Learning Japanese: Vocabulary

I’ve hit the point in my Japanese studies where what I really need to do is build a ton of vocabulary. I have a reasonable grounding of basic grammar and sentence structure, and I need more vocabulary so I can start learning quirks and learning how to put pieces together.


It’s made more difficult by the lack of good resources. Straight translation isn’t necessarily the best, because there are shades of meaning in word use that I don’t yet know. In English, “friend”, “companion”, “partner”, and “teammate” can be used in very similar ways, sometimes interchangeably, but they’re different enough that you can’t just pick one and use it universally. Introducing your lover as a “friend” is a quick route to hurt feelings, and referring to a friend as your “partner” makes a few suggestions that you might not intend.

It’s a severe pitfall when learning a new language, and it’s one of those things that draws a stark line between the fluent and the learner. I’m probably getting a bit ahead of myself by thinking about this sort of thing this early on, but I can’t help but want to know the proper, appropriate way of saying what I want to say, and understanding both how and why it differs from a literal translation. Growing up, I always chuckled a bit at classmates who would scoff at learning multiple words with similar meanings– they would wonder why there needed to be two or three or four words that “meant the same thing”, and I’d wonder what the differences were, and why there were multiple words that meant the same thing.


As a result, I’m very sensitive to the idea that, in Japanese, a single kanji can have multiple meanings, and that clever wordplay and eloquence revolves around using the right word in the right place, seemingly moreso than English. It makes me want to have the same breadth of vocabulary I have in English so that I can be more precise in my speech. I know I want to eventually be an eloquent speaker, and I know I need to have a broader understanding of the language to know what eloquence even means in a language that isn’t English.

To get there, though, I need vocabulary, and I have to learn it somehow. Rote memorization isn’t getting me very far– I’m good at it when it comes to abstractions like the hiragana and katakana, but when it comes to attaching concepts to words I’m a lot weaker. I’ve considered starting to memorize kanji, using the same techniques that I used for hiragana and katakana, but it hasn’t been very successful thus far because I’m not always sure what words to start with and how to use them. I have, for example, picked up 私 (watashi, “I/me”) because it’s extremely useful and relatively straightforward, but I’m continually forgetting 音 (sound, noise, note) because I’m not really sure how to use it properly.


I find myself wishing I could take the opportunity to immerse myself completely in the language and just be lost for a while until I make the connections I need. This would be a uniquely awful experience for me, because communication is so important to me, but it would accelerate my learning a lot, and I’d learn how to use the language properly. I’m not sure there are good opportunities for me to do this, though.

In the meantime, I’m memorizing how to count various things. It’s a process.

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