In order to get really good at Japanese, you have to learn thousands of words and then remember those words. Unfortunately, most books and courses never show you how to do the second part. So I’m going to teach you how to memorize Japanese vocabulary by using one or more of these 5 memory hacks!
I’ve already talked about using strong encoding during the initial learning process of new words and phrases, so I won’t be repeating anything on that aspect of the process in this article.
That is, I won’t be focused on how to learn new words. Instead, I’ll be focused on how to remember words that you’ve already learned once, but just can’t seem to recall when you need to.
Let’s use a word for this article so that you can see each technique in action. I have chosen the Japanese word for assassination. Take a look at the information on it below, and then start reading about each memorization method.
Alright, now you can officially say that you’ve learned this word. I presented it in a basic way intentionally, so that it would make a rather weak first impression. Let’s get cracking on those hacks!
#1 – Rote Memorization
This first technique is the one that everyone is familiar with. The philosophy behind rote memorization (sometimes called Rote Learning) is simple: Repeat the same information over and over again until it is locked it.
If you’ve ever taking a language class in school where the teacher gave you a vocabulary list to remember, rote memorization is probably how you went about it. It is by far the most common method, and also the least effective.
Let’s see it in action:
- Assassination / 暗殺 / あんさつ (ansatsu)
- Assassination / 暗殺 / あんさつ (ansatsu)
- Assassination / 暗殺 / あんさつ (ansatsu)
Alright, you’ve now repeated the information three times. Is it locked in?
Unfortunately, it’s probably not.
I once read that a person has to encounter the same information 7-14 times in order for it to be stored in their long term memory. That’s a lot of work when you need to learn 5,000-10,000 new words!
I present you this one so that we all have a foundation technique that we can improve upon. After all, repetition does actually work. It’s just not the best way to go about things.
Let me give you one way to boost this simple technique in case you end up having to fall back on it:
Recall the information by writing it on paper from memory!
Let me tell you a personal story about this.
When I was Biology class for college, my teacher gave us a 5-10 question quiz Every. Single. Day.
But it wasn’t multiple choice. He gave you a blank sheet of paper and you had to write answers to questions on the black board in either short essay form, or illustrations of the organisms.
So here’s what I did every night before the next class session. I had my detailed notes from the previous lecture on one piece of paper, and I had a blank piece of paper next to it.
I would study the notes for about a minute trying to memorize what I read, and then I would turn it over and try to recreate all of the information onto the blank sheet.
I always failed to reproduce it fully on the first try. Always.
So I rechecked the class notes, and then tried to recreate them on a brand new piece of paper again.
Eventually I would recreate the notes perfectly a few times and then I would go to sleep. Using this routine, I always did very well on my morning quizzes!
It holds a valuable lesson for memory: If you can take the information out of your brain and put it onto paper, then you know it. It will be there for you when you need it.
This is a great method to use if there’s a word you just can’t seem to memorize with any of the following four techniques.
But it does take time, especially when you do it for hundreds and thousands of words, so let’s move on to see what other tricks we can use that are less time intensive.
#2 – Spaced Repetition
In case you’re not familiar with it, a Spaced Repetition System is simply flash card program that uses an algorithm to present you with words right before you naturally forget them.
So using our example word, you would:
- Learn Assassination / 暗殺 / あんさつ on the first day and then enter it into the program.
- Then you would review it on the following day.
- If you nailed it, then the next review would be pushed out a few days.
- But if you struggled with it, then the next review would only be pushed out a single day.
What this does is makes sure that the words you see most often are the ones you struggle with the most.
It kind of sucks since it’s always hard words, but it’s incredibly effective since you don’t waste time on the 2,000 words you know like the back of your hand, and instead you spend time on the 100 words that keep tripping you up.
There are lots of programs that incorporate SRS, but the one that I like the most is Anki. Not only is it free for most devices, but the word Anki (暗記) itself is Japanese for memorization! How cool is that?
You can think of this technique as being similar to the first one, but turbo charged!
This is a great way to take Japanese words that you’ve learned in books and courses and store them all in one place so that you can re-encounter them again, and therefore never forget them.
#3 – Mnemonics
I first learned about mnemonics from the book Fluent in 3 Months, but they’ve been around for hundreds and thousands of years.
A “mnemonic” is simply a memory tool.
For example: If you close your fists, stick out your index fingers, and then touch your thumb tips together, your left hand will form the letter L, which stands for “Left.” That’s how you can remember which side is left and which side is right.
When applied to Japanese words though, it can take on two different forms. One is for Remembering the Kanji based off of how it looks, and the other is how to actually say the word based off of how it sounds.
Rather than see this in action with a single kanji, let’s use it for the compound word we’ve been using for assassination.
The compound word 暗殺 is comprised of the kanji for Darkness 暗 and the kanji for Kill 殺. This is absolutely perfect, since the definition of the word assassination is “to murder by sudden and/or sneak attack”
So an attack 殺 that happens in darkness 暗 is by definition an assassination. Perfect!
When it comes to creating a mnemonic story for remembering how to say a Japanese word, you have to let go of it being perfect and instead take an approach of “close enough” in order to trigger the right memory.
Here’s what I mean:
For あんさつ I think of breaking it down into two syllables あん (an) for the first one and さつ (satsu) for the second.
Then I think of Ann from the video game Persona 5 since her name was pronounced the Japanese way as あん.
Then I think of the Scholastic Aptitude Test, commonly referred to as SAT, or SATs in the plural. When さつ is spelled in Rōmaji it is satsu, which is almost identical to SATs.
So I create a story in my mind of Ann from Persona 5 who is going to have to take the SATs very soon. She is studying hard for them because she not only wants to “kill it” when she takes the test, she wants to assassinate it!
You see how that process works?
A few things you’ll notice are that:
- The story is kind of ridiculous.
- It’s personal (not everyone has played P5).
- It’s only meant to trigger the actual memory of the word.
That’s pretty much how you use mnemonics to remember things. If you’ve already learned a word, and you’re having a hard time recalling it, then try creating a crazy story like the one above to help you out.
#4 – Collocations
A collocation is “two or more words that often go together.” Let me use English to illustrate this one. We’ll use the word brush as the anchor and I will bold the collocation words in the following examples:
- I brush my teeth everyday.
- Did you forget to brush your hair this morning?
- I hate it when they brush me off like that.
While there are certainly other words that you could combine with the word brush, these three examples above are super common examples.
So the process is that, when you want to learn a new word, you find some common collocation words that go with the one you’re memorizing and put them both into a sentence that you can commit to memory.
This is important for a few reasons. First of all, full sentences have more meaning than single words do. This is because they create a scene that you can visualize in your minds eye. There’s much more action, excitement, and emotion than when it’s just the one word.
Anytime you can become more involved like this, it makes lots of different neurological connections in your brain for the one word, which then makes it much easier to recall later.
The other reason it’s a good idea is because you are most likely going to encounter the new word (in real life) in a full sentence, along with those collection words. So if you do the little bit of extra work now, then it will pay off later when you encounter it in the wild.
This might be a little tougher when you are brand new and only know a few Japanese words, but as you advance in your studies it becomes more and more useful. You should definitely be using this technique once you’re at the intermediate level or above.
How do you know what kinds of words would be good to pair with the one you’re focused on? Look for them in Japanese example sentences or when you encounter them in a manga/anime/video game.
If you’re stuck, try typing something like “Japanese manga 暗殺” into a search engine and then look at the pictures to see if you can find 暗殺 in a dialog that you can then copy.
In this case I see pages and pages of the popular manga Assassination Classroom 暗殺教室!
You could then create the sentence:
- Assassination Classroom is an interesting manga.
ansatsu kyōshitsu wa omoshiroi mangadesu.
- My favorite anime is Assassination Classroom!
sukina anime wa ansatsu kyōshitsu desu yo!
It would be a good idea to get a couple of sentences that all use the word you’re working on so that you can see it in slightly different contexts.
#5 – Acting
When you create a new memory, a neurological connection is created in your brain. The stronger the connection, and the greater amount of connections that there are, the easier it is for you to remember.
When you engage in things like rote memorization and SRS, the one connection that you have in your brain gets stronger. This is kind of like when you walk on the exact same path every day in the forest and it eventually becomes a little road.
But the other way, creating lots of connections, also works pretty well. When you use mnemonics and word collections, you end up making additional pathways to the same memory (the new word) that all tie into other things that are already in your long term memory!
That’s why when I create a story about Ann from Persona 5 that connects her to the word 暗殺, it works for me. Because I’ve already got
my waifu her locked into my brain, and I can use her as an additional anchor for new memories.
Understanding these two ways of strengthening memories is good because it lets us use a technique that incorporates them both: Acting!
How is it that actors in plays can memorize hundreds and thousands of lines and, not only remember them all, but deliver them in exactly the right way? It’s because they not only repeat the lines over and over (make one neural connection stronger) but they also act the part of the character.
They feel the emotions of the character, they take on the attitude and beliefs of the character, and then they act and talk as if they were the character. All of these things combine, but in different ways (create many neural connections) to help the person not only remember the lines, but become the lines.
You can do the same thing with Japanese.
When you work on improving a new word within the context of a sentence, don’t just say the sentence, live it!
Visualize yourself in a situation where you would say those kinds of things. Imagine the feelings and emotions you would be experiencing if you were talking spontaneously, rather than reading from a flash card.
When you practice this way, when you act as if you were a Japanese person having a conversation in Japanese, you create lots of connections to the word from things that go along with talking, but aren’t necessarily words themselves.
This final technique is actually better suited for helping you remember entire sentences and phrases, rather than individual words, but I thought I would introduce you to the idea so that you could try it out for yourself.
Which Hacks Are You Going To Use?
I’ve given you five different techniques for helping you remember Japanese vocabulary.
I’m sure that you’ve already tried some of them before, but hopefully there were a couple that were new for you to try out.
It’s important to have tools that works for you personally that you can go to over and over again.
What I also find is that, sometimes one method just won’t work for a particular word or phrase (I don’t know why), so having several options allows you to fall back on other strategies rather than give up.
When I was learning all of the jōyō kanji, my primary method was mnemonics. But I couldn’t always create a story from the available radicals that made sense and reminded me of the correct meaning.
In those situations, I resorted to simply using rote memorization at first, and then moving it over to SRS. In the end, I ended up learning them all.
Keep that story in mind when you apply these techniques in your own studies.
I hope you find these hacks to be especially helpful!
Let me know what you think in the comments section below. Thanks!
Further Resources for Learning Japanese: