What is the best way to study Japanese vocabulary?

What is the best way to study Japanese vocabulary? post image
best way to study Japanese vocabulary

Which do you choose?

All languages are made of 1000s of building blocks called words, i.e. vocabulary. Most people believe that to become really fluent in a language you need to know about 20,000 words. To be conversational, you probably need around 2000. That’s a lot of words to get into your head.

So if you could save any time in that process, it would help you a lot. Even reducing the amount of time you study by 10% could mean months of saved study time. Time that you could spend doing something much more important than memorizing and building mnemonics.

Drill books that are specifically designed for certain levels of the test are great resources for this reason. The books are boiled down so that they only give you what you need to pass the test and not all that other junk. But of course you need real exposure, too. Because you want to use the language not just pass a test about it.

So what should you do? Well, there are two main options with advantages and disadvantages to both.

SRS is the Best (kind of)

Spaced Repetition Systems, or SRS, are systems designed to remind you of a piece of information right at the point you begin to forget it. They are very efficient in their ability to shove a lot of information into your head in the shortest amount of time. Anki is a very popular standalone program that does this, but there are several apps that have similar systems as well.

Since these systems are based on a scientific theory, you probably think they are the most efficient way to study. And they are, they are a great way to build up links between English and Japanese words in your head. And walking around with that giant dictionary in your head can greatly assist you when you are speaking and using the language.

On top of that, there are already pre-made lists that cover different levels and different subjects you can just grab off the shelf and start using. These can provide an excellent background to help you with some of the words that you just haven’t encountered yet, but might come up on the test or be used in a conversation you are listening to.

But SRS can be a little impersonal and disjointed. For one, the linking of one English definition to a Japanese definition is a little limiting. You could write a longer English definition but then there is more to remember about the word. Even if you practiced Japanese to Japanese, you would run into some of the same issues. Basically, you can’t be completely confident of how to use it.

For example, take a word like 知人 (chijin), which is sometimes defined as ‘friend’ or ‘acquaintance’. The second definition is a little more accurate, basically it is someone that you know but maybe don’t hang out with a lot, and it is usually used in business situations. It’s hard to get all that from one Anki card. Even memrise.com which has ‘mems’ that you can attach to words to help you with this isn’t well suited to the task.

Vocabulary Notebooks are better?

Keeping a vocabulary notebook involves writing down new words and phrases that you encounter during the day. Typically you put the Japanese word or phrase and then the English to match up with it. You can also expand a little more on the idea by adding pictures or example sentences. Basically anything you can think of that ties into that word.

Studies have shown that this can be a highly effective way of learning vocabulary. Students generally score higher on tests and are able to recall the words more easily and remember them for longer periods of time. And there is sometimes a social aspect to it where you can share ideas and debate what certain words mean.

But those exact same studies said that the students doing them wouldn’t be doing them if they didn’t have to (if it weren’t apart of a classroom grade). In other words, making a vocabulary notebook can be really useful, but nobody wants to really go through with it all unless they absolutely have to. They are a lot of work to put together and do all the research for, so I can see where this would be a problem.

How about you?

What do you use to lock in vocabulary? Would you use a vocabulary notebook? Do you use one now? Let me know in the comments.

{ 12 comments… add one }
  • Charlene May 13, 2013, 8:57 pm

    I personally need to write things down to remember them. It’s how I was learning in high school and university. So I have a vocabulary notebook (and a Japanese grammar book). But I still use applications like Sticky Study to study everywhere, whenever I’m waiting for someone or in the bus. Unfortunately for me, it’s the same for kanji, I also need to practise writing them to remember them which is really time consuming. I’m also using Memrise to study (after reading about it here! ^_^ )
    It seems to me all these tools are kind of complementary. I discover new words/ kanjis with SRS tools, but to really appropriate myself the meaning, writing them down and building sentences really helps (sorry English is not my mother language, not sure I make sense)

    • Clayton MacKnight May 19, 2013, 3:35 pm

      That makes total sense. I’m the same way with a lot of things. I need to practice writing it, but also mindfully writing it, not just numbly doing a few drills. I think Sticky Study is great for the lower levels, but N1 was just too much vocabulary to shove in my head, so I turned to doing a lot of reading (and now freelance translation) to build vocabulary.

      Still you need to use it, in order for it to be really yours I think.

  • Ashley July 13, 2013, 9:08 am

    My hobby is translating Japanese recipes into English. At first I would just look up the words/grammar I need as it came up, but then I got really frustrated feeling like “I know I’ve seen this before, what is it?” So I started to make a list. I made a rule for myself: if I had to stop and look it up, then I had to also write it down. I copied the kanji, wrote one kun/on yomi (just so I could easily type it into a translation tool if needed) and a short English definition. After that, if I came across another word I didn’t know, first I scan my list to see if I’ve already encountered it. If not, then I make a new entry.

    It seems to help me a LOT with retention, and because I’m constantly reviewing previous stuff (to see if I already wrote it down and just didn’t remember it at the moment). Is it a perfect system? No. And it’s not the only way I study, either. But it does help me save time so I can translate faster, which IS good practice.

    • Clayton MacKnight July 15, 2013, 10:11 am

      Sounds like a pretty cool way to do it. Do you try to order the words/kanji some way? Like alphabetize or anything.

      I use to keep a vocabulary notebook when I first started studying, but then started to lose interest. I think it was because I put too much stuff in it at first. You have to be a bit picky.

  • Leeya May 25, 2014, 4:49 pm

    I’ve been studying Japanese nearly two years now, and I’ve discovered many methods that work, and some that don’t.
    Ways that work for me:
    I first started out using Rosetta Stone, and that worked very well, because there was plenty of repetition linked to pictures and context. I also used Pimsluers audio files during that time, and it helped to memorize the vocabulary in sets of phrases.
    Currently, I’m playing Japanese kid’s computer games online, watching anime everyday, and trying to memorize a new word from the anime a day, reading Japanese kid’s books and magazines, I meet with two Japanese tutors and we talk, work out of text books, and they help me interpret whatever I’ve been working on that week, I’ll come up with craft projects for myself to help me remember vocabulary (like right now, I’m making a Katamary Demacy ball out of paper with all my new vocabulary words in it), and the best method that works for me: I’ve been memorizing Japanese songs – especially kid’s songs, and dubbed Disney songs.
    I’ve learned that memorizing words with context is the only way it will stick.

    Ways that don’t as much:
    Not that these ways are a waste of time, they just don’t work AS well (for me):
    Writing and re-writing everything in notebooks (it’s just not very stimulating, so I just simply won’t remember doing it).
    Making flashcards- Same reason, and also, no context for each word.
    Playing this DS game called My Japanese Coach – I play this game to help me fall asleep at night – enough said.
    Writing to Pen Pals- unless I memorize our conversation word for word, I’m not going to remember it (but it’s still good practice)
    Watching anime – this was also in the “it works for me” section. This is because it’s so important to get comfortable with hearing how people use Japanese fluently, and I will learn averagely one new word every few episodes, it’s just not that efficient.
    -Going to school: I took a semester of Japanese at a community college, and as good as it was to meet some friends, I don’t remember much Japanese from that experience. It was all about studying for tests in working in boring workbooks, and you already know how I feel about just studying each word without a phrase or context on a flashcard, so you can memorize it just for a test…
    …Yeah, that’s about it. But just exposing myself to all of these different methods all at once helps me store vocabulary in various cuby-holes in my brain all in the same day, so I like to vary it up.
    I hope this helps some other people!
    Anyway, I’m here on this board now because I’ve been exposed to an overwhelming amount of new words lately, and I’m looking for new methods to help me memorize them… anyone got any ideas?

    • Clayton MacKnight May 28, 2014, 2:32 pm

      Wow, this is a lot of great advice, and I agree with a lot of it. I think everyone has their own way of learning and one of the most difficult parts of learning a language is sometimes learning to learn. It can be quite difficult.

      Thanks for sharing.

  • Hoang Phu March 19, 2015, 3:48 am

    From beginning I have used Anki to memorize Japanese new words.
    I think it is pretty good for beginner.
    But as the level go up, Anki is not efficient for me, so I think the best way is to read Japanese News everyday.

    To begin with that you can try NEWS WEB EASY to read NHK news in simple version, which is supposed for Japanese Students (Primary & Secondary school) and Foreigner who want to learn Japanese.
    As this is web version, if you have a Android phone then you can download this app to browse easier: Android Apps on Google Play

    Good luck with your Japanese Study!

    • Clayton MacKnight March 19, 2015, 2:01 pm

      Yeah, I’ve used NEWS WEB EASY before. It is a great resource. I got little tired of the computer voice, but it can be a great way to step into reading in Japanese.

  • Albaraa Sami Khayat June 8, 2018, 3:06 am

    By marking words as favorite (gold star) in Google translate after translating them, then exporting the fav list to a spreadsheet, and then bulk adding those words to my Memrise course I combine both SRS and having a personal notebook, but without handwriting anything. You get a large personalized vocab in little time, but you also get horrible at writing kanji.

    • Clayton MacKnight June 12, 2018, 12:15 am

      This sounds like a brilliant idea and plan. I tend to use Google translate a lot. It has gotten a lot better these days.

  • Marie Puddu August 19, 2018, 10:54 pm

    It’s the same way as keeping a diary. It sort of reinforces your language learning and keeps your interest going. It helps you connect the ideas. So a good notebook should always be handy.

    • Clayton MacKnight August 23, 2018, 11:11 pm

      Yeah, a lot of people swear by a vocab notebook. I’ve always had a hard time keeping up the habit though.

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