Japanese Vocabulary the Intelligent Way: Acquire a large vocabulary even with poor word-memory

acquire-japanese-vocabularyJapanese vocabulary is one of the major hurdles in learning the language.

And if you have a poor memory, it can seem like an insurmountable one.

But there are techniques that make it possible for anyone to acquire a large Japanese vocabulary.

A professional translator friend of mine said that after she had learned a language there were always “a million words” still left to learn.

Not surprising, since language must be equipped to express everything we might ever want to express.

So what happens if you have a worse-than-average word-memory? Are you locked out of the language?

No memory? No problem

No you aren’t. You already have a very large vocabulary in your native language. You did it once without even trying. You can do it again.

But you need to know how.

My memory is very poor. I live in a non-English-speaking country and often eat some dish whose name I haven’t heard before. Although I am interested in food and may love the dish, its foreign name just doesn’t stick in my mind. Most people I know pick it up after hearing it (and eating it) a few times. For me it just doesn’t work that way.

So if you have a poor vocabulary memory, I absolutely understand what it is like.

But, I have an exceptionally large vocabulary in English and I am rapidly building a large vocabulary in Japanese.


Well let us consider for a moment how memory actually works. Chess masters have been found to have an extraordinary memory for the positions of pieces on a board. They can see a game in play for a minute or two and accurately reproduce the positions of the pieces on another board. They can accurately re-play games they played years ago.

But here is the interesting part. If pieces are placed randomly on a board, in formations that could not occur in a real game, their memory for the positions is not very good. It is only slightly better than those of people who can’t play chess at all.

What does this mean? It means that they can remember the positions not because they have super-memories, but because the positions make sense to them. They form a structure. They tell a story. A senseless set of random positions is hardly more memorable to them than to anyone else.

How do we use this fact in acquiring Japanese vocabulary?

The key is that vocabulary has to make sense. It has to form meaningful patterns in the mind. It has to be part of an understandable structure. For me the names of foreign dishes are out-of-context. I have no idea why that sound means that dish (or if I do, I am much more likely to remember it). I am a very poor brute-force word-learner. But when I learn Japanese vocabulary I don’t try to learn by brute force.

Japanese Vocabulary the Intelligent Way

We need to learn vocabulary in such a way that we are building meaningful links in our minds.

How do we do this?

The first important point is to:

Learn Japanese vocabulary organically

That means, learn from actually encountering words, not from lists. If you don’t understand how to do this, here is a major article about building a core vocabulary organically.

By encountering Japanese words in action, rather than out of context from dry lists, you have a far better chance of remembering them.

The second important point is to have:

Massive input

Instead of learning lists, you should be reading books, watching anime (with Japanese subtitles) and if possible having conversations in Japanese. This way you keep encountering words in real contexts where they make sense and form links: learning them the way you learned your own language.

I wrote an article on massive input vs Anki, in which I discussed the balance between learning words by spaced repetition and learning them by encountering them over and over again in wide reading and watching.

I am a big advocate of massive input. But I also use Anki, and find it a really good way of cementing in words I don’t encounter all the time. I recommend using both (though some people do well with massive input only, and if you do, that’s fine).

But what if you use Anki and keep getting “leeches” (words you just can’t remember)?

Not everyone works the same, but as I’ve said, I am a very poor brute-force learner. But I use Anki and I almost never get leeches.


The main reason is that I use mnemonics very extensively.

I wrote an article on Japanese Vocabulary mnemonics, and it is one of the less viewed pages on this site. It shouldn’t be. Mnemonics can change your vocabulary-learning life.

Mnemonics are an ancient, tried-and-tested means by which people can perform astonishing memory feats. I won’t go into that here, but let me summarize how and why I use them:

Instead of trying to pin a random sound to a concept, I always make a mnemonic to tie together the sound, the kanji and the meaning of a word. (By “always” I mean in all cases where it feels random. In many cases the word makes sense to me without a mnemonic these days). I enter this mnemonic on the back of the word’s Anki card.

So in a sense I am learning the mnemonic along with the sound, kanji and meaning. An extra thing to learn? No, this is the thing that ties the other three together. Like the “pattern” that allows a chess master to remember the board.

Very soon I find that the mnemonic becomes unnecessary I know the word: and the sound, meaning and kanji stick together by themselves. If you wish, you can write the mnemonic in white text on a white background, so you can only see it by highlighting it. But it is there if and when it is needed.

Pro-tip: Targeted Mnemonics

Mnemonics don’t have to be static. You can change them, delete them, add them as you develop. Specifically, you should target your mnemonics to the problems you discover. If you are constantly forgetting the pronunciation of one kanji in a two-kanji word, make a specific mnemonic for that. If you are always confusing two similar kanji, write a little explanation of the difference between the two on one (or several) of the cards where either appears, with a story to fix it in your mind.

You can use targeted mnemonics, explanations and notes-to-self to troubleshoot the specific memory problems you are having.

Natural Japanese Vocabulary Mnemonics

The best mnemonics of all are the natural ones. As you make friends with more and more kanji you can more and more often “see” what a word is likely to mean just by looking at it.

You also become more and more adept at guessing how it will be pronounced. Especially if you make friends with the Sound Sisters.

You also need to learn how to make Japanese homophones work for you rather than against you. Homophones can become a powerful aid in acquiring a large Japanese vocabulary. I often learn a word’s main homophones along with it on the same Anki card, killing several birds with one stone. They stick in my mind because I remember the different kanji that make up the sounds. I also, if necessary, make a little mnemonic story to tie the homophonic words together.

Organic Japanese Vocabulary

Note that all these techniques are essentially doing the same thing. They are de-randomizing vocabulary. They are incorporating it into meaningful patterns like the chess-master’s chess boards.

Mnemonics are important as tacking-stitches in the early stages. They help vocabulary to hold together and have pattern.

But in the end, the real “mnemonics” are the organic ones. Japanese is an exceptionally good language in this respect. You can nearly always see why a word is what it is by looking at its kanji.

At first that is hard, but it becomes easier and easier all the time. Nowadays I tend to use mnemonics only for words where the pronunciation is unclear or the kanji is new. That is a minority of cases now.

However, I got to that point by using mnemonics extensively in the early stages.

At every stage I made sure that words fitted into a pattern and made sense in a way my memory could latch onto. As time goes on, the real, organic patterns replace the artificial “training wheel” patterns of mnemonics.

But the true key to all of this is immersion and massive input. You only really acquire vocabulary properly when it is a part of your life. You encounter the words often. You don’t just know what some dictionary says they “mean”. You start to know their feel in real use. You start to understand their subtle nuances. You start to see them the way you see your own language, rather than as something “foreign”.

Your precise balance of learning, mnemonics, Anki (or other SRS) and massive input is something you will discover for yourself. Some people are a lot better at ingesting words “raw” than I am. They may have less need for mnemonics and Anki. That’s fine. I am writing here for people who don’t have a natural talent for learning, just as I don’t.

But whatever your abilities, two things remain the same.

  1. You remember best when what you are remembering makes sense and forms a pattern.
  2. To really acquire language and vocabulary you must have massive input. Without that you will always be learning the language “from the outside”, and acquiring mere “dictionary words”.

But with these tools in hand, you can acquire a large Japanese vocabulary just as you acquired your native vocabulary. And in essentially the same way.

How to Make and Use Japanese Vocabulary Mnemonics
A key to increasing your Japanese Vocabulary

2 thoughts on “Japanese Vocabulary the Intelligent Way: Acquire a large vocabulary even with poor word-memory

  1. Cure Dolly,

    I’ve been meaning to thank you for this post, my apologies for not doing so earlier! I’ve been struggling with vocabulary for a long time and I’ve tried a lot of approaches, none of which were particularly beneficial. I think this post explains where they went wrong, for the most part none of them addressed the fundamental difficulty of remembering anything devoid of context. The exception is when I did try mnemonics, but on that occasion I was using them outside of Anki so while I had the context I was still subject to the forgetting curve. Based on your suggestion I’ve been including a mnemonic on new cards for several weeks, and while my retention rate is still not all I might wish for it is a marked improvement over anything else I’ve done. Presumably, as I get a better handle on what makes a good mnemonic and make friends with more kanji the situation can only get better from here. So, thank you! (I am also working on increasing my immersion which is something I both need and very much want to do, and yet is proving surprisingly difficult!)

  2. My experience has certainly been that it gets better with time. Everything one learns makes everything else easier to learn, especially in the area of vocabulary where words and their kanji make more and more intuitive sense.

    I think a large part of the secret of immersion is to find things to do that you really like doing. Immersion shouldn’t be a task, it should include things you sneak off to do when you should be working! Like games and such.

    I guess I am lucky because I have very little interest in English-language media so all my temptations are in Japanese! Essentially I think the key to immersion is to find more and more things you really like in Japanese.

    Currently I have been watching rather too many Japanese documentaries as well as the usual games, novels and anime, also having more conversations in Japanese. Just as in one’s own language one goes through phases and gets periods when one is interested in a particular thing. If one can make all those things Japanese, one has immersion!

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