Are you making these common vocabulary studying mistakes? Part 1

common studying for JLPT mistakes

単語帳はだめだ!(Flashcards are bad!)

Vocabulary. It’s like the meat and potatoes of language learning. The stuff that gets you from point A to point B; the bread and butter; the building blocks of communication; the ingredients of a fine cooked language meal.

But, learning vocabulary can sometimes be like eating a dry spinach salad that your mom made for you. You know the whole time that it is good for you, but that still doesn’t help the fact that it tastes like farm grass and takes you forever to chew it up and swallow it.

It doesn’t have to be that way my friend. We have this new thing called the internet, (or as some prefer to call it a series of tubes) and you can find some fancy tools to help you make your life a lot easier. So, don’t make the mistakes that others make, get smart about your studying.

#1 Mistake: Use Paper Flashcards

Back in the day, when you were studying a language, I bet you, if you were even a remotely good student, you made some flashcards. You studied them earnestly whenever you had free time, yet the words didn’t seem to stick in your head. And as punishment your language teacher made you sing, heads, shoulders, knees and toes 5 times.

It’s enough to give me nightmares just thinking about it.

The problem with these old types of cards is that unless you shuffled them thoroughly every time, you would be remembering the words in sequence. This is absolutely useless.

Even if you did give them a good shuffle, you were spending equal time on each card. So that meant a really easy card got the same amount of time as a really difficult card. This resulted in a bunch of wasted time on your part.

That’s no good; you’ve got places to go; tests to pass; you don’t need any of this paper flashcard junk.

Enter the Spitz-man

Back in 1939, a dude by the name of Spitzer started goofing around with a new learning technique called spaced repetition to help students in Iowa remember some facts. Unfortunately the Spitz-man was a bit of a boring chap and so nobody paid that much attention (besides it’s Iowa).

Later in the 1960s, Pimsleur (of language learning fame) came up with a slick way of remembering vocabulary using spaced repetition with their famous audio tapes. It essentially involved repeating vocabulary words at certain intervals to help you recall the words easily.

By 1973, Sebastian Leitner invented an all-purpose spaced repetition system based on flashcards. This is what a lot of spaced repetition systems of SRSs are based on today. You may sometimes here this referred to as the ‘Leitner system’.

The Leitner system accelerated learning by showing you difficult flashcards more often and easier flashcards less often. This allowed you to study a lot more efficiently because you weren’t wasting time recalling words you already knew.

Sebastian was also later honored by having a crab named after him in a major motion picture. The benefits that come with success!

How technology made Leitner Cool

Leitner’s system was a bit complicated and too geeky for the average Joe. Mostly because it involved having 5 boxes that you had to keep moving cards around in. So unless you wanted to tote 5 boxes of vocab cards with you everywhere you went, you were a bit out of luck.

Fortunately for the world, we got computers and with computers we got programmers that made our lives easier and cooler. Now there are many applications out there that are free and can help you unleash the power of the Leitner system without having to get a pocket protector.

Solutions to the Problem

One of the most popular and widely used SRSs is Anki. Available at https://ankisrs.net Anki has a lot of useful features and has the ability to download decks of vocab directly into the program. It also has a handy iPhone app that you can synchronize with so that you won’t lose your progress when you switch between the desktop client and the mobile app.

There is also another webapp called smart.fm. Available at https://iknow.jp Smart.fm helps track your progress and also gives the whole studying thing a social aspect. It also has apps for the iPhone and Android that are absolutely free (in the states, I heard it’s a paid app in the Japan store).

The one drawback of smart.fm in my opinion is that it is multiple choice. This can be helpful, but I feel like it makes it a little bit too easy for you. The other systems force you to recall the word out of thin air. This is a lot more difficult and will help you to retain the information longer.

Supermemo, a shortening of “super memory”, has its own version of spaced repetition. I haven’t tried it personally, but some people swear by it. There is a commercial program available at https://supermemo.com. With this program you can create readings from online sources and then from those generate questions and answers (basically flashcards). This is done all within the program.

There is a free alternative to the paid application at https://supermemo.net This is a site put together with assistance from the European Union and has a lot of free language decks. Unfortunately, Japanese is not one of their main languages though.

That’s it for the first part of this series. I’ll be addressing some other mistakes people make over the next few weeks so stay tuned. In the meantime, I’ve got some action steps for you:

Action Steps

  1. Have you tried Anki, smart.fm, or SuperMemo?
  2. How were they? Have you ever made any decks for these? Share your favorite decks with us.

Let me know your answers in the comments below.  I look forward to hearing from you and wish you ultimate success on the test!

EDIT: Since publishing this, smart.fm has become iknow.jp, a paid service.  Still a pretty slick service, though.

{ 35 comments… add one }
  • Kana January 19, 2011, 12:12 am

    I use anki for vocab. And for grammar. For example, I’m now studying soumatome 2kyuu bunpou book and when I learn a new grammar point I put it into anki. When the time to take 2kyuu comes I’ll have the grammar solid in my head.

    For vocab, even though I use anki, It’s harder. It takes a lot of time. I think I should focus on reading only but I will continue focusing on both reading and writing. I sometimes find myself writing a word without thinking in the kanji, and if I actually thought of the kanji I would forget it.

    I have to change my methoud. Everyday I have around 250 cards to revied and I just try to do them all at once, which takes a LOT of time, but I think I will start doing reps throughout the day. And maybe with a timer…

    I need to start focusing seriously on vocab, I’m already studying 2kyuu grammar but I’m still in the middle of the 3kyuu vocab list.

    Keep up the awesome blog please!

    • Mac January 19, 2011, 12:46 pm

      Thanks Kana for the comment.

      I’m using the same book. The one with the monkey right? I usually study a day of it on my train ride into work. I create a little ‘cheat sheet’ of the grammar points. Then, throughout the day I take a peek at it. That usually helps me get the grammar in my head.

      Vocabulary is really important for the higher levels though. I study about 30 new words a day, but still don’t think that will be enough for the july test. Oh well its worth a try right?

      Sounds like you need to do some more reading and natural exposure. If you are out of the country, writing might be the best option to get a feel for the words.

      Personally I try out all my new words with my coworkers or friends, but that’s a little tricky when you are outside of japan.

      Thanks for contributing! It’s always good to hear from readers.

      • Kana January 22, 2011, 8:48 am

        It’s not the book with the monkey cover. Though the cover is different they’re the same, I think. Mine has a 文 in the cover.

        I’m now in the 5th week. I study the lesson’s grammar only one time per day and review it in the following days, but I’m gonna start studying it like you. In the morning and then throughout the day I’ll review. Also I put the sentences into anki and try to search for more examples with that grammar online.

        I’m Portugal, but I’m exposed to japanese almost all my awaking hours. Not the same, I know.

        I’m gonna take 2kyuu in december (my study goal is 1kyuu though).

        For vocab, I add sentences using new words and read them out loud, I always rate it “again” and by doing that, after rating it again about 5/6 times in the same day it gets in my memory much faster.

        Thank you!

        • Mac January 23, 2011, 3:25 am

          Interesting, they must publish different versions of the book around the world.

          Already into the 5th week! Wow, I studied the old Kanzen master series for 2kyuu a long time ago. I found it to be quite boring, and that new book is really refreshing in comparison. Although the old kanzen series did have a lot of examples, and it used the vocabulary from 2kyuu so you studied vocabulary and grammar together.

          I wouldn’t worry to much about exposure to Japanese. I live in Japan, but I teach English, so needless to say I don’t get as much practice as I’d like. The important thing is steady repetition.

          Do you get to speak Japanese?

  • Kana January 24, 2011, 6:15 pm

    I think the book you own is the old version (or vice versa).

    Well, now I’m in the 6th week 😀 If I see the grammar I can understand it, probably. But in order to use it on my own I will restudy and use other books as reference.

    Nope, I can only speak japanese to my teachers, which is close to nothing : (

    After my 2kyuu studies I’ll start using skype hopefully.

    • Mac January 31, 2011, 2:23 pm

      I definitely know what you mean. I can understand a lot of grammar, but I can’t use it very fluently. I try out a few phrases here and there with my co-workers, but I need to do a lot more review I think.

  • Squid February 7, 2011, 10:02 pm

    I have been using Supermemo for the past five years (In fact, I just hit 50,000 flashcards). I can currently read, speak and write Japanese fluently thanks to Supermemo. If remembering Japanese vocabulary words were enemies in any RPG, Supermemo is my “+90 Sword of Death.” After I put the vocabulary word into Supermemo, within two weeks the word will be memorized without any lapse. The same goes for kanji, idioms, and any other misc. information that I choose to put into Supermemo.
    After reading online about how SRS works, I agree that it is the most efficient way to learn almost anything, period (With the exception of certain abstract or physical tasks, such as learning to play an instrument). I struggled with paper flashcards for a number of months before making the switch to Supermemo, and since I switched, I’ve never looked back. 🙂

    • Mac February 8, 2011, 4:58 pm

      Thanks for the comment on supermemo. I always hear of it’s legendary powers, but I still haven’t used it yet. Maybe I’ll dive into someday soon. I’ve been experimenting with different SRSs lately. It’s a bit if a shame smart.fm became paid. They were an all right service at one time. It’s time to look for some alternatives.

  • Sara Hendricks March 15, 2011, 10:31 am

    I’ve tried the more technical ways to learn new vocabulary, but I still like the old way best! I use paper flashcards. I mix up the order often, and I take the easy ones out after I know them. I keep them for review later. The reason I like paper flashcards is because I can just throw my flashcards in my pocket anytime I leave the house and I don’t worry about them getting wet, stolen, broken, etc. I don’t currently have a phone either, so that adds to why I like the paper cards. I hope to get a good cell phone soon, and I will try out Supermemo or Anki and let you know if I change my mind!

    • Mac March 15, 2011, 12:50 pm

      Ive started to use paper flashcards too. I have a set of the N2 white rabbit press cards. They work pretty well. I like them because I don’t have to ‘boot’ them up. I can just pull them out for a few seconds of study during a downtime or something.

      I’ve definitely noticed the best results with anki though. My reading has really improved. I think that’s important too – combining reading with raw vocabulary learning. It really puts the words in context.

  • Blue Shoe June 15, 2011, 12:02 am

    I’ve tried SRS and every now and then I give Anki another shot. But honestly I don’t really like this kind of study. A lot of people swear by it, but I just have a difficult time sticking to doing it every day…and when I don’t do it for a while, the cards build up and the times get all messed up. Now when I do some cards it won’t show them again to me for weeks or months, even if I don’t know them very well.

    I also find SRS a bit boring…which doesn’t mean it’s a bad study technique, but these days I try to study in ways that are more entertaining, like reading, watching Japanese TV/movies, etc.

    • Mac June 15, 2011, 12:33 am

      I can admit SRS can be a bit boring at times. I always do it in the morning first thing before breakfast, so breakfast acts as I kind of reward. This sometimes doesn’t go in favor though, because I’ll sometimes race to finish because I want to get to my breakfast 🙂

      One thing I’ve done to make SRS more entertaining is to say the word out loud and either imagine a scene that would use that word or make up a funny mnemonic. Also, I try to keep the study times down to around 20 minutes. I may study for 50 minutes in the morning, but I have timer that goes off after 20 minutes into the study session. When the timer goes off, I get up, stretch, slap myself around a bit, and ‘get back into the ring’ so to speak. You got to keep the blood pumping!

      Thanks for the comment!

  • Richard June 18, 2011, 1:56 am

    My opinion on vocabulary learning is that it’s best to back up any pure vocabulary work (using Anki, or looking at example sentences etc.) with a healthy amount of raw input. At a lower level this can be done through listening (and trying to use new words when speaking – OK, this is not input), but at higher levels it means doing an increasing amount of reading (because some words just aren’t used that much in conversation).

    Some words I can learn just through pure vocabulary work, but with a lot of other words I don’t actually get them fixed in my head till I encounter them in a real context (in the wild, as I like to think of it). But the pure vocabulary work is still useful because it raises my awareness of certain words, so that they stick out when I’m reading.

    • Mac June 18, 2011, 11:59 am

      I can agree that there are a lot of words that you have to have a good amount of exposure to, in order to actually use them well. The transitive/intransitive pairs always come to mind here, like 傾く and 傾ける. It is really hard to memorize those and be able to use them well just by looking at some flashcards.

      I do backup a lot of my Anki with 20-30m/day of good ole fashion reading. It does help to have the words in your head already so you don’t have to look them up though.

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment Richard!

  • Daniel June 30, 2011, 6:24 pm

    First of all I am very impressed at your website. I never imagined that there would be a website devoted to JLPT study that is this in-depth.

    I passed N2 around 2 years ago and am currently struggling through studying for N1.

    On the topic of Kanji and vocab:

    I have used White Rabbit cards since the beginning, N4-N1 (I passed N4 and N3 years ago when there where only 4 levels)

    I think these cards are great for a number of reasons but mainly because each cards contains not only the readings,meanings, stroke order, etc. but also 5 or 6 example phrases using the kanji in context (usually in combination with other kanji). I practice these (phrases and combinations) by copying them out by hand on paper. I feel that the context is extremely important in learning kanji and that just looking at a single character and reciting the kun and on readings and the meaning(s) just doesn’t cut it.This method has worked quite well for me, Kanji and vocab were my strongest sections on N2!

    I have recently tried anki and I think it has definite potential but I am concerned that it presents the kanji out of context without example phrases and combinations with other kanji (at least the decks I have found). Do you know of any downloadable decks that include these things?

    Thank you. I look forward to interacting with this site more in the future and commenting on other topics such as grammar, reading, and listening.

    • Mac July 1, 2011, 3:52 pm

      I’ve started using White Rabbit Cards again too. I like them a lot because I can whip them out wherever I am and study. I don’t have to get my iPhone out and select the program etc…

      I, too, have been a little disappointed by the decks that are available for Anki, but then again you get what you pay for, and you can always make your own. I’ve been thinking when I get the free time, I’ll try to get some decks together for each level.

      I also agree with the context for learning kanji. I hardly ever study kanji on their own, sometimes I do it as a bit of practice, but I don’t spend much time on them.

      Thanks for commenting, and I look forward to seeing you around the site!

  • murasakii July 14, 2011, 11:10 am

    Wow thanks so much! I’ve been searching for ages for some decent vocab programs, and your site has lots of good info :D. This is really the most in-depth site I’ve found all while I’ve been searching, and thanks for all your wonderful help!

    Just a question though, how old do you have to be to take the JLPT test? I’ve never seen any age limit, but I think I would like to take the N2 test by the time I’m 16 (: . And also I’ve never seen this mentioned before, but how much do you have to get right in the JLPT to pass? (eg. 90%)

    Thanks so much and keep up the wonderful work ^^

    • Mac July 14, 2011, 2:33 pm

      Thanks for the kind words, I’m trying my best to build a great website for everyone.

      As for age limits, I don’t think there are any at least in most areas/countries where the test is given. I’ve heard of 8 year olds taking the test in Japan and the States, so I think you are good to go. As for percentages to pass the test, it’s different depending on the test:

      N5 – 80/180
      N4 – 90/180
      N3 – 95/180
      N2 – 90/180
      N1 – 100/180

      Keep in mind that these aren’t actually the number of questions you got wrong or right. The test is based on an extremely complicated grading system called IRT, it’s incredibly difficult to explain but, the short, simplified answer is, you can get 50% of the answers right and get say 110/180 or 60/180, it all depends on what questions you got right and if others got those questions right or not.

      Hope that helps, and good luck on the test!

      • Isaura January 5, 2013, 7:06 pm

        Can you write me about the IRT grading system? It depends on if OTHERS got those questions right or not, too what questions I got right? For example I remember I got wrong about 4-5 questions in the Vocabulary test. If I got right all other questions, my result will be 175/180 or how many?:))

        • Clayton MacKnight January 7, 2013, 2:58 pm

          Yeah, I’ve wanted to write about the IRT, but it is really complicated mathematical model that is a bit hard to write a simple explanation of. My basic understanding is that it is not exactly a perfect one for one (you get one wrong answer and you get one point off). There are answering ‘patterns’ and those patterns are ranked from most correct and least correct. Anyway, I’ll try to revisit it again and see if I can manage a simple explanation of it.

  • Kentaku August 28, 2011, 3:13 am

    Personally Anki helped alot until I forgot about it and was punished with a huge 200 cards to study that day plus new ones! There needs to be an Anki Pause button so when you go on vacation without a computer you can just pause it so it doesn’t build up a huge amount.

    • Mac August 29, 2011, 2:02 am

      That can be pretty tough. I end up actually doing around 200 cards on a regular day actually (it usually takes about 30 minutes) I’ve been doing a lot of cramming lately, but if I take 1 day off, it can be difficult to get back on track. I think the best thing to do is just set a session limit in minutes and then go until you reach your limit.

  • Ioana October 25, 2011, 10:14 pm

    I loved smart.fm =(.
    I don’t get along with anki all that well, tbh, which is why i resubscribed to Iknow. It’s great for my current level, but by the time my subscription ends I’ll probably be done with their entire course…
    So yeah. If you’re a beginner and can afford it Iknow is great. If you’re N3+ level then you shouldn’t bother, since you should know all the words by now.

    • Mac October 26, 2011, 1:10 pm

      That’s good to know! I haven’t actually tried it, yet. If I’m not mistaken, It started out as a Japanese company. And actually the old smart.fm app for the Japan side was a paid app not a free app (I think).

  • craig May 6, 2012, 4:07 am

    anki is alright for drilling but some things just don’t click off there and they get dumped in the leech pile. It often does lead to the same situation of easy cards coming back a lot whilst hard cards are forgotten
    Also a mistake I made at first is that you have to learn the words the boring way with pen and paper and writing them a bazillion times before they go into anki, anki is just for revising.

    • Mac May 6, 2012, 4:47 am

      You can pick up words through other sources like reading, reviewing textbooks, going over dialogs from textbooks, JapanesePod101 scripts, etc… It’s best to see them in context somewhere, then throw them into Anki or memrise.com

      I do get a little peeved with the leech system. But, you can always go back and add them back in.

  • Jeff Winchell December 11, 2012, 7:40 pm

    The psychological research on what you reference as the spacing effect goes back over a hundred years, likely before Spitzer was born. For a brief intro on that, and on Supermemo, this article in Wired is good:

    https://www.wired.com/medtech/health/magazine/16-05/ff_wozniak

    • Mac December 13, 2012, 12:46 am

      Thanks for the heads up on that article. It seems really extensive. I’ll have to go back through it when I have more time. But, good information.

  • Tailan June 3, 2013, 6:44 pm

    I’ve used Anki and it seems to be really interesting. It does help you to remember the difficult words and you don’t have to go through the easy ones all the time. The only problem is that I have a crazy routine so I think I cannot spend enough time on it. Maybe I could try the iPhone app (it would be great for me), but I’ve read some bad comments about not being able to sync with the computer and add decks.

    • Clayton MacKnight June 5, 2013, 2:34 pm

      An alternative that I have been recommending lately is memrise.com which has a great new mobile app. It still has a few bugs, but they are working them out.

  • lazuli July 17, 2013, 6:25 pm

    thank you for the Smart.fm link! It seems they’ve changed their name to iKnow!
    anyways the games about kanjis are fun~ I think I’ll play with it a little xD

    • Clayton MacKnight July 19, 2013, 12:37 am

      yeah, it changed to iKnow and its paid now. Made a few people pretty angry 🙂

  • チホ March 23, 2016, 1:18 am

    Anki didn’t work for me. I didn’t use it efficiently (and instead input all of my cards manually, randomly), and as such I found it very clunky.

    I am doing much better with houhou!

    • Clayton MacKnight March 23, 2016, 3:53 pm

      That’s a new one. I hadn’t heard of houhou before. It looks pretty interesting. I’ll have to give it a try. Too bad it isn’t an app though.

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