One of the most onerous aspects of language learning is building vocabulary. At first it can be fun to learn new words in another language, but it’s not long before the sheer magnitude of the task becomes apparent. I sometimes feel like I forget two words to make room for every new word I learn!
I don’t know of any magical methods for making words stick, but there are certain principles that can help.
Principles for learning vocabulary
Repetition: Reinforcement through repeated exposure is probably the most critical aspect to learning new words. The reason it can be so hard to remember the name of a person you meet for the first time is because you hear their name once but then generally don’t hear it again. Any strategy for remembering vocabulary must include a way to review new words.
Context: Hearing or seeing how new words are used in context is also helpful for learning their meaning and usage. Adults often learn a word in a second language by connecting it to a similar word in their first language. But this has two problems. First, it hinders fluency in the second language by tying it to the first language. Second, it fails to account for the fact that one-to-one correspondence doesn’t always exist between words in two languages. In contrast, children pick up words from context, which is a more effective long-term learning strategy. Sample sentences can be valuable for seeing words in context.
Seeing and hearing: To reinforce connections between the spoken and written language, it helps to see a spoken word and hear a written word. Listening to audio books while following the text in a written book and reading Japanese subtitles for Japanese TV programs and movies are two ways of doing this. Also, many apps allow you to listen to the pronunciation of words and sentences.
Finding connections: All kinds of connections exist between words in a language. Finding these links can be fun and reduce the amount of memory work needed. For example, when learning an adjective (e.g. pretty), it can be helpful to connect it to its opposite (e.g. ugly). Learning words that share the same kanji is another way to connect words. In Japanese onomatopoeia is frequently related to conventional words (e.g. きらきら[sparkle] is derived from the verb きらめく[to sparkle]).
Using new words: One of the best ways to make a new word your own is to use it, either in conversation or writing.
Evaluating strategies for learning vocabulary
Using bilingual lists or flash cards: One of the most common ways to learn vocabulary is to use bilingual flash cards or word lists. By themselves, flash cards and word lists are probably not very effective, but they can be more effective if they are supplemented by a good review system (one that prioritises reviewing words you don’t know well), sample sentences, and audio.
Reviewing words encountered during the day: One of my favourite ways to practice vocabulary was to look up new words that I encountered in everyday life on my electronic dictionary. I would then use the review button to review them later and read example sentences. This allowed me to both recall words and see how they were used. Many apps now fulfill this purpose.
Tadoku: This is a reading method that involves reading a lot of material in Japanese without using a dictionary to look up words (see “Experimenting with tadoku”). While it doesn’t involve active memorisation of words, I think it’s a powerful method for learning new words because it satisfies the principles of repetition (you encounter words at the same frequency as they are used in books) and context.
I’d encourage you to evaluate the methods that you’re using for learning vocabulary in light of the above principles and consider whether your methods could be improved or exchanged for other ones.
Simon Pleasants works as an editor in the Tokyo office of a scientific publishing company. Originally from Wales, UK, he moved to Australia in 1988. He helps maintain several Japanese-related websites, including Reaching Japanese for Christ: rjcnetwork.org