Vocab with multiple meanings


I’ve been learning some of the more common words using jpbd.io but this question could apply more broadly as well. When learning a word with multiple definitions, is there a recommended approach? Should I try to memorise several unique meanings simultaneously,? is it different in the case of similar but not identical meanings as well, such as how a word might be different based on context? What do you guys find works best for you?

Any advice on this would be appreciated, I’m not attempting to be unrealistically optimal, I just never learned another language before and I’d like to avoid any common mistakes.


Generally I’d say try learning a few of the meanings but mostly rely on encountering (or actively looking up) the word in context to get a feel for its meaning and how that might contextually change.

Also don’t forget that multiple translations does not always mean multiple meanings. More often than not I find a word only has one meaning or a few very closely related ones, but there are multiple translations because the concept overlaps with multiple English words. That doesn’t mean the word has multiple meanings, it just means there’s no one singular way to express the same thing in English.


There is rarely a 1-1 translation. You more or less get approximations with tons of exceptions. Something that immersion can cure. So in short, immersion solves your problems.


Thanks, I wasn’t considering that sometimes multiple meanings were only meant for us English speakers. I appreciate that learning the translation is just the beginning to actually understanding a word and its usage. In the case that several concepts are used to explain the singular meaning of a word, how many of them should I aim to commit to memory initially? For example:
to think (about, of); to think over; to consider; to bear in mind; to think (that); to believe; to intend (to do)

How should I approach learning すぎる? jpdb lists:

  1. to pass through; to pass by; to go beyond
  2. to pass (of time); to elapse
  3. to have expired; to have ended; to be over
  4. to exceed; to surpass; to be above
  5. to be no more than

How many should I try to commit to memory here? I mean it from the perspective of a starting point, I fully expect to have to look up the word again in the future and think about how it’s used etc.


This is one of WK’s weakpoints in that I only need to remember one of the meanings for 9 months. However, in jpdb’s case you should try to remember as many as you can. Still pass if you remember one or 2, but do try to learn as much as you can about a word. It will only help you in the future. But remember flashcards are just an artificial way to tell your brain its important. So if you dont know every definition its ok to hit pass.

If you think about it, most of those are different meanings/ nuances of the English verb “to pass”. So for me, I’d focus on learning that, and try to remember the different ways that can it can be used as a secondary option.


I’m with Cathm2 on this. For many words, the first meaning will be enough to understand what is being said as long as you have context. And since stopping to translate in ones head while reading/listening is what one should aim for anyways, trying to memorize multiple English definitions seems like a bit of a waste.
If you tried to learn multiple definitions for each word, how much would that slow you down? Would you maybe only manage to learn 7 words instead of 10 per day? 8? Either way, it’ll build up over time. Language learning might just be the one subject of study where quantity trumps quality, because immersion will iron out the wrinkles.


FWIW すぎる has 10 numbered senses in the Daijisen J-J dictionary. I would say there are two main clusters: (1) passing through an area, time passing, etc (2) exceeding a limit, being larger than some number, etc. You can use ‘pass’ for both of those in English, of course, but I think ‘pass’ alone leans more to (1) whereas for すぎる (2) is definitely a frequent meaning.


Those are all vaguely the same thing in my mind - “to [actively] think” basically. If you check a monolingual dictionary, it’ll probably list a bunch of definitions too, but they all boil down to the same thing: actively using your head. Whether that means you’re thinking of a way to solve a puzzle, or you’re drawing a conclusion from something, or you’re keeping in mind that the stove is still on, or whatever. It’s a more active kind of thinking than 思う.

“To believe” is a bit of an odd one there, I don’t think I can fit that into any of the definitions I see in my monolingual dictionary - except maybe if you think about it as reaching a conclusion based on thinking, leading to “I believe that [insert conclusion here]” but that’s not the impression “to believe” gives on its own, IMO.

“To go beyond”. That’s the meaning you’re gonna find it in, a lot, including as an auxiliary verb, sometimes in a more concrete sense, sometimes more abstractly, but it’s all going to boil down to that. There’s once again a bit of an odd one there - “to be no more than”, I’m not sure how that lines up with すぎる at all, and I can’t really fit it with any of the definitions from a monolingual dictionary. But the Japanese definitions almost all line up with going beyond something:

  • 東京をすぎる - to go past Tokyo
  • 読みすぎる - to read too much
  • 20をすぎる - to be over 20
  • 可愛すぎる - to be extremely cute (as in “too cute”)

And so on. There are a few others (like it being a euphemism for dying) but those are more metaphoric/idiomatic and I can’t say I’ve encountered them yet, so as a starting point I’d say just ignore them.


My feeling is that trying to learn random lists of words is a common mistake. I would recommend a sentence based SRS that introduces vocabulary and grammar over time… which it looks like jpdb already does for you.

Ignoring that, while 和英辞書 are poor tools for the job, they can often give you a sense of how the word is used, so look at the given meanings of the word and find the common link, so:

考える: to think (about, of); to think over; to consider; to bear in mind; to think (that); to believe; to intend (to do)

All but the last are essentially the same definition, and the last is just the form “I think I will do X”, so is also the same.

すぎる: to pass through; to pass by; to go beyond, to pass (of time); to elapse, to have expired; to have ended; to be over, to exceed; to surpass; to be above, to be no more than

Again, all of the definitions are the same, except the last, which is probably just the negative version 過ぎない - not surpassing.

Just like in english, there are words that genuinely have multiple meanings, but there are also words that reflect how Japanese works beyond vocab and grammar; 聞く meaning “hear, listen, and ask”, for example.

I think it was Kaufmann who said that you have to tolerate ambiguity when learning a language, and that’s certainly true for individual words, it might take years for you to have enough exposure to usage before you internalise the full meaning of something. A long time ago there was a murder case in the US involving a UK nanny, in which the British use of the word ‘pop’ took up about half a day of court time.


Thanks, everyone, I will commit fewer English meanings to memory, and leave the ironing out of any problems for use over the course of my learning.


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