A while back I stumbled across a great website by the name of Tower of Babelfish. Their front page has a bunch of pictures of fugus, so that in itself is enough to make them awesome in my book. Anyway, the guy running the show over there is on an eight year (and counting) journey to gain fluency in German, Italian, French, and Russian.
On his site he shares strategies to help people reach their language goals quickly, efficiently, and effectively. He also does his best to help people avoid potential pitfalls along the way. Even though he’s not studying Japanese, we can still apply some of the basic principles discussed on the site to our studies of Japanese.
Learning Japanese With Pictures
One of the practices he mentions, which I think is particularly useful (especially for the beginner), is making an Anki (see review here) deck of 400 some base vocabulary words using only pictures and the Japanese word for what’s in the picture. Of course one can do more than the 400, but I think it’s a solid start.
This assists the learner in learning the Japanese word for the thing depicted in the photo instead of having the learner learn the Japanese word for the English word that corresponds to the thing. You know what I mean? It’s like cutting out the middleman. Just look at the above picture if the verbal description isn’t doing it for you. And that base vocabulary list can be found here.
This concept is kind of similar to the approach Rosetta Stone takes to learning a language. However, we don’t like Rosetta Stone very much. So why do I like this idea? Well, I think Rosetta Stone can be fine as a supplement, but I don’t really like it as the sole means of learning. Also, you’re doing everything yourself so it’s totally customizable and tailored to your specific needs and interests since you’re the one making it. Plus, this do-it-yourself Anki method is totally free, unlike Rosetta Stone, which is not. Free is good.
Pronunciation is Key
So how does this process work? Well, for the absolute beginner, the most important thing to do is get the pronunciation of Japanese down pat. That way, you won’t be ingraining bad habits into your headbrain when studying these cards. The best way to start perfecting your pronunciation is to learn hiragana and katakana, and become familiar with how Japanese should sound. There’s lots of things you can do to achieve this, many of which take little to no effort at all.
Translations and Images
The next step is to translate the words from the above mentioned list into Japanese. To start, you’ll want to find yourself a reliable online dictionary such as Jisho.org. You can then put in the English words, figure out what the Japanese equivalent is, and start putting this information into Anki.
Along with this step, you’ll want to check your translations by making good use of Google Images. You should take the Japanese word you came up with and put it into a Google Image search and make sure that the images correspond to the word you’re trying to translate. If all is well, you can pick your favorite picture, save it, and use that as the other half to your Anki card. You’ll have the Japanese on one side and the picture on the other.
Another thing I think is helpful that isn’t mentioned on Tower of Babelfish is adding audio to the Anki cards. Especially if you’re still getting used to the pronunciation, this can be incredibly helpful. I think one of the easiest ways to do this is by going to Forvo.com and searching for the word you want pronounced.
Forvo has native speakers pronouncing individual words that you can download mp3 files of straight from the site. It can be a bit tricky finding words in Japanese because of romaji and all, but I think it’s worth the search.
Putting it All Together
Once you have the Japanese translation, the audio file of it, and the picture, you can complete your Anki set. The audio file and the word itself go on one side of the card, and the photo goes on the other. Be sure to create two cards for each word so that when you’re studying you can go from word to picture and from picture to word. That way you can make sure you’re able to come up with the word on your own and also recognize it when it is read or said aloud. This will be super helpful.
For Advanced Learners
Like I said, the base vocabulary word list up there is a great place to start. However, you can use this same method with any words or phrases that are easily depicted by a picture. So even if you’re an advanced learner, you can still use this method to learn new words and phrases. It might be a bit tricky to find a good picture for something like influenza (is it a picture of sneezing? A cold? Allergies?) but you can see what works best for you.
It’s also important to branch out into word groups that interest you. Are you playing Japanese video games? Learn words like shield, sword, potion, and magic. Are you interested in Japanese politics? Learn words like parliament, republican, government, and representative. The best part about this is that you can tailor these cards to fit your needs and interests and make sure that the words you learn are actually relevant to you.
The important part of this method is getting yourself actually fluent in Japanese, and not just translating things in your head all the time. You’ll train your brain to see a dog and think, “Inu,” not see a dog and think, “Okay, that’s a dog and the Japanese word for dog is, uhm… inu. Okay, yeah, inu.” It helps you become a lot faster with the language.
I think this method is a great supplement, but not all words and phrases will work. Also, not everyone enjoys learning this way, and no one method works best for all. That being said, I still think this method can be really helpful. You’ll just have to try it out and see how it works for you!
So, do any of you have experience learning Japanese (or any other language) this way? How has it worked for you? Do you like it? Or if you haven’t tried it, do you think it’s a good idea? How would you make it better? Let us know down in the comments!