Advice for learning vocabulary?

I’ve been studying Japanese for about 3 weeks now. I’ve been learning kanji through Wanikani, and have been finding it pretty easy so far, although I’m sure it’ll get harder, and have very recently started working through Genki 1 alongside Bunpro for grammar, which has been going ok.

My friend who is fluent in Japanese advised me to use a certain core 6k Anki deck to learn vocabulary, but it’s just not sticking with me at all. I dont remember a piece of vocab even a minute after it’s come up, unless it’s one I previously learned through WK, and even after finally remembering it in a session after hitting again multiple times, I’ve completely forgotten it again by my review on the next day.

After looking around I’m seeing lots of disagreement over using Anki to learn vocabulary, with some saying that it should only be used for review rather than to learn, but them I’m not sure how to learn it in the first place.I know that reading is a good way, and I’d like to begin reading ASAP, but I’m still not at a level where I can understand anything but the most basic sentences, so I can’t imagine that would be helpful at the moment.

Ideally I’d like to get a headstart on vocab before I start reading, but do you think I should just continue with grammar studies + wk until I feel comfortable reading, and only then work on vocabulary? Or should I stick with Anki and hope things eventually start sticking? Or some mysterious third thing?

Thanks

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If you’re already using Bunpro for grammar, then I can say that the new Bunpro vocab feature(s) are genuinely excellent and worth your time trying out.

Bunpro vocab is currently still in its Beta stage, so you have to opt-in to the Beta program within your Account Settings.

Another feature that this unlocks is the Decks feature, which is a fundamental part of how Vocab is used, and also how Vocab and Grammar can be used together, particularly in the textbook specific decks which are available. E.g. The Genki I deck includes both the grammar and vocab from the book, and it’s presented in the same order as the book.

If you’ve already started with the Genki I grammar – via the older Paths feature – then you don’t have to re-study the grammar points you’ve already started on. The points themselves are independent of the Paths and Decks they are included in. Instead, you’ll just start learning the vocab from previous chapters.

Since Bunpro is so flexible, if there’s a vocab that you’ve already studied (say, on WaniKani), then you can just Mark as Mastered, and you won’t have to study it on Bunpro.

Once you’ve covered your textbook’s vocab, then I would recommend either a) studying the vocab from one or more other textbooks, or b) starting on the ‘official’ Bunpro vocab decks, which are based on the JLPT system, going from N5 (basic) to N1 (advanced).

Within these Bunpro JLPT decks, you should probably go into the Deck Settings and change the ordering, since the default ordering of Alphabetical is not very useful. E.g. I chose Anime ordering; you can choose Novels, Netflix, etc.

I’ve been plowing through these JLPT decks to fill in the big gaps I had in vocab, and I’m finding them very helpful.

Oh! I almost forgot one of the biggest benefits (IMHO), which is that you can use a Cloze-style input. In the deck/review settings it’s called “Fill-in / Manual”, or “Fill-in / Reveal & Grade”. What this does is to show you a natively-written Japanese sentence, with a blank in it where the vocab should go. You can optionally show hints to help you figure out which word is most likely intended, if there are several similar vocabs it could be.

Basically, this style of input is almost exactly the same as for when you’re doing Grammar Reviews in Bunpro. The main difference is that you don’t have to do any grammar-related conjugation or anything like that.

The benefit, IMHO, is that you not only learn the meanings of the vocabs, but you also learn how they are used in context, in actual Japanese sentences which are written by and curated by native Japanese speakers at Bunpro. This really helps with figuring out the different nuances between similar words.

Currently, this Cloze-style input is only available for N5 (complete), N4 (complete), and N3 (functionally complete, but missing some hints). Vocabs for N2 and N1 are still just ‘see Japanese, write English’, but they are actively working on these. N2 should be finished in a few months, they said.

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I had a similar problem. I went through SRS’ing 2,000 vocabulary over a number of years, and in that time forgot most of it.

My best advice here is to make liberal use of Anki’s feature to suspend leeches automatically.

Where you are with vocabulary right now, you want to spend more time on vocabulary you’re able to learn and not waste time on vocabulary you’re struggling with. If it’s vocabulary worth knowing, you’ll encounter it when reading, and you’ll start to become used to it at that point.

Once you start reading, you’ll see the most common words often enough that you won’t need SRS for them.

I currently use SRS for vocabulary for two purposes:

  1. To “pre-learn” words I will encounter in what I’m reading. This increases the chance I’ll recognize the word when I see it. (This relies on having a vocabulary list and/or frequency list for the material.)
  2. To try to retain less common words that I will likely encounter again. (This relies on having frequency lists for what I’m reading and series I’m considering reading.)

For an absolute beginner with Japanese, I’d recommend looking up a deck of the most common Japanese words. If the price tag isn’t an issue, Refold has a fairly optimized 1,000 vocabulary deck for Japanese. (Disclaimer: I saw a pre-version 1 of this deck, which showed promise. I haven’t followed the progress since, but it’s now on version 3.)

I’m not familiar with the Bunpro vocabulary that @wct mentioned, but since you’re already using Bunpro, I recommend checking their vocabulary solution before looking for other “common vocabulary” decks, simply because it’s already there and available.

Some people can spend a year learning grammar and vocabulary and still struggle with more than a basic sentence.

This is because, at some point, you need to start reading to really understand and internalize the grammar.

The less grammar and vocabulary you know going in, the more you’ll have to learn as you read. Some people excel with this method. Others do not.

Once you get comfortable with vocabulary and grammar, the Absolute Beginner Book Club (ABBC) here on the forums is a great way to put that learning into practice and start getting used to seeing vocabulary and especially grammar in the wild.

The ABBC uses vocabulary lists. Although typically they’ll be manually created by people who are reading along in the club, sometimes we get together an auto-generated list in advance, which helps for pre-learning some of the vocabulary. (Frequency lists, when available, help to know which words are best to focus on.)


What are some things you’d like to read? Are you considering manga? Light novels? Novels? Visual novels? Subtitled television?

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Oh, I wasn’t aware of that feature, I’ll definitely give that a go and see if it works better for me than Anki then, thanks.

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That Refold deck looks interesting, I’ll see how the Bunpro solution works for me first, but if not I’ll definitely consider it. The deck I’m using at the moment however already claims to be optimised, has native audio and example sentences, and I have edited the cards so that it’s Japanese to English, so I don’t know if that deck will be much of an improvement.

I understand that reading is the way to properly acquire understanding of the language, and I hope to start reading beginner material within a couple of months, I’ve had my eye on the ABBC for that purpose. It’s just that right now I’ve literally only done the first 2 chapters of Genki, so I think I should get a bit further before starting that. I didn’t know about the vocabulary lists though, I’ll definitely make use of that when I do start. I saw that jpdb.io offers the same thing too.

As for what I’d like to read, it’s primarily novels, light novels, some older games and maybe some visual novels too. The titles I desperately want to read are definitely pretty advanced though, and I’m under no illusions of being near that kind of level for at least a couple of years.

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Questions to consider for the 6K deck:

  1. How optimized can a deck with 6,000 words really be?

  2. What is the source of the vocabulary? (Traditional nK decks used newspapers as the source, which gives a bad distribution of words and includes many unnecessary words.)

I’m not suggesting that this specific desk isn’t optimized nor that its words are badly sourced. It’s been many years since I did vocabulary SRS using the source material for the original 2K Anki deck. That’s a lot of time for a determined person or group of people to improve a deck.

Regardless of quality, I think after the first 1,000 words of the 6K deck, you’ll be better served learning words through reading and frequency lists custom to what you are reading.

I agree. You don’t want to put the cart before the horse.

While there are no definitive “complete this before you start reading” rules, I’d say if you find Genki works for you, then aim to get through the first book before you attempt reading. Granted, I don’t know what all is covered in the first and second books, so maybe it’s good to get some of Genki II in after the first and before reading?

For this list, I had planned on recommending jpdb.io, but you’re already ahead of me in knowing about the site!

It can certainly be a long road to get there.

But that day will come so long as you:

  • continually learn more grammar
  • continually learn more vocabulary
    • and kanji!
  • (once you start reading) continually read

Good luck!

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OP, you are doing completely fine and great tools already.

I wouldn’t do the same as you now, to start so early level here though, for knowing myself to not get overwhelmed. :sweat_smile:

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Personally, I would just focus on learning the vocabulary that Genki introduces to you, since you’re already using it. If you want it in Anki, put the vocab in Anki. It’s a little skewed towards classroom learning but you can use it to do the exercises so it will be immediately reinforced.

Jpdb is a SRS flashcard site that has decks for books etc including textbooks, here’s the link to the Genki 1 vocab deck.

Here’s a tool to work through the Genki exercises online.

Also, if you haven’t already, check out Tokini Andy’s youtube channel for good videos explaining the grammar in Genki.

Once you have a few chapters of Genki done, you’ll be able to start reading in the ABBC club. I personally started reading after chapter 6 of Genki. It was hard but doable with the help of the club. Once you get into reading then you can focus less on the vocab that Genki is introducing and get vocab from a variety of sources. (-:

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There are already a lot of good advices in here, just keep at it and you will get better, it almost doesn’t matter what you do in the beginning as long as you do something, cause you have to learn everything anyway… eventually.

Can just share how I would start, maybe there is something you can take on your journey from it, maybe not. :slight_smile:

First: Hiragana/Katakana, no way around it, until you are confident that you can read in at a moderate speed.
Then I would work through Genki 1, not deliberately learning all the vocab, just read through it, not doing all the exercises and just getting a feel for the topics and a general idea on how the language works. If you don’t understand something at all… skip it and just go on. You might be surprised how much you know afterwards about the language without even really studying each single topic.
While going through Genki, I would learn at least the N5 vocabulary as a basic start, with Anki if you need to but once you feel like you know a word and see it while reading often, delete the card until there are no cards left. Same can be done with N4 Vocabulary.

That should give you a very basic understanding of the language and from here… you can basically do anything you like to do. For me that would be really easy graded readers or reading a bit harder things with the help of a dictionary (Manga with Mokuro to be able to look up words fast, Satori Reader, etc)…
Just be aware: You don’t need to understand everything you read, it is absolutely okay to just leave hard sentences alone and continue on. It’s important you read stuff, you get at least the gist/outline of the plot, the details will become clear later. I know that seems hard in the beginning, but at a later time you will be able to understand it. Go back from time to time and read stuff again just to see how much more you know than before! It’s an excellent way to really get the feeling of how much progress you made.
The whole time, from the very start I would also just try to listen, maybe very beginner friendly material at the beginning (lots of beginner videos on youtube), but relatively fast actual native material.
You won’t understand much anyway, but it’s important you really try to listen so that your brain can adjust to actual spoken japanese. It will all sound like in incoherent soup at the beginning, that’s normal. Once you start to make out individual words and sounds, you will get better fast. It also helps as already mentioned, to go through stuff you already know/heard in your native language, this will give a boost in understanding and enjoyment in the content.
In my case I started relatively early with real native content and couldn’t understand anything for quite a few weeks, it helps if it is stuff that has some visuals with it, that you can still enjoy. Like gaming streams of games you know and like or whatever suits you! If it has japanese subtitles together with the spoken japanese, it’s even more effective at the beginning, the brain will subconsciously start to match the sounds to the read words.

I know that’s just a whole lot of general tipps, but it doesn’t really need more tbh. The most important things are: keep at it with a steady pace and be aware that it will be a long journey. Consume as much content that is interesting to you, or you will get bored at some point. :slight_smile:
Also, just a general advice: I would keep the SRS learning at a minimum, from the beginner level on it can obviously help, but it should never be the majority of what you are learning!

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I second using SRS to review words you come across reading. I usually have an easier time remembering words when I’ve already seen them in use rather than just in a vacuum (though there have definitely been some learned on WK that unexpectedly just stuck immediately)

Graded readers (tadoku has a bunch of free ones) or Satori Reader are good places to start. They’re both designed for learners, even absolute beginners, and they’ll have the stories marked by difficulty level. Satori’s paid, but the first 2 chapters I think it was of every story are free, and they offer a free trial to check it out. Furigana is highly customizable (including using your WK API key and manually adding kanji you know), all stories are fully voiced so you can listen along, every sentence has a translation that you can toggle to check your understanding, and they’ve got in-depth grammar and cultural notes. Though I never used it (since they’re straight flashcards like anki and those don’t work well with me), it also has its own SRS that allows you to make flashcards from the words as you come across them and add context sentences from the stories to them.

Those, and/or finding book club picks that interest you and asking questions as necessary will help you build vocabulary and other reading skills to tackle the things you really want to read later on. Even if you struggle with any graded readers or whatever, you can always ask questions here on the forums and there’ll be people willing to help.

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Absolutely. Don’t be afraid to let words lapse - if you’re only seeing them in the Anki deck and that’s enough to forget them, you’re not seeing them commonly enough in the actual texts you’re reading, so it’s not really worth remembering at this stage. You can always come back (I would suggest that making Anki cards is an inherent part of the learning process that pre-made decks don’t fulfil, but that might be a little in the future).

Personally I think you can start using the Tadoku free graded readers from like halfway through Genki or maybe even earlier.

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I’m a big fan of beginners vocabulary exposure the same way that kids learn new words- in context through books or shows.

The Tadoku free graded readers that Jintor linked above are excellent. You can read them at a snails pace and will learn words within the story. Even if you have to read them with a dictionary glued to you, these words are surrounded by the context of a story so it’s far more likely you will remember them in comparison with flashcards on their own, untethered.

The first Japanese book I ever read was はらぺこあおむし. I’ll never forget the word for caterpillar :wink:

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The short answer is yes, but start reading before you’re totally comfortable.

Here’s my longer answer:

  1. My advice for learning vocab, especially at your stage, is (seconding others), just go with what you have now with Wanikani + Genki. Just do that and put the Genki vocab into SRS, then it is reinfoced as you work through Genki.
  2. Next step after a 3-6 chapters of Genki: if you like them, use the graded readers others mentioned. At this stage you learn vocab through context (and continue to learn the vocab with WK and Genki).
  3. Next step (after graded readers are too boring and or you finish Genki I or even II): move onto Satori and/or the ABBC. That last step to Satori and/or ABBC just takes some persistence. The thing is, anything new you read is really challenging, just get over the hump of the first few pages/episodes before you judge if it’s too much for you. And if it is, go back one step ABBC → Satori → graded readers and go up a step in grammar, i.e., the next few Genki chapters. And if you keep going every day you’ll get there. and you’ll find you learn the vocab as you read more because reading is a natural SRS (+ context!). This is where my vocab gains really took off - without SRS.

Maybe after starting to read at the ABBC level you’re at that stage where a core 6k deck might be helpful because you’ll reinforce some of the words with reading, if you really like SRS. But I personally wouldn’t advise doing it earlier than that, and once you’re reading if you learn words well that way you may never bother! It works for some people (like your friend), but the reason this type of core 6k SRS doesn’t work for you and a lot of other people at the very beginning is that a bunch of words without context that you never use and never come across outside of SRS don’t have enough connections in your brain. They then turn into time consuming leeches (forgotten) = burnout and demotivation.

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A while ago I wrote down a non conventional learning path centered around reading. In case you’re interested all the details can be found in the thread below.

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