Advice For Learning Vocab

So I’ve noticed something since I started learning Japanese. Hiragana only words that I learn are much easier to remember when I come across them while I’m listening or trying to recall. I figured this probably has to do with me only focusing on how the word is said and then “converting” it to English. But, with kanji vocab I’m using the kanji meanings to recall the meaning of the word, and then get the reading based on the kanji. So instead of me using the actual reading to get the meaning of the word, I’m going from the English translation of the kanji to find the meaning.

I also have a deck that makes it so I have to convert the word from English to Japanese - however, I still notice that when I come across a word I know pretty well, I still miss it while I’m listening -
Here’s an example: 点ける - I’ve seen this word in hiragana (and I’ve seen this word plenty of times in reviews, etc), but I always draw a blank and can’t recall any of its meanings because I don’t have the 点 there to help me.

I’m wondering what people think I should do based on what your experiences, or if this is just natural (which I’m assuming it is). I was considering creating a deck where I learn new vocab and convert it to just hiragana, and I would learn the word with kanji later on down the road. Thoughts on this? Bad idea? Waste of time? What do you think?

Anyways, thanks in advance. Once again I assume this is probably something everyone goes through and it just takes a lot of time, but I figure since I have a lot of time on my hands maybe there’s something else I could do to help gain familiarity with words I already know, or with new words coming in the future.


As a fluent Chinese speaker learning Japanese, I have the same problems you do, since I’m used to using kanji to decipher the meaning of a word. When I encounter hiragana in the middle of a sentence, I sometimes fail to recall the same word written using kanji, and so I completely misinterpret it. One example that’s been bugging me lately: I have a tendency to assume たった=ただ, which is one of its synonyms, but often enough, it’s 経った, which means ‘(time) has passed’. I imagine this is especially troublesome when it comes to kun’yomi, since they’re less consistent (and more unique).

What I personally do (and this isn’t at all systematic, but it’s how I learn to absorb kanji for Japanese) is to make sure I read words written using kanji in Japanese before doing any meaning recall. That is, the first thing I do when I learn a new word is to learn to pronounce it. (I know this might not work so well given that WaniKani probably teaches kanji before vocabulary, but hey, I knew kanji before I started learning Japanese.) If necessary, I imagine the hiragana at the same time as when I read the word. The idea is to associate the pronunciation with the writing first, and then associate that block (pronunciation + writing) with the meaning. You can try learning hiragana-only forms first, and then learn kanji later. That’s what Japanese children do, and I guess it’s the same for Chinese children in Chinese-speaking homes: they learn how to say words before knowing how to write them. It’s really up to you how exactly you’ll do it, but I think your problem is that you’re not learning kanji-containing words as single units, and the association in your brain between writing and pronunciation isn’t strong enough yet.

I’ll use your 点ける example for illustration: let’s say I came across this in a sentence, or in a vocabulary list. The first thing I do is to find out how it can be read (つける). If necessary, I look up the meaning of that word in hiragana to get a better idea of possible meanings (and other kanji used, since it’s likely that multiple kanji with similar but distinct meanings are used for each word). I use whatever I can think of to attempt to remember the pronunciation and associate it with the kanji form (点ける) as a block. Finally, I learn the meaning of the word and associate it with the meaning of the kanji used (点 in this case, but it’s also written 付ける, with a different nuance). It’s like seeing D-O-G, saying ‘dog’ and then associating it with a dog picture. If I hear the word, I know what it means, even if I’ve forgotten how to spell (i.e. write) it, and recognising the shape of the word might trigger a memory of the meaning even if I’ve forgotten the relevant pronunciation rules. However, if the link between sound and symbol is strong enough, I’ll picture the word when I hear the sound, and hear the sound when I see the word, and the meaning will come automatically from one of the two.


I recently started noticing a similar thing in my non-WK vocab drilling – so I changed my card templates to both show the word and always play the audio on the front, and I just have to recall the meaning (I have another subdeck for gap-fill sentences).

It kind of feels like cheating, but since I started using this “easier” card format I’ve noticed I’m recognising the words better both when listening and reading :woman_shrugging: (even in JLPT resources that write kanji words all in hiragana on purpose).

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Reading and listening are two different skills, both requiring their own practice.

For listening you could do something like a shadowing book. Or you could do something like the Core 6k deck with all the sentence audio. When I was doing that I would bring up each card without looking at it and just listen to the word and sentence to try and pick it out, only looking at the written form if it was something new or if I couldn’t get remember it.

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Yeah for sure, and I’ve also been considering doing an audio deck for a bit of time now. Do you think this would be more beneficial than doing a hiragana only deck? I know that both would be beneficial, but I figure that the audio would probably be better overall. I’ve also thought about just having it randomly pick from the 6k list (with me only knowing about 1k-2k of it, that way I don’t know if I know the word or not. This way I can’t just guess the word based on me knowing that I “know it” - if that makes sense.

Interesting, I might give this a go in one of my decks. Thanks for the idea!

I think I lost you a little bit in your explanation here. But with your dog example, are you basically saying that you’re associating the word you learn with what it is, rather than with its translation? I’d see how that is beneficial, and I’ve tried doing that I just sorta forget to do it, and end up going back to doing the meaning of kanji to recalling the meaning.

[Warning & Summary: Unfortunately, my explanation ended up being very long again. I tried changing explanatory strategies halfway in the hope that it would be clearer. If at the end of it all you still don’t get it, erm… perhaps try to tell me what exactly is unclear, or what sort of advice you’d prefer (e.g. concrete steps, more visual representation, more examples…). At the end of the day, my thoughts are essentially that you need to closely associate reading(つける), writing(点ける) and meaning (e.g. ‘to turn on’) in your mind while only using kanji knowledge as a memory aid, potentially while relying on a lot of repetition. I literally stare at kanji forms like 残る and say のこる while visualising the kanji 残 in my head every time I say the first few syllables, and then proceed to read example sentences or think about the anime line in which I heard them. I ‘accept’ the reading as a ‘truth’, something that ought to be self-evident: if I see 残 next to る, it’s のこ. Not ざん or anything else. のこ. It has to become intuitive. That’s all I can say. Do it in whatever way works for you.]

Full explanation, in which I attempt a visual analogy in the second half and essentially re-explain myself.

Sorry, I guess my explanation did turn into a bit of a mess at some point. It’s true that trying to associate something directly with what it is or what it means is probably the best strategy, but it’s not always easy or practical to do. What I intended to say is that when we learn a language formally, especially when it comes to learning abstract words, we tend to learn words themselves first, and then their meanings. What I was suggesting was that you focus on associating words containing kanji with their sounds. @skymaiden’s suggestion sounds like a practical way to do that, particularly if you’re not getting much exposure to WaniKani words outside of WaniKani. I quite frequently do reading practice, and I regularly watch anime while checking the transcriptions on reaction blogs, so readings just have to stick at some point because I keep looking the same words up (and because I can imagine, say, how an anime character said certain words in a certain scene). You need to find your own way to strengthen the word-pronunciation associations if you’re not getting that kind of practice.

Your idea of using a ‘hiragana’ deck sounds like another way to associate words with their pronunciations, though personally, if I were using flash cards, I would try to put all three elements on the same card e.g. kanji form on one side, reading and meaning on the other. However, I still feel like the word-pronunciation link is the most important, since you can try to guess the meaning from the kanji. To use your example, you need to get to the point where the moment you see 点ける or 付ける, you know it’s つける, and the moment you see or hear つける, you know 点ける and 付ける are possible kanji forms. Thereafter, you can attempt to recall meaning, since you seem to have no trouble learning kanji meanings/translations.

If you prefer a visual representation, think of it as a triangle: word, pronunciation and meaning. You need to identify which of these associations you’re having trouble with, and in which directions. From what you’re saying, I feel you have no issue going from word (kanji) to meaning and from word to pronunciation. However, you’re having trouble going from pronunciation (hiragana) to meaning. There are two paths you can take:

  1. You build a new road between pronunciation and meaning. You can do so using, for example, your hiragana + meaning deck idea.
  2. You go backwards from pronunciation to word, and then from word to meaning.

To me, given the fact that you’re going to be seeing a lot more words in kanji first as you continue learning Japanese, and the fact that you already seem to be able to go forwards, from word to pronunciation, I think #2 will require the least extra effort. Also, it’s much more practical, because when you look words up in the dictionary, you will always see the kanji form and the pronunciation before you see the definitions. Getting used to making these word-pronunciation associations now will save you a lot of time later. Also, I might be completely wrong, but based on your first post, I get the impression you’re using a list of possible kanji readings in order to guess the pronunciation of a word. That makes no sense, in my opinion, because especially for kun’yomi readings, you’ll never know when to use which reading. There’s nothing in the kanji that tells you what to say. Once you’ve learnt one reading that you can use as a name (say てん for 点), all other readings should be learnt in context, as part of a word or kanji compound.

Anyway, I feel like I’ve repeated myself several times in what I’ve just typed, and I realise I’m not sure how I should phrase things because IDK how you’d like me to present them. The short version is this: in my opinion, you have to link what you see to what you say/hear in both directions, and only then learn meaning. 点ける should look like the sound つける. The sound/hiragana chain つける should immediately bring to mind 点ける. Link them as closely as possible in your mind. Read a passage on light switches over and over if you have to. Switch your voice assistant (Siri, Cortana, Alexa or whatever) to Japanese and say かりをつけてください over and over, even if your device isn’t actually connected to the light switches, and each time you say つけて, see the kanji in your mind: 点けて. It has to become that natural. Thereafter, no matter which way you learn the meaning of the word, you will only strengthen your understanding (by comparing it to the kanji) and hearing the word in your head. When you start learning the meanings, you’ll have to contemplate the three components at the same time as much as possible, and not think of them separately.

I’m sorry if this still isn’t clear. Perhaps the other assumption I’m having about how you’re approaching this right now is that you’re relying too much on the kanji. As much as using the kanji can help you guess the meaning of a word, if you find you need the kanji to make things clear, then maybe you should learn the translation of the words themselves (in hiragana? IDK), and only then say, as an afterthought, ‘Ah, that makes sense given what I know about this kanji.’ Whatever it is, make as many associations as you can, and make sure they always go in both directions. I’m sorry if I’m not giving enough concrete steps, because I’m not really a flash card person, and the way I’ve been learning kun’yomi since starting (e.g. in verbs) is simply by looking it up in the dictionary, repeating it a few times, trying to find some way to associate the sound of the word with the meaning, which is itself tied to the kanji, and then waiting until the next time I encounter the word in a passage or in an anime in order to test myself. Each time I discover I’ve forgotten, I go, ‘Ah yes, that was the word. How could I have forgotten?’ and then I repeat my steps again and wait for my next encounter. The more memories you have built around the word, regardless of how you write it (with kanji or in kana), and provided you always think of reading, kanji form and meaning together, the better you’ll remember, and the less likely you’ll be to have problems with listening.


Okay, that was a lot of information to process. So basically, you’re saying that how you do it is when you learn a word, you learn pronuncation (hiragana), and associate it with 点ける. And then you associate 点ける with つける right? And then you go to meaning?

Somewhat, yes. When I come across a new word I use what I already know about the kanji to guess how the word is pronounced. So for example, if 外国人 showed up and I didn’t know it, I’d make the assumption that it would use all onyomi readings. I’d start with 外国 and I’d think “げこく” - that doesn’t sound right, it sounds off based on words I normally, hear. Then I’d go ”がいこく" which sounds a lot better, so I’d assume the reading for that would be がいこく. Keep in mind, this is when I’m first learning a word, not after I know it pretty well. I’d then move onto the 人 part, and I know that にん and じん are hard to guess, but I’ve come to somewhat of a conclusion that when it has to do with an actual person like a quality or physical feature, it’s じん. So I’d assume it’d be read がいこくじん. So yes, you’re right about me going from readings of kanji to pronunciation. I tend to do this for harder words for a while, and I eventually get to the point where I see the vocab and I can just pronounce it without thinking, and I can get to the point where I know the meaning. But I still think seeing the kanji plays a large part in how I understand what the word means because without it I feel like I no longer have that aid to help me. As for not being able to ever know which reading to use, I don’t think you’re right there because some readings make sense with each other, while others don’t. I’ve heard enough of the Japanese language to hear sounds that don’t fit together if that makes sense, so some readings just don’t fit and I can conclude it isn’t that reading - and I’m typically right 80-90% of the time even with kunyomi.

But what you’re saying to do is essentially when I come across a new word, associate it with its kanji form, and associate the kanji form with its hiragana form. Link the two back and forth in my mind, make sure I see it, and once I’ve done that several times, go from that to meaning? I can see how that’d make sense, I just can’t see how that could be more effective than mnemonics, at least when I first learn a word. I struggle to remember meaning when I have nothing to link it to. If I go from reading to meaning without anything there to give me some aid in, the beginning, I’m going to forget it every time. Even if I’m given a bunch of example sentences, I need a bit more to help create that memory from the start, and then I can get going from there (after about a week of several reviews).

Apologies if I didn’t understand everything you wrote, I appreciate you going into detail here for me though, thank you. I find your method here pretty interesting.

Edit: I’m thinking something more along the lines of this: Do what you’re saying - come across a new word and do this: associate it with it’s pronunciation and then associate the pronunciation with how it’s written. Go over that in my head a few times, picturing how it looks in both forms (maybe write down too). After that, I was thinking I’d create a mnemonic on how the word is pronounced with the meaning, instead of going from kanji meaning (unless it’s super obvious like 表す). Is that what you’re kinda talking about? And then when the word comes up again, do the same process, but don’t reinforce the mnemonic. Reinforce everything else though (the first two steps). Or am I off here.

Honestly, this sounds pretty good, and I guess that means you’ve kinda figured out what I meant. Thank goodness, because I felt like I was confusing myself too. :sweat_smile: I’m not sure what you mean about not reinforcing the mnemonic, because whether or nor you need to do that really depends on whether or not you feel like you’ve managed to retain the word’s meaning. However, yes, in essence, I feel like redoing the first two steps (pronunciation->writing + writing->pronunciation) should help you with your listening issues.

What I had in mind is essentially that you should be trying to ‘move the kanji into your head’, because that way, when you hear the pronunciation or see it in hiragana, your memory of the version with the kanji will be triggered, and you’ll be able to use that to help you recall the meaning. Also, I didn’t say you had to avoid mnemonics: by all means, use whatever method you like to remember the meaning. I myself frequently look for the link between the kanji and the meaning of the word containing it. However, what I try to avoid is associating the meaning only with the kanji, since the rest of the word usually creates nuances. Here’s an example with 出る and 出す: in both cases, 出 evokes ‘outward motion’. That helps me to know what sort of ideas they’re associated with. However, what I then do is learn their respective meanings (‘go out’ and ‘take out’) and say, ‘Ah, I see how that fits.’ Admittedly, I also use other hints to help me remember, like by associating the す in 出す with する, since they function similarly.

Separately, I guess I have to admit that some sounds don’t really fit together in Japanese. That much is true. Certain series of sounds are unusual. Also, in my case, I can guess on’yomi very easily thanks to Chinese and some experience with various Chinese dialects, so it’s not like there are no patterns. What I meant, however, is that there isn’t always a reliable way to tell, so working with a list of pronunciations may not be as helpful as learning that a certain combination of kanji/kana (or a certain meaning) always results in the same reading.

Anyhow, the rough method you’ve come up with based on what I said seems promising. I guess you could start with that and experiment a little to see how things go, feeling free to adjust it if necessary. I guess it’s kinda hard for me to concretely explain how I do things, because I don’t really have a formal method. I just look for any link possible. For example, if you asked me how to learn うけたまわる, I’d say start from the assumption that it’s a compound verb made up of 受ける and 賜る, which seems to fit the meaning. If you asked me how to handle おとる (to be inferior), I’d say look at 落とす and 落ちる. Both と and ち are from the T row, and both ‘OT-’ forms involve the idea of falling, and thus of inferiority. I don’t know if Japanese has prefixes, but I notice patterns and create my own prefixes and theories about how the language works. I even have a theory that ひらける(開ける) comes from the stem of 広い and あける(開ける), because it seems to fit. I create any link I can think of, because even if it’s historically incorrect, I still remember the correct meanings. What works for me may not work for you, and vice versa. I’m just hoping that my ideas might help you come up with methods of your own that serve you well.

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Awesome, thank you. Makes a lot of sense, I definitely feel like I’ve tried doing this in the past but just ended up neglecting it because I got lazy. But cool, thanks for the advice I’ll be doing this and see how it works out!

I learn a word by its reading moreso than its kanji. I find it sticks better for me. Remembering a word’s meaning based on its kanji alone seems weird to me.

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