Building Japanese vocabulary — the fun way


Buddy Lindsey blogs about Japan and Japanese langage, history and culture at his blog Dumb Otaku. Here he shares a method combining flashcards and videos that he’s used to successfully build his Japanese vocabulary.

By Buddy Lindsey
Guest contributor

We can learn all the grammar in the world and while it truly is important, if you don’t have the vocabulary to back it up then your grammar isn’t going to get you anywhere. It seems many learners of Japanese find grammar fairly easy compared to learning a few thousand new words and being able to recall them at will.

So that means we must learn the words. This can be accomplished in a number of ways, from contextual learning to drills with flash cards. Both have their advantages and disadvantages.

Learning words through context has the benefit of showing you when and how to use the word from the beginning, but it can take a lot of time to learn the words this way since you are learning more than one thing at a time.

Flash cards are a quick way to gain a lot of vocabulary, but the downside is they give you little to no context. This forces you to study more down the road to put them in proper sentences with what grammar you do know.

There is a way to get a little bit of the best of both worlds, but it requires more study time during each session and a concerted effort. I call it “active recall” and it has proven fairly successful the couple of weeks I have been doing it.

The premise is that you have active learning periods where you study by doing drills, researching the language, etc. There is also inactive learning during which you might just be listening with little to no thought about what is being said. Active recall is actively listening for comprehension and context.

Using this approach, you study as many words as you want for about an hour. You must really study and really drill them into your head. No 5 minutes here, 5 minutes there with a 10 minute sandwich and bathroom break in between. The next step is to bring up an old show, be it anime or a Japanese drama, that you have watched before. Watch it again with subtitles and listen for the words you just studied. Read the subtitles and meld it all together.

The tricky part is doing it properly; the first few times can be rough. It is called “active” recall because you must actively listen for the words you just studied, along with other words you know, and combine them together. The idea is to try to understand the context without subs. It’s OK if you have trouble in the beginning — the subtitles are helpful to guide you through the process to understand the context around the phrases.

This has three benefits:

1) You learn words faster.

2) You learn context, too, which also helps you learn the words faster.

3) You learn intonation. This was something that caught me off-guard. In addition to picking up new vocabulary, I also was learning how to properly say the words because I was associating the word and context and the sound all together.

So block off two hours every couple of days and give this a shot. It is a lot more fun than you might think. If you can study your flashcards very intently for 20 to 30 minutes you can probably skip that last half hour and go to the video. Just remember: shows you have already seen make it easier to do this.

Let me know if this helps you.


  1. The way I prefer building vocabulary is by using in short sessions (5 to 15 minutes), that works a lot better than ~1 hour sessions for me. I make sure to use lists that have audio and sentences so I can put the words in context and study dictation. For “active recall” I use radio shows, music and sometimes talk shows.

  2. Radio and TV are great resources, as long as you’re advanced enough to understand it all at the speed they’re talking.

    But most certainly yes, is a great resource as well.

  3. “Flash cards are a quick way to gain a lot of vocabulary, but the downside is they give you little to no context”

    Add context to your flashcards by using sentences or phrases and NEVER single words. Only use phrases or sentences that you get from REAL Japanese sources. Don’t make your own. A single flashcard then will have grammar and vocabulary. Problem solved. This can be used at any level.

    Look up “spaced repitition system” on Google. It makes learning and memorization like cheating.

    “but it requires more study time during each session and a concerted effort.”

    Spaced Repition requires less study time per day and hardly any concerted effort.

  4. @D, I do know what SRS is and in fact flash cards are a crude method of SRS, if I was writing for my blog I would have used the acronym SRS in place of flashcards. I don’t know what the readership here knows so I went with the more known phrase/option.

    The problem I find when doing real sentences, at an early level, is the time it takes to to break down the sentences you find when you don’t have a good vocabulary to start with. However, while I am learning new words I am using the above method to help me until I can get about a 1000 or so words under in my head. Then context from sentences will be easier. Context helps, but in the beginning some memorization is needed. This is just a fun way to do the same old thing.

    @yonasu, yes SRS is great. My article if you kind of read between the lines a bit basically points out that a one hour session usually consists of a lot of breaks and not solid study. However, if you can concentrate for a solid 15 minute session then move to an audio source it can be just as effective. I prefer for my vocab stuff and anki for my kanji and sentence decks.

    At the end of the day this is just another way to do the same old thing to help mix it up so it doesn’t get tedious or monotonous. And is a good excuse to watch anime 😉

  5. What D said: Use Spaced Repetition software to put your sentences in, and review your sentences every day.

    I believe that immersing oneself in Japanese activities, and try to pick various sentences while doing it is a great way of learning the language.

    Thanks for sharing! 😀

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