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Learning Japanese Words

Updated on May 21, 2011

Learning Japanese Words

Words are the building block of language. The more Japanese words you know the better you will be able to communicate in Japanese. This holds true whether you are a student studying Japanese or are planning to visit Japan on vacation. The quicker you are able to learn a lot of common Japanese words, the sooner you will be able to speak and therefore enjoy Japanese and Japan even more.  This article will cover some of the techniques I have found to be the most effective and efficient during my study of Japanese over the last 9 years.

Focus on the most Common Japanese Words

After a year of studying Japanese in college I could barely speak at all. There were two reasons for this. One, the class went at a very slow pace. The bigger reason was that we spent a lot of time learning words and phrases we would never use. This is probably the biggest problem with most Japanese language classes and materials. They focus on trying to teach words in a systematic approach. Unfortaunately, many of those words are rarely used or outdated.

Instead, focus on the most common Japanese words and the ones most frequently used in speech. If you are like most language learners, then you are learning because you want to be able to speak. There are different words used in written and spoken Japanese. Choose materials that focus on spoken Japanese.

There are literally hundreds of thousands of Japanese words. However, it is only a very small percentage of them that make up the majority of spoken Japanese. Focusing on learning these words will help you gain a level of Japanese fluency much quicker and with a lot less effort. For instance, to get to an intermediate level of Japanese 70%-80% comprehension may be done with 1,000-1,500 words. However, to get to a comprehension level of 90% would require more than double that amount. The previous sentance is hypotheitical and does not use exact numbers.

However, this same thing can be seen in the jlpt test. Level 4 (beginner level) requires 415 words. Level 3 (lower intermediate) requires 910 words. Level 2 (upper intermediate to advanced) requires 3738 words. Level 1 (native speaker) requires over 6000 words. Just look at the huge jump to gain near perfect comprehension. It would make much more sense to focus on the words that allow you to communicate the quickest with the largest comprehension.

Asakusa at night
Asakusa at night

Choosing The Right Materials

One of the most important parts to learning any language is to choose the right materials or classes. As I mentioned above, studying the the right Japanese words is the most important aspect. Even a great teacher teaching the wrong materials won't help you learn Japanese very well.

So how do you choose the right materials? The first step is to look through the materials. Check for outdated phrases and words. If you find a lot, then you probably want to skip those materials. The easiest way to gauge materials is to have them evaluated by a native speaker. If you know someone who already speaks Japanese (preferably a native speaker) have him or her look through the materials. They should be able to tell you very quickly if they outdated.

Also consider what the materials will help you accomplish and what your goals are. For instance, books help you to read and learn words, but you won't get listening practice or speaking practice. Since most peoples goal is to speak, make sure you focus on this when selecting. Time you spend searching for good book, program, tc will save you a lot of time and frustration in the long run.

Learn in Context

Learning Japanese words by going through them again and again is an effective and necessary method. I have definitely ade my share of flash cards. One thing that can help you learn them quicker is to put them into context. By learning common Japanese phrases and sentances, you will have a better understanding of how to use the word and usually remember it sooner as well.

When making flash cards, I recommend that you also include the sentance or phrase that you found the word in. Doing so will help you not only remember the word (and how to use it), but learn additional words in the process.

Helpful Japanese language tools

  • Mnemosyne- A cool and free digital flash card program that helps you learn faster by tracking how well you remember the words and kanji.
  • Nintendo DS with Kanji Sonomama Rakubiki Jiten- great electronic dictionary with the ability to input kanji.
  • Kotoba for the Iphone/Itouch-free dictionary also with the ability input kanji.
  • Rikaichan-plugin for firefox that automatically gives you readings and meanings for Japanese words
  • Skype- Once you learn some words, you need to put them to practice. Skype allows you to talk to anyone in the world for free. Once you make some friends you can also chat in Japanese.


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