How to gain vocabulary

inscription in Toba

I was asked this question by a classmate a while ago.

It’s something I’ve wondered about myself. There are essentially two main strands to any language; Vocabulary and Grammar. Grammar is the structure and Vocabulary the specifics. You need both. You can only get so far by knowing the words and pointing. Or trying to slot the Japanese words into English grammar structures (which would lead to very weird and unintelligible sentences.) But knowing the grammar structures but not having the right words to slot in is equally frustrating. So let’s assume you can learn grammar structures, how can you learn words to express what you want.

What words should you learn?
The words you need.
After a basic set of words to give you a grounding in the language and to take care of immediate practical needs in using the language, the words you learn are going to be different for everyone. I think you are more likely to remember words that you have a personal need for; that relate to how you want to use the language.

Making Wordlists.

Most textbooks will have a vocabulary list as part of a lesson or chapter. Learn these. The subsequent lessons will use these words. Hopefully they have been selected to be useful to you.

JLPT tests.
There are lists of vocabulary that can appear on these tests. Personally I find such a long list unweildy and diffuse. But if you want to take these tests they are a good starting point to compile other lists from.

My teacher does this sometimes to give us a vocabulary to use in a lesson. Without using dictionaries between the entire class we are now at a level where we can come up with enough words between us to be useful. On my own I use a single word to stimulate me to think of ten new words I can learn. Ten seems to be a manageable number in a single sitting. These lists are thematically linked. So for example, the other day I realised I didn’t know the word for fingernail. so in English I brainstormed for other related words I didn’t know.
fingernail – to paint – fingertip – knuckle – thumb – wrist – to point – palm – to tickle – to hold hands.
then I looked these words up and put them into my flashcard program and started to learn them.

Another starting point for wordlists might be a situation you’ll find yourself in. Think about what you might want to say and what words or phrases you’re missing. For instance buying a train ticket. Meeting your girlfriends/boyfriends parents. Meeting friends. Talking about your family. Talking about your job.

When I was in Japan I’d often quickly write out what I’d like to say in structured encounters like train stations. Of course it tends to fall apart once the other person strays from the script but it’s a good way to go into a situation with some confidence.

Your major source when compiling your wordlists. You need to be careful however that the meaning and feeling match what you want. Ideally you would use a Japanese dictionary to find out a words meaning, as distinct from an English-Japanese dictionary. The problem being there isn’t a perfect match between languages except at a basic level. I find that I look up a word in an English-Japanese dictionary, which will usually give several choices at least. Then I cross check in a Japanese-English dictionary to try to make sure it really means what I think, or how common a usage it is. Then I check the usage using example dictionaries. But in the end I use an educated guess. Sometimes a teacher or friend can correct me.
I use EDICT and it’s examples file. And the marvelous EIJIRO and WAEIJI. JEDict gives me a convenient way to search them.
I’m reminded of an episode of Friends where Joey started using a thesaurus to sound smarter. His sentences were intelligible yet somehow completely wrong. I’m sure you’ve also seen second language learners choose the wrong word. A friend of mine used “frolic” to describe gangsters fooling about on a beach. Not quite right.

It’s a little bit of a chicken and egg situation. You first have to obtain a basic vocabulary by learning basic words by heart. But if you can start with simple books suitable to your level, it’s a very good way to expand vocabulary. Try not to use a dictionary. Try to read using the extensive method. You’ll notice that the same words will start coming up again and again in the same book or manga. I like this set of Japanese readers for learners. And よつばと! is my favourite manga.
Reading something aimed at you personally like email or someones blog is a very good way to learn as well. You have an investment in knowing what’s being written to you. Again often people use the same vocabulary again and again. And usually this will be very real world learning by example as well. You can trust what friends write (except they might not have classroom type language) more than your own efforts at constructing sentences and choosing words.

A potential obstacle to reading is kanji. It’s just a fact of life that to read Japanese you’ll have to learn kanji. It will actually help your speaking in the long run. So learn some kanji. I’d suggest JLPT lists, or the Japanese primary school lists. Use these to get you started reading. The more you read the more kanji you’ll start to learn. As I said it’s a bit 鳥と卵 (there’s two kanji to add to your list)

Flash Cards.
A flash card system using an interval system is the best. Repetition is pretty much the only way you will acquire vocabulary. This can be passive by hearing the word or reading the word again and again in daily life, or it can be more active by using a flash card system.
The idea behind an interval system is that you learn a word you want to know until it enters your short term memory, then you relearn it just before you forget it. The interval between these re-learnings gets longer and longer until it becomes part of your long term memory. This is also why it’s good to build in revision to your study habits.
I recommend iFlash or Anki

Using New Vocabulary

Use what you’ve learned.
Make sentences from the words and phrases you learn. Words are easier to remember in context. Actively using new words will re-inforce them in your memory. Get a friend or teacher to make sure your example sentences are correct. Idioms and grammar can easily be slightly wrong.
Write email to Japanese friends. (もじばけ is a word you’ll soon learn. I find iso-2022-jp encoding to be better than utf-8. More Japanese programs can deal with it.)
Write a blog.
Use mixi.
These are good for learning how to express things about yourself and things you’re interested in. The danger I find when I do it is I use a dictionary to slot words into grammar structures in a building block style. I often don’t remember those words later. What I am now trying to do is work without a dictionary using the words I know. The I add new words into my Flash card program so I’m not repeatedly looking up words.

It’s much harder to get words from listening. The first problem is hearing them correctly, the second is remembering them, the third is plucking them out of the noise of words you don’t understand.

However it’s worth trying to be more active when listening to things like DVDs or music. Use Japanese subtitles if you can, it can help you pick out the words. On a second viewing, pause and rewind to get the words you want. It pays off in the end. The more words you acquire the less noise you hear, the more meaning you get.

What it’s all about. Put your new vocabulary to work by using the new words while speaking. The more you use them the more they can become part of your active vocabulary.

Active and Passive vocabularies.

Generally the amount of vocabulary you have goes from Reading (the most, passive, non-productive) Listening, Writing, Speaking (the least, active, productive).

This is not only in Japanese but also in English. While you might know the word “idiosyncratic” , it’s part of your passive vocabulary, you probably won’t use it in speaking. It’s not part of your active vocabulary. You might dredge it up when writing, but would need to check it’s spelling. But that said the amount of vocabulary trickles down. If you can increase your reading vocabulary you will also be increasing your speaking vocabulary because you will start using the most familiar words that you’ve read.

Suggested reading.
Learning Vocabulary — The English-Learning and Languages Review
The authors have some interesting things to say about how vocabulary is learned.

12. April 2008 by ロバート
Categories: 02 reading • 読む事 | Tags: | 2 comments

Comments (2)

  1. do you know any information about this subject in other languages?

  2. My interest is in Japanese. Most techniques would work in any language.

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