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.