I will return to some haiku or arcane tidbit from Japanese history next week, but I wanted to share with you two tools I use to gain Japanese vocabulary. 

  1. On-the-fly dictionary look-ups while browsing the web: Yomichan
  2. Flashcard system: Anki

You may know both of these tools and use them, but I know some of you haven't heard of either. The horrors! Or maybe you have them installed, but don't use them.

I want to encourage you to use both (or similar tools) on a daily basis.


Every ま. Single い. Day にち!

There are other browser plugins that do this and have been for many years (thankfully), but I personally use and recommend Yomichan. Not only does it have several free dictionaries you can install, it also has a pitch accent add-on. While not as reliable as NHK's gold standard, it is pretty good and having that information while looking up new words is simply incredible.

Best of all both Yomichan and the dictionaries are free.

Installing Yomichan)

  1.  Add the free plugin to your web browser. Chrome (and Brave Browser--my favorite browser) go here and Firefox go here.
  2.  Download the dictionaries you want by going here. If you are an intermediate or above, get as many as you want. If you are a beginner, however, I would recommend only getting the jmdict_english.zip (or whatever your native tongue is) and kanjium_pitch_accents.zip. The reason is, adding additional dictionaries can sometimes show rare or unused pronunciations above the more useful entries. It can be confusing.

To install the dictionaries, go to the Yomichan plugin settings in your browser (it may be called plugins or extensions) and click on the Yomichan plugin. Click on "Configure installed and enabled dictionaries..." and click on "Import."

Find the zip file (you don't need to unzip it) for the dictionary you downloaded and you are done.

Using Yomichan)

This is the fun part.

Now, to get the reading and meaning of any Japanese word (almost), simply mouse over the word and tap the shift key.

As you can see from the image, a simple mouseover + shift gives you a world of information.

Let's put this into perspective, shall we? 

This is an old ad from a Mangajin issue from around 1997. Just over twenty years ago. Note that Yomichan can do pretty much all of that plus vocabulary definitions and pitch accents. How much for 2,000 kanji? Is it less than $499? Yep. (It's free.)

One quick note about the pitch accents. While you should memorize the exact pitch fall locations, I tend to just take note if the word is 頭高 atamadaka or not. If it is atamadaka, the pitch starts high and then immediately drops.

This is represented by the number "1" in the dictionary. Atamadaka--the pitch starts high.

If there isn't a "1," I know the pitch starts low. 

The second tool is a flashcard software called Anki.

The great thing about flashcards (software or paper-ware) is you review vocabulary. Duh, you say, but that's it, isn't it? The more you expose yourself to words, the more you will internalize them. It's like making friends. Anki helps take a stranger word and make it into an acquaintance and then a friend.

While paper cards are fine, Anki shuffles your deck in a smart way. If you tell it you know a card pretty well, it won't show it to you as often as a card you say you don't know very well. In this way, you see unfamiliar cards more often until you get to know them. This is called Spaced Repetition. It's harder to do with paper flashcards but possible.

Anki's price, you may ask? Free! Well, except for the iPhone app. It does cost something. I bought it and don't regret it, though. Anki is the one app I use every single day.

The above is an example of the "front" and "back" of a card.

Now, for my main deck (a collection of cards is called a deck) I don't set mine up like the above. I've already cleared my deck which is why I chose a deck I had downloaded (yes, there are tons of free decks out there). But I do two things differently:

1) I don't just put in a word (like 昔). I put in a phrase or a sentence so I can see the context. For example: 昔々、あるところに.

2) For the flip side, I usually only put the readings of any kanji, the meaning, and any notes such as pitch accents or a mnemonic story. In this case, my flip side might look like this:

むかし long time ago, in a certain place

I would suggest not using ro-maji if possible. Use hiragana for the kanji readings. But keep it simple since you will be adding words often.

Putting it All Together)

Here's what I do. This system has helped me learn vocabulary faster and easier than anything I've tried in the past.

  • First, whenever I read, watch, or listen to Japanese throughout the day, I add any vocabulary words I want to remember to my custom Anki deck.
  • I try to read, watch, or listen to Japanese at different times of the day in hunt of vocabulary words. In the morning, I read the news (in Japanese). If I have time during the day, I listen to Japanese podcasts or watch Youtube. At night when my work is done, I like to watch some Japanese show (sometimes I use Language Learning with Netflix--another amazing and free tool!!! Augh. This newsletter should be a lot longer...)
  • The point is, I'm on the hunt throughout the day for new words. Whenever I discover one, I add it to my Anki deck. 
  • Clear the deck: In the morning, over coffee, I start going through my Anki deck. I usually have 30-50 cards to review each day at this point, but that number varies depending on how many new words I add per day. I don't always clear my deck in the morning, but I usually do. If I'm in line, I usually have Anki open. If I'm waiting for the pizza to cook, I may be working on Anki. It doesn't require a lot of time. Just go through a few cards as you have time. But when I go to bed, I make sure my deck is cleared. 

I hope that helps. What tools are you using for learning and retaining vocabulary?

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