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My theory on why Japanese vocabulary is hard

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My theory on why Japanese vocabulary is hard

Postby furrykef » Wed 08.19.2009 6:59 pm

I have a pretty easy time with Japanese grammar. Kanji is no big obstacle for me anymore, now that I've finished Heisig's RTK1. But, dang it, I just have trouble memorizing words most of the time. Sometimes they stick easily, but most of the time it's an uphill climb. I rarely experience this problem with Spanish or Italian, even when learning words that don't resemble familiar words at all. In fact, I can learn new words in those languages at maybe ten times the rate. Why the disparity?

This is my pet (i.e., totally unresearched) theory -- it has to do with the way syllables are structured. The syllable structure of Spanish and Italian is very familiar to an English speaker, especially with the words we've imported from those languages (and from Latin). Japanese has a simple syllable structure, but not a familiar one: syllables may not end in a consonant except 'n', consonant clusters are almost impossible, etc. So my impression is that this builds an impression in my mind that all Japanese words sound the same, and is why I keep blurting out words like 信号機 when I'm looking for 大使館 or whatever completely unrelated thing that doesn't even sound similar. Hey, it has the same number of syllables, right? ;)

However, I find if I can remember part of a word, the rest of the word will usually follow. Sometimes this works even if I only remember what letter it starts with. I think what's really going on is that Spanish and Italian give me more opportunities to remember these word fragments, and hence the rest of the word.

The good news is, if I'm right, this means that, as I internalize Japanese syllable structure, learning new words should become just as easy as it is in Spanish and Italian, and Japanese will finally stop being so difficult for me. (Oh, I know it'll still take much longer to learn, but it won't feel like such an uphill struggle.) It seems funny that the human brain can have trouble with such simple syllable structures, but then, the human brain is a funny thing...

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Re: My theory on why Japanese vocabulary is hard

Postby lonelytraveler8 » Wed 08.19.2009 11:05 pm

furrykef wrote:However, I find if I can remember part of a word, the rest of the word will usually follow. Sometimes this works even if I only remember what letter it starts with.


The same applies to me. If I can remember anything, I usually can remember the rest of it. It's not uncommon for me to remember the last syllable and work backwards from there.

But there's a distinct difference between us as far as this goes. Granted, I have a lot to learn, so things could change as I absorb more, but as things stand now, vocabulary is the easiest thing for me to pick up and grammar is the most difficult. I don't struggle with any one thing in particular, although I admit that some words just seem to completely elude me for seemingly no reason.

You mention Spanish and Italian. Does this mean you are studying them at the same time? I imagine there would be conflicts at times.
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Re: My theory on why Japanese vocabulary is hard

Postby furrykef » Thu 08.20.2009 4:46 am

Nah, I was already fluent in Spanish when I started Italian (insofar as I'm fluent in the first place ^^;). I haven't had a problem with getting them mixed up yet (though it's probably much more likely for my Spanish to screw up my Italian than the other way around).

But there's a distinct difference between us as far as this goes. Granted, I have a lot to learn, so things could change as I absorb more, but as things stand now, vocabulary is the easiest thing for me to pick up and grammar is the most difficult.


The thing with grammar is you keep running into the same things over and over again, so it starts to stick even if you don't learn it deliberately. At least, that's been the case for me. I've probably learned more grammar from simply absorbing it than I have from actually studying it. By contrast, I rarely ever pick up new words this way (unless they're already similar to words I already know or some other special circumstance).

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Re: My theory on why Japanese vocabulary is hard

Postby lonelytraveler8 » Thu 08.20.2009 5:48 am

Oh, I understand now. When it comes to sitting down and studying the material, I find that I learn vocab easiest, grammar with most difficult and kanji falls somewhere in the middle.

But I rarely find new words I encounter outside of cramming to stick, but I do tend to pick up tidbits of grammar, although I find myself being corrected when attempting to use it on my own.

So grammar comes in a natural way, but you really have to cram the vocab in haha
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Re: My theory on why Japanese vocabulary is hard

Postby mbridge » Thu 08.20.2009 7:48 pm

On the other hand, as a Korean speaker, memorizing Japanese words have been way too easy.
All I have to do is look at the word and say it to myself half a dozen times and it's already part of my permanent collection... lol
(memorizing the kanji writing is a whole nother devil though. Some words require me to review them for weeks to memorize, such as 挨拶 and 遠慮, although for the most part it just takes me a couple days.)
Unfortunately I did not have such luck with Spanish, even though English is my best language as of now.
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Re: My theory on why Japanese vocabulary is hard

Postby jcdietz03 » Fri 08.21.2009 12:52 am

For me, it is hardest to learn verbs, and easiest to learn nouns and adjectives. Of course learning verbs is the most important, because they are more common than nouns. Adverbs and other kinds of words are somewhere in the middle.

The key to vocabulary is to get a big honking word list like your textbook usually gives and try and memorize 80% of it and move on when you've reached that level. Getting the last 20% isn't worth it - look up the word in the dictionary the next time you see it.

For grammar, sometimes, it is just too hard for me to learn and I give up. I was reading the ~chau thread in the grammar section awhile back, and then I looked at the Tae Kim page on ~chau, and looked at the examples, and looked again at the TJP thread, and still didn't get it, and gave up. It's OK - not the end of the world. I'll get it later in my studies, I think.
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Re: My theory on why Japanese vocabulary is hard

Postby yukamina » Fri 08.21.2009 1:28 pm

Maybe try drilling vocab to get a feel for it? Starting with words you already know.
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Re: My theory on why Japanese vocabulary is hard

Postby furrykef » Fri 08.21.2009 7:44 pm

I don't really know what drilling I could be doing beyond what I'm doing already (adding sentences to Anki).
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Re: My theory on why Japanese vocabulary is hard

Postby becki_kanou » Fri 08.21.2009 8:08 pm

furrykef wrote:I don't really know what drilling I could be doing beyond what I'm doing already (adding sentences to Anki).


Do you write a diary? My mom found that to be quite helpful in retaining new vocab. (She's also a member of TJP but mostly lurks... :lol: )
そうだ、嬉しいんだ、生きる喜び!
例え胸の傷が痛んでも。
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Re: My theory on why Japanese vocabulary is hard

Postby furrykef » Fri 08.21.2009 8:18 pm

I've started writing in Japanese on lang-8, but I'm still writing very, very basic things. Expressing myself in Japanese is not coming easily by any means. And I still get lots of corrections. :lol:
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Re: My theory on why Japanese vocabulary is hard

Postby tōkai devotee » Fri 08.21.2009 9:51 pm

One of the problems I used to have with learning Japanese vocab was all the words which sound the same but have very different meanings, for example, 百、and 早くand 橋 and、箸 . I guess it's just a matter of practice, practice, practice and more practice!!
Before living in Japan I found it really difficult, but when using words everyday and hearing them in context, it all made sense, eventually. If you could get together with Japanese people to chat it may help.
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Re: My theory on why Japanese vocabulary is hard

Postby coco » Fri 08.21.2009 10:04 pm

becki_kanou wrote: (She's also a member of TJP but mostly lurks... :lol: )

Oh! :D I'd like to say my greeting to your mother.

Hello! Image
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Re: My theory on why Japanese vocabulary is hard

Postby becki_kanou » Fri 08.21.2009 10:25 pm

Cocoさん、ありがとうございます!最近は忙しくてあまりフォーラムを見ていないから、伝えときます!

kefさん Why don't you join the chat sometime? I may be misremembering, but I can't recall ever seeing you there.
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Re: My theory on why Japanese vocabulary is hard

Postby furrykef » Fri 08.21.2009 10:58 pm

No, I haven't joined the chat. I don't really have a reason other than that I'd probably never know what to talk about and I'm always pretty busy as it is, really. ^^; So you could say, 僕は忙しくてあまりチャットしないのです。 ;)

Though admittedly I'm often busy with things of little relevance. :lol:

EDIT: By the way, one thing that I find does help with learning vocabulary is to put the same word in multiple sentences. The trouble is in finding multiple sentences that have the word in it! (I generally refuse to put sentences I've made myself into my flash cards, so I can't just make 'em up. I also strongly prefer sentences that have audio samples. Moreover, ideally the second sentence would be interesting in some way beyond merely having the new word in it -- perhaps it'd have another new word, or some new bit of grammar.)

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Re: My theory on why Japanese vocabulary is hard

Postby yukamina » Sat 08.22.2009 12:47 pm

furrykef wrote:I don't really know what drilling I could be doing beyond what I'm doing already (adding sentences to Anki).

To re-enforce the words themselves, what they sound like, look like, etc. In SRSing sentences, not only do you not get much repetition, but there are a bunch of other things you're paying attention to. I think drilling would help take away the unfamiliarity of the words. I'm drilling Korean hanja compounds because I have trouble associating the readings to the hanja, and telling the words apart in general. It helps, I just have to do it regularly ^~^;
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