Vocabulary Phase Notes: Revision Transfer

One of my word lists


Okay so I’m presently tightening up my research around vocabulary acquisition for my phase II push. This phase will set me up for reading, advanced listening comprehension and also it will slowly trickle in grammar (of my choosing) that i’ll do gradually up to a N2 level for a data set of 5,000 words over 6-8 weeks.

In my initial research before memorizing the 2,136 Kanji needed to really start this journey, I knew that I would have to “transfer” the momentum of my activities into a new framework in phases. Phase I I call the Mastering Kanji phase and Phase II is the Vocabulary phase.

To get the sort of results I have in such a short time requires not just efficient methods, but quite a lot of revision. Each day while doing my memorization activities, I ensured to  wrote 1,000+ Kanji from my lists as a part of my revision activities. I did this every day for quite some time(months). Since my goal was ‘mastery’ of the Kanji, I knew putting in this type of work was necessary. I also knew that this work was only for phase I, and designed to complement phase II. So it was important for me to understand psychologically that the hard work and rockstar revision was only leading me to Phase II, and it is Phase II that would really start to activate the language. 

So I said to myself “How do I keep the 2,136 Kanji ‘fresh’ while starting to learn word compounds?”

Firstly, learning words at a good pace 100-200 per day will ensure you’ll encounter a lot of your Kanji. Since all the words are composed of all these Kanji, studying the words means you will encounter your target Kanji. But, since it takes time to learn words and memorizing them, there is no guarantee which Kanji you will see and when relative to the lists you are studying with. 

A good example is, if i’m learning English as a second language and I have a dictionary in my hand. I know the dictionary has the words “catharsis”, “epiphany”, “conundrum” and “replicate” somewhere in its pages. But when will I hear these words, see these words, or even read these words? The answer is you don’t know. Only by creating the encounters for these words can be ensure we keep them fresh in our mind. 

You see, we aren’t just working with methods here, we want to make sure we don’t get psychologically overwhelmed by questioning reaching our eventual goal. In my experience thus far, I’ve found that looking on what I’m doing with a little math in mind, let’s me know where I will most likely end up.

The internet is filled with all sorts of ‘hacks’ and ‘how tos’ and ‘learn these verbs first’ or ‘learn this 100 words’ or learn this ‘1000 words’ etc. Let’s called each of these things ‘data sets’. All these data sets can take weeks or months to learn and master and there is no guarantee what this small data set will give you in return. But based on true research generally if we know 5000 words in our target language we will be able to process and understand 98% of all spoken and written words (Nation, 1990.) If we know 3000 words, we will have a similar ability, but more in the 85-90% region of recognition and understanding.

This means that at minimum we must know around 3,000 words just to navigate the language properly. Don’t worry if this seems like a ‘lot’, because here’s the cool thing. This data sets covers ALL the verb, adjectives and general words you’d learn in smaller lists or data sets. Learning all of them systematically solves the problem of what to approach and when. You know learning these give you 85-90% recognition of all written and spoken text and 5,000 gives you access to 98%. Therefore, you don’t really need another goal. I am not saying this is easy, but the end result is predictable. For example, when learning German and passing the 3,000 word study mark, I was quite surprised at how easy sentences became to read, since the majority of all sentences are vocabulary words, not grammar. Knowing this ‘minimum’ also saves you a lot of drama mentally. A dedicated student can work on 100-200 words a day and hit the first 3,000 in a month, and 5,000 in 6 weeks with a max of 8 weeks (with methods i’ll go into in another post). So how does this all tie into revision transfer? We will see below.

The Limits of Revision

As I’ve said before, Japanese children, or children in any country learning their native language, have the luxury of a long, staggered period of acquisition. Japanese children take about a decade to learn over 1,000 Kanji, spending all that time fully immersed in their language. Kids have the advantage of time. We do not. When we attempt to circumvent time, we require a more active form of revision. A young Japanese child might see 商品屋 on a building and be unable to write the Kanji, but know it means “goods store”. Or they’ll see 図書館 and know its ‘library’ without being familiar with the Kanji. In their lives, they’ll have thousands of references to these words in film, books, conversations, movies and other interactions. We can’t do the same thing, which presents a specific situation relative to our methodology. The shorter the timeframe you attempt to do this, the steeper the requirements of your revision. To some writing 1,000 Kanji per day might seem ‘extreme’ but how else can I shorten 10 years of familiarity with words and characters I’ve never seen. This also means, when moving into Phase II, the vocabulary phase, it will require a very rigid form of revision to ensure that we prioritize the acquisition of all this information. As i’ve said time and again, we are strategically navigating the mind and allowing the brain to prioritize our new tasks and accept this new information in a way that is just below stressful (that ensure we are consistent) but not too simple, so the brain doesn’t prioritize it. Once I truly understood this. I mean truly understood this, things became very clear.


I cannot expect amazing results without very consistent and disciplined revision of a certain nature. 

I also realized:


I must be aware of the complete data set i’m attempting to learn and create a way of systematically encountering calculable portions of the data on a daily basis so I can track my progress.

I feel that about 80% of this entire journey is psychological, and it is core rules like this that allow me to consistently to the receptive tasks needed to really “pressure my studying” or really work at it. To properly memorize 2,136 Kanji requires them to be seen and used a lot. This might seem obvious and in a way it is. But how do we calculate a time to memorization for such a large data set? This is what the internet generally cannot tell you. People will say it “takes a long time”, or “it might take a year up to three years” just to memorize the Kanji. This is where my research gave me perspective, because I know it can be done in 8-12 weeks, not years. The ‘Two Truths’ came into play before I started my journey.

TRUTH A – just ‘looking at Kanji flashcards’ was not being ‘familiar’ with them. I didn’t just want to recognize them and ‘maybe’ remember them. I committed to writing a certain number daily (during the memorization phase). From a program called Glossika, the found describe retrieving a sentence from memory as a ‘rep’. For my studies I use the same terminology, though I call what I do a ‘retrieval’, versus a ‘rep’. I consider any retrieval of data from the memory consciously as a repetition. Based Glossika, they said when a person does 25,000 repetitions from memory of speaking they have basic fluency, 50,000 is relative fluency and 100,000 is mastery. I thought these were good gauges and said for my Kanji journey, writing 1,000 Kanji per day was the equivalent of 1,000 ‘retrievals’ from memory. Spending a dedicated amount of time each day retrieving the Kanji from memory with only a trigger word to activate it cannot have a lack of benefit. To that end, I aimed for 100,000 reps as a base to see how things would play out.

TRUTH B – Doing large numbers of reps allowed me to know that I was constantly being saturated with large portions of my data set at a time, or it let me know that I was massively reinforced the data set I had presently learned. I’ll show both examples. Let’s say I’ve learned 500 Kanji out of my 2,136 data set. Working at 35 Kanji per day memorized using what I called the TPK (Time Per Kanji) constant, this takes about an hour and a half. A part of the method involves writing the Kanji 20-35 times after locking down the story. This means a large portion of your ‘daily 1,000’ are mutiple retrievals of the same Kanji. So on the low end that’s 700 Kanji. This means in my revision, I’d write 300 of my most recently learned Kanji (or all 500 if I’m feeling limber). That means for that day i’d revise 60% of all the Kanji I presently know, and that process will repeat itself over and over and over. I’ll constantly be engaging with Kanji and be constantly aware of my data set as it grows in size gradually. 

There were days I didn’t study any Kanji and still did my 1,000 retrievals. This meant that like the example before, say I’d studied 1,000 Kanji exactly, I would have re-exposed myself (and retrieved from memory) all 1,000 Kanji I know, which is 100% of my data set, revised in one day. Multiply this type of activity by 60-90 days and you get literally tens of thousands of reinforcements, revisions and points of mastery. The familiarity you build will become extreme just as a child gets a high familiarity over time. What we are doing is shortcutting the time, so our revision must be very high for a certain period which takes a lot of discipline, but doesn’t require as much time as one thinks.

How This All Ties Up

Now that w’eve gone through that information, it’s pretty simple how it all adds up. The momentum we’ve built by becoming “so familiar” with these Kanji do wonders for our mind psychologically. Look at the image below, which is part of what i’m research and testing as training for Phase II.


I couldn’t read this stuff 90 days ago and now I have no issues reading this as part of my phase II. In fact, looking at anything like this (even in the beginning) was bit stressful, but since: I knew that knowing all 2,136 Kanji would eventually make stuff like this a non-issue, I did no reading at all until i’d finished my Kanji as it would be counter productive anyway. I save myself the psychological trouble of worrying about this ability, because I knew my work would get me there. 

So much of our stress is perceptual and in these types of “elite learning strategies” we must also have “elite psychological profiles” to really ignore certain impulses and focus on building core skills. I said to myself I probably won’t be reading anything at speed for 4.5 months at minimum, and i’m fine with that, because once I reach that point, I’ll have no issues. Think of the flip side, where from ‘day one’ i’d be struggling to read with zero knowledge of Kanji, not organization or discipline and i’d eventually burn out. If you think i’m just  weird person for context, remember that I tried over ten years ago to do this and was unsuccessful. I know exactly how it feels to beat yourself up so much psychologically the journey isn’t worth it. Japanese has a barrier of entry regarding the language where we must learn to read it first, THEN implement other strategies. If I was doing this type of hardcore strategy now with French, I believe I could get extreme results in as little as 8 weeks now that I understand what you really need to do each day. But back to Japanese. For me to now transfer this momentum, its going to be a mix of similar actions. High reps done as efficiently as possible in a data set that I stay saturated in. I’m aiming for 5,000 words from a well organized data set already compiled by Kanshudo.com. Those 5,000 words are probably the best 5,000 words you can learn because the smart f0lks over there used lots of programming wizardry to create that data set based on real life data. So there’s no doubt if i’ll encounter these words, just when. But i’ve also taken care of that problem, which is what i’m currently compiling, which takes some time. But i’ve already been “semi-training” some words and I’m having excellent results with what i’m doing. I’m transitioning rapidly from “straight Kanji” to “reading Kanji” in sentences but more importantly, getting used to hearing these new words in speech and reading while using another technique to practice what we know as “retrievals”. I’m still doing some research because if I’m really to master this, I can’t rush it. So my research looks like it will take about 25-30 days to compile some data I need and then i’ll do my push.

Good times ahead, and more to come! Cheers


About marcusbird

Writer, Designer, Filmmaker
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