How do we tell which vocabulary is actually used in conversation?

Sometimes I ask my wife about a word I learn in Wanikani and she’d give me a strange look, saying Japanese people don’t use that word.

I understand that some of the words we learn are simply thrown in to reinforce certain kanji, but how can we tell which words will actually be useful?


Others might have different answers, but I deal with it this way. I don’t treat WK as learning Japanese. I treat it as learning Kanji. Anytime there is overlap with learning Japanese I think of it as a bonus. To me, the only way to learn which words are actually used is to interact with the language. By interact I mean read books, articles, websites, and speak with natives.


You can look the words up in a thesaurus, and often they will mention which words are stiff, literary, old-fashioned, or written language.

This site is a digital version of a quite good thesaurus.


This scene comes up pretty often and surprisingly it’s interesting that some people say this. I say it’s interesting because it’s a vague response that can mean a lot things.

Japanese people (i.e., people I know, including myself) don’t use that word.
Japanese people don’t use that word (normally in conversation, period).
Japanese people don’t use that word (in this context).
Japanese people don’t use that word (because I don’t encounter often in media around me).

The list goes on. Japanese people aren’t a monolith that all do the exact same things despite some alleging that they do. All words you learn are useful but in different ways, as you have already acknowledged in your post.

One thing that can help is using a corpus like the Tsukuba Corpus along with a thesaurus to understand how the words you learn come in a sentence. Some people use simple Google searches to compare words to see which might be more common.

Another thing I’ve done is avoid using words on WK in conversations until I’ve heard people use those words in conversation. Because it’s a reading program, a lot of words you learn here might be primarily used in literary, academic, and more formal contexts, which makes them seem out of place. Simply saying, “I don’t know the correct word but it means/or is used (in this situation)” helps to get people to teach you words in a conversational context.

Lastly, learning common collocations can help guide you to more general ways people say things in Japanese. There are books out there provide lists of natural ways of saying certain things.


I know the situation well.
Assuming your wife is Japanese, you are in an excellent position to put @pragmata’s advice into action, depending on how supportive your wife is to help of course.

If she is straightforward helpful, you can ask her what Japanese people do actually use in a specific case (it needs a specific case I think, otherwise could get complicated). Or if she’s more the “I’m your wife, not your bloody Japanese teacher!” type, apologise profusely, hang in there (marriage-wise I mean), depart the conversation for your nearest internet laden screen and post about it here.


Since I moved on to primarily studying kanji with Kanken resources, Japanese people have generally stopped telling me that the words I’m studying aren’t used or useful. They seem to grasp the idea when it’s framed by a test they’re familiar with.

It’s funny, because lots of the words you see on Kanken level 2 are even more rare than many WK words.


Instead of asking directly whether a word is used, try just slipping the word into conversation. If she doesn’t react to the word itself, you can assume you used it in the right context (even if she herself might’ve chosen a different phrasing).

What I don’t like about the sentence ‘Japanese people don’t use this word’ is that it implies that you shouldn’t have to learn it. But at the same time, they themselves often do know the word (I think), so at some point theyust have come across it, so it is used.


I’ve only managed to deal with this through exposure. At this point when new words pop up in my lessons, I can make a good stab at whether they’re actually used, or just niche synonyms for more common words, based on whether or not I’ve heard or read them/have seen different words in their place.

Otherwise, your options would be limited to checking with a native or looking them up in native dictionaries, probably. I don’t feel it’s worth doing each time. Just learn them and keep exposing yourself to native material.

I do think that a really good feature for some potential future update on WK would be a little tag on words just to flag them to the extent of “common word,” “written word,” “formal word,” “antiquated,” etc. Nothing super in-depth. Just an at-a-glance flag for what contexts you might see or use vocabulary in. It would be a massive undertaking, but I feel would also greatly increase the site’s usefulness as a vocabulary resource (which is admittedly secondary to its teaching kanji).


Yep, I’ve seen this similar argument brought up here multiple times about the word 友人. Yet, I’ve encountered this term many multiple times when watching either a drama, anime or movie. Most recently a couple nights ago when watching the anime Bungo Stray Dogs.

Now that’s not to say it should be used over 友達, but I’ve encountered the word far more often than the critics of WK teaching the word would have led me to believe.


A lot of WK’s vocab (unsurprisingly, since so much of it is jukugo, which tends to have a slightly more formal connotation) falls into this category–out of place in daily conversation, but something you’ll see regularly in news, fiction, drama, etc.–any place where language needs a touch more formality or can play with conventions.

I think a lot of people just see early learners interacting with those words and are at a rush to clarify they’re not for everyday use–ignoring how useful they are for general comprehension, and that they themselves absolutely have them in their passive vocabulary.

But then, there are a few genuinely antiquated/extremely formal words in WK’s library too, which is why I think a basic tag system would be nice. (Eventually.)


It’s an interesting question that leads me to think about how much English I know but don’t use because it it archaic, in a dialect that isn’t one of my own, or just not part of my personal lexicon.


Forsooth, verily, in retrospect this marks an auspicious for perusing the wellsprings of our own passive vocabulary.


Is there a list somewhere of those antiquated/extremely formal words of WK ? I’m so used to see WK vocab popping up in all kind of unexpected places that I wonder which one are truly rare.

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Years of reading classical novels (and just having an interest in academia tbh) have definitely lead me to having an abundance of “useless” vocab. It unconsciously spills into my daily life without my noticing it and leads to my family in particular ridiculing me (is ridicule rare enough to be bolded?) for it. So I sometimes hesitate to speak when I know I’m going to use a very particular word that suits the situation, as I have to ask myself whether I’ll be mocked for it or not. Japanese or English, the problem still persists (also don’t know how common this is).

Just a couple of days ago I saw some news source (Fox, expectedly) having a headline about a different headline that made use of “eviscerate”. This was made news because no one knew what it meant and they looked it up in a dictionary, saw it meant “disembowl” and concluded that it was a violent threat towards Our Supreme Emperor God President Trump, completely failing to see that it was, of course, metaphorically used. I mean, Trump and an expansive vocab are antithetical so I’m not that surprised, but still.


Easiest way is to use them. I’ve tried out a lot of the words with the teachers I work with and you can tell straight away when I’ve used an uncommon word or I’ve used it a little wrong. Most of the times they just tell me the way I’m supposed to use it or a better alternative in the context of what I was trying to say and then I take it from there.
There are a few I’ve come across where they’ve said oh you only use that in writing or so on.
But to be honest most people you talk to will be able to understand what your trying to say and realise it’s just a mistake and that you’re still learning. Using the wrong word has never caused me much of an issue and like I said most people will point it out and correct you.
Some people do it quite subtly though cause they don’t want to seem rude. So you might hear them quietly saying the correct word while you carry on talking in which case I’d recommend asking them about it as it’s easy to miss and not actually find out what you did wrong.

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See I would use all of those words in everyday speech, but then I sound like a pompous twit most of the time.


Probably the most egregious example of this is the fact that my wife and I use the word ‘vexed’ to express a degree of mild annoyance with one another.


I’ve had similar experiences as others when people watch me study, but I’ve also had a couple times when in conversation or asking about a particular word where the person straight up didn’t know what I was talking about (even after seeing the kanji) and had to check a dictionary for context/nuance. The two words I remember that happening with were せつ and .

However, this is obviously not the usual case, and I’m personally not complaining. I’d rather learn a word and not need it than need it and not know it. I’d recommend the same as everyone else, just try the word out. You won’t really know until you’ve used it. Alternatively you can just straight up as people “How would you use this word?” instead of “What does this word mean?”. I’ve found that the answer I get is much more informative this way, and sometimes you’ll even learn that it actually has more uses than you thought.


That is a pretty good one. I think I’ve never actually heard someone say vexed outloud but I run across it in novels quite often.

I have a good idea of when it’s ok to use “big words” depends on my audience. To professors and students, absolutely OK. Everyone else, not so much.


I don’t think there’s a single WK word I haven’t seen used at least once.

As for the original question, jisho tags frequently occurring words as commonly used. I think it’s pretty useful if you’re trying to build a general purpose vocabulary for conversation. But again, just because a word isn’t commonly used doesn’t mean it’s never used, otherwise it wouldn’t even exist.