Word Intimacy: The Missing Link?

Going through my “comprehension loop” of sentences with the exact words i’m studying

How do we become a walking dictionary?

Think about yourself presently. As a native speaker of your first language, you maybe know anywhere from 75,000 to 100,000 words which you can recall at will. You don’t need to revise these words each day, you don’t need to use apps and yet, you never forget them. Why?

Word intimacy.

Just like being intimate with a person, you’ve experienced these words in so many scenarios and situations with a range of emotions, smells, sounds and other factors that they are deeply embedded into your mind.

Word intimacy is a concept i’ve often thought about, because to really make gains in language acquisition you need to do so much work the ‘sweet spot’ lies somewhere between madness and genius. Since learning 5,000 words in most languages gives us 98% comprehension of written and spoken text (Nation, 1993), we must find a way for this process to be very efficient, useful and ultimately predictable in what it will provide for us, i.e a robust vocabulary.

In learning a language quickly you are attempting to shortcut the 10-12 years a child normally takes to learn their language to a relatively advanced level. This means far more data to absorb in less time, far more pressure and more types of oxidative stress. Ten years allows for a lot of room to build word intimacy and allow you to be a “walking dictionary”. Doing that in three to six months? Not so simple.

I remember many experiences while reading comics as a child which taught me new words in context. I remember this G.I Joe villain who spoke in very hifalutin speech. That was the first time I saw the word “countenance” (If I can remember correctly, or perhaps it was in literature class). The point is, reading hundreds of books and comics and playing games and what not, builds massive word intimacy. This turns us into a walking dictionary. We do not consciously think about this, it just happens. We encounter our word everywhere. Some places, more than others. If we are reading about fantasy, we’ll read and see very descriptive words about the environment. If we are reading an X-men comic book, depending on the them, we’ll see dialogues on emotion, civil rights, battles and more. We don’t “worry” about “how long this will take” as a child, because… we are a child. This is normal. Only as an adult, do we worry about the perceptual load of what we are trying to learn since there is a truth with intrinsically know:

We cannot shortcut the word acquisition process beyond a certain point due to limitations of time and energy.

If it takes us 8 weeks to get through 5,000 words, which is a herculean task, how do we ensure that we can recall these words from memory?  It cannot just be from seeing them on flash cards, but also hearing them, using them and really seeing them in situations that create strong neural connections in your brain. This is tricky to design, because over 10 years, a child’s natural life forces these things to pop up, whether from school, in movies etc. For a non-native speaker, these interactions must be manufactured to ensure we encounter these words. 

We must create word intimacy consciously.

An app alone does not create this type of intimate context. In fact, an app if used improperly, is quite illusory. You may “feel” that you are memorizing a large amount of data, when in reality, you maybe be in murky territory.

In a previous post I said that true memorization is the recall of what you have studied without reference, not recognition. This is why you are a “walking dictionary” of your native language as you have already memorized tens of thousands of words.

My whole deal with “word intimacy” comes from my success with rapidly memorizing the 2,136 Jouyou Kanji (90 days). I learned it all through writing, using my imagination and sticking to a very specific and consistent revision schedule. The internet is rife with people who are adamantly against learning to write Kanji or learn them individually, when in reality, all Japanese people learn Kanji initially by writing them.  It doesn’t matter if later down they never write them, or just use apps to communicate, the inception of their Kanji ability, is physical, tactile and intimate. 

By “intimate” I mean, we must develop an extreme familiarity with what we are learning. Not just “high exposures” (which are necessary), but “familiarity”, where you see it over and over in a certain type of context. A child will play with letter blocks for months until it masters them all. Then it will work very diligently at small words, then longer ones, until by around age four the child can speak and express itself fluently. You can set your watch to this.

But we as adults do not have the luxury of time these children possess. We can massively shortcut those years. However, in this age of apps and hacks and what have you, I think we forget the power of just sitting down and getting “intimate” with our language.

Remember, there was a time of no computers, where expats would go to foreign countries and Lo and Behold, learn those languages to fluency! This means that there is a basic construct to acquisition, that is not localized to certain kinds of technology. I cannot confirm the data on this, but I don’t think that as technology and access improved around language learning, we suddenly saw a vast bump in language acquisition ability. Those who make gains in language tend to do the same thing, whether it was in the 1970s, 1980s or 2000’s. They put in A LOT OF WORK.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not “anti-app”. I’m just “pro-usefulness”. As I’m doing my vocabulary phase now, i’m using Anki for memorization purposes. Why? Anki provides the clearest route to tracking what i’m doing. It allows me to train “retrievals” by building cards that would take a lot of time to write by hand and I can do hundreds of reps per day, and work with the algorithm. It provides usefulness along certain parameters.

However, Anki does not provide what I call “intimacy”. Anki is robotic, repetitive and endless. You don’t want to get stuck in a situation where you are revising words for the rest of your life. When I used to read my Conan comics over and over and over, relishing the stories images and the language, seeing expressions like “Crom’s blood!” or “By the flames of Arallu!” (terms which i’ve never used personally), these come back to me immediately because of that physical and intimate association with the material.

It was the feel of the comic book pages on my fingers and the smell of the book, it’s the story, the writing and how it all overlaps. This is how we build word intimacy. 

Now, you are obviously saying, “Well we don’t have access too all those tools and materials to do the same thing, etc, etc”.

Yes this is true. My point here is not to say that to replicate that success we need all the same things, far from it. We just need to be more intimate in the process than just playing with an app or mindlessly looking at flashcards. “Intimacy” in this context is not limited to merely analog things like books and comics. You must be doing things that are very “day to day” or “normal” within the context of your learning.

For example, if I walk down the street and see some newspapers. I don’t have any issues understanding the names like “Wall Street Journal”, “Associated Press”, “Jamaica Observer” or “Asahi Shinbun”. We see newspapers all the time. They aren’t frightening or scary. We have an intimate association with them. But this is because they appear in our lives by proxy. We see newspapers everywhere because they are in lots of stores, pharmacies, doctor’s offices, airports, you name it. What we cannot recreate, is that experience because that is relative to living somewhere else. 

So, our intimacy building must be VERY STRATEGIC.

I must emphasize that we are trying to absorb INCREDIBLE amounts of data in a short period of time (4-6 months). Being “intimate” with words, may not mean pouring over Manga (if you cannot read it), or trying to read a Japanese novel (if you can barely read Kanji).

The Rules of Intimacy

One: Create Proximity

Recently in a talk on relationships, it says one of the most important thing about trying to have a relationship is relative to proximity. You cannot be with anyone if you aren’t around anyone (obviously). Likewise, we must be around our words to really get used to them. Proximity with words comes from reading, flash cards, games and what not. However, when we are studying our first 5,000 words. What guarantees do you have that you will often encounter a word like 水道管 suidoukan (water pipe) or a word like 現像 genzou (phenomenon)? The answer is, zero. So even if we are learning our words in a flashcard program, they fall to the wayside if you don’t use them, or hear them (in context preferably). What this means is that we must  create the proximity to these words beyond our flashcards. This is the ‘real work’ that most of us are not told to do.


Two: Be Active With The Proximity

Situations in life tend to ‘seal’ the meaning of words in our mind. When my father once called me “recalcitrant”, which means (stubborn under authority) I never forgot it once I looked it up. Proximity and the situation burned that meaning forever into my mind. Our situations don’t need to be that extreme, but we need versions of these activities to make words more sticky, than just seeing them on a flashcard.

So for example, I just made up this sentence:


boku no kinjo de, suidoukan no sag you ga hajimarimasu. 

In my neighbourhood, pipe building operations have started.

Or maybe:


suidoukan kara okashi na soon ga nagareru.

Strange noises are coming from the water pipes.

Note: These are VERY basic sentences. I’m studying vocabulary now, so I’m able

to pull words from memory, but in doing so i’m creating contexts for “active proximity”, but below is the easiest method:


It’s one thing to make up some sentences like I did ( as examples) but how do we do this at scale? Remember, if you’ve been reading through my posts, the true test of ANY strategy is to see how it works at scale if you are using it to assist with large volumes of data. What i’ve long learned is that we cannot do everything at once. Most people have a focus of 3-4 hour max, and everything else gives diminishing returns. Like I’ve also said, you have a lot of unusual people that have no issues doing 7-8 hours of study per day without fatigue. We are not referring to those outliers.

It is hard to study words, try to remember them, then try to “make up sentences” for thousands of words and so on. The easiest way to get word proximity is to read  because reading can be done a various speeds and it can be done for very long stretches without fatigue. Speaking is a different type of “proximity” based activity, because you need to have certain skills to be able to handle conversation.

That sentence there says: 会社は赤字営業倒産した。

kasha ha aka eigyou tousan shita. 

Basically: “The company went into the red.”

What I’m doing is reading sentences with the word i’m studying every day. Thi means, I must interact with my words each day. I develop a bit of “intimacy” with them. Many are much easier to read because I know the shape relative to the sentence. I don’t say kai…. sha (company). I say kaisha immediately since I know the word. Everyword in this sentence i’m pretty familiar with (except akaji 赤字)but because I’ve read the sentence a few times, when I saw it I just said it.

Three Be Strategic With Proximity based on WHERE YOU ARE

Now I must make a note here. I’m still testing this out because here’s the truth guys and gals. This is very labor intensive so you must be excited by what you are doing. Some people might see this and say “I’d rather read manga”, which is fine, but there is no guarantee you’ll encounter the words you are studying each day. You see, when you don’t have the ability to read well, you need to narrow your proximity to what you know. You must reinforce it to the point where you store it, and then move on.

Remember: the beautiful thing about memorization is that once you memorize a word you move one. So if I memorized 2,500 words, even if I can’t read them super fast, I know them. So I don’t need to “worry” about them. To read most manga and do things you want you will need 3,500 to 5,00 words anyways. But here are some ideas for proximity once you hit certain benchmarks.

1,500 words you should be able to comfortably read children’s stories if that’s your thing.

3,000 words  — a lot of manga should be a breeze, and playing a lot of games shouldn’t trip you up

5,000 words — everything should be easy to handle, including light novels.

So this builds “proximity” relative to reading. but nothing will build measurable proximity to your word list immediately. 

So me reading these sentences might look “boring”, but where the hell am I going to find these words otherwise?  I’m not at an N2 grammar level yet, so I can’t just dive into reading N2 material (which is counter productive), but I CAN read all the Kanji and I do understand about 250+ grammar patterns, so I’m good with thousands of basic sentences (which lead to advanced sentences pretty quickly).

Why I’m Doing This (IMPORTANT)

This process is always initially quite slow. Speed in reading only comes with the frequency of exposure and use. You can’t read words or Kanji quickly without reading them. So even when you know the Kanji readings, it doesn’t automatically mean you’ll be able to see a sentence like this super quick and rattle it off.


watashi wa sakuya fushigi na yume wo mimashita.

Last night I had a strange dream. 

The issue here with speed is based not on ability, but  process of differentiation, so at a glance in the beginning if we don’t know a word shape, you won’t be able to “split up” the words quickly. This makes you pause, because you need thousands of exposures to naturally fall into these reading or speaking rhythms. Looking at the sentence from a perspective of knowing each component well it will look more like this in your mind.


昨夜  – last night    思議   – strange, wonder      夢 – dream

Eventually, this is what your brain will do. It will take each word and “color it” and then you’ll be able to read much faster.

These “colors” are not created without….

Word intimacy. 

The more intimate we are, the more obvious the different words are the faster we fall into a natural rhythm. In reality, there is also no way around this. We want to learn thousands of words in record time but it is hard to hold onto them if we aren’t reading a lot or doing at the very least a lot of word intimacy reinforcement.

The problem for most learners (including me) was that doing this sort of reading was incredibly boring (at the time). But as I got deeper into research and understanding proper exposure I realized that sometimes necessity trumps interest. I had learning hundreds or thousands of words I wasn’t really using (or seeing). I used to assume that by using Anki I had “memorized” a word, when in reality, hundreds of these words I didn’t even use, and therefore had trouble recalling when I needed to (which to me, does not fit my current definition of true memorization). The extra work seemed ‘daunting’ but at the time I did not understand word intimacy, which fits into what i’ve labeled the ‘true cost’ of language learning.

The Cool Thing (last part, I promise)

The cool thing about all this is that you don’t need to really ‘force’ this to make gains. After using Anki to train retrieval, reading a few sentences every now and then anchors your word into your brain relative to the meaning of the sentence, making it stay in your memory much longer, in a different context. I had grand plans to read 1,000 sentences a day and blah blah, but that is impossible at my present reading speed without burning out since i’m learning new words each day. I can comfortably do 100-200 without feeling strained, and I’m also learning new grammar and expressions in these sentence as a sort of “proxy training”.

All this stuff leads to the eventual ability to read at length with no issues. I think the danger is trying to swim in the deep end of the pool too early and facing the possibility of drowning. Many advanced learners are notorious for working to master the small components of a skill, then moving on. By spending time reading these words each day while studying them, we create a “comprehension loop” and anchor.

Everything I discuss, I emphasize in so much detail because I am focusing on activities at scale. I’ve been down this road many times, where trying to do certain kinds of activities breaks down when you realize the reinforcement necessary to get true results. Some parts of the journey can be done very quickly (e.g learning 2,136 Kanji in 90 days) and others can also be “relatively quick” (6-12 weeks) but requires a VERY strategic and FOCUSD approach.

I am purposely doing words and not much grammar at this point because as I’ve said (many times) training grammar without knowing vocabulary is generally wasted effort, as you spend too much time breaking down the components of a sentences versus just trying to figure out the meaning (grammar) which is the point of learning Grammar. When learning German, my grammar learning was lightning quick because I never had to worry about vocabulary and I’d only focus 100% on the meaning of the sentence. If I misunderstood sometimes, it was because I didn’t master the absorption of the grammar pattern, but had no issues with the individual words. That means at any given time, my focus was 100% on the pattern, not the component words of the sentence.

Grammar is its own beast, and takes a completely different form of memorization that I call context memorization. So unlike raw words, where you can read and build intimacy through listening and even ‘skimming’ sentence, grammar really requires a sense of situations and proper usage at all times.  Saying ” I like books” versus ” I like things like books” are two completely different things.

本が好きだ。I like books

など買うのが好き。I like things like buying books

This is a different kind of mental practice. Words are solid and visual, grammar is moving and organizational. In the same way we look at words and eventually get a “feel for” the shape of the word and identity it quickly, we will also get a “feel for” the grammar shapes and identify them. But again, this cannot be done all at once.

For vocabulary training, I can read complete sentences and not need to know the exact grammar to get the benefit of the reading. In grammar study I need to know the exact meaning of the sentence relative to the grammar. This means training the grammar patterns several dozen times until it sticks. And remember, to get to an N2 or N2 level requires knowing anywhere from 450-600 grammar patterns! Even multiplying those by say, 20 revisions each equals 9,000 to 12,000 exposures just to learn them properly!

Doing thousands of word exposures and also thousands of grammar exposures is possible but I’ve found, not very efficient when you have a weak vocabulary. It takes too much time to sit and figure out a sentence that you cannot initially read. Once word intimacy is established, the rate of understanding increases exponentially.

Grammar requires active and focused training. You really have to sit and try and produce what you are reading or it won’t stick. These grammar patterns also need to be obviously separate from words you already know. This means if someone is speaking bullet fast Japanese, you can’t mix things up. Which again, goes back to word intimacy.

Grammar are situational chunks of data where you MUST memorize the context. The best way to do this is to hear it a lot or read it a lot, but you gotta make sure you aren’t mixing it up with words you’ve already learned. Now do you see why people get into so much trouble? Imagine trying to learn grammar when you can barely tell the difference between 健康    kenkou (health) and    検討  kentou(consideration).

Practically speaking, it makes life MUCH harder.

I am not saying this is ‘easy’ if you have a massive vocabulary. But the ability to differentiate monstrously improves once you have absorbed certain kinds of information to a high degree (i.e thousands of words). By learning thousands of words (first) while doing hundreds of hours of immersion, your ears become very sharp (and familiar) with the phonetic of the words you are learning and their usage in common situational patterns (even if you don’t know the proper grammar yet). But this upfront work gives you the ability to differentiate between rapidly spoken words. Having this ability saves you a lot of future grief when studying grammar. When you start training your ear to figure out grammar, you can’t really spend a lot of time trying to figure out which words are which. You are listening for grammar, not words. If you can’t differentiate at all, you are lost and you’ll stop. If you have the ability to listen to a sentence and hear everything clearly. That’s step one. If you can hear everything clearly and you know all the words spoken, that’s step two. Then you are ready to analyze what was said to see if you understand it all.

The word intimacy leads to phonetic and situational awareness of thousands of words. By proxy you are also learning phonetic and situational awareness of grammar, which will start to trigger when you train.

If someone blurts out in a TV show i’m watching at bullet speed:


(I’m going on a business trip on behalf of my manager)

I don’t wanna be saying Huh? Who did what now?

I need to know immediately that the expression in red 代わりに kawari ni (subsitute)is not 変わり  kawari (alter, change). From a grammar standpoint, this requires using and reading this pattern many, many, many times. It is a different sort of exercise mentally than just raw vocabulary learning. You have to be able to tell between words you know and grammar and that can only be done by memorizing the contexts, which has its own demands of time and great effort, which I think is best done after a certain level of vocabulary acquisition (say, 3000 words).

Okay! That’s it for now… more on all this madness later. I’m continuing the journey.

Updates on stuff soon



About marcusbird

Writer, Designer, Filmmaker
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