How to Learn Japanese Vocabulary

Do you want to know how to learn vocabulary in a way that really sticks? Check out this video:


Prefer to read? Here’s the transcript:

Vocabulary is the building blocks of languages. All those words build up into phrases, the things that we understand, the things that are said and written to us and the things that we produce, the things that we say and the things that we write down. Clearly the more words you know, the easier it is to communicate.

In this 25 (Mostly) Free Japanese Language Learning Resources you’re going to be learning a lot of vocabulary. When you’re just getting started in the language, you’re at the novice level. It takes quite a long time to get out of that novice level. The novice level, you’re learning words and you’re learning phrases. At the end of that novice level you can start making your own phrases and sentences. When you hit the intermediate level is when you can start creating with language. You’ve got enough words and phrases to create with language. You are far from fluent, you’re far from the way I’m speaking right now, but you can have simple conversations. As you move through that intermediate level up into the advanced level, you’re really communicating in strong paragraphs. Then up through the advanced level you’re getting into extended, connected discourse and speech.

Clearly to be able to get out of that novice level or to get to any other level you need more vocabulary. One issue that I have with certain traditional methods is this idea that you’re just going to learn a whole bunch of words and then they’re all going to start working together, and you’re going to magically to be able to speak the language, which is on one hand very much true, but on the other hand, it very much is not true. You need to learn words and phrases that are going to stick with you. It’s very difficult when they’re out of context.

Let’s look at this slide. You see I’ve got a few words on here. I’ve got ball, tomorrow, I’d, like, this. These are all useful words and phrases, or actually not any phrases, but they’re all useful. You need them to make sentences. If you speak a language, you’ll probably say them at some point. Memorizing a bunch of random words isn’t particularly useful. It’s nice but you got to be able to do something with it in the end. Think about these five words.

Now let’s look at a couple of these words grouped together: I’d like. Okay, that’s actually really useful, I’d like. Think about how many times you would say that and at how many different levels of proficiency and fluency you might say that. For example, I’d like a coffee. I’d like to go. I’d like to leave. Now that’s a useful phrase right there, I’d like.

Here’s another one, this ball. While not particularly useful necessarily, or as useful rather, as I’d like, or this ball isn’t particularly useful on its own, you can see how that might be easier to remember than this and ball separately. It’s a little bit more useful. Tomorrow. That’s just a word on its own. If you think about those five words on trying to learn them all together, they’re really only useful in certain contexts. I’d say I’d like in one context and I might say this ball in another context, unless of course I’m saying I’d like this ball. I might say tomorrow.

Basically what’s really important is to learn vocabulary that’s going to lead you to something. It’s going to lead you to be able to do something in the language. If you’re learning vocabulary to talk about furniture, for example, probably the most useful context beyond that of just learning the vocabulary … might learning to be able to describe your house or describe your ideal house, or describe the most amazing house you’ve ever seen in a magazine. You’re going to do something. That’s really important to remember in languages. You always want to be thinking about what you can do, not necessarily what you know or what you don’t know but what you can do.

The method of learning vocabulary in useful groups, useful, meaningful contexts, is called chunking. The example from the three slides that I showed you of the five words, grouping those five random words together, the most useful chunk there would be I’d like. That’s going to get you some communication. It’s going to get you some power to be able to communicate with people. You’re going to get something out of that more than you probably would with this ball, particularly for beginners.

Tomorrow is another useful one. How many times might you answer, “Tomorrow,” in a language? Quite frankly, I can tell you, when talking about appointments or when things are going to happen. I wanted to show you some different examples of chunking for travel and beginners.

Here we have some examples of chunking in Spanish. These are all chunked into groups of useful things to say. Even the things that aren’t as useful to say, there’s definitely some context for … there’s some patterns going on there to further teach you some grammar and vocabulary and context. For example, let me back up. I’ve got [Spanish 00:08:22]. Here we have somebody saying something that would be very useful to say as you’re traveling. Here’s my passport and my landing card. Now maybe something that isn’t as useful might be [Spanish 00:08:39]. My suitcase is gray. However, you’re going to learn and see patterns as you study these groups, these chunks of useful vocabulary, that all fit into one context together. Here’s another example in French. This is all about getting around. These are chunks. They’re not just random words like we saw in that first slide with the five words. They are chunked into useful words and phrases that are all going to fulfill a particular communicative task.

Here we have another example in Korean. This is, again, getting around. Here we’ve got some vocabulary for waiting at the airport. Again, you might not need this. You may be encountering people that speak English, but this is a fantastic place to start learning words and phrases in chunks and groups that fulfill particular communicative tasks because it will stick a lot better than it will if you just think of them randomly learning different groups of words. There’s a time and a place for that. It’s great to review groups of vocabulary when you’re on your own and you don’t necessarily have the pressure of talking to someone, you’ve got some downtime, maybe you want to do some flashcards. It’s a great thing.

The next thing that I want to talking about are playlists. If you’re at the novice level, your whole goal is to get communicating. You want to be able to learn words and phrases to be able to communicate and to be able to understand things that are being said to you. We talked about that chunking, that really important concept of being able to focus on the things that are going to get you able to do something in a language, whatever that may be. It can be so many different things. It could be greeting people. It could be complaining at a restaurant. It could be getting something to drink. It could be dealing with a flat tire. There’s so many different linguistic tasks that you can think about, but you want to think in chunks, chunks of useful vocabulary that fit into common communicative tasks.

Once you get enough of these words and phrases going, they all start working together, and then magically, or not so magically, you did it from hard work, you become an intermediate level speaker, someone who can make their own words and phrases from knowing all of these different bits of vocabulary. You’ll find, for all of the words and phrases that are taught in this course, they’re all MP3s that are recorded by native speakers. You can make your own playlists. The thing that I love most about this, I think here’s the example we’re looking at here, Japanese greetings and taking leave. I’ve grouped all of this vocabulary here into that one theme. As you see, I’ve got some words and I’ve got some phrases.

What I really like about this is I can make my own playlists. A lot of these words, obviously there’s a lot of overlap. You might find that some of your words and phrases are going to fit into other ones. For example, hello or good evening might fit into greetings and taking leave, but it might also fit into eating and drinking, going to a restaurant. One of the most rewarding things is to see your playlists grow. It’s the most useful thing in the world to be able to organize. You can just press your phone or your tablet and you’ve got a native speaking tutor right there at your fingertips and you’re hearing all the sound and the intonation from a native speaker. It’s just amazing. It’s this great tutor that’s on demand.

What you’ll want to do is just play them over and over again and very soon you’ll be speaking. They can be somewhat cumbersome dealing with all of these tiny MP3s. However, you’re just getting these little see clips. You get these little clips, these little clips that you can repeat over and over and over again until it’s in your brain. That’s how you learn languages. Remember, we talked about crashing and learning languages. You learn by understanding. People learn languages by understanding messages, and this is a great way to do it. You play it over and over again until then you’re speaking, and then it’s in your memory, and then it becomes part of your language. Make your playlists using your native speaking MP3s.

Another very popular to learn vocabulary are Anki flashcards. We’ve got a link here for you to get some better tutorials than I could give you on using Anki flashcards. They’ve got a huge following. You can actually download Anki for your PC or your Mac and you can, on AnkiWeb I should say, you can go in and lots of people share their Anki flashcards. They’re intelligent flashcards. You can add sound, which all of your Anki cards have. You can add images, which your Anki cards at this point don’t. You can of course edit them and add your own images if you’d like to. They’re intelligent. Basically, it’s spaced repetition, and it’s very, very, very popular. You can adjust the settings to what you like. What’s fantastic is AnkiWeb lots of people share their flashcards. It’s a really great resource.

If you use Anki on your phone, which is a very logical use for it, you actually have to pay for the app. The app is not free. I should point that out. It’s a fantastic way to get input. You’ve got the scientific brain, memory, knowledge that was put into developing these Anki cards, these intelligent flashcards, along with that input of language. You’re going to hear and you’re going to see language at the same time. It’s a great way to learn. Again, when you’re not talking to people, it’s just a fantastic way to get it in your brain. Once it’s really in your brain, it’s going to stick.

We also have another resource here for you. Again, it’s these chunks of vocabulary that are grouped by communicative task. You see you’ve got your English and you’ve got your Japanese, as well as the Romaji with it. As you’re getting to become familiar with Japanese script, Kanji Hiragana, Katakana, you’re going to get to hear that at the same time. It will start to help you become proficient in reading Japanese. One way to use these, your practice sheets, is to do some old school, old style hand to brain practice. I’m going to go through a few examples in French here, but you can apply them to any language. You can choose Japanese, for example. You can choose to work on your Japanese script or you can just choose to do it out in Romaji. When you’re beginning with a language, remember when you first started learning your language, you did not learn how to write. When we learn have to read in a language and we learn how to read in our own language, we’re learning with the language we say, the language we speak, a visual representation of that.

As an adult, a literate adult, you get to jump into understanding the concept of written language. But if you want to get communicating right away I would encourage you to stay away from that. Be aware of it, look at it. You’re going to start seeing some patterns, but really focus on getting communicating first. As you do these hand to brain exercises, let it be up to you whether or not you choose to focus on written language or not, but you want to do the hand to brain thing because it’s going to stick. It’s really going to stick.

Here’s the example. The theme is my family, [French 00:17:57]. The language itself is irrelevant but I just want to show you the setup. We’ve got a whole set of vocabulary. This is talking about my family. I did this actually years ago. I have a home in France with my partner, and we have family there, so this was actually talking about Christmas time. If you see, on one hand I’ve got the English and on the other side we’ve got the French, this column. The goal is to be able to get both sides eventually.

It’s always easiest to start with recognizing the target language in your own. You see I folded that piece of paper over, the column, and I recognized. I wrote down all of those words and phrases in English. I recognized them. That’s a lot easier. That’s the first step. Understanding is the first step. Back to that, understanding is a first step. Crashing. We learn languages by understanding messages.

Look at this here. Now I’m back to English. I’m going to challenge myself. This is the really hard part. I’m going to go back to the target language and fill in. That’s the ultimately goal, is that you want both sides of that column filled in. What’s fantastic is I don’t show you all the little gaps along the way. Actually, we see one right there. I’m sorry, I didn’t fill in engineer in French. I guess at that time I couldn’t remember it. … is every word or phrase you don’t know, it’s a really obvious thing. Go back and review it and keep doing it. After you do this a couple of times, you’re going to know a whole vocabulary set.

I would encourage you to choose the method that you like the best, but please don’t dismiss any other methods. They’ve all got strengths and they can all help you develop your language skills in different ways. The playlists are completely personalized. You can completely personalize a playlist. It can grow. It can completely become yours. Many years ago when I was working in Seoul, Korea, I started, this was before smartphones, my own task notebooks. They helped me survive. This is how I learned a lot of Korean, was I would have to sit down and actually write down everything I needed to go to the bank, to have food delivered to my house, to have the taxi driver take me to my apartment. Those were all critical for me. I would have to write down the English and the Korean. Now the playlists are just a modern version of that. I could pull out my phone and I’ve got whatever I need to say right there. As I’m learning it, if I don’t quite know it, I can press it and play it for that person. It’s just completely on demand language. It’s amazing, and it’s completely personalized.

The Anki cards are fantastic because they’ve got constantly review right there at your fingertips. Again, you can personalize these too and you can share. You don’t necessarily have to make all of your Anki cards. You can go on AnkiWeb, and lots of people share them back and forth. It’s got that spaced repetition. You can read the settings and personalize but you can really make a great personalized experience in a language.

This old fashioned vocabulary column, hand to brain thing, it can be boring, it can be not very fun, but it’s an amazing way to really cement something into your brain. It works especially well too if you want to focus on starting to learn some written language in your target language, start learning Kanji and Hiragana and Katakana all in context. It’s all in those contexts of those vocabulary chunks.

Please be sure that you try all methods. I would also encourage you to shake it up a little bit, mix it up so you don’t get bored doing one thing and you get the benefits of all of them.


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