Way of learning & remembering vocabulary

Hello everyone! I’m really having trouble with learning and remembering vocabulary. I recently started reading books but I’m just extremely unmotivated (due to past experiences) to write down unknown words and repeat them every day. I’m working full time and the amount of daily reviews (on WaniKani & Anki which I’ve used so far) increased massively so that I reviewed them in every free minute I could spare during the day.

For learning and reviewing vocabulary, I tried the most known methods like flashcard systems (Anki etc.) and even Memory Palace but I just can’t learn or remember the words. I’m currently on a 3-4 week break from studying as I was close to giving up (even though I finally applied for JLPTN3 in summer).

When learning with flashcards system or any other method, how do you learn the words? Just read and repeat them until you know the words, imaging the words in your head, with pictures, saying them out loud, with videos? I also tried to figure out my learning style/type (e.g. using pictures, sounds…) but I’m lost here as well.

If you have any other unique methods, good tips or a method on how to figure out your learning style, please let me know. Any help is much appreciated. Thanks!


There are a lot of free Graded Readers out there, have you read them all ? Is NHK news web easy too easy for you ?


Personally, I don’t put the unknown words into an anki deck, I just read, try to check unknown words on the go and if they come up often enough, they will stick with or without SRS. As you read more and more and you speed up, you should be able to get to a level, where reading itself will be less of a chore and you can then focus on putting those words into an SRS system. By then you might even finish wanikani and that will save you some time.


Hi drdru, thanks for the reply! I have just started getting into reading and haven’t read all of the Graded Readers. I’ve read a lot of NHK news web easy in private lessons but didn’t seem to memorise the vocabulary. I think reading is definitely helpful however, when I come over an unknown word, I don’t really now how to learn the word (e.g. imaging the word, watching a video about the word/word family, find a fitting picture, listening to the pronunciation etc.)

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Hey - thanks so much for the reply and explaining your way of remembering unknown words. I’m probably not yet on that level yet and will keep reading. Just have to figure out how to effectively memorise WaniKani Kanji + words.

I do the same thing I did with Wanikani: I make a mnemonic for the first few intervals and I’ve found that helps.

I don’t bother writing anything down for words that I come across while reading either. I just learn the definition and move on and hope that it comes up again often enough to remember.


Have you been doing that as you come across new words in your native language? Does a child?

Learning a language is hard, it takes years. It takes time and repetition for your brain to form the associations necessary for retrieval. An SRS attempts to speed up the process by giving you more frequent repetitions with what you find difficult, but rest is still a mandatory part of the process.

Go take a walk. Then take a nap. You’ve earned it. Have faith that your brain is still working and it will become easier eventually.


I also recommend this. If you’re reading a series, usually there will be some words that pop up a lot and you’ll learn them through repeated exposure that way. It also helps learning words in context like that, at least for me. There’s been some vocab I’ve learned from either here or Anki but when seeing it in context, the nuance/usage was a bit different than I thought originally.

Not sure how far along you are with grammar but if you’re studying for JLPT3 you should be able to find some manga that is within your level or NHK Easy News to learn/remember vocab.


In the case of Japanese, I feel like looking up new words, especially if you don’t know the Kanji, just takes way too long. SRS like Anki are surely good and effective, but even creating decks and adding new vocabulary is enough effort to make reading not fun. What I do if I encounter a new word is always have a txt open, and every time I encounter a word I cannot read, I copy & paste it in there. And to make the looking up part easier, I use the browser extension rikaichamp to show me how a word is read and how it’s translated by just highlighting it. Then I go through the txt once in a while and remove words I feel like I have down.

An important thing to note is the more you look up unknown words upon encounter, the faster you learn the language, but the more you do it, the more exhausting it becomes. It’s a tough thing to do, but I think you should work on finding a healthy balance between looking something up, and just coping with the ambiguity. You could do this by limiting yourself to looking up and noting down 5 or 10 vocabs per day, and every other unknown word you accept as a blank. That will still help you improve a lot faster, while at the same time not making yourself too prone to burn-out. Another idea would be to pick one reading resource for which you regularly look up new vocabulary, but in another resource you use, especially one where it might be more effort to do look things up, e.g. in games, you’ll tell yourself not to look up anything unless absolutely necessary. There are many ways to do it, but these are two suggestions that could work for you.


Hi:) Thanks for your reply - great to hear that mnemonics work for you that well. I will try relying more on them and figure out how to memorise them efficiently.
Ah I see, I kinda glad to hear that a lot of people don’t write the words down and they still seem to stick.

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Hey, thanks for the motivating words and your reply. I have been learning for about 9 years but have been speeding up the last couple of years - maybe I should try to slow down again.


Ah - thanks for all the suggestions! I’ll try to use them and hope the vocabulary will just stick that way without thinking to much about the memorisation process:)

Studying any language after a full day of work is truly a challenge and I’m impressed you are still so consistent!

My sensei at my home uni and japanese uni always tell me the same when it comes to reading: us the tadoku method. Basically, it’s more about extensive reading than intensive reading, so if you have to look up more than 5 words on one page, the content is too difficult for you. Start reading a lot of really easy material and then work your way up.

So maybe look for easier reading materials where you only come across a handful of unknown vocab at a time. This is extremely helpful since you actually remember the context in which the word appears and you won’t forget it so quickly because there aren’t 20 other words you don’t understand yet.

So yeah, basically try to read materials that are on your current level or even below that. I know it’s quite humbling sometimes when I can’t even understand books for middle schoolers, but otherwise I’ll lose motivation and don’t want to continue reading because looking up every second word is tedious.


I’ve been studying Japanese for almost four years at this point, but just two caveats:

  1. I grew up speaking English and Chinese, so I don’t have many kanji to learn
  2. Past experience tells me I tend to learn languages quite a bit faster than average

In other words, I’m not sure how representative or helpful my experience will be. The good news is that a study conducted by the University of Tokyo (and a few other universities) seems to show that the speed at which people learn the basics of new languages is positively correlated with the number of languages that they already know, so that means that language learning is effectively a skill that can be learnt and improved over time.

Now, as for what I do… I just do my best to expose myself to material I enjoy as often as possible, and then I look up words I don’t know as I go along. If I feel so inclined, I’ll put extra effort into remembering the word with mnemonics or by looking for ways to summarise new knowledge and link it up with things I already know (e.g. similarities with known words). Occasionally, my brain ‘offers’ me random ideas and suggestions for mnemonics simply because something in the new word triggers a certain memory or feeling. More practically speaking, what I’ve done so far, after finishing a beginner’s textbook and occasionally referring to an intermediate textbook, is to watch tons of anime and look up what I hear, often with the help of transcripts. I also check what I hear against the subtitles I see in order to improve my comprehension, and when I feel like the subtitles don’t match the Japanese very well, I tend to pause whatever I’m watching and look more deeply into the grammar and the words used.

In general, what I tend to do to learn any language is

  1. Learn basic grammar and vocabulary, ideally with a context-rich resource so my experience is memorable (I prefer doing this using a textbook because I’d rather not have to think too deeply about what knowledge I should be attempting to acquire when I know almost nothing about the language, and my favourite publisher essentially allows for a ‘guided immersion’ approach with full translations and grammar/vocabulary/culture notes at the bottom of every page)
  2. Advance to an intermediate textbook or similar resource while starting immersion (For Japanese, I just continued looping the anime Konosuba while looking out for words I knew. My objective wasn’t to understand everything; I just needed to understand as much as I could, and bit by bit, I understood more and more. You can even do immersion as a beginner, but that’s something you should do mostly for fun.)
  3. Make heavy use of dictionaries, particularly bilingual ones containing translated example sentences that demonstrate how people actually use the words I’m looking up (My favourite one for Japanese is https://ejje.weblio.jp, and I find reading those sentences very instructive. Plus, that site specifically also allows you to search entire phrases within its sentence database, so what you look into doesn’t have to be a dictionary headword.)
  4. Move on to an advanced textbook if a good one is available, and continue immersion regardless of textbook availability. In order to grow my vocabulary even more and immerse myself more thoroughly, I transition to a monolingual dictionary bit by bit (At the moment, I use a monolingual dictionary for maybe 75% of my lookups in Japanese?)
  5. Just… tons of immersion and looking up (For French, I did this with newspapers and the original television show)
  6. You’re fluent, more or less

Now, some stuff I left out:

  • If you have speaking and writing practice opportunities, seize them. The only reason my list of steps is so devoid of these is that I’m used to studying languages on my own. That doesn’t mean output practice isn’t important though: I just don’t include it in my steps because I rarely have the chance, and honestly, that’s not particularly great for my output. You might be able to express quite a few things even without much output practice, but if you want to be really natural and expressive, you need practice and interaction with others in order to see if you’re communicating effectively
  • My overall goal when I look anything up is to understand it thoroughly. I have to be able to accept why something works a certain way, and if necessary, I invent theories in order to remember what I learn later. I look for patterns throughout a language, and I don’t learn things in isolation. (E.g. in Japanese, you might notice that some words are just combinations of others, and you might also have come across things like あける and ひらける both being readings of 開ける and wondering what’s going on. My current explanation is that perhaps Japanese too has a system of root words that can be combined to create new meaning, and I wouldn’t be surprised if, for instance, ひらける is actually a combination of ひろ from 広い and あける, since its nuances seem to be closer to a state of being ‘wide open’ than simply being ‘open’.)

If you want some examples of the sorts of mnemonics I’d make, you can look at this old thread of mine:

Some of them are things I just made up as suggestions for people on WK. If you want ones I’ve actually used myself, take a look at
滑らか(なめらか) : smooth, slippery
魘される(うなされる) : to have a nightmare and moan in one’s sleep because of it
靡く(なびく) – flutter, bend (in the wind, because of the flow of water)

I tend to prefer visual mnemonics, but that’s only because I don’t need to think verbally in that case. Honestly though, anything that evokes a strong emotion (a memory of a sensation, a sound, a certain ambience) can be an effective mnemonic in my experience. Learning styles are apparently a myth, after all, and I really think it’s just a matter of what you’re used to using to remember other things. In short, look out for things that work for you, and make full use of them. Also do your best to link what you’re learning to what you already know so it’s easier to understand and remember. Just keep going, and I think you’ll be fine.


This is so very true. The competitive “memory athlete” types say that mnemonics should strongly evoke one or more senses: sight, smell, sound, touch, or even taste. Even more important is to make them grossly exaggerated: you remember what’s absurd, grotesque, disgusting, or even sexual. Your most memorable mnemonics are the ones you’re least willing to share!


There is already a lot of great advice on this thread, but I would just echo what others have said to say that the vocabulary that has stuck with me best are words that I don’t just read, but also hear in some interesting context (Japanese movies, anime, podcasts…) and link a memory to that.

Lately, I’ve taken to exercising while listening to Japanese podcasts on a loop instead of my usual music (Japanese study and exercise time : 一石二鳥). With repeated exposure to the same words along with the blood flowing from the workout, I’m finding it easier to remember those words.


Yes I love Tadoku since it has level 0 for persons like myself still at the beginning of N5 Grammar.

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Hi Rorioko, many thanks for your reply and introducing the tadoku method. I heard about and already read some tadoku material but didn‘t know there is a method regarding it. Will look further into it:) And luckily, there are some really interesting books for students as well.

Hi, many thanks for taking the time to write your reply in such a detailed matter, really appreciate the effort! That’s awesome to hear that the random ideas are the most effective ones - really have to find a better way making mnemonics as my current ones are really weak and rarely memorable. Also, many thanks for your showing your way of learning a new language. That sounds really impressive and well thought through. I think my mistakes are: I have repeated way too much beginner stuff and bought way too many beginner textbooks and was afraight to read or watch content in the language I want to learn. I’ve been learning Japanese for 9 years and just recently started to consume content in Japanese. Again - thank you so much for your input here:)

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Hey - many thanks for jumping in:) I still have to figure out how to effecitvely link a memory or memorable mnemonic to vocabulary but it’s great to hear how good this works.
Oh, I have never tried working out and consume content like a podcast at the same time, sounds really interesting and will definitely give it a try!

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