A Key to Increasing Your Japanese Vocabulary

increase japanese vocabularyVocabulary is a major task in any language. There are just so many words! But Japanese – viewed through Western eyes – has more words than most languages. Between twice and three times as many as English.

Does that make for a completely overwhelming task? Not when you understand how it really works.

In Unlocking Japanese, you learn how Japanese is a modular language. It doesn’t work like Western languages, and when you try to explain it in Western terms (the way the textbooks do), it seems full of strange, arbitrary “rules” and “exceptions” that you “just have to learn”.

But actually Japanese is far simpler and more logical than Western languages and you can learn in an evening the basic principles that underlie and eliminate 90% of the “arbitrary rules” and “exceptions” and make Japanese crystal clear.

Of course, there is not a “magical solution” like Unlocking Japanese in the case of vocabulary. There is a lot to learn. Learning core vocabulary organically helps a lot. But another important step to increasing your Japanese vocabulary is to realize that the vast number of Japanese words found by comparing the main Japanese dictionaries to their English equivalents actually creates a degree of misunderstanding. Japanese vocabulary isn’t that excessive, and learning the basic principle can help bring order to some of the apparent chaos.

What is the “secret” principle here? Actually it is very similar to the secrets that unlock grammar. Japanese, unlike English, is a modular language, and its vocabulary is modular, rather like its grammar.

The huge profusion of Japanese words comes from the fact that the very concept “word” is different in Japanese and English. Japanese has “words” for things that in English are regarded as two or three words.

For example, “(the) dog I love”, “goods returned to the store”, “new goods”, “new car”, “(the) car I love”, “the 〜 I prefer to use” and many other elements that are phrases in English are called “words” in Japanese.

But they aren’t words in the sense that they are new sounds specially made for these compound concepts. They are in fact built from simple kanji that (if we are at the stage of learning this kind of vocabulary) we already know.

Almost always they use the on-readings of these kanji, and despite the bewildering variety of on-readings you will find in the dictionary for some words if you try to learn them raw (non-organically), those on-readings are usually in fact very consistent and predictable.

Making friends with the Sound Sisters will help a lot in handling and remembering on-readings, making it a lot easier to increase your Japanese vocabulary.

So let’s look at some of the examples I just gave:

愛犬 ai-ken – the dog (I) love, (his) beloved dog
Ai is love. Ken is the regular on-reading of inu – dog

愛車 ai-sha – the car (I) love, (her) beloved car
sha is the regular on-reading of kuruma – car

新品 shin-pin – new goods
Shin is the regular on-reading of atara(shii) – new
Hin is the regular on-reading of shina – goods. The hi always becomes pi when next to ん.

新車 shin-sha – new car

返品 hen-pin – returned goods (or the act of returning goods)

愛用(の)〜 ai-you (no)〜 – (the) one uses regularly / loves to use
you is the regular reading of 用 – usage, business

You see the pattern here. Part of the problem lies in regarding these words as separate pieces of vocabulary. Actually shinpin (new goods) or shinsha (new car) are no more single words than they are in English. They are sets of two very regular and understandable verbal elements that could just as easily be called words.

Japanese does not have word-breaks for a reason. The barriers between “words” are much less clear-cut than in English. If you read Japanese school grammar textbooks (as opposed to Japanese grammar textbooks intended for foreigners), you will be surprised to find that sentences are broken down into various elements with names like tango and bunsetsu, which cut right  through the barriers of what the textbooks and dictionaries teach as “Japanese words”. The concept of the “word” (kotoba) as the basic building block of a sentence – as in English – is largely absent.

There is no need to learn about this, however, in order to take a fresh approach to increasing Japanese vocabulary. Once you understand the modularity of words, you can start to hear and read many “new words” just as easily as you can read a new combination of English words when you know the words that make it up.

For example, I recently heard the word 店名 tenmei (name of a/the store). I couldn’t see the kanji, but it was still quite obvious what they were:  ten, the regular on-reading of mise (shop, establishment) and mei/myou, the regular on-reading of na(mae), name.

This extends to longer, multi-kanji words too. For example,

海水 kai-sui – seawater
Kai is the regular on-reading of umi – sea
Sui is the regular on-reading of mizu – water

From there we find natural compounds like

海水温 kai-sui-on – temperature of the seawater
On is the regular on-reading of the atatakai that means “warm (thing)”

海水魚 kai-sui-gyo – seawater (as opposed to freshwater) fish
gyo is the regular on-reading of sakana – fish

海水浴  kai-sui-yoku – seawater bathing
yoku is the regular on-reading of abi(ru) – bathe

and just from these last two we may be reminded of other regular words that use the same elements, such as

人魚 nin-gyo – mermaid (person-fish)

漁船 gyo-sen – fishing boat
Sen is the regular on-reading of fune – ship, boat

入浴 nyuu-yoku – taking a bath (lit. entering the bath)

Nyuu is of course the regular on-reading of hai(ru) (enter) and is used in countless words such as

入学 nyuu-gaku – entering a new school or university

You can see all these as “words” if you wish, or you can see them as a very efficient approach to building set-phrases or collocations. It doesn’t really matter, except that as in my tenmei example above, it can be psychologically useful to see the elements of a “word” as something closer to words in themselves.

The reason for this is that instead of thinking “a new word to learn” you handle it just the same way as you handle “the dog I love” in English. You know “dog” and you know “love” and you don’t have to worry about the combination as if it were a new and separate problem.

The trick of hearing (or seeing) word-elements in the way that you see English words comes with time and familiarity. But it comes more quickly when you grasp the modular nature of the vocabulary to begin with.

Whether you want to put these combination words in your Anki can be decided on a case-by-case basis according to whether it will help you to increase your Japanese vocabulary. I sometimes do, not because I need to “learn the word” in the ordinary sense, but because I want to familiarize myself with the existence of that particular combination. Other times I don’t because it doesn’t seem necessary.

I also sometimes enter set phrases into Anki when it seems a useful idea. And the distinction between the two – the whole question of where “word” ends and “phrase” begins – is one that hardly needs to be asked and can in fact do more harm than good.

Just let it be fluid and allow your own sense of the language and its structure to develop. That way your Japanese vocabulary will increase naturally.

Further reading:

How to Build a Core Japanese Vocabulary the Organic Way

Meet the Sound Sisters (shortcut keys to on-reading pronunciation)

3 thoughts on “A Key to Increasing Your Japanese Vocabulary

  1. Thank you for an interesting article, Cure Dolly sensei!

    I think these compound words will become a bigger problem when a learner tries to produce an output in Japanese. For example, I think many foreigners might try to say 海水の魚 instead of 海水魚, just to be on the safe side. Some might even try to say something like 海の水の魚, which I guess will sound very ugly in Japanese. In such cases one needs knowledge, not just a feeling.

    But of course, all such problems will be solved eventually as one goes on, through enormous input.

    1. Yes exactly. Output is harder than input in this respect, because while we can get used to the way such words are formed and start to understand them, it is harder to remember which words have special combinations.

      In this respect we are in exactly the same position as Japanese children who make the same kind of mistakes for the same reason (lack of experience). The thing to remember is that you are still perfectly understandable if you say these things (and most Japanese people find it somewhat cute).

      So the important thing is that if you can both understand what is being said and express (even if imperfectly) in an understandable way, you are in the perfect position to keep improving. The same position as Japanese children in fact! If you can and do keep communicating, these problems will go away by themselves.

      Massive input will help hugely, and is essential, but two-way communication is also very important. Even the experience of getting something wrong and then learning it correctly is very valuable. It helps us just as it helps children. It is all part of the natural assimilation process.

      By the way, I don’t think 海水の魚 is actually wrong, it just sounds a little less sophisticated.

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