Flashcards of some kind are a necessary evil of language study. The question is, what do you put on the flashcards? What do you prompt yourself with and what is the answer? For example, do you start with English and the answer is Japanese (in Kanji)? Or do you prompt with kanji and answer with the English?
It comes down to how you want it encoded in your brain. What kind of paths or connections do you want to build up? What is the most useful way to ‘root’ the word in your head so it can grow and be used in the future?
And this is something to consider no matter what flashcard system you happen to be using. The two popular systems I recommend are Anki, a standalone program available for the PC, Mac and Linux, and memrise.com a web-app that helps root words with mems. Both have their advantages and disadvantages so I encourage you to give them a try to see which one you prefer.
No matter what system you use, these are the 3 main ways I recommend testing words:
English → Native Japanese
This is the first, very obvious connection you want to wire in right? You probably do a lot of thinking in English and so you want to naturally extend that link to the word you are learning in Japanese. You can alternatively use Japanese definitions, but I feel like this is more for higher level studies.
Note, too, that I said native Japanese, as in what the word looks like in the ‘wild’. Some Japanese words have kanji associated with them, but the kanji is rarely used like the kanji for その is 其の. I don’t think I have ever seen that in native material.
You might be tempted to include them just for the sake of completeness, but why waste your time on something you may never use when you could be learning new fun words instead?
Kanji → Kana
This connection isn’t as obvious as the first one, but definitely just as important. As you start to learn kanji, there is a tendency to just associate the kanji with the meaning. The pronunciation of the kanji is pretty abstract, so it is a bit hard to root. But often times you can encode the meaning with the image of the kanji pretty easily.
And why do you need to know the pronunciation? Well, 1st of all, it helps to be able to produce the word later (by typing it or saying it). How can you ask the meaning of a word if you can’t even tell someone what it is?
But it will also help with your listening. One big problem of only seeing written words is that you don’t have anything to match up with when you listen to something. There is no memory of a sound that represents that word in your head. You have a visual ‘root’ but not an audio one, and so you won’t be able to retrieve that word as well later when you are listening to something.
Which is why the next way of testing is even more important.
Sound → kanji
So you know how to say the word but can you recognize the word when you hear it? This is where dictation or listening to the sound of the word then writing it down helps to root the sound of the word to your visual memory of it.
This is essential to help you recognize the small differences in pronunciation that change the meaning of the word. Things like the difference between しゅう and しゅ or だた and だった can cause you to trip up when listening. And trip ups can cost you points on the exam.
Which way do you study?
Do you use all 3? Only some of them? Let me know in the comments.