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It’s a perennial New Year’s resolution: Hit the books and start improving your Japanese. There’s a reason it keeps popping up on your list, learning the language is important.

For example, if you hope to change careers in 2022 — or get further in the one you already have — improving your vocabulary is key. In fact, that’s my resolution for the year and I want to share my own plan here in case it serves as a helpful reference to anyone else with the same objective.

Improving your vocabulary also helps with getting the most out of life outside of the workplace, which could be another resolution for 2022, and should in turn reduce any stress and frustration you may feel living as a non-Japanese resident in this country.

Although I passed Level N1 of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test in my 20s and have been using the language professionally since then, there are still a lot of gaps in my knowledge when it comes to vocabulary. In fact, until I returned here in 2019 to live and work full time, my use of Japanese was mostly confined to areas connected with my work. As a result, I know all sorts of specialized words related to my profession but not so many outside of that. I also developed a lot of bad habits such as skimming over words I don’t know, learning the meaning of a word but not its pronunciation, and even making up my own incorrect pronunciations.

Over the past year I have experimented with a variety of different techniques and apps for improving my vocabulary. Rather than settling on just one, I’ve come up with a combination — kind of like how an athlete might lift weights one day, do some yoga the next and high-intensity interval training the day after that. What follows is the regimen that I’ve put together.

Paper and pencil

This was the technique I used back in my 20s, when I got a job at a Japanese bank and had to learn the vocabulary associated with the financial world very quickly. Basically, every time you encounter a new word you should look it up and write it down in a notebook. Then, review the list frequently and make paper flashcards with them. You can get cards on a ring holder designed for this purpose at a 100 yen shop or stationery store.

This method still works, but it feels out of step with the main way that I consume Japanese-language content now, which is on my computer or with my iPad. It also doesn’t take advantage of spaced repetition, a technique for promoting memorization based on seeing the word at precise intervals. This kind of system works best when it’s automated, and it’s a standard feature in most vocabulary-learning apps these days (including the ones listed below). I still keep a vocabulary notebook and pen nearby, however, primarily for recording words I encounter when reading PDFs or books.

It may be old school, but making your own flashcards using a mini ring deck is a great way to learn Japanese vocabulary. | GETTY IMAGES
It may be old school, but making your own flashcards using a mini ring deck is a great way to learn Japanese vocabulary. | GETTY IMAGES

Yomichan + Anki

Knowing that I needed to start looking up and learning the words that appear in what I read online, I installed the Yomichan extension for Chrome. Now, when I highlight a word on my screen while pressing the shift key, a window pops up that shows its pronunciation and definition.

Yomichan can be connected to the Anki memorization app, enabling you to put words you have looked up with Yomichan into an Anki flashcard deck in just one click. Getting these two programs working with each other properly was tricky, but once it’s set up it works well. I also grabbed several of the public decks on Anki, including a couple focusing on yojijukugo (four-kanji idioms), which I have been wanting to learn more of. To similarly check definitions of words and quickly add them to a study list while using my iPad rather than my PC, I got a dictionary app called Japanese, which is made by the firm Renzo.

iKnow!

After using the techniques above, I discovered a new problem: I find typical flashcards boring and have to force myself to use them. To deal with this, I returned to using an app I first started using a decade ago, iKnow!. Rather than flipping a card, you are asked to answer multiple choice questions, or type the word in yourself. Not only is this more interesting, it forces you to be more active and thus learn the words better. I also find I can use it for a longer period of time without getting bored. Another thing I like about iKnow! is that the company behind it invested in excellent voice actors who read the words and example sentences with some much-appreciated flair.

Satori Reader

Although the apps mentioned above are helpful, I started to feel that I would make more progress if I learned words in context, so I decided to try Satori Reader. This app has a variety of custom written stories, each with an audio track, and shows definitions and detailed grammatical explanations when you click on a word. Although it’s aimed at the intermediate level, I find plenty of unfamiliar words, which I can add to Satori Reader’s in-app vocabulary list for study. The stories are very well written; I recently stayed up past 1 a.m. to get to the end of a particularly suspenseful one.

LingQ

Similar to Satori Reader, LingQ has a variety of content to read along with a built-in dictionary. And it enables you to make a vocabulary list to study. While LingQ lacks the detailed explanations and hand-crafted feel of Satori Reader, it has two features that I find particularly helpful: The first is the ability to import material from elsewhere — either with a URL or by pasting text — that then becomes a new lesson, and the second is its one-click function for immediately studying the words you just looked up when you come to the end of a page. This second feature is perfect for people like myself who tend to look up lots of words but don’t end up taking the time to learn them.

Goals are most effective when they are quantified, so that left me with a question: How many new vocabulary words should I aim to learn this year?

For the answer, I asked Jenifer Larson-Hall, an associate professor of linguistics at the University of Kitakyushu. She told me that a person who is considerably busy with work should probably aim to learn 25 words a week, which is a realistic target. That works out to 1,300 words in a year, a number that should get me expressing myself better in no time.

I’m going to start working on my resolution from this week, I’ll let you know how I did in December.

Everybody has their own methods, and I’m always trying to find more ways to improve my studying. If there are any other resources you think deserve to be in the list, let me know in the comments below.

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