Home > Plans, Rant > Vocabulary study. What order is best?

Vocabulary study. What order is best?

I’ve contacted Jonathan Waller of http://www.tanos.co.uk/ who was kind enough to let me use his JLPT vocabulary lists in zkanji. (Actually anyone can use them freely if they comply to the CC-BY license.) The hard work comes only after this, because I will have to create my own data from them, and this cannot be done automatically. I could probably write a little script that does the hard work, but then I would have to go through the lists checking for missing words and differences, so doing everything by hand seems to be a safer method. But the work won’t stop there.

Have you ever wondered what is the best order to study vocabulary? I think this is a difficult question, and there is no definite answer to it. Programs like Anki or the current zkanji just throw the words at you in random order or in the case of Anki, in the order you want. This probably allows the student to come up with a study plan or to use some textbook’s vocabulary, and learn it in order. But is this really the best approach when you want to get ready for the JLPT? Especially if kanji is added to the mix and you have a limited knowledge of them.

When I was getting ready for the JLPT’s level 2 in 2009, I came up with my own order of study. I based that order on kanji, and it worked pretty well. The main idea was to study 3-6 words with each kanji at most, and only study words that have a single kanji that I haven’t seen before. For example I picked 速い. After learning that, I went for 時速, 急速 and 速報. I have seen 報 now so I could go for words like 電報 or 情報. I also had to take kanji readings into consideration, as I wanted to be able to read unknown words I see for the first time as well, to be able to look them up in the dictionary easily. So I picked several words where the same kanji had the same reading, and repeated this with most common readings of that kanji. With time I acquired all of JLPT2’s vocabulary this way.
Unfortunately the example order I have just shown wouldn’t work for beginners. Newcomers to the kanji world have trouble remembering simple kanji with stroke order and they equate the number of strokes in a kanji with its difficulty. With my current knowledge this way of thinking seems a bit naive, but I did the same years ago. Thus here comes the problem.

If I wanted students not to be overwhelmed by the 2-3000 common kanji, but still wanted to teach only relevant words, what order should I choose? Should I prioritize words with simple kanji having few strokes, or should I not care and put the more frequent words on top of the list? This might depend on the level of the student as well. Some will want to only study the words (how to say them and what they mean) without even touching kanji. Although this seems counterproductive to me, but should I deny this possibility from students? (Actually this is more of a technical issue than a question of study methods, and a difficult one on top of that.)

I think the best approach would be to teach words with simple kanji that are frequent as well first, and postpone those that are infrequent, but this has a disadvantage as well. If I can’t include a bit more complex kanji at the beginning of study or even after the student has acquired a hundred words, some frequent kanji combination can only come pretty late.

What do you think?

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Categories: Plans, Rant Tags: , ,
  1. Dr4pht
    June 6, 2011 at 3:16 am

    First I want to thank you for writing zkanji. As for now, I mainly use it for stroke count/order research, not so much as learning tool itself, because I’m still in the early stages of learning Japanese.

    In my first attempt to learn Japanese I simply stuck to Hiragana/Katana, avoided to write any Kanji and hardly wrote any complete sentences. Well, it was a complete failure. In my second try I write as much as I can by hand, only in full sentences and always with Kanji (with Furigana :). With this approach I’m making a far better progress than last time.

    [quote]Some will want to only study the words (how to say them and what they mean) without even touching kanji. Although this seems counterproductive to me, but should I deny this possibility from students? (Actually this is more of a technical issue than a question of study methods, and a difficult one on top of that.)[/quote]

    This is an easy one, IMO: Ignore them. I came to the conclusion that it is absolutely crazy to learn Japanese without Kanji. Kanji bring order into the confusing world of (seeming) homophones. Although I understand that there are people who want to be able to communicate as fast as possible, I doubt that a text-only software could really help them.

    [quote]Should I prioritize words with simple kanji having few strokes, or should I not care and put the more frequent words on top of the list?[/quote]

    I think a combination of both would be the best solution. Writing the Kanji by hand I realized that even the most complex one can be easily broken into singular elements. I knew about the concept of radicals but writing them really helps to get a grasp of it. So, my suggestion would be to start with the simple Kanji and include right from the start more complex and frequent ones that have the simple ones as radicals.

    But isn’t the frequency of a Kanji also dependent from its context? I would guess that there are some discrepancies in the area of journalism, literature, song lyrics, mangas, games, etc. I don’t know if it’s possible, but it would be a cool feature to adapt the frequency order to someone’s own interest field. (Or at least to push some Kanji a few ranks up.)

    Right now I prefer to learn the Kanji in their natural “environment”: Embedded in a phrase. It helps getting the meaning of it (esp. verbs) and learning the grammar. A more prominent use of the example phrases in zkanji would be great help, IMHO.

    And one last proposal: How about bringing zkanji to mobile devices with touchscreens, so one could practice writing them on the go?

    Btw, sorry for the long post 😉

  2. June 6, 2011 at 6:02 pm

    Hi,

    I think learning hiragana/katakana first and postponing kanji is an acceptable strategy. Of course only if that doesn’t mean postponing for years. As you said too, you only started using kanji for your second try, so let’s be a bit forgiving with beginners. Having said that, I make zkanji to be a usable study tool, and not as a way to reach enlightenment through popularity, so I will only implement features that make sense. 🙂

    >> But isn’t the frequency of a Kanji also dependent from its context? I would guess that there are some discrepancies in the area of journalism, literature, song lyrics, mangas, games, etc. I don’t know if it’s possible, but it would be a cool feature to adapt the frequency order to someone’s own interest field.

    I don’t use the frequency of kanji much, rather the frequency of words. If you take a look at the kanji list at the left side of the window, you can see different sorting orders for kanji. One of them is “word frequency” which means the number of words a kanji is in, and their frequency was taken into account in the order. And I wouldn’t use even that, but the frequency of single words for determining a word order in the long-term study.

    I wish it was so simple as to determine the frequency by field of interest. The database that comes with zkanji (JMDict) only has the frequency of words how they appear in newspapers. It would take time for someone to create a usable database for other word frequencies. Instead of that I want to allow custom made lists for the long-term study list, if people are willing to spend some time creating them. (I will concentrate on developing the program instead.)

    >>Right now I prefer to learn the Kanji in their natural “environment”: Embedded in a phrase. It helps getting the meaning of it (esp. verbs) and learning the grammar. A more prominent use of the example phrases in zkanji would be great help, IMHO.

    I thought about the possibility of adding custom sentences to each item in the long-term study as a hint. I’m still thinking, so hang on.

    >>And one last proposal: How about bringing zkanji to mobile devices with touchscreens, so one could practice writing them on the go?

    The strongest reason why I won’t do this is that I don’t have any mobile device with or without touchscreen that would be powerful enough for this. (I know people will want donate dozens of them after saying this, but that would be like saying “get to work!” so please don’t! :D)

    There is another reason though. There are many programs out there for mobile devices that do one thing or other zkanji does, sometimes even better. (Take Anki for example.) They are not always free, but if I were to make a zkanji for mobile devices, it would probably not be free either. And even then I could probably not implement everything that is in zkanji for a phone, and if I had to take it apart, other programs would be just as good.

  3. factor828
    June 6, 2011 at 8:35 pm

    I believe there is no easy answer to this problem as it depends on your learning style. For me personally the frequency of usage order makes most sense but it is only because my first step of learning Japanese was completing Remembering the Kanji. Therefore, kanji complexity is not an issue for me. However, I understand that for those unfamiliar with the Chinese characters kanji complexity may be the most important. Because of that, I think it would be best to let the user choose the order of learning new words, i.e. include options like “learn by kanji easiness”, “learn by newspaper frequency” etc.

    >>It would take time for someone to create a usable database for other word frequencies.

    Check out cbJisho 😉 http://forum.koohii.com/viewtopic.php?id=7375
    It is a basic dictionary based on JMDict which has an option to search by newspaper, blog, JLPT or overall word frequency. It also includes an option to export your search to a file so it is really useful.

  4. June 7, 2011 at 5:34 pm

    >>For me personally the frequency of usage order makes most sense … I think it would be best to let the user choose the order of learning new words, i.e. include options like “learn by kanji easiness”, “learn by newspaper frequency” etc.

    I would argue that the original idea of sorting words regarding kanji complexity, kanji with already learned parts, grouping them by kanji readings and then by word frequency etc. wouldn’t be useful even in your case, because there are really not that many simple kanji that you couldn’t get to more complex ones soon. And if you just learned random words one after the other, you couldn’t associate them to anything so easily, which usually makes learning more efficient.

    Ordering by any kind of frequency (if the data is available) is easy if that’s what you really want (and need). I can add that too, but that doesn’t sound too systematic, and a good system usually helps studying.

    I’m also concerned about how to make a good user experience with several possible sorting methods. But I’ll figure it out.

    >>Check out cbJisho .. It is a basic dictionary based on JMDict which has an option to search by newspaper, blog, JLPT or overall word frequency. It also includes an option to export your search to a file so it is really useful.

    That program stores the data in SQLite (an open database anyone can use and edit) so the problem is not extracting the data. The problem is my own laziness with this one. 🙂 I would have to update the data with every zkanji release from just another source, and doing an update is painful even now…

  5. x4m
    June 9, 2011 at 8:49 pm

    Well, when i started studying Japanese, first step of course was to learn kana, then words written in kana, then words written in kanji. But since many words are made from up to 3-4 kanji, and usually very complex one, that idea was also dropped. So eventually i came with study method similar to that you use yourself. Simply started learning those basic N5 kanji one by one everyday (人「ひと」human,  一「いち」one,  一人「ひとり」one person, etc.) So the more kanji i know, the more combinations and words i can learn.
    And those basic kanji are mostly the ones used most frequently, aren’t they? And i really don’t see any point in delaying more complex but also frequent kanjis for much later. Yeah, they may look hard at first, but since you start learning them one by one, you simply get used to it.anyway, so it’s not such a big problem.

    The good point of zKanji is that this program let’s student to fully decide and follow any way of study he chose.
    There’s also possible make study groups and work with new or/and troublesome words as longs as you’ll manage to remember them in a middle of night.. Also there’s long term study to help you to keep track on your progress and also very clearly shows if your learning tempo matches your study rhythm. So it’s very nice, functional and useful program even how it is now.

    • June 9, 2011 at 11:41 pm

      >>And those basic kanji are mostly the ones used most frequently, aren’t they?

      There are many basic kanji that are frequent but also many other basic kanji that are not used at all, or only in rare cases. On the other hand there are kanji like 解, 優 etc. that look very complex (though after some studying we see them as simple ones as well) which are used extensively, even if some are only used in a few words, but those words are frequent.

      >>And i really don’t see any point in delaying more complex but also frequent kanjis for much later.

      I don’t want to delay kanji just because they are complex if they are important. Showing 3-4 other kanji with 10-20 words (if those words are important enough) won’t hurt an advanced learner and can only help beginners with building up their complex kanjis. This way everyone would win. But as I wrote above, if someone wanted to learn words in the order of their frequency independent of anything else, I will make it possible as well.

      >>The good point of zKanji is that this program let’s student to fully decide and follow any way of study he chose.

      From my experience people don’t like programs that don’t do anything and everything to make life easier, and not everyone knows what they want to study. So giving them a list like words from the JLPT might help them. It won’t be a feature you can’t turn off. I plan to have the program ask when you first start up the long-term study list whether you want to study from a pre-made list (at first only the different JLPT levels will be offered) or not. And also you will be able to import lists in any order later.

      At list this is the plan! (Right after I got away from reading the latest Haruhi novels…)

  6. Alex
    June 22, 2011 at 6:01 pm

    well one good way to learn I’ve found out when I learned other languages was that sorting words and in this case Kanji by groups of meaning. When I learned to speak english fluently by age 13 even though there were words I didn’t know because they were rarely spoken by anyone, I used the method of having groups of things that could help you learn words like animals, nature, numbers and so on. It’s a simple way of learning even the hardest words even though Kanji in most cases has different readings wheter it’s chinese reading or japanese reading it should be a fairly good idea to learn Kanji first by Context like colours.

    Verbs is also a very hard part in all languages that is a thing that must be learned to be able to see context in a sentence. Lists of predefined lists like verbs, animals and a lot of other categories are one of the best ways to learn. In short frequency doesn’t matter while learning words then wordings and at last sentences is probably the best way to learn.

    But to be honest taking language courses is probably the best way, but otherwise simplicity first words by subject how to make sentences out of words and then sentence reading simple things to do and one can see ones progress faster. Slow in the beginning but will be faster in the end. But stroke order for Kanji could be quite good and by radicals sounds like a must.

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