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January 29, 2023

Learning Words in Pairs – Strategies for Learning Japanese Vocabulary

Learning words in pairs (or more) can be an efficient way to rapidly increase your vocabulary.

For example, you probably learned "left and right" together (みぎ)(ひだり)  or the four seasons together (ふゆ)(はる)(なつ)(あき)

Why? Because these words have a meaningful connection with each other.

I bet learning みぎ with ひだり together didn't require too much extra effort. Not only are these words related in meaning, but the kanji are also similar. Studying them together helps you come up with ways to tell the kanji apart while memorizing the meaning of the words みぎ (right) and ひだり (left).

Today, we'll look at a few ideas how to pair words meaningfully. Please note, I tried to pick both beginner and fairly advanced examples, so the selection may not be the most useful for any one level. 

When possible, I am adding the pitch accents as numbers in brackets. To learn about pitch accents see The Makoto Letter #8.


Similar meaning

When learning a word, try to pair it with another word that is similar in meaning. Use a Japanese thesaurus like https://thesaurus.weblio.jp/ to find similar words. Also, take note of different phrases people use for the same or similar situations. When tired, Japanese often say this or that. When hungry, they say this or that. Learn "this" and "that" together.

(つか)れた・もうくたくた

  • 疲れた I'm exhausted [past of 疲れる (to get tired; to tire); most often said to oneself (or others) when exhausted]
  • もうくたくた I'm exhausted [もう (already) くたくた (exhausted; tired (onomatopoeia))]

Both of these words/phrases can be said after a long day and you just don't have the energy to do anything.

エレキ・アコギ

  • エレキ electric guitar [also エレキギター] [1]
  • アコギ acoustic guitar [short for アコースティックギター]

婉曲的(えんきょくてき)間接的(かんせつてき)

  • 婉曲的 euphemistic; roundabout; indirect 
  • 間接的 indirect [0]

概要欄(がいようらん)・コメント(らん)

  • 概要欄 description box (on YouTube, etc.)
  • コメント欄 comment section (on a website)

Opposite meaning

Learning opposites such as "right and left" or "up and down" is helpful because opposites are often used together. 

西(にし)(ひがし)

  • 西 west [0]
  • 東 east [the sun 日 rises through the trees 木 in the east] [0 or 3]

客観的(きゃっかんてき)主観的(しゅかんてき)

  • 客観的 objective [0]
  • 主観的 subjective [0]

太平洋(たいへいよう)大西洋(たいせいよう)

  • 太平洋 Pacific Ocean [3]
  • 大西洋 Atlantic Ocean [Notice it uses 大 (big) instead of the Pacific's 太 (fat)] [3]

ボケ・つっこみ

  • ボケ funny man (of a comedy duo); fool
  • つっこみ straight man (of a comedy duo) [0]

Similar sounds 

Create a phrase or sentence to tell them apart and remember the pitch accent (if you want to).

I added a few pitch accent diagrams for this section. To learn about pitch accents, please click here.

(はな)(はな)

a flower to the nose

  • 花 flower [2]
  • を (direct object marker)
  • 鼻 nose [0]
  • に to

花 (flower) [2]

鼻 (nose) [0]

(あめ)(まえ)(あめ)をなめる。

  • 雨 rain [1]
  • の前に before (rain)
  • 飴 candy [0]
  • を (direct object marker
  • なめる to lick (candy)

雨 (rain) [1]

飴 (candy) [0]

(はし)(はし)(はし)()ちていました。

  • 橋 bridge [2]
  • の of [limits the information: not just any "edge" but the "edge of a bridge"]
  • 端 edge [0]
  • に on; at (the edge)
  • 箸 chopsticks [1]
  • が (marks what was fallen)
  • 落ちていました was fallen; wsas there

橋 (bridge) [2]

端 (edge) [0]

箸 (chopsticks) [1]

()る・る・()る・()

  • 見る to see [this is the most common "to see" verb] [1]
  • 観る to watch [this "to see" is used with more detailed viewing such as watching a play or looking at a beautiful scenery]
  • 診る to examine (medically); to see (a doctor) [1]
  • 看る to look after (often medically); to take care of

[Note, NHK's Pitch Accent dictionary doesn't have the accent for 観る or 看る, but it appears to be [1]]


Same kanji

This section may overlap with similar meaning since kanji isn't just sounds but meaning too.

先生(せんせい)生徒(せいと)

  • 先生 teacher [3]
  • 生徒 pupil [1]

下手(へた)上手(じょうず)

 (Also, these words are opposite!)

  • 下手 poor at; not good at [2]
  • 上手 skillful; good at [3]

朝型(あさがた)夜型(よるがた)

  • 朝型 morning person [0 or 2]
  • 夜型 night owl; nocturnal person

人的証拠(じんてきしょうこ)物的証拠(ぶってきしょうこ)

  • 人的証拠 testimony of a person [5]
  • 物的証拠 material or physical evidence [0 or 5]

Similar kanji

Easy to confuse kanji. Learning confusing kanji together can help you come up with ways to differentiate. 

(みぎ)(いし)

  • 右 right [0]
  • 石 stone [2]

(ちから)(かたな)

  • 力 power [3]
  • 刀 sword [3 or 2]

(うし)()

  • 牛 cow [0]
  • 午 noon [2]

(しゃ)(じゅう) or ()てる・(ひろ)

Interestingly, these two kanji look similar but have opposite meanings. A perfect vocabulary pair to learn!

  • 捨 discard; throw away; reject
  • 拾 pick up; gather; find
  • 捨てる to throw away [0]
  • 拾う to pick up [0]

Words said commonly together 

Some words are used with specific nouns or verbs on a regular basis. For example, if you say 「ぐうぐう」 you'll probably say 「ねる」 after to mean "to sleep well."

(あめ)()

to rain

  • 雨 rain [1]
  • が (marks what falls)
  • 降る to fall (rain; snow; ash; etc.) [1]

(うそ)をつく or (うそ)つき

to tell a lie | a liar

  • 嘘 lie [1]
  • を (direct object marker)
  • つく to tell (a lie) [used with 嘘]
  • 嘘つき a liar; fibber [2]

需要(じゅよう)供給(きょうきゅう)

Demand and supply

In English, we say "supply and demand," but in Japanese, it is normally said the other way: "demand and supply."

  • 需要 demand [0]
  • と and
  • 供給 supply [0]

()(あせ)結晶(けっしょう)

The fruit of (our) hard work

  • 血 blood [0]
  • と and
  • 汗 sweat [1]
  • 結晶 crystallization; fruits (of labor or in this case, "the fruit of hard work (symbolized by blood and sweat)) [0]
  • 涙 tears [1]

This is probably from Winston Churchill's 1940 speech called "blood, toil, tears and sweat" 「血と苦労と涙と汗」; this may also be said as 血と汗と涙の結晶

(はな)()む・(はな)(にお)いを()

to pick a flower | to use (one's) nose to smell a scent

  • 花 flower [2]
  • を (direct object marker)
  • 摘む to pick; to pluck [0]
  • 鼻 nose [0]
  • で with (nose)
  • 匂い odor; smell; scent [2]
  • 嗅ぐ to smell [0]

Again, these examples weren't intended to be recommended words and phrases to learn, but I hope this helps you think in vocabulary pairs. Our brains were designed to look for connections and meaning. By feeding your brain meaningful connections, you'll remember words easier.

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  • このレッスンはとても楽しかったです。さらに例を追加していただければ幸いです。

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