Building a core Japanese vocabulary, and then building out from it, is the biggest single task in learning Japanese. Bigger than kanji.
It’s the same in any language. The vocabulary of a language is vast. And if you go about learning it in the wrong way the results can be devastatingly disappointing.
What are the wrong ways to build a core Japanese vocabulary? More importantly, what is the right way?
The wrong way in my view is to use a vocabulary list. Any vocabulary list. And this includes things like the Anki Core 2000, core 6000 and core 10,000 decks. In the very beginning you might find a very basic word-list useful. But lists of any size are a mistake.
Let me explain why by example.
See a more up-to-date version of this article in this video:
I have seen people on Forums ask questions like “How many words do I need to know before I can read simple manga?” These people diligently work through Core Japanese Vocabulary Anki decks, often building up to the “magic” 10,000 words over many months.
And then what happens? They pick up a manga or a light novel. And they have to look up every other word. It isn’t a lot better than before they did the “core Japanese Vocabulary” deck. At this stage (and I have seen this happen pretty often) they become seriously disillusioned and wonder if they haven’t wasted their time. And who can blame them?
What went wrong? Why didn’t it work? What should they have done?
The Myth of “Learning Japanese”
The big problem here is part of a bigger problem. The myth of “learning Japanese”. The idea that you prepare and prepare by “study” and then one day you know enough to actually use Japanese and do something fun.
The trouble is, that day keeps receding into an ever more distant future.
You learn usable Japanese by using Japanese, not by studying or practicing Japanese.
Let’s get back to vocabulary and see how it works:
“Maybe if I’d done 15,000 Core Japanese Vocabulary words instead of 10,000 I would be able to read that book”.
I hate to be the party pooper here, but no, you wouldn’t.
Because everything you encounter in Japanese has a different vocabulary. The core Japanese vocabulary decks are actually crafted around newspaper frequency. They may help you if you want to read newspapers. I don’t know. I don’t read newspapers in English. I personally think that trying to read newspapers while you are still trying to acquire a core Japanese vocabulary is trying to run before you can walk.
You are much better with a reasonably simple manga, a children’s book or anime with Japanese subtitles. At the very early stages maybe a first-grade reader. I started with Tonari no Totoro in Japanese with Japanese subtitles before I was six months into Japanese. It took ages but was wonderful and taught me a huge amount.
So let’s take a book as an example. A simple novel series (something at a level you can reasonably hope to tackle). You look at it. You are appalled (if you have been slogging at some core Japanese vocabulary list). You need to look up every other word.
Don’t be appalled (especially if you came here first and haven’t poured months into core Japanese vocab lists!) because:
This is your “core list”.
Don’t worry about abstract core Japanese vocabulary lists. Start right where you mean to go. Pick a book appropriate to your level and start reading it. It works with Japanese subtitled anime too. That is where I got most of my vocabulary.
“But I need to look up every other word.”
Yep. And so you would (to your horror) if you’d done a huge “core Japanese vocabulary list”.
Start reading. Look up all the words you need. Enter them into your Anki.
“Isn’t that a major pain?”
Not more than slogging through an abstract “core Japanese vocabulary list”. Well, a little more because you have to make your own deck. Fortunately for you (unlike we ol’ timers who went before you) the process is now completely automated. Rikaisama will allow you to add words to Anki with a single keypress. (Update: Rikaisama is no longer available but you can use Yomichan), Don’t neglect this wonderful gift.
Now you can save yourself the trouble of setting up your Anki with Rikai and making all those single keypresses when you look up a word
You can use a pre-made core Japanese vocabulary deck. But when you’ve worked through that, however many months it takes, as soon as you start on a book, you’ll still have to look up a large number of the words anyway. Lazy people take the most trouble!
Because here’s the thing. Every new thing you encounter in Japanese has its own vocabulary. There is such a thing as “core Japanese vocabulary” of course. But it is big and a lot of it does vary with what area you are dealing with.
So if you start with something you actually want to do: an anime series, a children’s novel or manga (preferably part of a long series) you will start learning the vocabulary that belongs to that area. Of course, a lot of this will be “pure core Japanese vocabulary” and useful anywhere. But just learning “abstract core” doesn’t prepare you to read any particular thing. At the end of any abstract “core Japanese vocabulary list”, as soon as you try to take your knowledge into any real area, you are barely literate. And this is so disillusioning.
But learning organically you grow into what you are reading. As you read on, you find you are looking up less and less (in the first book or first dozen or so anime episodes). When you read more in the same series you find you are looking up still less. When you have finished the series, if you pick something close in genre and type you will still be on pretty firm ground. And all the time your Japanese vocabulary is growing.
And, with the possible exception of the very early “look up every other word” stage (but I enjoyed that, and you might too, especially if you aren’t already burnt out with “core Japanese vocabulary lists”). You are having fun. And you aren’t “studying Japanese” or “practising” Japanese. You are using Japanese, even if rather slowly at first.
And here’s the most important thing:
The fact that every area of Japanese, every genre, every writer even, has a particular vocabulary, that is so devastating to “core Japanese vocabulary deck” users who spent so long “preparing” to read Japanese…
That is your best friend.
Why? Because as you read your book, or watch your Japanese subtitled anime, and then the series, and then more of the genre, you keep encountering the same vocabulary. And that cements it far, far better than Anki alone or any abstract list.
I do still recommend Anki, but you will get through it much faster this way because the words will be cemented in by real regular use, not just artificial flash-cards. You will learn the “pure core” words because you encounter them anywhere.
But the truth I believe is that there is no such thing as a core 10,000. The language’s true core isn’t that big, but its peripheral-core or penumbra-core is much bigger, and is dependent on exactly what area you are in.
Is this worrying? Not really. You will pick up the true core. You will be able to handle most regular conversation (provided you work on output as well as input) and you will gradually grow your peripheral-core vocabulary by using Japanese and enjoying it.
Not by doing some artificial “preparation stage” and continually looking at your watch wondering “how much of this do I need before I can…”
Because the answer to that question tends to be very disappointing.
How to Build a Core Japanese Vocabulary: Ninja Tips
So let’s get down to practicalities.
What are the best practices for learning Japanese vocabulary organically?
1. Choose something at your level. It can be anime. The Dolly Anime Method is ideal for this. It can be manga or books. But don’t try to run (at least not too fast!) before you can walk. Choose something reasonably appropriate to your current Japanese “age”.
2. Preferably choose a long series. That way you can get used to its vocabulary and learn a lot of words by encountering them often. This supplements your Anki with valuable organic exposure. The old Heidi anime, for example, has around 50 episodes and subtitles with furigana. I wish I’d found it earlier!
3. Pop new words into Anki using the automated method built into Rikaisama. Some people manage without Anki by pure repeated exposure. It depends how your mind works, but I think Anki is good for most people. However, repeated exposure will make things go much smoother, quicker and deeper than “raw” Anki.
More up-to date information in this video:
4. Use mnemonics if you need them. More about this in the linked article. Don’t be afraid of mnemonics in learning vocabulary. They have a long history in classical Western scholarship. They “pin” words into place in your mind and fall away when you no longer need them. But they can really help with new words.
5. Learn Kanji with words. This is really an article in itself but I mention it here. Don’t try to “learn kanji” in the abstract, but do learn them along with the words you encounter. Break them down into their components and make little stories for them (unless you don’t need to. Some folks I know are visual-kanji wizards. Lucky them!) Either way, kanji are vital to Japanese vocabulary. They may look scary but they are really little darlings and will soon become your friends. Believe it or not, they make Japanese vocabulary much easier in the long run.
6. Don’t go overboard with Anki. You don’t need to enter every unknown word even though you will be entering a lot at first. But don’t choke yourself. Use judgment and avoid words that are not likely to recur much. Remember that Rikaisama also conveniently includes word frequency information (update: Yomichan‘s Innocent Corpus now does the same job). You shouldn’t get number-bound but it is a guideline to bear in mind (as is the likelihood of a word to reappear in the material you are reading). You will pick up some words without Anki.
All right. You’re good to go. If you have comments or questions, pop them below. I’ve probably forgotten something! If you could use some personal help in using this approach, try this.
With this method you can build a core Japanese vocabulary smoothly, organically and enjoyably.