When it comes to reaching language proficiency, vocabulary is important. To reach proficiency as quickly as possible, the choice of vocabulary is important.

I'm going to explain my approach a bit.

How To Learn Vocabulary

Vocabulary from a spoken standpoint requires quick recall without a reference, which is really only attained by practicing the same exact things over and over again.

I use flash cards, because they're the most straightforward review method. I have two flash cards per word, one testing translating from the language, and another translating to.

Anki is a great choice for any flash card learning, because it stores your data about what you've learned, and modifies the frequency of the cards accordingly: http://ankisrs.net/

Regardless of the medium, the real challenge is investing the time and effort. It's very easy to stop once you're a week in, or a month in. In order to minimize this risk, vocabulary needs to be a routine: it must be a part of one's daily schedule.

For me, I've made my commute to and from work into review time for my language flash cards. I listen to the same playlist (something with no vocals), start up Anki, and get to work until I've reviewed them all. I've been doing it with German for over a year (roughly 30 minutes per weekday), and I've learned about 800 words completely.

Per word, it's taken me 7500 (~50 weeks * 5 days * 30 minutes a day) / 800 ~= 10 minutes a word. Not bad (although some are easier than others).

What Vocabulary to Learn

Timothy Ferris has a great blog post about learning languages (a couple, actually) where he talks about finding the most frequently used words and learning those first. It's a statistical method that is the best value for your time in terms of vocabulary.

For any given language, a Google search will probably find a list somewhere. In the case of Japanese In the case of Japanese, there's a great post showing the most common terms used: http://pomax.nihongoresources.com/index.php?entry=1222520260. Even if you don't understand the grammar at all, the vocabulary alone helps you get a great context on a conversation.

It's worth emphasizing the distinction between spokend and written word frequency. My suggestion would be start with spoken.

My suggestion would be to learn the first 100 or 200 words. This provides a solid base of roughly one half of all spoken words.

Where to Find More Vocab

After you have a good base set of words, I would move on to learning vocab that really interests you. Find a book, tv show, or game that is available in your target language, and add any vocab you don't know into the flash cards as you go.

For me, I wanted to learn German. Luckily, I love video games, a medium that fairly often has spoken dialog and text. I found a game I've wanted to play for a while, converted all text and audio to German, and started it up.

As soon as I encountered a word I didn't know, I paused the game, wrote up a flash card, and continued to play. As soon as I reached 100 new words, I stopped playing the game; I was only allowed to resume when I had finished learning all my outstanding vocabulary.

The beginning of this process was incredibly painful: I would play for maybe half an hour before I had over one hundred words to cover! But as time passed, I learned more, and the game began to move a bit more quickly. I also sometimes found places in the game where I was unable to pause. In that case, I used youtube videos of others playing the game to supplement: let's plays in German

For Japanese, if you like video games you're there: there are lots of Japanese video games with full audio.

If you prefer TV or movies, I'd suggest a website like Crunchyroll or Netflix. I think Japanese comics (Manga) is also a very good choice: unfortunately it's not available readily online. However, I've found that buying whole series' from EBay to be a straightforward process.


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About Yusuke Tsutsumi
I work at Zillow. I focus on tools and services for developer productivity, including build and testing.

My other interests include programming language design, game development, and learning languages (the non-programming ones).