A while ago I bought myself a frequency dictionary of Japanese and today I thought I would share my opinion on it and my experience using it to learn the most common Japanese words.
First I’ll cover what a frequency dictionary is and how this one was compiled, then I’ll talk about the book’s contents and how it’s structured.
I’ll also provide a couple examples of entries, and then talk about my method of using it along with the results I experienced.
What Is A Frequency Dictionary?
I’m sure that everyone reading this is familiar with a normal dictionary. In its book form, a dictionary is a list of words from a language organized from A to Z and provides definitions and examples of how the words are used.
A frequency dictionary on the other hand is organized by how often a word appears in that language.
So for example, the frequency dictionary that I have lists the top 5,000 most commonly used Japanese words and it starts with the #1 most used word and continues from there.
The philosophy behind frequency dictionaries comes from “Nation (1990) who showed that the top 1,000 words accounted for 85% of spoken English and the top 5,000 words covered 95% of written English.”
Although English and Japanese aren’t the same language, the basic philosophy of studying the most common words first to make rapid progress still holds true.
There are several ways that a frequency dictionary can be compiled. You can take words from novels, from the Japanese Wikipedia, from film, etc. Each of these methods will give you a slightly different list since certain words appear more often in one type of material than another.
The one that I got was created from a combination of material taken from both the spoken word and the written word, from both fiction and non-fiction sources, and from a database of over 107 million words.
That’s a lot!
When I initially looked around for Japanese frequency lists I found a total of four of them, but this one was the only one that was both professionally assembled and came from such an extensive base of knowledge.
The Contents Of The Book
The book can be broken down into three parts:
While the introduction is more interesting for people who study linguistics, I still found a lot of value in going over it once. It explains how the book was created, the meaning behind the abbreviations it uses in each entry, and other logistical information.
Then we get to the main body which has two elements. The first element is the main frequency index of 5,000 Japanese words, their meaning’s, and an example sentence that illustrates how to use the word.
The second element are “call-out boxes” which pick a theme and then list the most common vocabulary within that theme. For example, the first one is centered around animals.
Did you know that 犬 (inu) for “dog” is the most commonly use animal word in Japanese? Well, now you do!
I think both of these methods are pretty cool because you can go through the list normally learning the top 5,000 words used in Japanese, but if there’s a particular arena that interests you then you can find the call-out box and focus on it.
Finally there are several indexes at the back of the book that reorganize the words in various ways so that you can navigate it more easily.
There is an alphabetical index, one that uses parts of speech, and then a word type list as well.
Some Examples From The Book
As you can see in the above picture, there are both words from the primary index and then a call-out box on body parts.
Let’s take a closer look at one of the indexed words first:
This is the basic format for each word. It starts with the number and then provides the word, its reading in romaji, what type of word it is (in this case it’s a na-adjective) and then one or more English definitions.
Then there’s an example sentence that uses the new word and an English translation.
The last part (180 | 0.90) has to do with some statistical and register information, so I always ignored it. It’s not necessary for learning Japanese, but it’s there if you’re into that sort of information.
Then we’ve got the thematic grouping of vocabulary. This one is on body parts, but there are others such as colors, emotions, greetings, and more.
These boxes are in addition to the normal index. For example, in the above box you see that 目 (me) is the most commonly used body part word. In the primary index 目 is number 169 and has a full entry like we saw with the 大事 example.
How I Used It To Increase My Vocabulary
When I used this book to help boost my vocabulary, I would study about 10-20 new words each day and then create a flashcard of each example sentence.
This allowed me to learn new common words as I progressed through the book and then review the ones I had already learned when I did my daily flash card review (I used Anki at the time).
Doing it this way is definitely a long term goal.
If you learn 15 new words a day you can learn all 5,000 in a single year. I wouldn’t recommend that a person uses this frequency dictionary as their only source of learning, since most words have several meanings and the example sentence only show one of them.
However, I felt that it was nice to focus on the common words first so that when I switched over to reading and listening to more authentic material, I was already familiar with the majority of the words I would encounter.
And that was exactly what happened. When I started reading native materials like news articles and light novels, I found that I already knew the majority of the words in each sentence.
So it was a nice place to start acquiring new words in preparation of tackling native materials.
I really love my Japanese frequency dictionary. I have a list of my top five books for learning Japanese, and this one is definitely a part of it.
When it came to increasing my vocabulary in simple yet systematic way, this book was by far the best one I found.
What are your thoughts on frequency dictionaries? Let me know down below. Thanks!