The danger of Uni Directional Acquisition

todays’ work

This post is a note i just made to myself based on a previous observation. I did an amazing course about two years ago (Vocabulary Labs) that gave me a masterclass in understand memorization and optimizing recall techniques.

The “direction” of your acquisition affects your ability to recall things in real time. Meaning, when learning the Kanji, it is imperative to go from KEYWORD to KANJI always. This is because English is your first language and is always the anchor for anything you learn that is new.

This also applies to words, going from KEYWORD to READING.

Looking at 腕 (arm) for example without any context is just a bunch of shapes, particularly if you haven’t learned to write it. I’m remember now as i’m going through my Anki deck, the importance of doing the same thing with new vocabulary. Sometimes when working with so much data (thousands of words, thousands of Kanji, hundreds of grammar patterns) some stuff that is super important can get forgotten. The end goal of language acquisition for most people is the ability to speak the language. Some want to just read it, which is fine, bu the majority want to speak it. The design of most language learning (speaking of flashcards) is recognition based which severely limits recall in realtime. In other words, presently as I’m doing my Kanji flashcards, I don’t have serious issues reading and then triggering the memory of these words, but i’m having trouble using them in real time.

Meaning I know that reading 返す means “to return” but some words the Japanese word doesn’t come to me at all (but I can read and remember it easily). This is a problem with UNIDIRECTIONAL strategy. Triggering the English and the Kanji produces a bidirectional trigger which allows for a more fluid memorization process. Even though i’m fast approaching 1000 cards memorized, i’m not thrown off by remembering this now. The issue is that creating a deck from scratch would have taken too much effort on top of everything else I’m doing. But i’ll have to start adding some bidirectional cards to my deck to ensure I have speaking recall ability.

A unidirectional card would be:


彼の腕は太い His arm is thick.   (back)

A bidirectional card would be



Here both scenarios seem simple enough , but become drastically different when thinking of using either type of card thousands of times for memorization. Here’s why:

When certain words are similar recall isn’t as sharp as you might think. Look at these two words:

工事(kouji) – construction 工場(koujyo) – factory

Reading them in a sentence, its obvious which is which, but if I try to say them it doesn’t come back with the same clarity because my reference anchor was a Japanese sentence (which I haven’t seen tens of thousands of yet) versus an English anchor which guarantees stronger recall. This problem grows in complexity as you learn more and more words with similar sounds and multiple ways to read them.

Here is a good example.

あそこで工事がある。 あそこで工場がある。

the construction is over there.      the factory is over there.


あそこで工事[construction]がある。 あそこで工場[factory]がある。

Your brain makes a very rapid link between “construction” and the proper reading. Versus having to read the entire sentence to get the context. Another great example of this is:

Neighborhood ( KINJO) VS Population (JINKO)

近所(kinjo) 人口(jinko)

These have very similar phonetic arrangements and could easily be mixed up (even if you can read them perfectly) but recall is the name of the game.

So seeing a typical type of card:

その近所は静かな。- that neighborhood is quiet

アメリカの人口が多い。- America’s population is large.

I can read the sentences and make a strong guess. However, how does that translate to saying this work quickly in speech? Thinking “spatially” the time you take to read the sentence, takes away from what you are really focused on, which is the vocabulary word.  As the sentences get longer, you spend too much time reading and not enough time memorizing the word.

Anchoring it strengthens that ability and speeds this process up considerably. So:

その近所[neighborhood]は静かな。 アメリカの人口[population]が多い。

In this scenario I can look at the sentence and within half a second make my attempt them move on (saving me time and allowing for more repetitions if I forgot).

I can also “hammer “the word with techniques I learned from VL such as making more and more cards with slight variations with super simple sentences. The point is the master the word, not the sentence.

大きな近所[neighborhood] - big neighborhood

近所[neighborhood]は近い the neighborhood is near

あそこの近所[neighborhood]? that neighborhood?

僕の近所[neighborhood]だ。my neighborhood.

近所[neighborhood]に帰る。i’m returning to my neighborhood.

(this technique is used primarily for words you have more difficulty recalling. The idea is the word pops up so often you can’t help but remember it , but this is in multiple contexts)

So what happens here is you are blasting the brain with “neighborhood” and then you go to KINJO in your mind. So in regular recall when you think of saying “neighborhood”, you default to the Japanese word. If you learn “KINJO” pictographically (meaning in its written form) you won’t be able to trigger it as easily without it being directly in front of you on paper in written form, which is a dangerous trap as you get into the thousands of words learned and you can read them quite well but not say them with much speed.

I’ve done this with great results with German and now I realize with my Japanese I need to do this… so *argh* i’m gonna have to start a new deck and probably integrate them. But thankfully, these will be words i’ve already memorized and i”ll just be adding better recall ability. It’s a process and a LOT is going on, but I know the value of doing this “correctly” versus “slugging it out ” and suffering the consequences later.

I’ll just have to break out some time to make my proper card




About marcusbird

Writer, Designer, Filmmaker
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