Japanese Sentences and the Best Ways to Study with Them Graduate from Japanese vocabulary drills and move forward

    The idea of using flashcards – or some kind of spaced repetition system – to study Japanese vocabulary words is probably common knowledge to you. However, most people don't know the next step: using flashcards to study Japanese sentences.

    Even if you're already studying Japanese sentence flashcards, there's a lot you can do to make it more effective, including patterns of study, where to find the best sentences, and more.

    There's a table of contents for you, but no matter who you are, I recommend you start reading from the beginning.

    Who Should Study with Japanese Sentences?

    three muscular students studying japanese sentences

    Not everyone should study with sentence flashcards. The difficulty of this method makes it inefficient for beginners. All that time looking up words, kanji, and grammar could be spent learning new things in an order that makes more sense for you.

    That said, it's time for me to immediately contradict myself.

    Beginner Students and Japanese Sentences

    If you're just starting to learn Japanese, studying with sentences doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Honestly, it's a waste of your time at this point. But there is an exception to this rule.

    I don't know what resource you're using to learn Japanese (what textbook, website, etc.), but whatever you're using, you'll hopefully run into simple sentences that are at or near your beginner level. Things like:

    パンを 食べるた  

    Or…

    わたしのペンです。

    For example sentences in materials you're using, absolutely add them to your flashcard deck (to learn more about doing this the right way, check out our guide on spaced repetition systems). However, studying sentences from a pre-made list is definitely a no-go.

    For beginners, I recommend adding no more than one new sentence per day to your SRS deck. More than that will get overwhelming, even if it feels like you can add more now.

    Intermediate Students and Japanese Sentences

    The "intermediate" level is when you should start getting more serious about studying using Japanese sentences. But the difficult part of this is knowing what "intermediate" means, since everyone seems to have a different definition. For the purposes of the "studying with sentences" study method, I'd say you should:

    1. Have gone through a beginner textbook like Genki
    2. Know around 300+ common kanji
    3. Know around 1,000+ common vocabulary words. If you're using WaniKani, that's around level 10.

    Think of it this way: as you work through a sentence to "learn" it (more on that below) you shouldn't need to look up more than 50% of the vocabulary. There are a few reasons for this.

    The "intermediate" level is when you should start getting more serious about studying using Japanese sentences. But the difficult part of this is knowing what "intermediate" means.

    • When you switch from reading a sentence to looking up word definitions, then back to the sentence, you lose focus. This is incredibly inefficient. This "context switching" takes up more time than the actual actions taking place. When you come back, you have to rebuild the context of the entire sentence and refocus.
    • Context switching chips away at both motivation and willpower. Both are finite resources, and it's better to use them on other things that will get you more progress.
    • Ideally, you only want to add a bit of new information to your brain per item (sentence). If 90% of the sentence is new information, there's no way you're going to retain much of anything. But if the new information is more like 20–30% there's a better chance you'll acquire and use it later. Try baby steps; only add small amounts at a time.

    Even intermediate students should be picky about where they get their sentences. I'd still recommend using your textbook to harvest. Sentences from other resources are fine too, but you definitely shouldn't be importing pre-made lists to your study deck.

    Pick and choose so each sentence only adds "+1" knowledge at a time. If you do that, you'll make constant progress and get out of that nasty intermediate plateau that plagues so many people at this level.

    I recommend adding no more than three sentences to your deck per day at the intermediate stage. That's over 1,000 sentences in a year, which is more than enough. You need to continue studying kanji, vocabulary, and grammar in addition to sentences, after all.

    Advanced Students and Japanese Sentences

    Advanced students get more freedom. At this level, you should transition from mostly vocabulary to mostly sentences. This will happen naturally as you progress. Words will become boring, you'll be familiar with 90% of the grammar used in everyday Japanese, and you'll understand more of each sentence. If you don't understand part of the sentence, you're probably pretty good at figuring it out and looking things up.

    At this point, you're allowed to use pre-made sentence lists. You can and should continue to pick and choose sentences to study though. Choosing your own sentences is better than pre-made sentence lists.

    Make sentences a bigger part of your Japanese study. I recommend adding five new sentences to your deck per day. That's 1,825 sentences per year. Since you're adding more sentences now, it becomes even more important to have a good system for adding sentences to your pile.

    Develop a kind of Pavlovian response: you see a sentence, then add it to your deck, or jot it in a notebook immediately to add to your deck later. This will be key, otherwise you'll be stuck with pre-made lists and decks (which are okay, but still not as good as personally added, artisanal sentences).

    How to Study with Japanese Sentences

    a strong man teaching japanese sentences

    You've got your sentence deck built precisely for your level. Great! But you can't just start looking at your sentence flashcards however you want and hope to make any progress. There are certain methods of study that are more efficient (and thus better) than others.

    First off, you should study Japanese sentences using a spaced repetition system. Pick the system you like, and make sure you're adding sentences on a regular basis.

    This, as I mentioned in the "advanced" section, is possibly more important than the actual sentences themselves. If you don't have an "if this then that" response to Japanese sentences that fit your level (meaning you put them into your deck automatically), there's no way you'll study sentences effectively.

    There are many pre-made sentence decks out there, but the difference between a curated one and one that someone else made is night and day.

    That said, once you have a system to get sentences added to your deck, I want you to think about a few more things.

    Defining a "Correct Answer"

    With vocabulary words, it's easier to define what is correct and what is not. With sentences, there is more information and more complexity. It's not simply a word-to-word relationship.

    Now we have many pieces of information, many relationships between the pieces of information, and more ways to interpret those relationships.

    What I'm saying is: there is more than one way to translate a sentence. Not "knowing" a sentence 100%, doesn't mean you aren't learning.

    With vocabulary words, it's easier to define what is correct and what is not. With sentences, there is more information and more complexity. It's not simply a word-to-word relationship.

    With sentences, you should consider 70–80% understanding as "correct." The time it takes to understand a sentence from 80% correct to 100% correct is quite large. You're picking up on minute pieces of information, which is fine if you're at an advanced level.

    But for most Japanese learners, the understanding of a sentence up to 80% correct will contain a lot of new information. This information will depict the bigger picture (and will be more useful at beginner, intermediate, and low-advanced levels).

    Instead of spending a bunch of time getting to 100%, spend it understanding a few more sentences to 80%. You'll learn more and make more progress. Focus on quantity, not quality.

    "Learning" the Sentence

    There are three or four types of sentences you'll come across, and they all require slightly different actions.

    1. I know pretty much everything: For sentences where you know pretty much all the kanji, vocabulary, and grammar, you can go ahead and add them to your deck. If there's still a small amount of new information for you to learn, this is the best kind of sentence.
    2. I know 80–90%: When you know most of the kanji, vocabulary, and grammar in a sentence, you can still add it to your deck. But you should look up anything you don't know and also add it to your deck. It's not a lot of new information, so you should study the words and the sentence together.
    3. I know less than 80%: For sentences like this, move them to a spreadsheet or other doc for later. You need to break this sentence up and learn the individual parts (words, kanji, grammar) first. Add these parts to your SRS, practice them for a while, then revisit this list of "not quite ready yet sentences" from time to time to see if any of them moved up to 80–90%. When they are, you can add them to your deck.
    4. I know less than 50%: This sentence isn't worth your time (right now). You can add these to your "not ready yet" spreadsheet, if you want, or you can skip them and find other sentences. It will depend on how close to 50% you are and how much you like the sentence. If it's much less than 50% though, I'd just throw it out.

    Japanese-to-English Sentences

    When you do add a sentence to your deck, there are some best practices.

    Start out with a Japanese-to-English testing scheme. That is, you see the Japanese on one side of the card, and try to produce the English.

    This, for many reasons, is a lot easier than English-to-Japanese, though it's not quite as useful (and not as close to actually speaking Japanese). But it's very hard to jump straight into English-to-Japanese, so this step will get you there.

    Shoot for 80% understanding, and mark it good if you pass.

    English-to-Japanese Sentences

    When you've been tested on a Japanese-to-English card a bunch of times and feel like you know it well, it's time to add a version of this sentence to your English-to-Japanese deck.

    This means making a copy of the card. Don't just edit your current Japanese-to-English sentence card to make it English-to-Japanese. That's already on its own spaced repetition schedule, which won't match where the new version should be.

    Studying an English-to-Japanese sentence means you see an English sentence, then you have to say it in Japanese, preferably out loud. After you do your review and view the answer, play the audio and check your pronunciation, trying to mimic the pitch accents and tones.

    Before, with English-to-Japanese we shot for 80% accuracy. With Japanese-to-English you need to be more strict. You know English pretty well, after all. But you are learning Japanese. You'll need to get it closer to 100% to mark it as correct.

    It's going to be difficult, but that's why you're doing Japanese-to-English first. You should be picky about what Japanese-to-English cards you convert to English-to-Japanese cards. For example, these would be only cards where you can recall the answer without having to think about it. You're trying to take +1 step at a time, not +10.

    Where to Find Japanese Sentences to Study With

    woman looking for japanese sentences with binoculars

    Studying with Japanese sentences is great, but where do you find them? I've put together a list of suggestions, but it's up to you to pick and choose the sentences that are best for your level.

    Sentences with Translations

    When it comes to any resource that has a lot of sentences and a lot of translations of those sentences, there are going to be mistakes, weird translations, or stylistic choices you don't agree with. That's just how it is.

    But we're not shooting for 100% perfection when picking sentences to study. Any weirdness you encounter with one sentence will get fixed by ten others in the future, assuming you stick with it. Sentences are a numbers game. Learning ten sentences to absolute perfection is worth only a fraction of 100 sentences learned to 80 or 90%.

    Here are some places you can harvest sentences for your flashcard deck:

    If you have a Japanese textbook, there are going to be plenty of sentences in it. You should study those sentences like you study the vocab lists in your textbook.

    • Your Japanese textbook: If you have a Japanese textbook, there are going to be plenty of sentences in it. You should study those sentences like you study the vocab lists in your textbook.
    • Tatoeba.org: A database of Japanese sentences with translations. Look up a word and find sentences that contain that word. There are a lot of sentences here.
    • Jisho.org: Jisho gets most of its sentences from Tatoeba, but it's another way to search for sentences. Type in the word you want to search for, plus #sentence, and it will show results of sentences that use that word. For example 家族 #sentence would produce example sentences that contain the word 家族かぞく.
    • WaniKani's Context Sentences: WaniKani has context sentence(s) for each vocabulary word. They're technically just there to provide context on how to use a word, but they include translations and you can use them to study (for example, after burning a word on WaniKani would be a good time to look at its associated context sentences).
    • Anki Public Decks: You can search for public decks on Anki. A search for Japanese Sentences will provide a lot of results. My only concern is this makes it too easy to add cards to a sentence deck. You could end up with thousands of sentence cards you've never seen before, things you didn't curate for your level, so be sure to take it easy with this option.
    • Dictionary of Japanese Grammar Books: These books are stellar. You'll probably need them to look up grammar you don't know while studying with sentences. Whenever you look up a grammar point, grab a sentence or two from the explanation and add it to your deck (if it meets the requirements, anyway).
    • NHK News Web Easy: These are simplified news stories, originally intended for Japanese kids, but you can use them to study. There is a subreddit that translates them, which you can participate in or just grab translations from.
    • Video Game Scripts: These are the ones with both Japanese and English that were mentioned in our article, "What I Use to Study Japanese" - James from ALT Insider.

    Sentences You'll Need to Translate

    If we're talking about sentences you need to translate from Japanese to English… well, there are a lot of places to find those. You'll want to be at a more advanced level to do this though. Your translations don't have to be perfect, but they should be good. Until you reach that level, you may want to stick with the pile of translated options above.

    • Twitter: Follow (Japanese) people you like. Translate their tweets. Put them in your SRS deck.
    • Manga: A great place to harvest sentences. Depending on the manga, you'll find easier sentences (if it's for kids) or something a little closer to everyday Japanese (slice of life). Plus, you can have fun while doing it.
    • 4,500 Japanese Sentences: This is a workbook Tofugu made a while back. The goal for the user is to translate these sentences as quickly as possible, without worrying about being 100% correct. If you go through them quickly, you'll learn a little bit from each sentence. That's at least 4,500 steps forward you can take (and probably more). You'll still need to translate them to English for your own deck, but as you go through the sentences you can curate and choose which sentences are worth adding.
    • Drama/Anime Subtitles Files: With a little Google-fu, you can grab Japanese subtitle files, open them in a text editor, and look through them one sentence (line) at a time. With some more Google-fu, you may even find the English subtitles with matching timecodes too. It's fun, because you can study these sentences with the end goal of understanding a whole TV episode or movie.
    • ANYWHERE: This may seem like a cop out, but it's not. Japanese is everywhere if you look for it. As I said before, the most important thing is to build a system for yourself; one that makes it easy to add sentences to your deck, so you can study them. Do this and you'll find sentences to study with everywhere you go.

    You Should Study With Japanese Sentences

    young boy with one strong arm and one weak arm

    I hope this gets you excited about using sentences in your study. Vocabulary words are good too, but they're just the first step. If you don't get out of purely vocabulary-based study, you'll never move beyond that intermediate level of Japanese.

    Studying with sentences will be hard at first and you won't notice much progress in the beginning. But study with them daily, and after two or three months and you'll be looking back on a very different Japanese learner.

    The main thing is consistency. There is a lot of information in a sentence, which is already difficult to quantify. Multiply that by hundreds of sentences, and you're talking about a lot of information hitting your brain. You won't be ready for all of it, but every sentence you learn will prepare you for five other things. This will compound, and you'll be surprised at how fast you advance once it does.