January 21, 2006

This is basically a copy of a post I made on JapanToday regarding a method for learning vocabulary. A friend of mine came over to my house and we discussed Japanese learning stuff, and he revealed to me how he learns vocabulary at a nice speed.

Until now I've tried to use the elaborate "KanjiTown" in an effort to remember vocabulary (Jukugo compounds, to be exact). I have created separate locations that each house many kanji. This has helped me immensely in remembering kanji meanings and readings (Each location signals the kanji's reading), and until now, I've tried to use it somehow to remember new words (Again, compounds. Whenever I refer to remembering "words," assume I'm referring to compounds of kanji). To remember those words I would try to take the kanji that make up the word, remember the meanings of the kanji, and somehow try to create an elaborate string of the kanji meanings until I finally arrived at the definition of the word I was trying to remember.
Let's take an example: 絶命 (ぜつめい). This means "end of life, death." Whether or not this word is of any value remembering isn't the point, this is simply an example.
Now, until now, I would (try to) remember this vocabulary word by remembering the meanings of the kanji that make up this compound. I remembered these two kanji as "discontinued" and "fate." Now I would try to connect these two concepts to bring forth the idea of "end of life," so maybe the thought of someone on their deathbed as they take their final breath. I would try to create a story or definition that would logically connect the concepts "discontinued" and "fate" so that I arrived at "end of life." Maybe this would be someone that receives a letter that lets them know that the "fate" of their life has been "discontinued." Those two ideas connect logically, so it should make the vocabulary word easy to remember, right? It sounds so, but when I would try to remember the vocabulary word, I would have to first find the kanji "fate" and then "discontinue," conclude that it means "end of life," and make sure they are in the right order (It is "discontinued fate," not "fate discontinued", or else you have a word with phonetic components in the wrong order. That's a no-no.). That is quite a few steps to remember a single vocabulary word, and it seems like I'm taking too many steps to remember a simple word. But I feel that because I've gone through the trouble of designing this elaborate town, I need to do my best to use it to the full, so none of my effort is wasted. But it turns out that I was trying to be so efficient with what I've done it was making me INefficent. But because this is the only way I can think of remembering new vocabulary, it was a sort of しかたない sort of situation. That is, until about 25 minutes ago. I was talking with a friend of mine that studies Japanese (If you're reading this: HORRAY!), and he told me that he was having problems with other aspects of Japanese, not vocabulary. 'Really...' I thought to myself. 'I've been studying for quite some time, I've created this whole "KanjiTown" thing, but I still can't pin down how to remember vocabulary words in a systematic way.' So I asked him "How do you remember new vocabulary words?" He explained it to me, but it didn't quite sink in (I'm on medication because my tonsils have recently been taken out, and it turns out that the medication is very strong, which has left me feeling pretty dizzy and hard to retain information and concentrate. So the fact that I didn't get what he was saying is nothing new; OK, back to what I was saying earlier). So when he explained it to me I didn't quite get it, so I said "OK, let's take a random example out of a nearby dictionary." Turning to a random page, I picked out the word "だいりゅうりょう," a word that I haven't been able to find in other online dictionaries. Maybe it's an old word, I don't know. Anyway, I said "Walk me through your remembering of this word." I started to explain the kanji that were used to make up the word. But he didn't seem to care what the real meaning of the kanji were, he said that he always thought of "だい" as big (大), that りゅう was the current of a body of water (流), and りょう was... and I cut him off at this point, the moment everything "clicked" in my head.

Instead of focusing on the individual meaning of kanji as they appear in a word, he has a preset list (Although not written down) of meanings that he assigned to phonetic components (As evidenced by the 大流). Then those three basic elements would interact and connect to the word as we know it in English. So let's go back to our example of 絶命. Let's say that I assigned stuff to each phonetic component: Let's say 絶 is Pikachu from the popular Pokemon franchise. And let's say that 命 is Neo from the Matrix. And also let's assume that as soon as I think of Pikachu, the phonetic sound ぜつ is second nature to me. This will be done "naturally" through simple flashcards if the connection between Pikachu and ぜつ isn't good. So let's assume that it is, and ぜつ and Pikachu are linked. Let's also assume that めい and Neo of the Matrix are also linked in a similar way, and as soon as I think of one, I immediately think of the other.
Let's imagine Pikachu delivering an annoying battle cry as he is about to deliver the fatal punch to the mean and evil Neo. This signals the "end of life" for Neo. This idea, which might seem elaborate, is more less a simplification of what I've been doing the whole time; trying to logically connect images to lead to a meaning. And rather than learning each individual kanji's meaning to remember vocabulary, you assign a meaning to each phonetic component (Which has basically already been done via KanjiTown in my case). And rather than using kanji, you use those basic components to interact with one another (in your head, of course), and the results of their action lead to the definition of the word you are trying to remember. This sounds reasonable because (1) Complex thoughts are hard to quickly "grab" when you're searching for a word to say. If it's simpler, it will be quicker and easier to use. (2) Although making use of mnemonic techniques, it does not (appear) to overuse them to a fault (Which appears to be what I've been doing for quite some time in an effort to remember vocabulary). Although I have yet to truly test how effective this is at remembering vocabulary, I have no trouble recalling the definition of the mysterious word that I can't the definition of. This seems to be a sound idea, and I'll let you know of the results. Perhaps this is another step for the imaginary world of KanjiTown, and it can be put to use by others to make learning vocabulary (another) fun and enjoyable process.

Another post in response to a comment about it:

I'll clarify: this isn't to get help me read better. Reading isn't very much of a problem at all. The problem I have is quickly figuring out what a word is without any materials present. Mnemonics are supposed to be "memory AIDS." Such is the case with KanjiTown. I am noticing that I am starting to forget parts of it, but I still remember the pronunciation of the characters. This is because it is serving its purpose as a memory aid, and it is beginning to fade while still leaving the benefits of itself behind. The reading for 絶命 comes naturally, but if my mind were to go blank, I have a backup in place in the form of KanjiTown to act as a safety net. I will use it as a crutch until the reading comes naturally and I no longer need the safety net, something that fades from my memory naturally.
What you're saying sounds similar to what others told me about studying compounds and learning kanji "in context" rather than a systematic study of each individual character. The problem with this is that until you look up that word/kanji you don't know, you won't know what it really means to begin with. Context defines nuances, but a word must be learned first and related to something I can understand, be that an English word, a picture of some sort, etc. I have a Japanese dictionary used by Elementary/Middle school students, and I plan on using it to get definitions so I get in the habit of relating Japanese to Japanese definitions, so I get more in the mindset of "thinking Japanese." But in order for this to begin working, I must have a "hook" to link the word and definition together; the actual memory hook will fade quickly, but it will leave the connection between the word and definition there. Be that hook a bizarre picture, if it works, I'll use it.

Yesterday before going to bed (And after taking more painkillers), I grabbed my English-Japanese Dictionary and looked up a couple of random words. Those were 庁舎、学舎, and they mean "government building" and "school building." I don't know if they're used today, but I woke up this morning, and the connection between the English word and these words were still fresh in my mind. I didn't have time to look up the words in the Kokugo Jiten, but this brief "demo" leads me to believe it is/will be as effective as it sounds (to me).

Please don't think I'm trying to argue, I'm sorry if it sounds like I am (I'm still a little ぼんやり, I took medicine shortly after I woke up this morning). But I think this might be my "silver bullet" for remembering scores of vocabulary words.

Also:

Also, I've learned that a system like this takes a bit of time to establish, because you don't start out with an alphabet of images in your head that corrispond to the hiragana. But as you enforce the images they will come to you quicker. But you only use them as a crutch until you remember the word. Then once that word is solidified enough, you can use it to make other words.

For example: 欺く 【あざむく】 (v5k) to deceive
To link "あざむ" together might be a stretch, so you look up あざ, which means 痣, basically a birthmark. So you leave 欺く alone for now, and learn あざ. Then once あざ is fixed in your mind as a birthmark, then you learn (あざ)むく, and you have less to worry about.
This is outlined at the end of Remembering the Kanji II, I don't know why I didn't try it before...

That's basically what happened. It seems that this method will pick up speed as I use it more, so as that happens (I hope), I'll post it on this blog.