One of the things I've learned about learning a language over the years is that association in memory is a very (very) powerful tool. Memories are almost always learned best when you associate them with another already learned memory. So, if you can attach a new memory to an old one, then the effectiveness of your memorization will go up by quite a bit. This is why there are radicals and mnemonics in WaniKani… association is a very powerful tool.
That being said, there are other types of associations as well. You can connect two new memories together and learn them at the same time as a sort of "set." If you do this, it becomes easier to memorize this group of things because they are connected to each other in some way. For example, take a look at these sets:
- Jack & Jill
- Dog & Cat
- Sun & Moon
- Mac & PC
- Good & Bad/Evil
The list, of course, goes on and on. Just going through this, there should be a couple of things you should have noticed. 1) These pairs go together. If you hear one side, the other side isn't too far away in your brain. Maybe it came up automatically without you even trying. 2) A lot of these are opposites of each other, or antonyms. They pair because they are opposites, not because they are similar or the same. I think this association is easier than say "cool and cold." "Hot and cold" is much easier to remember.
If you were to learn pairs like these, I don't think it would necessarily be easier to learn "Jack & Jill" compared to just "Jack" or "Jill." That being said, if you had to learn both "Jack" and "Jill" anyways, the existing association will make it so it's not twice as difficult to learn (since there are twice as many items to learn, two instead of one). Instead, I'm guessing it's about 1.5x as difficult to learn, which is a savings of 50%. Assuming this, learning items in pairs like this can be a powerful memory (and time-saving) tool.
Studying With Japanese Antonyms (Hantaigo & Taigigo)
Let's try to put this idea into practice now. Talking about it is one thing, doing it is another. Depending on your level of Japanese, this will either be somewhat challenging or downright difficult. You'll have to gauge all that on your own, though I think everyone can at least get something out of this.
Hantaigo and taigigo are the Japanese words for "antonym." I'll continue to use those terms going forward, so try to remember them. First thing you'll want to do is go through this list. It's fairly long, but I promise you these lists get way longer. I went through a couple thousand pairs and picked out the ones that were going to be more useful, and put them in the list below. That being said, there are much bigger lists out there, such as this one. If you're finding this exercise way too easy, you should probably head on over to the bigger list (though this one is pretty big too, I think).
The first step is a painful one. Copy/Paste (or print out) this list somewhere where you can make highlights on it. Evernote would work well. Then, go through the list and highlight the words you know. Some of them will have only one side highlighted. Others will have both sides (nice, complete!). Still others will have nothing highlighted at all.
The next step will be to find the ones where both sides are highlighted. Good job! Then, find the ones with only one side highlighted. These are the ones you should focus on next. Put them into an Anki deck (or preferred flash card system) and learn them as a pair. Perhaps have one side with the Japanese + Reading + Meaning of one word, then the antonym Japanese + Reading + Meaning on the other. Remember, the point is to create associations. This group of words will be the most important and the easiest to learn. It is also the most effective part of this exercise.
After you've done that, it's time to look at the ones you don't know at all. Don't worry about them. Come back to this list often to see what new words you've learned, then learn the other-side pair that will complete the set. This works best when you know one side already, not as well when you have to learn both sides of a pair at the same time.
Alright, have fun going through this list! I think you'll know more than you think you know. If you're having trouble reading things, use something like rikaichan/rikaikun to get the readings and meanings of things you don't know.
More That You Can Learn From Japanese Antonyms
When you go through these, there are a couple of patterns that become really apparent. There are some obvious ones, like how when you see a 不 or 無, it’s likely to mean the opposite of whatever comes after the 不 or 無. Then there are other kanji that act in a similar way as well, like how 悪 will refer to bad things, and oftentimes the counterpart will be 良 or 善, though the kanji that comes after will remain the same. Studying in opposites will help you to discover patterns like these, and these patterns will help you to make associations, which will help you to learn vocabulary more easily and effectively over the long term.
Studying these hantaigo/taigigo also give you some insight as to what actually are opposites in Japanese. For example, the opposite of "Japan" (or 和, there's a whole crazy history on how this kanji came to represent Japan, if you’re interested) is 洋, which represents “the West.” That being said, occasionally the opposite of 和 will be 漢, which represents China. It’s interesting to see what words use what antonym kanji, depending on the word.
You’ll also find that you will begin to learn opposite kanji. While the above are words or things you stick onto words, the more you look at vocab this way the more you’ll notice that kanji will have common counterparts as well. Even if you don’t know a word all the way, when you see the 有 kanji, you’ll know that you “have” something, and the opposite is probably going be 無, where you don’t have something. This list goes on and on, and the only way to understand it is to experience a lot of vocabulary. The more you know, the easier things will get.
And, of course, beyond the patterns there is a lot more to learn as well. If a useful word has an antonym, it will surely be useful too, even if it’s not as useful as its counterpart. Dogs can’t go without cats, and boys can’t go without girls. Just imagine if you learned only half of those at a time. How much easier would it be if you learned those pairs together? At least 1.5x easier, I’d say.
As I mentioned before, there are plenty of Japanese resources on hantaigo and taigigo. Here are some of the ones I looked at in order to put this list together:
- Hantaigo Jiten
- Hantaigo Database (now defunct)
Be sure to go beyond the list I provided, as it is just me going through thousands of hantaigo and picking out the ones that seemed useful. The list provided here is a start, but the rabbit hole does go much, much deeper should you wish it to do so.