There is often a direct correlation between how many words a person knows, and how well they comprehend any given sentence. That’s why I’m going to share my thoughts on how to learn Japanese words using two primary methods.
After we get through the how, I’ll switch over to the what and talk about the three different types of vocabulary that exist and how you can tackle each one using these two methods to ensure rapid progress.
Method 1: Dictionary
I’m giving you two separate techniques to learn new Japanese words, but I actually want you to use both of them in combination.
This first one has to do with using a dictionary to look up the meaning of new words. Please don’t slap me, I know this one is obvious!
But I want to spend a little bit of time talking about how to use a dictionary to get the most out of it.
The first thing you have to decide is whether to use a physical dictionary or an electronic dictionary.
I’ve done both and have come to the unwavering conclusion that it is better to use an electronic one. The reason is simply one of speed.
It’s easier, faster, and often times more in depth to look up the meaning of a new Japanese word on an electronic dictionary than it is to set down what you’re reading, pull out a physical dictionary, flip through the pages, find the word, and then hope that you remember it!
If you’re reading Japanese on an electronic device, then seeing what the new word meaning is as simple as using the copy and paste function.
However, even if you’re reading a physical manga or novel it is generally easier to look up the new word with a dictionary app or one accessed through your web browser due to their sophisticated searching tools.
The other nice thing about electronic dictionaries is that they are free.
The second thing you have to decide is whether to use a Japanese-English dictionary or a Japanese-Japanese dictionary.
When you’re first starting out, I recommend using a Japanese-English dictionary so that you can use your knowledge of English as an anchor for the new Japanese words you encounter.
That means the word 努力 (doryoku) will give you “effort” when you look it up.
For most situations, this will be enough since it allows you to comprehend the meaning of the sentence and continue on reading.
I recommend using jisho.org for a good electronic, JP-EN dictionary.
At some point, you may want to use a Japanese-Japanese dictionary to look up a new word.
This might be to gain a deeper understanding of a word, to see how it compares and contrasts to another (similar) word, or to gain a more immersive experience.
For our word 努力 we get ある目的のために力を尽くして励むこと which means loosely “Using all of one’s strength in an effort to achieve a specific goal.”
As you can see from comparing the two definitions, we get slightly different details and meaning from them.
I recommend using dictionary.goo.ne.jp for a good electronic, JP-JP dictionary.
You can use either of these two dictionaries or both of them! Their job is to teach you what a word means, but I find that they lack one critical aspect: Teaching you when to use the new word!
In order to learn that, we continue on to the next part.
Method 2: Context
The meaning of words change depending on how they are used. This happens in all languages and if you think about the different ways we can use the word “hot” in English then you will see what I mean.
- The food is hot (temperature)
- That girl is hot (attractiveness)
- This is a hot item right now (high demand)
Using a dictionary helps at first because it gives us several potential meanings to choose from that we can insert into the sentence to see which one works best.
But the overall determinate of a word’s meaning is the sentence that it is used in. In other words, context is king.
This means that in order to learn new words, we really have to pay attention to how they are being used in each particular situation that they appear in.
This is called using a top-down approach to learning new words. We start at the very top, the entire sentence, and then drill down into each word’s meaning based of the big picture.
The opposite of this is a bottom-up approach which is actually how most people learn new words in foreign language classes.
The main problem with using a bottom-up approach with Japanese is that the language is so different from English that there is a high probability that new students will use words incorrectly. This is due to the dominance of their English thinking in how a language is supposed to work.
The solution is to focus on using a top-down approach in the beginner to intermediate stage, and then once you’ve got a strong understanding of Japanese and enough expose to the language you can use the bottom-up approach without much trouble.
Getting back to the top-down approach, this simply means that every time you want to learn a new word, you do so within the context of a full sentence.
This usually isn’t a problem since most of the new words you’re going to be looking up are the ones you encounter while reading or listening that you don’t already know.
But if you’re ever in a situation where you want to learn a particular Japanese word and you only have it in isolation, there are a couple of things you can do.
The first thing is to paste the word into a Japanese website like NHK (or YouTube) to pull up some examples of the word being used by natives. This should give you some real life examples on it.
The other thing you can do is go to online language forms where you can ask Japanese people for example sentences on how they would use a specific word.
The main point to take away from this part is that you want to learn new words within the context of a sentence so that you know how to use a new word in addition to learning its meaning.
High Frequency Words
Now that we’ve completed the methodology of learning new words, let’s switch over to the types of words you can learn. I’ve divided them into the three categories based on how often they appear.
This first category is high frequency words which simply means words that are the most commonly used. If you were to spend a month in a fully immersive environment, then these are the words you would encounter most often.
Because of that, they are also the most useful words to learn. By acquiring them you can boost your comprehension of Japanese since they help you to understand the majority of the sentences you will encounter.
There are two schools of thought when it comes to learning high frequency words in Japanese.
The first opinion is to systematically learn them through the use of a high frequency dictionary that has them listed from the most common to the least common.
I used one of these and it provided an example sentence with each new word which helped a lot with comprehension.
Once you’ve gone through it and learned the first several thousand words, it becomes a lot easier to read Japanese material.
This is kind of like wading slowly into the pool and letting your body acclimate to the temperature.
The second opinion is to just read and listen to a lot of native Japanese material and the high frequency words will naturally dominate the content.
This makes perfect sense because these words are, by their very definition, the most common ones you will come across regardless of the content.
If you’re the kind of person who likes to jump into the deep end of the pool, then this might be a better option for you.
You’ll have to look up words a lot more often in the beginning, but the advantage is that you’ll have much more example sentences to draw from.
Low Frequency Words
You might be tempted to think that learning the high frequency words is where most of the work is done, but unfortunately it’s the quite opposite.
While high frequency words consist of the most common 3,000-5,000 in the language, the remaining 10,000’s (probably more like 100,000’s) are called low frequency words.
These are the words that you might only hear once a day or once a week, but you still have to learn them to understand what’s going on.
That means the majority of words you have to learn in order to have a high comprehension rate (95% or higher) is quite large.
How do you learn these words? The only way that I’ve found is through consuming native material… A lot of it!
This is going to equate to thousands of hours of listening and millions of words read in Japanese.
In short, it’s a long journey.
Don’t freak out about the large numbers because it’s something that will take years to accomplish, or an intensive period of study (10-16 hours of study a day for a year or two).
I’ve read a lot of studies on first-language acquisition over the years, and if memory serves me correctly the stats for natives are:
- 5 year old’s know about 5,000 words
- 10 year old’s know about 10,000 words
- Adults know 25,000-35,000 words
Since learning Japanese is a second (or third) language for you, the time should be shorter as adults learn more efficiently than kids.
Still, the reason I put it into this perspective is to encourage you. Even people who spend their entire lives in a single language take a long time grow a large vocabulary.
So don’t beat yourself up if it takes a while to learn a lot of these words.
The other advantage of low frequency words is that, logically speaking, they are primarily going to fall into your passive vocabulary.
This means that you’re only goal is to understand them when you encounter them, but there’s no need to master them all to the point where you can use them correctly in all situations.
The final category is specialized vocabulary and it is one that you never have to learn, unless you work or play in that arena.
These are the specialized words that are typically tied to a specific profession, such as a financial analyst, or a particular genre of stories, like space opera.
They are unique because they have similarities with both high frequency words and low frequency words.
When it comes to the low frequency aspect of them, they are words that you will rarely come across in your normal day to day life. Most people from the general populace don’t use or even know a lot of these words.
When it comes to the high frequency aspect of them, they are words that you will see all the time when you are in a specific niche or group. Everyone who is a part of that group will not only know the words, but will use them often.
As an example, I am currently playing the video game Ace Attorney on Steam in Japanese. Since the setting is in a court of law, I am running into tons of words that I’ve never seen before. Here are a couple of them:
- 検察側 = the prosecution
- 被告人 = the defendant
- 閉廷 = adjourning court
- 裁判所 = courthouse
There are plenty more examples that I could give you, but I’m sure you get the point. These are words that most people don’t use, and you’re not likely to run into them in any textbook, course, or even most native materials.
However, once you start playing a video game where you’re a lawyer, you not only encounter these types of words, but they become absolutely essential for you to learn so that you can understand what’s going on!
You are most likely only going to encounter specialized vocabulary when you pick up a book, start watching a show, or load up a video game that takes place in that particular environment.
If you have a specific reason for learning specialized vocabulary in Japanese, like if you want to work in that industry or do translations for it, then I recommend finding a lot of books, manga, shows, and video games that are in that specific niche and then start consuming them using the methods we discussed earlier.
Should You Read Or Listen?
One final point that I would like to touch upon before ending this post is about the way you take in the new Japanese information.
Is it better to read or listen to new Japanese words in order to learn and remember them?
The answer is both!
As much as you possible can, listen to native recordings of everything that you read (audio book + novel) and be sure to read everything that you listen to (transcripts + podcasts).
You won’t always be able to get a hold of both, but to the degree that you can it will speed up the learning process.
That being said, if you could only choose one I would say to go with reading.
For whatever reason, it is easier to learn a new word when you see it and read it within a sentence as opposed to hearing someone say it.
Perhaps this is just my experience on the matter, but I wanted to give you a solid answer nonetheless.
I hope that you have found all of the information in this article to be useful, and I encourage you to leave your own thoughts or questions down below in the form of a comment. Thanks!
Further Resources for Learning Japanese: