Tools

What is a Japanese Frequency Dictionary? And Do You Need One?

There are tons of different tools that you can use in order to help you learn Japanese. You can use software like Google Translate on both your computer and your phone, you can use grammar books that break Japanese down into different topics. And you can also use what’s known as a frequency dictionary.

What is a Japanese frequency dictionary? It’s not the same thing as a jisho, or a typical English-Japanese dictionary like you might be thinking about.

And although I would absolutely recommend that all people who are studying Japanese get a typical English-Japanese dictionary, a Japanese frequency dictionary is a unique tool that can dramatically accelerate your language results if used consistently.

Let’s take a look at what a frequency dictionary is and how it works.

What is a Frequency Dictionary?

I first heard about frequency dictionaries when I read the book Fluent Forever, and I immediately knew that I had to get one. What it basically is, is a dictionary of Japanese words that are ordered from beginning to end by how often each word is used in the real word.

It could be when the word is used in dialog, or when it’s written down, but the process is still the same.

To give you an idea of how powerful this concept is, the top 100 English words account for 50% of all written words, with the word “the” appearing once every 25 words!

It’s not exactly the same in Japanese since it’s different from English, but you get the idea behind it.

The intro of the book goes into great depth as to how the authors assembled all the data to figure out which particular words are used more often than others, but it’s a lot of geek-speak so I won’t bore you with it here.

The top 5,000 words used in Japanese are the ones selected for this book and they are first organized by how often each word is used, of course.

example of a frequency dictionary

But once you get past that section, there are several other methods of organization that they have included which are easier to use if you are trying to look up a specific word, kind of like how you would with a normal dictionary.

Here are the different indexes in the book:

  • Frequency index
  • Alphabetical index
  • Part of speech index
  • Word types (origins)

So why is it that the frequency index makes this book so unique? Let me share a story with you:

I remember studying a lesson on the human body in Japanese once. I spent a decent amount of time learning the Japanese words for both outer body parts like your finger (), and also the internal ones like the liver ().

But here’s the thing I realized. How often do I ever talk about the internal organs of the human body in English? Hardly ever in fact! So it got me to thinking, why is it a good idea for books and courses to teach it to new and even intermediate students?

If it’s something that you only ever say once or twice a month in you native tongue, then it probably shouldn’t be something that you spend a lot of time learning in a new language. Why not fill you time and your mind with words that literally get used each and every day? Or at least every week?

And that’s the beauty of the Japanese frequency dictionary: You won’t be wasting any time on the words that you learn, since they are the ones that you’ll be using all the time anyway.

Alright, enough philosophy on learning Japanese. Getting back to the format of the book…

First you’ll get the word’s rank within the list. If you just start at the beginning, then you’ll be hitting the top ones first.

Then it gives you the pronunciation in Rōmaji, the type of word it is (noun, verb, adjective, etc.), and the English meaning of the word.

224 kuni n. country

  • 私の国では雪が全く降らない。 — It never snows in my country.

And what’s also really great is that they then give you an example sentence that uses the word you learned so that you can actually see how it would be used in a conversation.

The only bad thing is that they don’t show the pronunciation of the words in the sentence, so you’ll have to understand Hiragana and Katakana and some Kanji in order to read every word provided.

This is more of a problem for people who are just starting out with Japanese, as it’s not totally beginner friendly, but if you’ve been studying Japanese for a while then you should be ok.

How to Use A Frequency Dictionary

One of the best ways to approach it is after you can read both kana scripts and you are familiar with the pronunciation of the language.

You’ll be on your own when it comes to speaking, since this is a book with no accompanying audio. But if you really want to hear how an individual word sounds, you can always visit Forvo.com and type the Japanese word into its search bar to hear native recordings of it.

Not sure how to type Japanese on your PC or phone? Read this post on how to activate a Japanese keyboard on your device for free.

So you’ll start at the beginning of the frequency dictionary and start studying the most used words individually, and also in the example sentences that they’ve provided for each one so that you can get a good feel for the new word.

I recommend you read the words out loud in the examples to help train your reading and speaking abilities. This will help you to incorporate multi-sensory learning into your studies.

Then you simply repeat the process for each and every new word.

Most people use about 1,000 – 2,000 in their daily lives, so when you hit that mark you will most likely be able to consider yourself fluent in the language.

Of course it’s a little different being able to know individual words, and use them easily in a sentence. So you’ll have to practice speaking and reading sentences that use the words. The example sentences will help a lot, but you’ll want to expand beyond them as well.

Summary

Like I said, I got myself one pretty much as soon as I learned about them. At the time that I got mine, I was really only able to find one good one on Amazon. There were some others on there, but the quality of them was suspect at best.

The price might be a little higher than you’d expect for a Japanese language book, but if you think of it like a textbook you’d get for a college class, then it’s actually pretty cheap.

You’ll have to do some extra work in order to hear the words and get the pronunciation down, but the book gives all the words that you’ll need in order to learn Japanese.

And lastly, it doesn’t really cover the aspect of grammar. So you will either have to use a grammar book as well in order to understand it, or you could just learn the grammar of the language implicitly by using the sentence examples and picking up on how words change depending on the situation.

If you want to know more about learning the grammar of Japanese implicitly, then click here.

What I love about it is:

  • Learn the most commonly used words first.
  • Great explanation of the individual words.
  • Useful example sentences to illustrate how a word is used.
  • Several different methods of organization for easy reference.

But there are a few things that could be better:

  • No audio included.
  • Example sentences don’t show pronunciation.
  • A little pricey for a dictionary.
  • Doesn’t explicitly cover grammar.

If you guys are interested in checking it out, then click here to see it on Amazon. You can also click on the picture below.

So what do you guys think? Does a frequency dictionary sound like a cool thing to have? Have you tried using anything similar to it before?

Let me know your thoughts with a comment below!

6 Comments

  • Daniel

    It seems like common sense to learn the top used words first, so why don’t most people do it when it comes to learning Japanese?

    • Nick Hoyt

      Honestly I think it’s because there are hardly any courses or books that teach the language that way.

      I mean, most people have no idea on the best way to learn Japanese when they first begin, so of course it would make sense to just rely on materials that are already out there.

      And from what I’ve seen, most courses and stuff are created to teach you a certain skill or amount of knowledge with Japanese, but none of them are really intended to be your sole source of the language. Perhaps Japanese is simply too big for that.

  • BingC

    Definitely something I could have used when I was trying to learn Japanese! Why don’t they teach like this in our schools? It just makes sense!

    • Nick Hoyt

      Yeah, I know what you mean. I think the reason is that in school, there is a large focus on having a structured curriculum for everything. So it’s easier to have a chapter on “greetings” and a chapter on “colors” and a chapter on “basic grammar” rather than just taking an approach that seems less organized.

      Unfortunately, people don’t really use words like that in the real world. But what can you do, right? That’s one of the main reasons I had for starting this site. To let other people know about these great resources that they can take advantage of.

      And I’m actually working on a great learning product that takes the approach of teaching the most used words and phrases from the beginning for maximum results. Stay tuned to this site for further updates!

  • Bradley Boschma

    I hear the Japanese can add multiple digits in their head very fast on a certain mathematical algorithm that they learn. You should teach us how to do that too. It’s going to take years to learn Japanese, I am glad I have your site to help me. Thanks for the lesson.

    Brad Boschma

    • Nick Hoyt

      Oh yeah, I’ve read about that. They are taught a more visual way to figured out multiplication for large numbers by drawing intersecting lines based on the numbers being multiplied, and then they count up the points where lines cross each other. 

      Here’s a YouTube video that shows how to do it:

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bbKjXKV9QNA

      It’s pretty interesting how different cultures use different methods to come to the same answer. 

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