Tactics

How to Study Japanese by “Chunking” Words and Phrases

If you’re sick and tired of struggling, there’s something you should know about. It’s how to study Japanese by “chunking” words and phrases so that you learn the new information in a way that is easy for your brain to get.

Most people study Japanese the wrong way and are never fully able to master the language. I get it, it’s tough. And the methods taught in most classrooms and textbooks aren’t the way that people naturally learn a language.

Let me use an example from my own life of a time I tried to learn a different language (Spanish) while I was in school.

I can remember where my progress was at by the end of my second semester of Spanish in college. I was really good at taking tests in Spanish, and answering multiple choice questions, but I couldn’t hold a conversation for two minutes if I had to!

I don’t blame the college though. The problem is that most people don’t really understand how they learned their first language, so they use normal educational methods when studying a second one. But learning a language, is not the same thing as learning history.

It’s really more like learning how to play an instrument.

You need a little bit of guidance, and a lot of practice doing it.

Let’s take a look at how you can “chunk” some Japanese and learn the language quickly!

Just What Exactly is “Chunking”?

Simply put, chunking is when you:

…group together (connected items or words) so that they can be stored or processed as single concepts.

What does that mean?

Let’s take a look at two different ways to do it, that you are probably already doing daily.

The first way is to take a large amount of information and to divide it into smaller bits that are easier to remember.

You take nine random numbers that are all smashed together as 8002553700 and you break in into three separate groups as 800-255-3700.

It’s easier for your working memory to hold these three small groups of numbers, than it is that one large group. You brain will turn the first part (800) into a single piece of information, instead of three separate numbers.

Just What Exactly is Chunking

Generally speaking, your working memory can only remember short patterns of four items at any one time

So how do you apply this information to learning Japanese? Here’s how:

Let’s say that you are learning a phrase in Japanese that is about medium length or longer. Like this one below:

  • もし良かったらこのコンパから抜け出して、お茶でも飲まない?
    moshi yokattara kono kompa kara nukedashite, ocha demo nomanai?
    If you like, why don’t we sneak out of this kompa and go drink tea or something?

Rather than trying to learn and remember it as one long phrase, you find the natural breaks within the phrase that fit together nicely. Here’s how I see the above phrase:

  • もし良かったら
    moshi yokattara
    If you like
  • このコンパから抜け出して、
    kono kompa kara nukedashite,
    sneak out of this kompa
  • お茶でも飲まない?
    ocha demo nomanai?
    why don’t we drink tea or something?

Not only is it easier to practice Japanese when it’s broken down like this, but a lot of times these shorter chunks can be worked into other sentences as well.

For example, you could start off just about any suggestion with もし良かったら.

And you could say お茶でも飲まない? all by itself if you wanted to. Or you could replace the word “tea” for just about anything else.

When you approach a long phrase in this way, it’s easy to learn it quickly in parts, and then put those parts back together into the one long sentence so that you can use it.

So to wrap this first part up: break long and complicated sentences into smaller, simple “chunks” that are easy to remember.

But breaking long sentences down into smaller parts isn’t the only way that you can use chunking. You can also use it the opposite way too.

The Other Way to Use Chunking

In most language books you are given a list of vocabulary to memorize. Unfortunately, the human brain doesn’t really learn single words in isolation like this very well. I’m sure you can relate to looking over a list, practicing each word, and then remembering none of them!

Japanese vocabulary

I’ve talked before how using sentences to learn Japanese is a better way to study than by using the “one word at a time” method.

The main reason you don’t want to take the typical book approach is because you will learn vocabulary that way, but not how to use it within the structure of the language’s grammar. The end result being that you can’t actually talk to anyone.

It may sound like a simple concept, by why are people learning a language’s vocabulary and its grammar separately? It’s much more useful (and dare I say easier?) to learn both at the same time, and in such a way so that you can immediately use the new words in the real world.

If you absolutely have to, you can always look up a word or grammar rule when you need to.

So when it comes to chunking the information together, instead of learning twenty new words for animals, or the usages of the particle の (no), you learn the Japanese language one phrase at a time.

Here’s an example of a good phrase and some of the things that you can learn from it:

  • 映画に行こうと思います。
    eiga ni ikou to omoimasu.
    I think I’ll go to the movie theater.

You learn some vocabulary like:

  1. movie theater
  2. to (a place)
  3. will go
  4. to think

You learn some grammar rules like:

  1. The pronoun “I” can be omitted in sentences
  2. The subject – object – verb” order in sentences
  3.  The と particle is attached to what you are “thinking” of
  4. The polite mass-form of Japanese

And perhaps the most useful thing of all is that you learn the how to say “I think I’ll go the the movie theater” right from the beginning.

You’re not spending hours learning words and rules so that later you can then think of the correct way to talk in the language. You are actually speaking from day one!

It’s just common sense: if you want to learn how to speak Japanese, then spend your time speaking it.

But that’s not how most people do it. And that is probably the reason why so many struggle with the language.

YouTube Video

Still not sure how chunking works? Check out this quick video to see a drawn story that explains the whole process:

What’s the Best Way to Chunk?

It’s simple: get a phrasebook.

This is actually how I started learning Japanese since there was one laying around the house. The interesting thing is that I could actually hold a five minute conversation in Japanese after only studying with it for one week!

But then I did something that most people do. I got some grammar books. And I got Rosetta Stone. And my Japanese progress stagnated.

Now don’t get me wrong, you NEED a good grammar book on hand. You NEED to hear natives speaking Japanese. But the majority of your time should be used by learning and speaking phrases.

Then once you’ve got a certain level of knowledge, you can start playing around with the language by substituting out words (vocabulary) or switching up the forms (grammar).

But at the start, and for the most part, you should be chunking the hell out of Japanese.

In the real world, people speak in phrases. Not words.

Things change a little when you read Japanese literature since the written part of a language is much more rule dependent than the spoken part. But if your goal is to:

  • Speak with Japanese people
  • Watch Japanese anime or shows
  • Read Japanese manga (very dialog heavy)

Then the chunk-approach is your ticket to success.

A Different Approach

When an airplane is flying to its destination, a slight miscalculation can end up putting it hundreds of miles away after just a few hours.

In the same way, your methods for learning Japanese might not make a big difference after a day or a week, but it will make all the difference after several months or a year.

You still have to do the work. You still have to put in the time. But by adding in a little strategy like this, you’ll end up in a much better place after the time has passed.

Further Resources:

(1) A good phrasebook: I wrote a post about Japanese dictionaries a while ago. One of the ones that I recommended was actually a phrasebook that had a small dictionary included with it. If you are interested in seeing what I recommend, then click here.

(2) A good course: There are tons of great courses on Japanese, but there is one that I personally feel is the best. Their approach is to give you an actual conversation, break it down and explain the words and grammar, and then to get you speaking it yourself right away.

If you’d like to read about it, you can do so by clicking here.

Anyway, that’s my take on the chunking method!

What do you guys think? Do you agree with this method? Do you think there’s some flaws in it?

Share your thoughts with me and the others reading in the comment section below!

6 Comments

  • maya

    This is great! I learned something new today (who knew chunking was a thing?) and loved the video. Maybe now it will be easier to learn new langues.

    I didn’t know there were phrase books for us to start using the chunking method either. Your recommendations will definitely come in handy when needed.

    Keep the awesome lessons coming!

    • Nick Hoyt

      Hey Maya, yeah a lot of people haven’t heard of what chunking is and how it works, but they tend to use it automatically in the way that they speak with other people.

      I’m glad you liked the lesson! Hopefully it makes learning a little easier for you. 

  • Jaclow

    Hi Nick,
    I see you had found a good quick way to learn the Japanese language and thanks for the sharing.
    Is there any video on “Learning the Japanese language” by the chunking method?
    It will be nice if you can upload a video to show more on the chunking method.

    Regards
    Jac

    • Nick Hoyt

      I’m not sure if there are any videos on how to learn Japanese by chunking. It’s not a method that is talked about a lot. I think that I’ve only ever come across one or two articles on that exact topic before.

      But there is a pretty cool video on YouTube that explains the whole chunking process pretty well overall. I will add it into the post in case people find it helpful!

      Once you understand how to chunk information in general, you should be able to apply the process to learning Japanese. Of course, I’ve got a few suggestions on how you can go about it as well in the post. 

  • Farhan

    This is a very unique concept of learning languages, but at the same time, it makes sense to me. After all, in the real world, it is very hard to remember credit card and international phone numbers if they are not broken down into chunks.

    I didn’t know there were phrase books for us to start using the chunking method. Your recommendations of Japanese to English vocabulary and phrase books will definitely come in handy as well!

    Keep the awesome lessons coming!

    • Nick Hoyt

      Yeah, it’s not really something that is taught often, but people naturally chunk one large amount of information into smaller groups so that their memory is able to handle it better.

      It’s pretty funny because phrase books are such a simple tool, and a lot of people only think of them as something a tourist might use, but they are actually an incredibly powerful resource that can help you learn conversational Japanese very quickly. 

      The only downside of course is that they don’t have any sort of audio accompaniment, so you will still have to go somewhere else in order to get that part of the language. 

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