Tag Archives: anki

Harmonizing: How to Shadow Japanese (for people who can’t shadow)

Shadowing Japanese: You don't need to be a Great Detective
Shadowing Japanese: You don’t need to be a Great Detective

Shadowing Japanese is recommended by many people as one of the best ways to learn the language.

There are a few versions of Japanese shadowing around, but they all involve speaking at the same time as a native speaker, saying what she (or he – you should use a speaker of the same gender as yourself) is saying at the same time she is saying it.

Everyone agrees this is difficult, but I suspect it is a lot more difficult for some people than others. Those of us who have very poor short-term memory or lack a certain kind of vocal extroversion can find Japanese shadowing pretty much impossible.

And this is unfortunate because it really is a valuable technique. It doesn’t only improve your speaking. It improves your sense of Japanese rhythm and your ability to hear what a speaker is really saying rather than post-process it into sounds you are more familiar with.

I have recommended using the Amenbo no Uta for these reasons, but it is not a substitute for actual shadowing (though it is a very good supplement to it).

So let’s suppose you are like me and find shadowing to a live speaker or trying to shadow from a text to a speaker in real time prohibitively difficult. Is there a way to get over this problem and get the benefits of shadowing?

Fortunately there is. I call it “harmonizing” and it involves a somewhat unorthodox use of Anki. You are probably already using anki to build your core vocabulary, and you may be familiar with some of my non-standard applications of the tool.

Using Anki to shadow Japanese is even more unorthodox. We are not going to be using it as an SRS tool at all. The only role it plays in Harmonizing is that of a box for throwing up random sentences spoken by Japanese speakers plus text of what they are saying and a convenient one-button method of having them repeat the phrase as many times as you want.

This is why I call it harmonizing. We aren’t trying to shadow long or even medium texts. What we are doing is taking a short phrase spoken by a native speaker and getting used to speaking it in harmony with her. It may take several tries if you are poor at shadowing, but it is a nice contained way of doing it. You will get the sentence with a little practice and be able to say it at the exact rhythm of the speaker.

I aim to do each sentence in perfect harmony five or ten times, then move on to the next sentence. One interesting thing you will find is that some sentences that felt really hard to come to grips with the first time will be easy days later (even with the Anki SRS gap). You have picked up the rhythm of that sentence.

This is super important because the rhythms of Japanese are not the same as English rhythms and that is one of the main reasons Japanese is so hard to hear. By shadowing/harmonizing you are forcing yourself to catch the actual rhythm and pronunciation. With harmonizing you are trying to get your voices to “ring” together like a choir. That won’t happen unless you have the rhythm and cadence very close to right.

Once you have this it becomes easier to pick up what Japanese speakers are saying because your brain is not (or at least is rather less) trying to do what it has been trained to do for years, to translate all vocal noise into English-like sounds. It has become viscerally aware of another kind of spoken rhythm.

How to Shadow Japanese by the Anki Harmonizing Method

Here is the step-by-step guide.

1. Get a deck that has spoken sentences. You will find several in Anki’s shared decks service. Less than there were, since Anki has become more strict about copyright material, but still plenty for your purposes.

2. Start using the deck in the regular way. If the sound is on the back, pass the card immediately. You are not using Anki to test yourself in the ordinary way. If the speaker is the wrong gender or for some reason you don’t want to do that sentence, hit “easy” and make it go away.

3. When you have a sentence you want to work with (you should be able to work with most sentences spoken by someone of your own gender), use the R key to repeat the audio. It may take several tries at first before you get a reasonable harmony. Don’t worry. They are short sentences. Just ganbaru. Don’t despise single-word audio. You can get a lot from shadowing one word exactly right. You will find you can build up to longer sentences.

When you get that satisfying “ring” use the R key several more times to really internalize the rhythm you have now caught.

You are actually training your mouth muscles as well as your ear. There are hundreds of muscles in your mouth and different languages use different ones. You may well find you physically tire quite quickly at first. Don’t worry. It is more important to do a little regularly than to tire yourself with a lot in one session.

4. If you like the sentence and want to shadow it more, hit “hard” to make it come back more often. Remember this is NOT a right/wrong test. Forget everything you know about using Anki when you are harmonizing!

These are the basics of the technique and all you need to know. But let’s have a few

Extra Japanese Shadowing Tips

• It is a good idea to start each session with the Amenbo no Uta. If you can say it reasonably fast, or if you only use part of it, this takes less than a minute. It is not used by just about all Japanese speaking professionals for nothing. It really does help you get your tongue around the sounds of Japanese.

• Things to concentrate on are mora, and the length of “vowels”. I have talked about this at length in the Amenbo article. Remember that もう is two morae, not one syllable. ラッパ is three morae, not two syllables. The Amenbo will help you with this, but as you harmonize, be aware of it. It will be vital to getting that “ring” with your partner’s voice.

• Relatedly, be aware of how very short single vowels are, especially at the end of words. At first, if you get them right, you kind of feel as if you are clipping them off half-way through saying them.

• Try to feel the quality of vowels. Notice, for example, how お is somewhat like a shortened version of the sound we make in “door”, not the one in “hot” or “hoe”.

• Note that the T sound is made with the tongue on the back of the teeth, not the alveolar ridge, as in English, and that just about everything is pronounced further forward in the mouth than in English.

Not More Anki…

Shadowing  is a fundamental technique for helping you to truly get Japanese into your blood. But you may be thinking you don’t wnt to take on another time-consuming Anki obligation.

Fortunately this is not Anki in the usual sense. You don’t need to do it every day, and you don’t need to clear your deck. You don’t care if you get a massive build-up. This isn’t SRS, it is your personal shadowing box.

Yes, if you are building a core vocabulary and learning kanji you need a solid commitment to Anki or some other system. But using Anki for Harmonizing or shadowing Japanese doesn’t work like that.

It is good to do it pretty regularly, at least at first, but you are always in control. Do as much or as little as you feel you need. The SRS algorithm that is so important to the long-term learning of Kanji in particular (vocabulary should be at least partly handled by massive exposure) is irrelevant here.

So if you want to shadow Japanese (and you should) but you find the regular methods tie you in knots, here is the key to the magic door.

Use it wisely. Great treasures lie within.

Japanese Immersion: Why massive input is necessary

Japanese Immersion: Massive InputMy last piece on Japanese immersion, was entitled Massive Input vs Anki. A slightly provocative title perhaps.

I didn’t use it because I was trying to start a war. It was because I was and am interested in the interplay between an artificial learning method and the organic aquisition that comes from pure immersion.

I am not suggesting that we all give up Anki. It is a powerful system that helps us acquire and retain Japanese. However I do find that as one uses increasingly massive input one’s relation to Anki changes. I promised to report on my personal experience of intensifying my input.

I spent a month doing an unusually large quantity of input, mainly watching anime with subtitles and reading books. How did it affect my relation to Anki? Let me summarize:

I have two Anki decks. One for vocabulary and a sound-based sentences deck. I found I was actually entering more into the vocabulary deck because I was picking up vocabulary very fast from my extensive reading (strictly with pure extensive reading you don’t look words up, but I was).

Often with a new word I will enter sentences because definitions alone don’t tell you the nuance of a word or how it is used. I did this a lot less. The reason was that with a higher level of Japanese immersion input I found new words recurring much more frequently than I would have expected.

Not only do the same authors/themes tend to use the same words but I was finding words repeating across different books and anime. I felt more confidence in being able to rely on seeing the word in the wild rather than needing example sentences for it. I was popping words (but by no means all my new acquisitions) into Anki to “pin” them. But I felt more confidence in natural encounters with a steeply increased rate of input.

I was also more lenient with myself in Anki. Usually I am pretty strict with myself. “Half-right is wrong”. What I found was that again, with a higher level of Japanese immersion, I had more confidence in my input. So I would think “all right I know pretty much what that word means. I’ll recognize it in context next time I meet it”.

This, of course is how children naturally learn language. They start off knowing roughly what a word means and sometimes use it incorrectly. But with continued exposure their knowledge of the word refines down to exactitude. With confidence in our rate of input we can be less afraid of getting words half-right because we know it is a step along the road and not our “only chance”.

Another thing I noticed is how wonderful the memory really is. Reading and watch/reading quite fast through a lot of material and resisting the temptation to look up things I did really know even if a little ambiguously (tolerance of ambiguity is important here I think) I noticed that I was recognizing words I had learned two years or more ago and hadn’t drilled since. I think we tend to over-drill words for fear of forgetting them when the real drilling they need is actual Japanese immersion: input, input, input.

I might not have recognized those words on an abstract word-list or in Anki. But in context, as living parts of real sentences that were in themselves living parts of a real story, I did remember them. And there was a sense of “Gosh, so that’s what that old glassy-eyed dead word in the attic of my memory looks like when it comes to life!”

Of course, nearly all my vocabulary came from real exposure in the first place, via the Anime Method and its close relations. But some of them had ossified into “Anki words”.

Real Japanese speakers know a huge number of Japanese words. How? By having total Japanese immersion all the time. But even with the degree of input possible to you or me, if it is truly massive it is surprising how quickly words start reinforcing.

Japanese Immersion: The “feel” of the language

Japanese, in both grammar and vocabulary, is a surprisingly “modular” language. As you get used to it you start to realize how beautifully it all fits together.

If you are reading (text or subtitles) more and more you encounter words that you don’t need to look up. You know what the individual kanji mean, and, with the context, it is clear what the two (or three) of them in combination must mean. Japanese has a lot of words, but the good news is that a lot of them come from understandable-in-context combinations of other word-elements one already knows.

One also gets the feel for Japanese sound-symbolism. This is a very unquantifiable subject, so I won’t say much about it. But I do find myself saying “Ah I can tell what that word means by the sound of it”. In some cases I may be subconsciously remembering a word I learned before. In other cases it may just be similar to a word I learned before because similar meanings often have similar sounds. It may also be based on lots of tiny frequently-occurring cues, such as the fact that sharp “s” sounds can tend to imply “doing” while gentle “r” sounds can tend to imply “being”.

I probably won’t ever write anything more detailed on this because there are no exact “rules” and countless exceptions. This isn’t a “method” one can “use” in a conscious way, but as you get used to Japanese you will find it working for you more and more.

Relatedly, as you read more and read faster, especially in books, you will find yourself anticipating. You notice that you read three words at the end of a page and while you are turning the page over you already know what the next one or two words will be. Just as in English, when you read “He had shifty” you know the next word will be “eyes” or “she combed her” will be followed by “hair”. If we know that she is attending to her own appearance (or just that she is alone) we only need “she combed” to know that “her hair” will probably follow.

Anticipation is a huge part of understanding. So is the recognition of words. Many people, reading in their native language, will pronounce a word wrongly when they have never seen it before (or only seen it occasionally) even when the spelling is not ambiguous. Why? Because we have long ago stopped spelling out words we read in our minds. We recognize general shapes and anticipate words. We don’t expect to really have to read an individual word. At most if it is a little unusual we might check if the middle letter is an e or an i. Actually reading a word – looking at each letter – and constructing the sound from that, the way a small child or a foreign learner does, has become an atrophied skill.

That is a good thing. It means that we can concentrate on the meaning of the text as a whole rather than expending mental energy on fully reading words we already know.

Japanese immersion through massive input helps us to develop toward the same level in Japanese. We start to realize that we are anticipating things and sometimes taking a word or phrase super-fast because we only need to glance over it to confirm that it is what we thought it would be.

This isn’t only a reading skill. As we learn what words tend to go together it becomes easier to hear bunches of words in speech.

Returning to the “Anki question” I reiterate that I am not really talking about replacing Anki. I don’t think that is a question one needs to worry about. What is important is to become aware of the importance of truly massive input and its function in organic learning. Considering that one only has so much time, this may impact the balance between Anki and actual input. But it is a delicate and shifting balance and one that each of us can work out for herself over time.

Fortunately Anki is not the all-devouring monster it can occasionally appear to be. Feed it less and it will diminish fairly quickly. My daily Sentences Anki is currently noticeably smaller. I may have occasion to step it up again later and I am still adding to it but not nearly as much as I was.

After an experimental month of much more massive input, my personal finding is that it works if anything better than I expected. I will be continuing with it and I am somewhat shifting the balance from Anki to Japanese immersion through massive input. It is a matter of degree. I always did a lot of input anyway, and I never regarded Anki as my primary learning tool (that was and is native Japanese material).

So really I am only moving a degree or two further in the direction I was always going. One can sometimes, I think, use Anki as a bit of a security blanket. We think it will stop us forgetting words (as you know from some of your old words that pop up looking like strangers, it won’t always do that). We distrust input experience as being too random.

I am beginning to feel that Japanese immersion input lets words and grammar drop only a little more than Anki does, provided it is sufficiently massive. And it keeps them in our mind in a live, organic way, rather than an abstract one, which makes them a lot more useful to us.

NOTE: Naturally this article is relevant primarily to intermediate learners who are advanced enough to be able to step up their rate of input.

Bonus Japanese Immersion tip: SMILE!

One final tip, which you may write off as a bit of doll-craziness. I don’t mind if you do. My royalties on it are very low anyway. In fact, come to think of it, I don’t even get any royalties.

When, in the course of your massive input you “ping” (as I call it) a word or phrase you recently learned, or one you are happy to remember, smile. Smiling makes you feel happy (try it). Or make a little “ding” sound in your mind. Or jump up and down and ワイワイ all over the room. Probably not the latter as you are trying to read quickly.

The point is to tell the pleasure centers in your brain that this is a Good Thing. Even a little fleeting smile will do that. Don’t try to re-memorize it (unless you have a special reason to). Let your Japanese immersion input work on that. Just very quickly “flag” it for your mind.

If it disrupts your reading you don’t have to do it. Just a little trick you may like to try occasionally.

Now read: Japanese Immersion: Massive Input vs Anki

Japanese immersion: Massive Input vs Anki

Japanese Immersion: Massive Input vs Anki
Japanese Immersion: massive input vs Anki

This site’s method is fundamentally Japanese immersion. While we do recommend learning basic grammar as a kind of “cheat” for getting started, the heart of the system is watching anime. It is also vital, after the initial stages, to have a lot of actual communication as well as input.

Which sounds kind of lazy, but if you know anything about the system, you know that watching anime in Japanese with Japanese subtitles is pretty intense, especially at first when you don’t know much.

The idea isn’t that it is easier than other methods (there is no such thing as a “get fluent quick” technique”). It is that you are learning Japanese “in the wild” from early on. Anime becomes your university, exposing you to real Japanese, building a core vocabulary organically and making the language a part of your life. And learning the written and spoken language in tandem.

The strategy of the anime method is to build your capacity for input. At first it takes you hours to get through a 20-minute episode. You have to look up half the words, investigate grammar etc. As you build vocabulary, learn how the language works and generally get used to Japanese, you become faster and faster.

You are approaching the point where true Japanese immersion through massive input becomes possible.

Now from the beginning we have recommended Anki as the means of learning vocabulary and at least some grammar. Anki essentially makes the old method of flash cards efficient and scientific, exposing you to each card at exactly the rate you need to learn it.

In a sense one could say that this is not true Japanese immersion. Some people, notably Tae Kim, whose excellent grammar site we strongly recommend, believe that massive input is the way to learn vocabulary and that Anki is too artificial. So in one sense one can say that massive input and Anki are opposed — in that one could conceivably (at least in some people’s view) replace the other.

Or rather massive input could replace Anki. If you can learn all the vocabulary and grammar you need through massive input then you clearly don’t need Anki. If you can learn them all with Anki you still need massive input, or all you end up with is a massive word list and a lot of abstract grammar.

So theoretically massive input can replace Anki and give a truer Japanese immersion environment. And practically too. One of my most respected (and advanced) senpai has never touched Anki or other artificial learning tools.

I have also made it very clear (well maybe not to everyone as I mostly wrote about it in Japanese) that I do not intend to use Anki forever. In my approach to Japanese immersion, I regard Japanese as my language. In my heart Japanese is much more my mother tongue than English, even though I currently don’t know it nearly so well. One does not use artificial learning tools for one’s own language. Like learning abstract grammar, it is a little cheat: a trick to get you over the (very tough) initial hurdles.

Japanese Immersion: replace Anki with Massive Input?

So, do we need Anki? Can we replace it with massive input? My answer to this breaks into two parts:

1. Yes, we can and should, eventually. Anki is like water wings. Unless we want to regard Japanese as a “foreign language” for our whole lives (and some people, of course, do) we do not want to be using artificial tools forever.

2. It is possible to learn without Anki (or anything similar) from the start. Some people do. But this raises certain questions:

Firstly, how do you learn? Some people can just hear a word and recognize it again, at least after a couple of times. I tend to need in many cases a mnemonic to tie the sound to the meaning. Otherwise it doesn’t stick. Mnemonics are temporary, but they are like the rough stitching that holds the fabric in place while it is being properly sewn. Some people don’t need them. I do, (though increasingly I make my mnemonics in Japanese) and I find Anki the perfect place to use them.

Secondly, and rather more importantly, how do you deal with kanji?

This is not a rhetorical question. There are several ways of dealing with kanji. A lot of people (and probably the majority of Japanese Immersion methods recommend this) begin by working through Heisig-sensei’s Remembering the Kanji which involves learning all the kanji in the abstract without knowing the pronunciations or any words associated with them. At a later stage many people learn abstract lists of the kanji’s various pronunciations.

Other people learn by the traditional method of writing each kanji out hundreds of times.

We don’t recommend either of these methods. They aren’t wrong. They do work for some people. It just isn’t how we do things. We believe in learning kanji along with everything else, organically. Our motto is “learn words, not kanji”.

The problem here is that kanji learning, unlike language acquisition, is not inherently “organic”. Children do not “just pick them up” the way they do vocabulary, grammar, speech and listening comprehension, through natural Japanese immersion

They learn them in class. And it takes them years.

But, they do not learn kanji in the abstract. From their first class they already know the words in which the kanji are used, and how they are pronounced. They never learn lists of on and kun readings or abstract Heisig-style “keywords”. They never (except possibly with some rare ones in high school) learn a kanji of which they don’t already know many real-word uses and (therefore) the main pronunciations.

So learning kanji organically “as you go along” is actually closer to the way they are really learned by Japanese children. Since we don’t have from-birth Japanese immersion we can’t replicate it exactly, but we feel our method comes closest to the real thing and to the way one can naturally learn them with a minimum of abstract study.

But kanji need to be drilled. Grammar and vocabulary may be “drilled” by pure Japanese immersion and massive input (and output), but kanji really do need to be drilled by some essentially artificial method or other. There is the endlessly-writing-them-out method, which I believe is overkill in a digital age. There is Anki (and similar systems). There may be other methods that work for you (do comment below). But one way or another, you are going to have to drill kanji.

For me, the simplest, most painless and most organic way of doing this is to use a simple vocabulary Anki deck with the kanji on the front, and the readings, definitions and any necessary mnemonics (for kanji structure and meaning and reading) on the back.

I won’t go into more detail here as this article isn’t about learning kanji, but by this method one is learning kanji and vocabulary at the same time and learning readings in the most natural way: one at a time, as one encounters them in real words.

But because learning kanji (like learning the alphabet, except that there are a lot more of them) is not natural like learning to speak, there does need to be a somewhat artificial way of drilling them. Pure Japanese immersion alone will not teach one the kanji, any more than it teaches Japanese children the kanji.

But, assuming one does use Anki for this, once one has built a solid organic core vocabulary and made friends with a large number of the more common kanji, is there a sliding scale between Anki and massive input?

Does pure Japanese immersion start to take over? At what point do the water-wings come off? Is it immediate or a gradual process?

As with most things, this will differ with different people, but I have been having some very interesting experiences with sharply increasing my Japanese immersion and massive input and its effects on my relationship to Anki. Read all about them in Japanese Immersion: Why massive input is necessary.

How to Change Anki’s Language

Update: I am happy to report that this entire article is now out of date. So long as you have a recent version, you can now change Anki’s language by simply going into the Preferences as shown in the pictures below.

change-anki-language

change-anki-language-japanese


Anki Language
Changing Anki’s Language. There is a way to get this, but it’s hidden!

Anki’s language can seem pretty much fixed. There is nowhere in the settings to change it.

So if you started with it in English as a newbie and now have a set of massive decks, it looks like you’re stuck with an English interface.

That can be pretty annoying once you have your computer’s system in Japanese, your browser in Japanese, your Kindle in Japanese, your smartphone and iPod interface in Japanese. This doll even worked out how to get the back end of this site into Japanese.

So it’s kind of ironic to have Anki, your biggest single Japanese learning tool (after VLC for anime, of course – that’s easy to put into Japanese), staring at you in English every day.

Fortunately, even though there is no obvious way to do it, and you have to use a slightly scary hack, it can be done.

How to Change Anki’s Language: Step by Step

1. Sync and quit Anki. If you don’t have an account to sync to, you are best advised to get one (they’re free).

2. OK. Here’s the scary bit. Read this carefully before you do anything.

What you have to do is get rid of Anki’s preferences file.

On a Windows system you will find this at:

C:Users…DocumentsAnkiprefs.db

On a Mac you will find it at:

~/Documents/Anki/prefs.db

But don’t delete the file. Rename it to, say, prefsold.db. That way if something goes horribly wrong you can go back to your original prefs file. You really are best advised to make copy the of entire Anki folder in a folder other than Documents. This is probably not necessary in most cases but it makes sure you are absolutely safe.

3. Restart Anki. It will start by asking you your language. Annoyingly, you don’t get the chance to change it at any other time, which is why you had to do this.

Anki will insist on syncing. Depending how big your decks are and how much audio you use (I use a ton with my Dolly Sentences Method), it can take a while.

4. Don’t panic. Once this is complete, everything may be all right but it may also not be. When I got to this point, my Anki interface language was in Japanese but my Japanese-named decks were suddenly in English. Anki had reverted to a very old state with very old versions of my decks. I still don’t know why (I’m just a doll), but it just about scared the paint off me. I have a ton of self-made audio cards and I’d rather not lose them.

Don’t worry. I just synced again and everything was back to normal except in Japanese. Be sure to sync down, not up if you have to do a second sync. Anki won’t delete anything from your computer. But make sure you have the old prefs file to return to in case things do somehow get messed up.

This is how your Anki should now look:

Anki Language

I won’t talk you through the interface as you already know it. But if there’s anything in the screenshot you think might cause you a problem, make sure you make a note of it in your English version before you make the change. Going back is possible but probably not something you will be over-anxious to do!

Interestingly, if you are dabbling in J-J definitions this will give you a little push along the way. English definitions will feel decidedly out of place in your new all-Japanese Anki!

How to Build a Core Japanese Vocabulary: the Organic Way

Core Japanese vocabulary
What do you mean, goofing off? I’m building my core Japanese vocabulary — organically!

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.

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.

Why not?

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. 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.

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 judgement and avoid words that are not likely to recur much. Remember that Rikaisama also conveniently includes word frequency information. 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.

がんばってね!

How to Build Japanese Vocabulary Even with a Poor Word Memory→

A Key to Increasing Japanese Vocabulary→

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