Tactics

5 Tips for Learning New Japanese Words

Sometimes learning Japanese feels like it’s the hardest thing in the world to do. Since it’s structured so differently from English, and uses an entirely different writing system, it can end up taking a lot of time and energy to learn.

One thing you don’t want to struggle over too much is learning new Japanese words. That’s why I’d like to share my top five tips for learning new Japanese words with you, so that you can learn any new thing quickly, and painlessly as well!

Tip 1 – Look It Up In A Dictionary

This is the obvious thing to do when you encounter something new, so I wanted to include it first. It’s a good idea to have a good Japanese to English dictionary of your own that you can flip through, but these days electronic dictionaries are much more often utilized. See what you can find on your phone or on the internet and enter in all the new Japanese words you find.

Dictionary lookups like this are great when the word only has a few potential meanings, such as the word りんご for apple. However, sometimes you will encounter a word like つける which has well over a dozen possible meanings! In situations like these, it’s helpful to use one of the other methods I’ll describe next.

Tip 2 – Ask Someone To Explain It

What I’ve found is that dictionaries are usually pretty good at explaining individual words, but not always as helpful when it comes to complete sentences. Generally speaking, it is the grammar patterns that trip up the learner and prevent comprehension from occurring.

In situations like these, it’s a good idea to reach out to someone and ask if they can explain it. This could be your teacher, a tutor, perhaps a native speaker, or even one of the many online forms for learning Japanese.

I would recommend you provide the entire sentence and then ask them for some sort of English phrase that would help understand the grammar pattern. For example, in the phrase 漢字を読めるようになった it is usually the grammar pattern [verb in potential form + ようになった] that gives people trouble. An English phrase that basically means the same thing is “have come to the point where (I) can do [verb].”

Tip 3 – Observe How It’s Used In Context

Remember when I said that dictionaries aren’t as helpful when they give you lots of different definitions for a single word? Well what do you do in those types of situations? I recommend looking at the surrounding context of the new word and observing how it is used.

Pay attention to what’s happening in the scene, listen to the tone of voice the person is using, notice who is talking to whom, and try to visualize the message and feeling that the speaker is communicating.

What this will do is help you to learn how that particular word should be used, the situations it should be used in, and the surrounding words that typically go with it. Being able to utilize this third tip will be incredibly helpful when you encounter Japanese words and phrases that can’t really be translated into English (for example, どうもこうもない).

Tip 4 – Experience The Same Information In Different Formats

One of the best ways that you can learn Japanese is by experiencing the same words and information in several different formats. The two most obvious choices would be in text (like reading a book) and audio (like listening to an audio book).

What I found to be true in my own experience is that sometimes I would read a page or two in a Japanese light novel, and I wouldn’t really have a clear understanding of what the characters were saying or what was going on. But once I listened to the same passage in the audio book, it all seemed to click and make sense.

I believe that it was the combination of using both formats that allowed my brain to get a different perspective on the same group of words, and then finally figure out the meaning behind them. Of course I was looking up word definitions and unknown grammar (Tips 1 & 2) during the reading phase, so you could say that this method involves several of the others as well.

Tip 5 – Move On And Come Back Later

Sometimes no matter what you do, you just can’t seem to figure out what a Japanese word, phrase, or grammar pattern means. What is the best thing to do in these types of situations? Just move on to new material and come back at a later time.

The human brain tends to learn things on its own schedule, and you can’t actually force it to understand something new just because you really, really want it to. All you can do it present it with lots of good examples, clear explanations, and adequate time to figure something new out.

When it comes to studying, you have to keep in mind the opportunity cost of staying on one topic. If you spend thirty minutes trying to figure out one new piece of information, what else could you have spent that time on? Could you have read a chapter in a book? Could you have done some flash cards for review? Be willing to change what you’re currently doing to something more productive.

There are many times where a piece of information is simply too advanced for you at that particular point in time, and you need to move on to other things in order to continue making progress. The good news is that when you revisit the information in a few weeks or months, the chances of you understanding it the second (or third) time around are much, much higher.

Try Using These Tips Yourself

I’ve put the tips in the order which feels the most natural to use. When you encounter something new, try looking it up in the dictionary first. If that doesn’t work, ask someone to explain it to you, whether it’s your teacher or someone online.

If you can’t get a clear answer from another person, then try observing how its used in context to see if you can figure out the meaning behind it. Be sure to experience it in multiple ways (text, audio, etc.) if possible in order to give your brain many opportunities to understand it.

Finally, if nothing seems to work, simple pass on it for now and make a note to come back at a later date. If you continue to use these techniques, and you never give up, I believe that you should eventually be able to understand all the Japanese you encounter.


What tips do YOU have for learning new Japanese words? Let everyone know by leaving it down in the comments section!

4 Comments

  • Jon

    Great article on tips for learning Japanese! Observing the context that a certain word or phrase is used in is a great way to learn something in any language really.

    I think one of the most difficult parts of learning a new language is the fact that there are not direct translations for everything as you explain. Some words or phrases are unique to a specific language and culture.

    I use a language app called duolingo when I’m trying to learn a new language, it’s free and has been really helpful for learning new vocabulary. Do you have any recommendations on tools like this for learning Japanese?

    • Nick Hoyt

      Yeah, I find that usually things are pretty easy in the beginning when the translations are one to one, but as you advance into the higher levels of the language, the ability to use English in order to understand Japanese begins to diminish.

      At some point, I feel that you really have to let go of using English entirely and start operating completely in Japanese. This also helps you to think in the same manner as Japanese people do.

      Doulingo is nice and I tried out their beta version a while ago, but I imagine that it’s a lot more refined now. If you’re looking for some specific recommendations, then check out the Japanese language learning resources that I write about in the Reviews Section of this blog. Thanks!

  • P.J

    Hey, thanks for the article!

    I totally agree with you on tips number 2! I really started progressing learning new Japanese words when I met a friend that spoke it (he was Japanese) and could give me a real a translation of the word, with context. Otherwise, it can be very tricky for some words that have homonyms…

    Do you think I can learn with learning just a few new words here and then? I stumble upon those when playing most of the time.

    Have a great day!

    • Nick Hoyt

      Yeah, sometimes there’s really nothing better than getting a human explanation from a native who really understands both languages. 

      As for your question, I think you can definitely learn common words and phrases, which will be very useful in conversations. But if you want to engage with native material like books and movies then you’ll have to learn a lot of words in order to comprehend it all. 10,000’s most likely.

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