The N5 level covers around 700 of the most common words in Japanese. There is no set list of vocabulary that you can memorize to cover everything that you might see on the exam, but my Memrise N5 course is a good guess of the most common words that might come up on the exam.
Generally speaking though, the vocabulary you see at this level will be pretty common stuff that you will see/hear on a daily basis if you are using Japanese. Things like common actions, family members, numbers, directions and common function words that are used very often. And actually 700 words seems like a lot, but it is still not as much as you need to have a comfortable conversation. It is a good start though.
Learning vocabulary at any level involves two things – SRS (Spaced Repetition System) and exposure. SRS is a system of learning vocabulary (and sometimes grammar) that involves spacing out the items you are learning so that you review them at regular intervals, read this for more details. Exposure involves reading, listening, and using language as much as you can periodically. Vocabulary is something that needs time to grow, the number of times you study is better than the amount of time you spend in each study session.
There are a few main groups of N5 words: actions, family, numbers, directions, and functions. Let’s take a look at a few approaches we can take to knock each of these out.
There are a lot of words for things you do every day like eat (食べる, taberu), drink (飲む, nomu), sleep (眠る, nemuru) or shower/bathe (浴びる, abiru). Since you do these every day, it’s pretty easy to practice using these in a daily diary of some kind. Or just practice using the vocabulary while you are doing it.
Words for different family members can be a real headache at times. First of all, there are two different sets of words for family, one set is used to talk about your family while another set is used to talk about another person’s family.
The second problem you have to deal with is that these words are used a lot more often in Japanese. For example, siblings might refer to each other as “younger sister” (妹, imouto) and “older brother” (兄, ani) instead of by first names. This can make listening a little more difficult.
A good way to practice this is to make your own family tree and label all your family. Try to attach a personal image to each word. If you happen to have a rather small family you could use an imaginary family or a famous family like the Simpsons or another TV family.
In the book “Made to Stick,” the Heath brothers describe the difference between learning math in America and in much of Asia. Apparently, in Asia more physical examples are used. The teacher actually counts out books in front of the students so they can see with their eyes things being added and subtracted. They take abstract ideas and make them concrete which is something I try to stress a lot to learners.
So instead of staring at some chart full of numbers and counters in a book, try to use counters to count things in your real life. Of course, you also might want to verify with a native if you are using the right counters for each object, but whenever you find yourself counting something, count in Japanese.
The same goes for the 1st 10 days of the month. These are tricky little devils that will probably come up on the listening section. If not on N5, I’m sure it will crop up somewhere, so it is best to make them automatic. Also, if you are in Japan, you’ll need them to make appointments.
Here are another set of words that you can use in your everyday life. Try to write directions and locations of things in your neighborhood. When you go for a walk, talk to yourself about where things are. I know this is a little strange at first, but everybody talks to themselves, so don’t worry about getting embarrassed too much. You might want to talk softly though.
These are words like たぶん(tabun, probably) and あまり (amari, not very) that border on grammar. They tend to have a few rules to how they are used and might actually be listed in a grammar book for N5, but they will show up in the vocabulary section. Also in this group are こそあど言葉 (kosoadokotoba, ko-so-a-words), these are things like こちら (kochira, this way), そこ (soko, there), and これ (kore, this thing).
These are pretty abstract and hard to relate to the real world. Try to use them as much as possible and make them automatic through use more than just memorizing a definition with a flashcard or a SRS.
Resources for JLPT N5 Vocabulary
You are going to need a few tools of the trade to master these words. Here is a short list of resources that I felt really helped me out.
Memrise JLPT N5 Course – this course is arranged so that it will first test you with just the word in kana and then give you the kanji and you have to type the reading (or kana). I think this should be a big help with both the kanji for the test and the vocabulary, especially with all the mems to help you remember the words. Also, most of the audio is available, so you can hear the pronunciation of the words.
This course is also available via AnkiWeb if you are an Anki fan.
Readthekanji.com – this is a very slickly designed site that practices kanji readings. The best part about it is you don’t have to deal with an IME. The site has a kind of IME built into it. You really have to see it to believe it. There are also example sentences to help you get a feeling for each word. Also, the N5 level is free (there is a monthly/yearly fee for the higher levels).
Kanji Flashcards – These are technically for kanji, but they are also a big help for learning vocabulary as well. If you like the feeling of paper to study with, these are incredibly thorough. They have stroke order, common words for N5 as well as other words that use the same kanji. I used the more advanced deck when I studied for N2.
Graded Readers – It is never too early to start reading, and these graded readers are great. They use a limited set of vocabulary so that you don’t need to look up too many words, and should be able to learn a lot of words from context. You will still need some knowledge of N5 grammar though, so if you just starting out, you might want to wait a little while.
Nihongo Mondai 500 – This is a great little book that has 3 types of questions on one page – kanji, vocabulary, and grammar and then answers and explanations on the next page. Great little book to use to practice drilling with. It covers both N5 and N4 levels though, so might be a little too difficult.
How are your Studies going?
Are you studying the vocabulary for the N5? What words are you having trouble with? Let me know in the comments below.