Vocabulary 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.