The Road to Vocabulary Part 1

The  Road to vocabulary Part 1

One of the hardest things about learning a new language naturally, is vocabulary. In fact, a lot of people who have eidetic memory (photographic memory) can learn languages pretty quickly because they never forget vocabulary, nouns, grammar you name it. Back to us regular humans, and talking about Japanese in particular, I’ve been trying to figure out the best way to build my vocabulary.

The Idea of Gems and Context

Naturally, because I live in Japan, through my day to day there are words I pick up and remember quite easily. Stuff like “building, car, house, train, line, town, flower, meat, etc”. So there are probably a few hundred words I know just because I live in Japan and see things every day. But what about adjectives, and other nouns? Well, I was on the train today, and I decided to listen to a few Pimsleur Japanese II lesssons on my Ipod. I skipped ahead to lesson 18 (I can understand everything that is said), but when I was listening to questions like:

“How do you say, Walk about twenty meters, and to your left is a bank.” I realized I couldn’t say it properly. I knew the words for “about” (gurai), “left” (hidari), “bank” (ginko), “to your” (ni), but I hadn’t actually said that phrase in a while. Later, when I was asked about a Pharmacy, I realized that I didn’t know the word for pharmacy yet, which I believe is Yakyuku. Either way, repeating the phrases under my breath while listening is a good exercise and help to build vocabulary. But the structure of Pimsleur in general works on pulling stuff out from old lessons, to help fix certain words and phrases in your memory, this is one of the Pimsleur gems.

The phrase translated:


(ni metro gurai, hidari ni, ginko ga arimasu)

You get little bits of vocab from stuff you might already understand if you’ve heard it before.

Another lesson was “my wife likes to write a lot”. I keep forgetting the word for wife (I normally say okusaan) but here they said:

Kainai wa, yoku tegami o kakimasu.

(wife), (often) (letter) (writes).

So I got to refresh my word for “wife” and also “often” even though I hear them all the time. The thing is, Japanese words vary depending on whether you say “my wife”, “his wife” and so on. I forgot about this, so its good to differentiate, but will probably sit with me better once I actually jump the broom. A good pimsleur gem.

I don’t really like Pimsleur very much, because I find it horribly slow, but I like the way it forces me to actively translate Japanese in my mind when they prompt me, but at 30 minutes per lesson, it feels weird when I know 99% of the content in one way or another. I must credit pimsleur for being the FIRST system that made me believe I could learn Japanese. I bought a sample CD in Pentagon City in Washington D.C in 2001 or 2002, and within minutes I was screaming “Watashi wa marcus desu. Eigo ga wakarimasu ka?” (my name is Marcus. Do you speak English). I still use the phrase to this day.

Rosetta Stone vocab gems

Rosetta stone in some ways is a little slow, but with a certain merit. I decided to go through an entire lesson when I had a free day at work. I hopped to Japanese Level 1 part four, which is the highest level. In that level, I learned about shopping, needing things, and a few other things in a visual and auditory context. I found this to be helpful because just like Pimsleur, I found a few gems that I didn’t know. Like

“Irimasu” means “to need” versus “Hoshii” which means “to want”. For a while I thought hoshii meant “to need” and it was good to bridge that distinction. But everything else in the lesson I already knew, and I found the speech aspect god awfully boring, but I could see how it would benefit someone who had NEVER spoken a word of Japanese before. So, a good part of doing your systems is looking for “gems”, that is, little things from each system that can help you boost. The most natural way to learn vocabulary, is to say it all the time, read it all the time and write it all the time. This is referred to as learning in context. As children learning English, we speak it with our family and friends, our teachers and see it written on the bus, in our books, on TV etc. This develops a continuous, undending context that we aren’t even aware of.

So in listening to my Pimsleur today, out of nowhere I learned that “yuki” was “bound for” and I’ve been hearing that almost everyday at the train station. So

Mamonaku, Rokubansen ni, akihabara yuki, chakueki…blah blah (I don’t remember it all)

Basically I understood mamonaku (coming now, soon) “Rokubansen ni” (Track no. 6) Akihabara yuki (bound for Akihabara), chakueki (arriving now…)

So just listening to the Pims I learned about the word for “yuki” in its proper context. I mean, I could have just looked it up, but at the same time, these “gems” I believe are part of vocabulary building. I’m going to write a step-by-step in my next post. This is just me rambling my thoughts on building it in general.

About marcusbird

Writer, Designer, Filmmaker
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