Self-made dictionary advice

Hello, all,
I’m new to learning Japanese and using Duolingo, I have been creating a dictionary of sorts. I find that writing the English word/phrase with the Japanese translation beside it has been helping me remember better. I also use it as a reference. I had purchased a notebook that has sections for each letter of the English alphabet. The word “cat” goes under “C” and I write “neko” beside it. As I learn to write, I hope to update many entries with the proper hiragana, katakana and/or kanji.

Now that I have started Wanikani, I have learned there are differences between kanji and vocabulary. I feel that I will add the vocabulary to my dictionary, but I’m not sure what to do about the kanji. Kanji seems to have multiple readings and the vocabulary usually has only one. Should I have a separate dictionary for kanji? Or should I include kanji readings in my dictionary with a note that certain readings are kanji, and others are the vocabulary reading.
What say you, people with significantly more Japanese learning experience than I?

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This is how professional dictionary writer do it. Or at the very least kanji are kept in a separate section of the dictionary,


I’ve never tried making my own dictionary for a new language, but yeah, I would put kanji in a separate section. A kanji section usually contains multiple possible meanings for a kanji and all its nuances, but not necessarily how it’s used or pronounced in words. The aim of such a section in published dictionaries is usually understanding of a kanji, possibly with various examples, not how to use the kanji in a sentence. The ‘word section’ is what covers how things are used practically, and is typically much more detailed in its explanations while containing fewer examples.


I usually start with the kanji. My spreadsheets look kinda like this: word with kanji in it - reading in hiragana - definition of word based on context, maybe other interesting definitions, sometimes I include an example of context in which the word was used, sometimes there are other notes like “casual” or “this kanji also shows up in this related word!”

I would just add the kanji to your English-first dictionary. So an entry might look like

Cat - ねこ - 猫


Making an actual dictionary of your own seems like a ton of work and of questionable merit compared to the sheer effort of it.

What is helpful is creating vocabulary lists for words you encounter as that helps you memorize them - much like you describe.

But, to make it into a dictionary of sorts which you can use for actual reference (you mention doing just that) requires much more thought and organization of items - including handling kanji like others have pointed out.

I’d rather recommend you just keep things simple: when reading, gaming, watching anime or whatever it is you do, take notes of words you encounter and look them up on Jisho or similar to get the correct kanji and kana. Doing so digitally will make things easier for yourself.

But, when it come so language use or production, it makes more sense to just use a professional dictionary to ensure you’ve got the kanji and translation right. Not to mention search capabilities in online dictionaries like Jisho.

In other words, the value of the vocablists I’ve made for myself is not for reference at all, but purely for helping me process the native material I’ve been consuming. Once I’m finished with a manga or game, the list remains, but I don’t revisit it.

Since you’re using WaniKani you can allow WK to help you truly cement learning the vocab and kanji you’ve encountered elsewhere. The SRS is perfect for cramming items after all.

And, there are other SRS based apps for even more vocab cramming to compliment the vocab in WK: KameSame, Torii or doing Anki card sets. A number of easier methods exist than creating a dictionary for yourself.

I wish you good luck with your studies! :+1:


I guess I shouldn’t have used the word “dictionary”. I really mean to only create a word list with translation, grouped only by the first letter in the English word, not fully alphabetical, and certainly not as a reference (I will probably make a bunch of mistakes, I’m sure). It’s just something to physically handwrite into to help burn it into memory and to browse through for a random review of words.
I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel, but thank you for your concern.
I asked the question because I’m still trying to wrap my head around the difference between kanji and the words with kanji. I just want to write “cat”, “neko”, and the correct kanji and seeing multiple readings for some kanji is tripping me up.

Maybe you still need to read up a bit more about Japanese then? :thinking: Tofugu has some nice comprehensive articles that might help you wrap your head around how the language works. After reading that, you can then decide on how to organize your word lists. :slight_smile:

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I would put the kanji separately - they aren’t really words to know on their own. Generally for vocab lists I’ve written out, I stick to vocabulary words - things that have meaning on their own. Kanji are pretty different. My best comparison to English (if that’s a language that you’re pretty comfortable in) - is to things like latin/greek word roots/prefixes/suffixes

Example: ‘scribe’ - means write (as in ‘inscribe’, ‘prescribe’) - most of the time, it’s said ‘scribe’, but in some words, it’s said ‘scrip’ (e.g. inscription, conscript). Knowing the root, you can guess that a new word that contains it likely has something to do with writing, but if you were trying to guess what that word was, you would have to guess a bit about whether it was going to be ‘scribe’ or ‘script’ - obviously if you’re a fluent speaker, you have a sense of when each one is used and will be more likely to guess correctly. (In actuality, pretty sure scribe and script are different roots, but beside the point…).

Not sure if it helps you, but it helped me frame the difference when I was starting to learn (but I’m also a language/grammar nerd, sooo…).

Knowing how the kanji is most commonly read and what it most commonly means will help you guess what new words with that kanji means, but often the reading of the kanji as a vocabulary word on its own (if it has one) is not the most common reading (generally ‘on’ readings are more common than ‘kun’ readings, but a kanji on it’s own usually uses the ‘kun’ reading). Early level example - the most common reading of 人 is にん/じん, but when you see it as a word by itself, it’s ひと.

TL:DR - I would put the kanji you write out somewhere separate - you don’t want to memorize them as ‘vocabulary words’ because they aren’t.

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