When I was travelling to work on the subway in Japan, I often saw high school students studying on the train, on their way to school. And when I peeked over their shoulder, they always seemed to be studying the same thing: English vocabulary. Specifically, English verbs.
The vocab book had about 10 or 12 verbs on each page. Each entry had the definition in Japanese, and an example sentence in English. The students made use of a sheet of ruby-coloured translucent plastic which they would move down the page as they read, uncovering the verbs one at a time.
A number of things struck me.
First, that the vocabulary they were studying seemed extremely advanced (and extremely random). A typical page might include words like (and I am making this up because I can’t remember specific examples):
vindicate, overpower, intervene, culminate, becalm, entreat…
Second, that it seemed like an extraordinarily ineffective way of learning a language. Learning long lists of words and their meanings is very difficult, and does not really equip you to use the words in context. And I know this because…
Third, this is exactly how I studied Japanese for my JLPT exams. My Japanese vocabulary books were an exact mirror image of the English vocab books the Japanese high school students were studying on the train. A Japanese word, the English definition, and one or more sample sentences; 10 per page. Week after week, month after month, I would try to cram 10 new vocabulary items every night. But they never became “real” for me until I later read them or heard them in the context of real-life spoken or written Japanese. The vocabulary I was learning was far in advance of my actual ability to speak Japanese, and was focused entirely on the requirements of the exams.
The same was true of the grammar books; 4 “grammar points” per day that I had never encountered in real life but needed to know for the exam.
Was it useful? Certainly, it was not a waste of time. It built up a very solid foundation of passive theoretical knowledge which could later be “activated” as my “real” level of ability, lagging far behind, caught up to the point where I might understand or use some word or grammar point that I had memorised for the exam. Each subsequent encounter, in context, reinforces the knowledge.
Was it the best way to learn Japanese? I would say not. There is a place for rote learning, but it needs to be balanced with exposure to the language as it is actually used. After the exam in December, I put away the books and changed my focus to a more natural way of learning, which included private one-to-one conversation lessons as well as reading Japanese texts. This proved very effective. But part of the reason it was effective was that I had already learned a lot of vocabulary and grammar.
One thing I would warn well-meaning teachers (and writers of textbooks). If you tell a student “here are two similar words; make sure you don’t confuse them”, the one thing you can guarantee is that the student will be hopelessly confused between those words for years, if not for life.
For example, if a student comes across the words amido (a screen door, for keeping out mosquitoes) and amado (a storm door or shutter) for the first time, on the same page of the vocabulary book, they will find it very difficult ever to remember which is which unless they can come up with some trick or mnemonic to distinguish them.
- gurasu means a glass (a drinking vessel) while garasu means glass (the material). I’m pretty sure (but not 100% sure) I got that the right way around this time!
- airon means an iron (for ironing clothes), while aiyan means iron (the material). For years I could never remember which was which, and could not use either with confidence. Only recently, when the film Iron Man (AiyanMan) came out, was I able to remember.
- In Lithuanian, šaltas means “cold” and šiltas means “warm”. Good luck remembering which is which. (It helps if you think that šaltas is cognate with German kalt.)
But if you were to first encounter those words separately, each in context, and learn them in that way, you would never confuse them.
Note on the word of the day:
The Japanese government maintains a list of “kanji for everyday use” that are supposed to be used in newspapers and so on. Following some recent modifications in 2010, the list now consists of 2,136 kanji characters.
In reality many well-known and fairly common kanji are not on the list. Most notably, the list includes relatively few of the characters for types of animals, fish, trees and other living things; some of which characters even I would be familiar with.
The word 語彙 goi meaning vocabulary includes a fairly obscure character 彙 which was not on the list until it was added in 2010. It was one of a batch of 196 characters that were added to the list at that time, while a few lesser-used characters were removed (a character for “spindle”, for example).
One of the characters that was added received a lot of media attention at the time: 鬱 utsu, meaning gloom or depression, a character of great complexity, written with 29 strokes.