Ultimate Guide to Learning Japanese Vocabulary

By Meridian Jordan and Natasha Henriksson | Updated November 11, 2019

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Here’s the BFF Tokyo’s Ultimate Guide to Learning Japanese Vocabulary. Our mission is to give you advice and to help you learn Japanese vocabulary at your own pace in a beneficial way.

Start you Adventure with Japanese Vocabulary

Vocabulary is the building block of every language, including Japanese. It makes it easier to express complex thoughts and emotions. I know these statements can feel obvious and redundant to repeat but it's still important to keep these facts in mind. 

Setting Achievable Goals

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Setting achievable goals is a great way to keep yourself motivated when you're learning a new language. Achievable goals are defined as, specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely. If you're confused about what goal to set first, here are the recommend goal-setting steps.

  1. Start with One Goal
  2. Write your Goal Down
  3. Set Short-term Milestones
  4. Be Specific
  5. Measure Actions as well as Progress
  6. Set Goals you actually want to Achieve

Using Benchmarks to help Measure Progress

The goal-setting system like benchmarks provides guideposts on your Japanese vocabulary progress. For example, the ones used in video games could even be applied to Japanese vocabulary. When you start a video game, it gives you progress updates by how much you've completed. You can track your vocabulary like you're playing a video game.

In black and whites terms, you need to know 10,000 words to be fluent in a language and at least 2000 words to be conversational. This a completely arbitrary number and won’t be able to define your fluency, but using it as a benchmark a good indicator of your fluency.

A good example of how to set benchmarks is by establishing how many words you want to learn depending on the time frame you set for yourself.

  • Goal 1: 30 words
  • Goal 2: 100 words
  • Goal 3: 500 words
  • Goal 4: 1000 words
  • Goal 5: 2000 words

Learning Japanese Vocabulary through Frequency

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Think about the 100 most common words in English, then choose 20 or 30 most frequent words that you use and try to make a list of them. Learning the most frequent words you use on a daily basis and adding them to your Japanese vocabulary is a great way to learn. If you use these words on a daily basis after you say them in English repeat them in Japanese. Chances are if you use those words frequently in English you'll use them just as much in Japanese.

Here are some examples of the most frequent words used in the English language and what they are in Japanese.

I ji-bu-nn
Thank You ari-ga-to
Me wa-ta-shi (female) bo-ku (male)
Food ta-be-mono
Good ge-nn-ki
Tired shi-nn-do-i
Sorry go-menn-na-sai
Hello kon-ni-chi-wa
Cold sa-mu-i
Hot a-tsu-i

Whether you are aiming to become conversational or fluent, it is important to practice basic vocabulary.

A great way to start learning is by creating a list with your top 30 words on it. Next, translate them into Japanese and you have an excellent start to your vocabulary building! Once you have memorized your list, try this list -  the 100 most frequently used words in Japanese - you’ll likely find many overlaps with your list.

https://www.japanesepod101.com/japanese-word-lists/

When you are done with that, have fun researching your own decks and see if any fit what you are looking for! Here’s my recommendation - check out this Anki deck of the most 2000 most frequent words used in Japanese.

https://ankiweb.net/shared/info/2141233552

Learning Japanese Vocabulary through Kanji

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Learning Kanji makes it easier to expand your vocabulary because you can associate the character with a group of words. When you see the kanji you know, you can piece together which word it is.

In Japan, there are three different alphabets; hiragana, katakana, and kanji. Here are a few examples listed in their respective categories.

  1. あいえおう Hiragana
  2. アイエオウ Katakana
  3. 方位絵尾卯 Kanji

Typically, everyone begins with hiragana. In comparison to English, it would be like learning your ABC’s. Most people move onto katakana next. Katakana is used for foreign words which have been imported into Japanese. The last thing people usually learn is kanji. Kanji is a logo-graph and depending on the use of the kanji, it has numerous ways it could be read. By the time Japanese students have graduated from compulsory education, they will have learned how to read and write 2,136 kanji.

A lot of people believe because of the complicated nature of kanji, you should leave learning it to when you are at a higher level. However, people also believe that if you study kanji at the start, you’ll be on a head start to Japanese fluency.

For example, let’s look at this kanji:

This kanji is always used about food. By itself, it can be read as しょく(shoku).  This is one of the possible readings, but let’s just focus on it for now.

Just with this knowledge, you already have access to these new words

  1. 食       shoku - Food
  2. 飲食 inshoku - Eating and Drinking
  3. 和食    washoku - Japanese Food
  4. 洋食    youshoku - Western Food
  5. 食堂 shokudou - Dining Hall

If you establish that 食 and anything related to it will be about food, you have already created a link which will make it much more simple to retain information.

Learning Japanese Vocabulary with a Teacher

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We've covered ways to study by yourself, but what are some benefits to studying Japanese vocabulary with a teacher?

Recieving Corrections

  • Are you using vocabulary in a natural way?
  • Is the grammar pattern you're using correct?

These are things that you might not know on your own. Japanese teachers can provide you with the corrections in real-time. Having a Japanese teacher to help work with you in real-time is a good way to prevent having mistakes you have to fix later on. It makes the learning process move smoother and can make you feel more confident in your abilities.  It may even help you learn faster since you don't have to research words yourself and you learn how to use them properly.

Additional Practice

  • Struggling with grammar patterns and expressions?
  • Need more practice to make it sound natural?

With a Japanese teacher, you can practice Japanese vocabulary and expressions as often as you need in order to be comfortable with your understanding. If you're feeling ambitious, try substituting new words or using new vocabulary in more complex ways with your teacher. 

Learning the Right Word

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  • Does the dictionary offer 5 different word translations?
  • Not sure if you're using the right word?

In the case above, there are 24 words that can be used as a translation for the word "situation," and using the wrong word may confuse the other person.

For example, the correct use of the word jijyou (situation) is not the same as for the word jitai (situation). There are different situations where you use the word "situation" in Japanese, and the wrong "situation" can ruin your situation!

If you study with Japanese teachers, they can give you corrections, and you can also ask them what is the right word to use in each "situation."

Beneficial Ways to Learn Japanese Vocabulary

Some Japanese language schools offer housing options such as dorms. And some Japanese language schools you’ll need to find your own housing. Here we’ll differentiate the pros and cons of these options.

Japanese Vocabulary and Flashcards

You know I’m going to say it - learn Japanese through flashcards. The system is popular for a reason. The concept is simple, and you can easily create them using paper or an online template. Websites like Anki and Memrise enable you to create your own decks on your phone or desktop, you will always have the cards with you. Think you don’t have time to review? Nothing can stop you from practicing on your commute or even in a long line at the grocery store. Ten to fifteen minutes a day is enough for beginner level students.

Anki and Memrise also host user-created word lists that you can download. If you are interested in a particular subject, chances are someone has already created a deck for it. If you are studying with a well-known textbook, you will almost certainly find that someone has uploaded companion flashcards to the text.

Learning Japanese Vocabulary through Media

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Anime, video games, movies, tv shows - these are all enjoyable ways to pick up new vocabulary.

Let’s take Pokemon for example. The game is designed for children, so the vocab and grammar are relatively easy. As you play the game, write down the words you don’t understand and create a flashcard deck using them. Every time you play, go over the flashcards. Words are usually repeated in Pokemon games, so by the time you beat the game, what you’ve studied will be cemented in your mind.

Learn Japanese Vocabulary through Social Media

Along with LINE, Twitter is one of the most popular social media sites in Japan. Twitter is a great way to learn Japanese vocabulary because the language used is so varied that you’ll probably pick up words you hadn't even thought of to add to your vocabulary list. There are also a lot of accounts specifically focused on learning Japanese. Follow the ones which post a new word every day.

Here are some of our recommended Twitter accounts to follow:

https://twitter.com/japanlanguage

https://twitter.com/jaytaro

https://twitter.com/funfunconv 

When in Doubt, Review it Out

We've covered the importance of vocabulary, where a good place to start is, and the three different alphabets of Japanese. But what is the best way to learn it all?

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Ever seen this? This is the forgetting curve. It's a visualization of the hypothesis of the decline of memory over time. For a better definition, here’s good ol’ Wiki:

“[Hermann] Ebbinghaus hypothesized that the speed of forgetting depends on a number of factors such as the difficulty of the learned material (e.g. how meaningful it is), its representation and physiological factors such as stress and sleep. He further hypothesized that the basal forgetting rate differs little between individuals. He concluded that the difference in performance (e.g. at school) can be explained by mnemonic representation skills.”

He went on to come up with methods that he believed would combat the learning curve: better memory repetition, and repetition based on active recall. One of his most popular ways to improve memory repetition is the use of a mnemonic device: a technique which associates the information you're learning with an image, sentence, or word. Mnemonic devices are everywhere in our daily lives. Acronyms are one example, and so are rhymes.

Here is an example:

  • 目 = eye - it kind of looks like an eye right?
  • 貝 = shellfish looks like an eye with legs

Another useful technique is called SRS (Spaced Repetition Systems). This system reminds you of a piece of information right before you reach the forgetting threshold. Anki (one of the programs mentioned above) utilizes this system. For best results, you should aim to study in daily small chunks. Five minutes a day is often better than a two-hour cramming session. Quality over quantity will win the day!

Learn Japanese Vocabulary through Context

Another tip to help increase your Japanese vocabulary is to try adding some context to the words as you study them. Our brains don’t register input as an individual item but instead connect it to another piece of information to create a neural pathway. Simply put, your brain networks information for easier retrieval and use.

In general, Japanese is a highly contextual; sometimes sentence subjects won't be used in conversations because the speaker assumes that you already know what they are talking about.

Let's put this into practice. Let’s say that you are reading the newspaper in Japanese and come across a word you don’t know. Look up the definition of the word, study it, and then finish reading the sentence. Then reread the line and try to recall the definition of the word; do this until you're sure you've got it. The goal is to have to meaning of the word become instinct to you, just as it would if you were reading something in your native language.

Here is how I do it. Since I like reading Japanese articles online, I would pick one I wouldn’t mind staring at for a while (let’s use this one as an example). In this article, I found myself stumped when I came to this sentence:

かつてアップルは、ニッチ熱烈なファン ── 主にアーティスト、ミュージシャン 、そして筆者のようなMacおたく ── に熱く愛される”

I’ve emphasized the word I didn’t know. I understand the context of the sentence, but that one word makes me doubt my comprehension. So I’ll drag it into my favorite online Japanese dictionary and find the definition.

And now I know what the word means. Without rechecking, I’ll go over the sentence again and try to get the meaning in my head. If I screw up, I’ll just start again until it comes naturally. To make sure it sticks, I’ll add to word to my flashcard decks so I can continue studying it even when the article is long forgotten.

Yomichan/ Rikaikun

Two useful extensions for all Japanese learners: rikaikun and yomichan. When you have either installed, you can hover over Japanese words and the definition will hover over the word.

If you use Mozilla Firefox, the equivalent to rikaikun is a download called rikaichan and yomichan has the same name for Mozilla.

Final Remarks to Learning Japanese Vocabulary

If I could boil this article down into one sentence, I would say the trick to learn Japanese vocabulary is not the amount of hours you spend studying, but the amount of days you spend reviewing. For those who like to cram their studies similar to how students cram before finals, think about something you learned six months ago and how much of it do you remember now? The trick is the frequency of usage like making sentences, quiz yourself, write it down repeatedly; whatever it takes to use the language become proficient. Daily practice takes a lot of discipline but the end results are always worth it. Focus on how much you have learned rather than where you are not. Remember, language learning is a marathon, not a race. To prevent burnout, start with something on your level and then work your way up. You might not be satisfied with the short-term progress but it will pay off in the long run.

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