There are a lot of ways to learn Japanese vocabulary. This is one of the times where I think a mix of self-study methods is better.

Textbooks

I started learning my vocabulary the old-fashioned way. Took some Japanese courses, didn’t do a lot of my homework, and then stammered in class when 先生 asked me a question. I don’t recommend this as a great method, but still, you do retain some things.

Genki I/II

Sure, there are lots of other textbooks out there, but these give you a great start in studying Japanese. Sure, the situations and vocabulary are a bit skewed towards academia (do I really need to immediately learn the Japanese word for graduate student?), but all in all the books do present a slice of Japanese life, at the time of their publication. 

Plus it has the ongoing soap opera of たけしさんとメアリーさん。What other Japanese textbook can claim that?

(There used to be freely available videos dramatizing this love saga. I can’t find them now, but in compensation, please enjoy this gem.)

Japanese For Busy People

I’ve used this textbook (volume 1) in a class. I don’t like it. Let me tell you why.

  1. Too much kana, not enough kanji. This is because of point 2.
  2. This is more like a recipe book than a resource for self-study. 

Why do I say a recipe book? Imagine a world where, instead of Japanese, you were learning cooking. Your first class, the teacher hands you a book of “Classic Recipes” and tells you to make the first one. Well, ok, the first one isn’t too difficult. Then three or four lessons down the line, a recipe tells you to add pepper to the recipe you learned on the first day. Let’s say that was a recipe for potato pie.

“Chef,” you say, “why am I adding pepper to this recipe?”

“Because it says so.”

“But everything else just how to make potato pie? Why are we adding pepper? What’s the purpose?”

“You are asking questions that don’t need to be answered, because if you follow this recipe, you will make an even better potato pie, except it’s now potato pie plus!”

Still, if you want a bunch of recipes that don’t need too much critical thinking, this might be the book for you! I don’t know if they still publish the 100% romaji edition (shudder), but I bet that would save you even more time!

Still, you will get a decent amount of vocabulary out of this, and fewer words like “international transfer student”.

Apps

There is really only one app worth mentioning…

Anki

…, and it is, of course, Anki. Not just for Japanese learners, it’s an SRS system for just about anybody. 

There is a repository of flash cards, and you pick the ones you want to add to your study collection. And then you study them.

But these aren’t boring, like those Flash cards you write down on index cards and get all slick and sweaty from reuse. No, these are digital, so you get cool things like pictures and audio.

There are other apps, of course. If you really wanted to nail Genki vocabulary down, Japan Times has an app for you.

But really. Just get and use Anki.

Hmm, maybe my biases mean there are fewer choices here? Oh well…

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