Memorizing Japanese vocabulary

Posted on September 14, 2006 | Posted by evankirby

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The latest version of the 日本国語大辞典 (Nihon Kokugo Daijiten, Shogakukan's Japanese Dictionary, and the largest of all the Japanese-Japanese dictionaries) has over 500,000 words listed. How are students of Japanese supposed to memorize them all? The easy answer is, you can’t. The better answer is, you don’t have to, as a working vocabulary in Japanese is far far smaller than this. However, it’s still a daily struggle for students to memorize vocabulary. Here are a few tips to help you in this struggle:

1. Always always carry a notebook/input device with you.
Make sure that you keep a list of the vocabulary you have (ostensibly) learned on hand, so that when you can’t quite remember that word, you have somewhere to easily refer to. The simplest method is just to write new words in a small (tiny is great!) notebook. This has the added benefit of practicing writing at the same time.

2. Buy a Palm or Pocket PC device, and Supermemo.
A used PDA can be picked up for next to nothing, and Supermemo is less than $20, but this combination can be the best memorization tool you will ever buy. Supermemo is simple flashcard memorization software. Input the words you want to memorize, and Supermemo will test you on them tomorrow. If you get a word right, it’ll test you in a few days again, with the interval increasing each time. If you get it wrong, it’ll test you again tomorrow. You can use it to study vocabulary in downtime on the train, on the bus, walking to school – anytime you have a few minutes to spare. Using this software for 15 minutes a day, one of our students was able to memorize 10 new words each day for a year, or a grand total of about 3,650 new words! This would have been an almost unthinkable struggle without Supermemo.

3. Buy a Palm and install Dokusha.
This incredible entirely free software is a big install (something like 8MB with full dictionaries), but when used in conjunction with the (also freeware) Dokusha Converter, allows you to copy any Japanese text from your PC to your Palm. When opened in Dokusha, any word or kanji in the file can be clicked on for English meaning, and registered as a flashcard for later memorization. You can also search for kanji by constituent parts, which really helps when trying to read printed Japanese, for example on menus, etc. And it acts as a simple Japanese-English dictionary – when you hear a new word, you can easily search for the meaning in Dokusha, then flag that word for later memorization.
Please note that Dokusha is not being developed any more. Luckily, it's perfect as is, so that shouldn't be a problem!
4. Use mnemonics.
One of the nice things about Japanese having a much more limited set of sounds than English is that (with a little bit of stretching), you can often find an English word that sounds quite similar to the Japanese word you want to memorize. For example, the verb 揺らす (yurasu, to shake) sounds very similar to the English phrase “your ass“. If there’s an easier way to remember this verb than the phrase “Shake yurasu“, we’re sure we haven’t heard of it.
The brain is wonderfully efficient at filling in the gaps as long as you give it a little something to work with. Remembering a similar English word, even if not quite the same, is often enough to trigger recall of the actual Japanese word in question. We’ll expand on this with some other useful Japanese mnemonics in a post to come shortly.
It can sometimes be difficult to think of a mnemonic for each new word, but the time spent thinking one up is definitely well spent, as you’re almost guaranteed to save time on memorizing the word itself.

5. Do not try to memorize similar-sounding words together!
This is easy to forget, but very important. If you study similar-sounding words together (for example, 校長 (kouchou, school principal) and 包丁 (houchou, kitchen knife)), there is a very good chance that your memory will confuse the two later, when you try to use them in conversation. “Stabbed with a principal“ just doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. While it may seem counter-intuitive, we recommend memorizing wordlists in sets of unrelated words, or memorizing a set of homophones (words with exactly the same sound) together.

6. Use what you learn.
Perhaps the most important “technique“ in memorization is practice. Each time you actually use a new word in a conversation, pathways between the relevant neurons are strengthened, and the chance that you’ll be able to recall that word next time increases too. Even if it seems somewhat 無理矢理 (muriyari, forced), try to fit the words you learn on a day into a Japanese conversation that same day. Of course, it helps if you’re actually in Japan to do this, which is why we also recommend, you know, studying at our school.

I hope some of these techniques help! If you have any other tips or tricks that worked for you, please feel free to add them as comments!
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Posted by Fox | October 02, 2007 | 10:57:34

Thank you. I'm gonna try this tonight!

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