How to Learn Japanese Vocabulary Fast

800px-Shinkansen

In this comprehensive post on how to learn spoken Japanese vocabulary fast, you’ll learn a method of using a specific new, free technology to learn 2,000 words of Japanese vocabulary in one month.

In addition, I’ll reference peer-reviewed scholarly articles which explain why this powerful combination of technology and study method works so well.

Learning 2,000 words of spoken Japanese vocabulary in one month is easy. All you need is time, the spaced repetition study technology linked in the post, and the study method I’ll spell out.

You can get a good deal from rehearsal
If it just has the proper dispersal.
You would just be an ass,
To do it in a mass:
Your remembering would turn out much worsal.
-Ulrich Neisser (1928-2012)

 

How much time per day does it take to learn 2,000 words of Japanese vocabulary in one month?

You need at least two hours a day for a month. In months afterward, for maintenance, you’ll need an hour once or twice a week for maintenance.  The time required for maintenance will decrease even more with time.

Does this method work for written and spoken Japanese?

We’re focused in this post only on how to learn spoken Japanese vocabulary.

This method won’t teach you to write Japanese.

This method involves some incidental reading, although it doesn’t specifically teach you to read Japanese. You’ll read Japanese words as prompts in a flash card system. You have two choices:

  1. You can use Romaji (English alphabet).
  2. You can use kana (Japanese hiragana and katana).

(If you don’t already read kana, there’s no need to study it first. Purists will scorn this fact, but since it’s a true fact, the scorn rebounds to them. You can learn thousands of words of spoken Japanese, become fluent in spoken Japanese, while using only Romaji (the “English alphabet”). Learning to read kana is easy, but of course using Romaji is even easier. If you’re in a hurry, there’s no need to learn kana before starting on a 2,000-word vocabulary challenge.)

 

romaji sign-2
Train Station Sign with Kanji, Hiragana, and Romaji.

 

 

hiragana and katakana
Hiragana and Katana are easy to learn, but not as easy as using Romaji, if you’re in a hurry.

 

Learning Kanji is one of the most challenging linguistic feats possible for westerners. It's not the place to begin, and you never absolutely have to go there.
Learning Kanji is one of the most challenging linguistic feats possible for westerners. It’s not the place to begin, and you never absolutely have to go there.

 

Learning 2,000 words of written Japanese vocabulary via Kanji is far more difficult than learning spoken Japanese. It isn’t covered in this post. In this post I don’t show you how to learn 2,000 Kanji in one month. (In fact, learning Kanji may be the most difficult language learning feat possible for native English speakers.)

The methods described in this post unquestionably work for learning Kanji, too. But since learning Kanji is far more complex than learning spoken words, it takes much longer — several months, perhaps a year or more, for most people. Most Kanji have at least two readings, depending on how they’re combined with other Kanji in context. I’ve never studied Kanji or been much interested in acquiring a large Kanji vocabulary.

 

 

What does learning massive amounts of vocabulary have to do with fluency? Isn’t learning a lot of vocabulary old-fashioned and pointless?

Vocabulary memorization has a bad reputation among some language learners and teachers. That’s understandable but wrong-headed. It’s a reaction against the beginner’s notion that memorizing words will lead to fluency. It’s also a reaction against old-fashioned methods of rote learning, which are ineffective and boring.

Of course, learning the most common 2000 words in Japanese will not make anyone fluent in Japanese.

A good vocabulary is not sufficient for fluency, but it’s absolutely necessary for fluency. If you don’t know common words in Japanese, you’re not really fluent, even if you can order miso soup fluently.  You need many things for fluency. These include a broad basic range of vocabulary. There’s no set number of words, of course, but 2,000 is generally accepted as a minimum.

A spaced repetition flash card program is simply the fastest way to learn 2,000 words of a foreign language. This fact not in dispute by anyone familiar with the research, although surprisingly few teachers know about it.

But wait! Isn’t rote learning of vocabulary stupid and ineffective?

The answer depends on what you mean by “rote.”

If “rote learning” means cramming lists of vocabulary words in a repetitive, mechanical way, in preparation for a test, then of course rote learning is useless, except for passing a useless test. Vocabulary “learned” in such a way doesn’t remain longer than a few days.

But if by “rote learning” you mean spaced repetition using computer-mediated logarithmic flash cards, complete with just-in-time review, then answer is altogether different: this kind of “rote learning” is a miraculous method for moving vast amounts of foreign language vocabulary smoothly into your long-term memory.

A spaced repetition flash card program is simply the fastest way to learn 2,000 words of a foreign language. This fact not in dispute by anyone familiar with the research, although surprisingly few teachers know about it.

In The Science section below, I show you the evidence.

But first let’s look at the tools and the method.

 

 

The tools and where to get them

I recommend either or both of two spaced repetition flash card systems: JapanesePod101.com’s flash card module and/or Anki. I use both.

The flash card module of JapanesePod101.com is a turn-key package with 2,000 basic words. It’s web-based and costs a subscription fee. The first 100 words are free forever, so they’re a good test case for you to see the power of the system. Also, you can get access to 2,000 cards for one month for $1 by following the advice in this post. Otherwise, it’s $25 per month at most, but longer subscriptions greatly reduce the per month price).

The second is Anki, which is open-source. It’s highly customizable, free, enjoys a large community of users, and many shared flash card sets. A potentially huge disadvantage, especially for beginners: you have to put together your word lists yourself, or scramble around among shared flash card decks. The quality of the lists isn’t as high as Japanesepod101.com’s list. The scope of the coverage isn’t as thorough.

Why do spaced repetition study systems work so well for foreign language vocabulary?

A spaced repetition flash card system works by logarithmically rescheduling flash cards according to how well you remember the answers. It presents you with a flash card just before the time you’re likely to forget the information on it. It also requires active recall instead of passive review.

  1. If you choose “Didn’t Know”, the program reschedules the card immediately, and again within minutes.
  2. If you choose “I Knew it OK”, the program reschedules the card at a set interval into the future, most commonly within hours, or for the next day.
  3. If you choose “I Knew it Well,” the program reschedules the card at a longer interval, perhaps 3 days’ time.  The more often in succession you choose “I Knew it Well”, the longer the interval becomes.

With each successive correct answer of a given card, the program reschedules it further and further into the future. In this way, the program serves you the card just before the time you might forget it. This has an enormous positive effect on your brain’s ability to remember and produce the word.

It’s no stretch to say a spaced repetition study program is a machine for programming your brain.

 

JapanesePod101.com

The best choice for beginners is JapanesePod101.com.

 

modes of study at japanesepod101

 

Note that the JapanesePod101.com flash card system is just one component of a robust, full-fledged language learning program which can be had for as little as $1 a month for a limited time. The list price at the moment is $25 for a month-to-month subscription. If you buy longer-term subscriptions (a year, or up to two years), the per-month price drops lower.

It’s the best choice for beginners because of the following benefits:

  • You get a turn-key deck of 2,000 basic words
  • It’s fully integrated in a massive, deep, wide, continually-growing, professionally-produced language-learning ecosystem. Lessons. Podcasts. PDF notes. Videos. Downloadable mp3 audio. The quality, scope, cross-referencing, and massive volume of this material is like Tokyo itself: you’ll never get to the end of it, because more is being added all the time. It’s a world.
  • There’s a fairly active community of learners in the JapanesePod101.com system.
  • You learn to recognize the written Japanese words in Romaji or kana (also Kanji, but that’s not our concern if we want to learn Japanese vocabulary rapidly) with Recognition Study Mode
  • You learn to hear the Japanese word with Listening Comprehension Study Mode.
  • You learn to produce the word automatically with Production Study Mode.
  • You tune your ears to native speakers’ audio.
  • You build neural connections via the several example sentences on most cards. (The more neural connections, the firmer and more accessible the word will be in your memory.) These example sentences also have native Japanese audio.
  • You build more neural connections via images for most cards.
  • You have a full menu of choices in what level of recognition, listening comprehension, and production modes of study. (That is, you can choose to learn via Kanji, Romaji, Kana, or combinations. See the illustration below of this setting of a JapanesePod101.com flash card deck.)

 Anki

An excellent free option is Anki.

Anki front page image

Anki is an open-source spaced-repetition flash card system used for everything from medical school to law school to language learning, since users can customize it for any use. Language learners comprise one of the largest segments of Anki users.

A disadvantage of Anki compared to LanguagePod101 is  the learning curve for the program itself. It’s not difficult, but it’s not exactly intuitive, either. Further disadvantages, looking beyond vocabulary learning: it’s a flash card system only, and it’s not integrated into any language learning system.

The advantages of Anki are

  • It’s “free.” It is truly free, if all you mean by free is that you don’t have to pay money for it. But keep in mind you’ll have to pay time in setting it up, finding or making flash card decks, and occasionally troubleshooting.
  • It’s fully customizable. You can add words at will.
  • You can style the cards with html and css
  • You can customize the back end (intervals of time for rescheduling cards)
  • You can download and use plugins for customizing it further
  • You can add Google translate audio via the TTS plugin (this plugin is extremely useful for customizing vocabulary card decks with audio)
  • You can record your own audio (a questionable tactic if you’re a new language learner; but technologically it is easy)
  • You can add your own images (an inefficient use of time, since you can simply imagine images faster and more effectively for vocabulary learning; but technologically it is easy)

The Method: Exactly how to use spaced repetition flash card programs to learn Japanese vocabulary as fast as possible

  • Set up your flash card deck or decks correctly. (See videos below.)
  • Schedule about 2 hours a day, 3 hours if you can, for a month. The hours per day do not have to be consecutive. It’s better if they aren’t, because you’ll avoid some fatigue by breaking up your study times; but in the end it doesn’t really matter as long as you put in the time.
  • Imagine an absurd mnemonic hook for each word when you first encounter it.
    • For example: the Japanese word for “apple” is “ringo.” You might imagine Ringo Starr with an apple on his head, under a bright star.) Quickly remember this mnemonic hook each time you study the flash card for “ringo”. Soon, before the end of your month of learning 2,000, this mental framework will drop away naturally; you’ll simply know and remember that “ringo” means what we mean by “apple”.
  • Imagine or read a short example phrase for each word when you first encounter it. (see the video below). Occasionally (but not always, because always would cumulatively cost too much time), repeat the example phrase when you encounter the word later.
    • For beginners, feel free to combine your native language with the language you’re learning. (For example: “I packed a ringo in my lunch.”)  Some may object that English contextualization of a Japanese word defeats the purpose. That’s not true. The point of this tactic is to build neural connections, enabling you to remember vocabulary.
    • If you have enough knowledge of Japanese, use a Japanese sentence But use one which is well below your level of understanding.  Something very simple is enough. (For example, “Ringo o tabemashita.”) Avoid wasting attention bandwidth trying to remember a sentence above your level.
    • (If you’re using JapanesePod101, example phrases are included for most words. If you’re using Anki, you can add them to your cards. See the video below.)
  •  Speak aloud when you study.
    • At a minimum speak aloud each word as it arises.
    • Speaking aloud involves more neurons, and trains your mouth’s muscle memory for making Japanese sounds and specific words.
    • Even better, chatter here and there, without regard to grammar, as you proceed through the deck. You’ll learn grammar later. The point, once again, is establishing neural connections to the words you’re learning, so that you’ll have more pathways to recall them later.
  • Words that give you trouble need a different mnemonic hook.

How to Set Up JapanesePod101.com Flash Card Decks for Learning 2,000 Words in a Month

 

How to Choose Settings for Your Flash Card Deck in JapanesePod101.com

 

 

How to Download and Install a Shared Anki Flash Card Deck (below)

 

The Science

Studies show that not only are mnemonic devices useful, but having students make their own mnemonic devices for vocabulary is especially effective.
Kuo, M., & Hooper, S. (2004). The effects of visual and verbal coding mnemonics on learning Chinese characters in computer-based instruction.

Spaced repetition systems are especially effective for languages far different from your own (such as Japanese, if you’re a native English speaker). “Working with an SRS also probably makes the most sense for learners without ready access to an immersive environment for the language(s) they are studying.”
Jones, Robert Goodwin (June, 2010) Language Learning & Technology, Volume 14, Number 2 pp. 4–11. “Emerging Technologies from Memory Palaces to Spacing Algorithms: Approaches to Second Language Vocabulary Learning.” 

 

“A robust finding that has emerged from cognitive psychological research is that spaced repetition
leads to better retention than massed repetition.”

A cleare advantage of spaced repetition systems is their efficiency in preventing overlearning of some words and not learning others well enough.
Rohrera, Doug (2009), European Journal of Cognitive Psychology, Volume 21, Issue 7, pages 1001-1012. “Avoidance of overlearning characterises the spacing effect.”

The Mother Lodes

Finally, two mother lodes of information about the advantages of using a spaced repetition system for learning vocabulary is Spaced Learning: Its Implications in the Language Classroom, a 2014 article by Damaris Castro-Garcia in the journal Revista de Lenguas Modernas. (From which I borrowed the limerical quotation of Ulrich Nesser which kicked off this blog post.)
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