Learning (Training) Vocab Tips

Memorizing Japanese vocabulary is much more difficult than many other languages not only because they usually bear no resemblance to English but also because you have to memorize the Kanji, the reading, and the definition. Multiply that by the tens of thousands of words in the language, and you’ve got a hefty job on your hands. While you need to spend a lot of time on grammar in the first 1-2 years, after that, it’s all about memorizing one word after another after another. In fact, I’d say over 80% of the total study time required for fluency would probably be for vocabulary.

So to give you a helping hand in such a monumental task, here are my tips for effectively transferring vocab from the dictionary into your long-term memory bank.

Memorizing for tests is not productive
Because we are so used to studying for tests, we often fall into the trap of thinking that memorizing for tests is an effective way to learn vocabulary. It is not. It is a convenient method for teachers to gauge mastery, but that does not mean it’s a good method to learn vocabulary.

The most common method of memorizing vocabulary is to take a set number of words and memorize them, commonly in the form of lists or index cards. This is a great method to prepare for a test, not for learning vocabulary in general.

Remember, doing well on tests is a means to an end, and a poor one at that. If you don’t restrict yourself to a set number of words, there is a much faster method for learning a great deal of vocabulary with a lot less headaches.

Language is trained not reasoned
Now, I’m no expert in psychology, but one thing I’m sure about is that learning a language is not a cognitive process. Rather, mastering a language requires training much in the same way as learning how to ride a bike. Just think about how you use words in your native language when you read, write, listen, or speak. The words you have memorized come to mind almost instinctually as you need them. That is the level you want to ultimately attain.

The key here is to simulate that process as closely as possible in Japanese by training yourself to think in the same fashion. In order to do this, you need some sort of online dictionary to look up words as quickly as possible. For when you can’t use a computer, an electronic dictionary will also work almost as well. Once you’ve got the necessary tool, read as much as possible and look up each word you don’t know. You are essentially simulating how your mind would have worked if you had known all the words with a couple seconds lag for each word lookup. Finally, read the sentence again with all the words in your short-term memory to reinforce the process you want to attain.

For instance, let’s say you are reading 「忙しいから・・・」 and you don’t know what 「忙しい」 means. Quickly look up the word in an online dictionary or a tool like rikaichan then continue reading the sentence. Continue with this process until you finish reading the sentence, then read over the sentence again and make sure you get the meaning of the sentence as a whole. Rinse and repeat.

The idea is that you want to take input in and throw it out as quickly as possible to test your memory again and again. I guarantee you that staring at an index card for 2 minutes trying with all your might to recall the definition will not help you remember it later. The key here is wearing down those neural paths with repetition, just like how we train our bodies to do physical activities.

The beauty of this method is that the most common and useful words naturally get retained quicker because you run into them more often. It is the most effective method of training yourself to understand the most amount of Japanese as quickly as possible. Plus, by comprehending the material, you get a much richer context that will help with recollection a great deal more than flimsy examples sentences on index cards.

Instant gratification is good!
We human beings tend to get bored very easily and boring is painful so you want to give yourself an advantage by making studying fun. The best way to do this is to pick material that is interesting in itself (hopefully with some recommendations from other people). Also, an electronic tool is key because having to tediously look up word after word in a paper dictionary is excruciatingly boring (especially if you need to look up the kanji first) and a complete waste of time. You want to mentally reward yourself as quickly as possible with the answer so that you don’t bore yourself to death, which ultimately results in the “I’m too lazy to study” syndrome that is all too common among students.

But what about my test?
If you apply this method early enough (don’t forget to use your vacations too), you should be so far ahead that you’ll likely already know a great majority of the words that’ll show up in your tests. The only thing left is to study the one or two words you have missed in the more conventional fashion. This worked for me and saved my college grades because I could focus on my other classes while hardly studying for my Japanese class! 🙂

10 thoughts on “Learning (Training) Vocab Tips

  1. Dear All,

    Thanks so much for your writings – they contribute to my study and life…..I buy music magazines and slowly go through the interviews. Its built up my stamina in facing pages of kanji……and yes you are right…..read it, look it up, go back and read it again….and keep going!

    Best wishes to you all

  2. The most common method of memorizing vocabulary is to take a set number of words and memorize them commonly in forms of lists and index cards.

    I’ve been memorizing vocabulary this way and I’ve noticed a good sized deficiency in my usage-abilities. I’m still relatively new to Japanese, so I’ve only got about 475 handmade flash cards and I can usually knock them out and only miss about 30 or so. However, when it comes to speaking, I’ll often stumble or screw up on a word that I always get right. For example: I started a language exchange with a guy who just moved here from Nagoya. We were at a golf driving range and instead of saying “たま” to refer to the ball, I accidentally said “たも”. He politely corrected me, but it stings to have known that word and still screwed it up.

    Any thoughts on how to find reading material for different skill levels? I can look up kanji, etc but what about picking up the grammar? As far as I’ve found there’s not really a good( i.e quick ) look-up tool for grammatical constructs.

    Nice write up. Convenient too, since I was just contemplating if I was ‘incorrectly’ studying my material.

  3. Interesting write up. I’ve been studying Japanese for a little under a year now and my general way of learning new vocabulary has been via flash cards. However, recently, I’ve noticed that while I can score highly on the memorization( currently around 440 or 475 correct ), my usage ability has been lacking. After reading your post, I’m not surprised. I started a language exchange with a guy who just moved here from Nagoya and when we were chatting the other day I accidentally said たも the other day when I meant たま. I know たま means ball, but for some reason, when I went to say it, I got it wrong. That kinda stings a bit.

    Any considerations on material for reading? Even if it’s elementary books. I don’t have any sources that use general grammar. While I can look up any Kanji I don’t know, I can’t easily look up grammar.

    Nice post.

  4. It depends on your level and what you’re interested in. You can always search http://www.google.co.jp for topics you’re interested in. For books, there’s http://www.amazon.co.jp or any bookstore on the street if you’re in Japan.

    For grammar, you can try “A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar” by Seiichi Makino, Michio Tsutsui or the intermediate version. There’s also jgram.org for varied results and my site http://www.guidetojapanese.org for a more book-like format.

  5. Sorry about the double post, I missed the validation time period the first time. I don’t know why that post showed up.

  6. Bishamonten, I’m at the very early stages of learning Japanese (only since July) but I found some interesting online resources, translated stories.

    This one has the Kanji, kana, romaji and english translation. So it’s geared towards beginner learners. (I don’t know why beginner materials always leave out the Kanji!)

    I found others by searching for japanese+stories+kanji+kana in google.

  7. Thanks Heather. I actually started reading your blog a couple days ago! Thanks for the link!

  8. This reply is a year later after this blog was posted, but I must say that “A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar” by Seiichi Makino is an extremely useful book!! I prefer to use it more than my textbooks. When I learn a new grammar lesson in class, rather than reading my textbook, I use that dictionary! It’s very detailed and has example sentences too. I highly recommend that dictionary to all students studying Japanese, no matter what level!

  9. After two years after posting this blog, i have to agree with kt on his post. A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar is very very good. I bought the intermediate edition as well.

  10. i always consult an online dictionary whenever i need to find the meaning of a certain word. they are really very useful indeed.`;-‘

    Till next time

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