned parallel corpus, automatically make a prioritized spaced-repetition deck for language learning. (I think I used Europarl.) So you get examples of the words in context, plus they're sorted with the most frequent ones first.
(There's also an SM2-based flashcard reviewer in Python. It's all very crude; I decided I didn't want to learn Swedish enough.)
Anyway, if this was a service I could actually use online, I most definitely would, and I might even pay for it (as I once did with smart.fm which became paid for a year or two ago). I'm currently learning german quite intensively, and anything that makes this highly laborious process (that of cramming new knowledge into my mind and trying to make it stick) more efficient is extremely useful to any language learner.
System Preferences -> Language and Text -> Input Sources.
Select the languages you want in the list.
click "Keyboard Shortcuts" and enable whatever keyboard shortcut you desire to swap layouts.
ex: now I can press CMD+Space to switch keyboard layouts between Russian, French and Spanish.
Interviews with successful language learners gives a great set of language learning techniques and methodologies.
It's not always about looking at code; some people could benefit from OP's solution right now.
For those wondering: It mean's face (as in a person's face or like the 'face' in facebook. Countenance-book anybody? :)
I usually ended up being too lazy though to actually use it. I know exactly what your talking about though with conversation vs. literary I use german every day at work but still don't get half of what Thomas Mann or Goethe or trying to say.
A while back I wrote a bunch of python scripts that do the same thing for subtitles for myself.
Regarding your problem with Goethe and Mann: Maybe you shouldn't try to start with "the masters". I read books in various languages and have come to the conclusion that after a hard day at work I just can't read a nobel prize winner in a foreign language. What I can read, however, is a crime novel, or something funny (Maybe even a comic book).
Here is a book that I would recommend for you to read if you want to read an important, well-known but easy german novel:
"Der Schatz im Silbersee" by Karl May: This is an escapist western written in the 19th century and actually one of the most read German novels of all times. Rest assured that every famous German you know (including Einstein and the bad one with the ridiculous beard) have read this in their youth.
I am not a believer in rote word memorization, but rather putting each word in a sentence and using the sentence as the memorization route. Rote memorization stores the word in a different part of the brain than the language center, and using the sentence as the unit of flash card seems to override this.
I still see use for flash cards to re-trigger words in memory, but not for actually learning new words. I can't tell you how much I struggled to de-link certain words because I "memorized" them at the same time and so mixed up the meanings of the two words.