Sadly there’s no magical way to plug vocabulary into your brain and learn it instantly. (I really wish there was.) Some effort is still required, but it’s worth it in the long run because more vocabulary means it’s easier to understand more texts and to convey what you want.
Here are 10 tricks to improve Japanese vocabulary, both in terms of increasing your vocabulary and your ability to retain them.
① Study Tricky Words in Context
Sometimes the meaning of a word can be vague. It might have multiple meanings, uses, or be a completely different concept culturally. Studying these in context can help give you a more solid image of how the word is used.
Such as times when a word is used for a wide variety of situations. This often makes it hard for the term to stick. In these cases it helps to study the word in context.
かける is a great example this. It’s hard to study as it is because there are so many uses for it. So you may have a flashcard that looks like this…
Instead, trying study it like this…
There are also some cases where the Japanese uses a different word compared to English.
For example, in English we say “take medicine” but in Japanese they say “drink medicine” (even if the medicine is a solid pill.) If you didn’t learn くすりをのむ then you might accidentally say くすりをとる (which is incorrect.)
Studying vocabulary in context is great to retaining the information, as well as learning new vocabulary in the context you’re studying the vocabulary in!
② Study Vocabulary in Subject Chunks
Studying vocabulary in related chunks can help expose you to more Japanese vocabulary. It can also help with long-term memory as you connect related vocabulary to each other.
For example, instead of studying 10 random unrelated words (even worse, in alphabetical order!)
Study words that are from the same subject. Such as family, occupation, kitchen appliances, emotions, etc.
You can approach vocabulary chunks a few ways.
- Create your own study materials based on vocabulary you find/are studying.
- Study with vocabulary books that chunk by subject. (Such as 単語スピードマスター)
- Read books on subjects.
The beginner vocabulary courses I made for Memrise users (which are all free, by the way) are arranged by subject.
There are also vocabulary books such as 単語スピードマスター which list vocabulary by subjects too (e.g. people, places, animals, politics, verbs, etc.)
You could also pick up a book on a topic that interests you and use that to gain new vocabulary. Such as computing books, science books, or even fantasy or murder mystery novels.
If you’re still learning beginner level Japanese then you can get books for elementary students (such as these science books), or graded readers designed for low-level Japanese learners.
③ Study Vocabulary in Pairs
This tip on how to improve Japanese vocabulary is a little different from tip ② because it’s about creating stronger connections between two words, rather than a group.
What’s the difference and how does this help? Well, when you have a word you are constantly forgetting, no matter learning it in context or a group, it sometimes help to create a strong connection to only one other word of a similar type.
For example, I kept forgetting the word さかえる “to prosper” so I paired it with its antonym (its opposite) すたれる “to die out”. Every time さかえる came up in my flashcards I also tried to remember the opposite verb すたれる.
Adjectives and verbs often have an antonym (a word opposite in meaning to another) which are great to study together.
Or there are times when you keep getting two words mixed up. The best thing to do is connect these two words together and make sure you make it clear to your brain which is which.
For example, I used to get だんだん “gradually” and どんどん “steadily” mixed up. So every time one came up I’d make a note to think of the other word and it’s meaning. That way I learned to distinguish between the two clearer.
④ Pay Attention to Particles
When you pick up a new word or verb pay attention, not just to the context, but the particles connecting it to the words around it.
Particles can slightly change the nuance of a word, which is why it’s important to have a firm grasp of them. (Even if you get a particle wrong a Japanese person will understand what you’re saying, it just sounds unnatural.)
- いもうととはなしました。- “I talked to my sister”
- いもうとがはなしました。- “My sister said.”
- いもうとにはなしました。- “I said to my sister.”
These sentences are exactly the same apart from the particles used, which change the meaning of the sentence.
Even advanced Japanese learners can mix up their particles. I say can, I mean do. At least I do. So even advanced learners should make a mental note of what particles are being used in certain situations.
By the way, this is also advice given to native Japanese speakers to improve their vocabulary! We’re not the only ones to mix particles up!
⑤ Read More
You’d be surprised by the number of words and phrases that appear in books and everyday Japanese that aren’t in textbooks. (Actually, you might not be.)
The first time I studied for the JLPT N1 I went through the entirety of the Nihongo Soumatome books and was lacking so much vocabulary and kanji-based vocabulary. (I found the Shin-Kanzen Masters to be better primers, but even these lacked a lot of field specific language that appeared in the test.) I wish I has started reading novels instead!
If you’re a beginner then I suggest reading the practice exercises in your Japanese textbook over and over. You can also find graded readers which are designed for lower-level Japanese learners.
⑥ Read Aloud
Reading aloud is great for pronunciation and speaking, but it’s also great for vocabulary! It forces you to know kanji readings and understand the meaning of vocabulary and grammar. This is also great for discovering new vocabulary as it makes you more away of terms you’re not familiar with.
When you read a novel, article, or textbook exercise, read a section aloud a few times. First to get used to the text, then to highlight words you don’t know (look these up), then to get used to the vocabulary in context.
Make sure you read loud and clear and read it enough times that you can read it at a good fluid tempo. So, fast but not unnaturally fast.
⑦ Take Advantage of Electric Dictionaries
Electric dictionaries are great tools for finding new vocabulary! I don’t mean randomly looking up words (you could if you want) but instead, keep an eye out for related words when you look up another word.
For example, you want to look up 旅行（りょこう）which means “(to) travel”. You can then use an electric dictionary in a few ways to find more interesting vocabulary. Such as 旅行者（りょこうしゃ）”a traveler” and 旅行会社（りょこうがいしゃ）”a travel company”.
You can look at the kanji used and what other words use those kanji. Such as 旅（たび）”journey”, 旅館（りょかん）”an inn”, and 旅客（りょきゃく）”a passenger”.
Jisho.org is a great resource for doing this as it automatically shows words that use the term you’re searching for, and the kanji breakdown of words.
If you’re an advanced learner you can use a Japanese to Japanese dictionary to understand the definition in Japanese. This will also expose you to more vocabulary and turns of phrase.
⑧ Keep a Note of Interesting Words
Another way to improve Japanese vocabulary is to make a note of new and interesting words you find.
I don’t think you need to make a note of every single word you don’t know, but collect the ones you find that you think will be useful or interesting. People often call this sentence mining. But remember, mining means you’re looking for gold, not common rocks!
You can collect words you find in a small notepad you carry around with your or a memo on your phone.
I use a dictionary app where I can tag vocabulary and have collections of vocabulary based on novels and books I’ve read. So when I come across a word I would like to know I tag it under that book’s name when I look it up. I then move these to an Excel sheet to then add them to Memrise to study later.
⑨ Use the Vocab You Studied ASAP
Output is as important as input!
- Speak Japanese with teachers and friends.
- Write articles, diaries, random notes.
A great way to use the Japanese you’re learning is to try and say them with your teacher. You could use your notepad of collected vocabulary to try and make sentences with them. It doesn’t matter if you make a mistake. If you have a nice teacher they’ll correct your mistake and tell you in what context you can use that word. (Making mistakes is a good thing!)
If you’re scared of making a mistake check the examples for a word in the dictionary and ask your teacher or a friend when you can use that word or phrase.
When it comes to writing you could write your shopping list or to-do list for the day. You could write a diary or, if you’re an advanced level, write articles in Japanese. Try to use the vocabulary you’ve been collecting and studying.
You could even combine writing and speaking by writing some things you find interesting to bring up in conversations. Have your teacher go over them with you and correct/polish them.
You can then whip this knowledge out about yourself and your interests at any time you’re talking to a Japanese person! (I still use things I learned by writing and memorizing self-introductions and presentations from my school years.)
⑩ Summarize Topics to 15 Seconds
This is a technique to improve Japanese vocabulary combines all other nine tips together.
You have a subject you find interesting, whether from a book, the internet, YouTube, TV, etc. You can use the vocabulary on that subject (from chunking and in your notebook) to create a short summary of that subject.
Start at trying to summarize the subject in 30-60 seconds. Then try to shorten it down to a 15-second explanation of the subject.
This exercise will have you working on your active memory of the vocabulary you’ve been studying and how to use them in context. It will also help with your speaking!
The first few times might be really awkward and difficult, but the more you do it the easier it will get.
The above ten points on how to improve Japanese vocabulary were based on a combination of my own experience and tips from the book Kokugo wa Goiryoku! (国語は語彙力! literally “Japanese is the Power of Vocabulary!”).
Kokugo wa Goiryoku is a guide by Takashi Saito (not the baseball player), a linguist who often gives advice to Japanese people about Japanese language. This book in particular is for Japanese high schoolers looking to improve their Japanese for school exams. It’s not just good reading practice, but has a lot of great advice! You can get it on Amazon Japan here.
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