A New Mnemonic Method For Learning Japanese Vocabulary

I’ve been brainstorming a new mnemonic method for learning Japanese vocabulary. I could use some help to finish it up. Many of you are already familiar with using kanji radicals to make story mnemonics to learn a kanji's meaning and reading (i.e. how WaniKani does it). So hopefully you are already sold on the idea of mnemonics and I won't have to try and convert you here. Learning kanji with mnemonics is faster, easier, and the best method that anyone's figured out (so far). You should use mnemonics to learn kanji if you aren't already.

Learning vocabulary using mnemonics, on the other hand, isn't quite as figured out.

In WaniKani, to learn vocabulary, you use your knowledge of the associated kanji to help you to recall the meaning and reading of a vocabulary word. This works fairly well most (or some?) of the time. But vocabulary (especially the ones that use the kun'yomi reading) can sometimes be so separate from what you learned with the kanji that any attempt to associate them with a mnemonic is useless. So instead, WaniKani gives you a separate mnemonic. Other words, especially jukugo words (combination kanji) have pretty good mnemonics. You just combine the meanings of the 2+ kanji and a word's meaning is formed. Usually it makes sense, too. The readings are usually easy as well, since WaniKani tends to teach you the on'yomi readings of the kanji (and jukugo words usually use the on'yomi readings). tl;dr it's a mixed bag. Sometimes vocab mnemonics work, other times they don't.

Outside of WaniKani / other kanji mnemonic methods, learning vocabulary gets even more difficult. It's mostly a repetitive and rote experience. One way to get around this is to pun every word you learn. For example, 食べる → “Tabe”, which sounds like the beginning of “Table” → You EAT on a table → Word means “To Eat.” This example makes this method seem really effective. But, there are a lot of words that just don't want to be punned like this. Coming up with good-ish puns as mnemonics for words will get difficult very quickly, though in theory it would be easier than rote memorization. Still, most people just remember with repetition. This works but it is slow and boring.

So I've been thinking of a new mnemonic method, just for vocabulary. It ignores kanji, which means anyone could use method regardless of level (as long as they know hiragana). It can also be used at the same time as a kanji mnemonic method too, with minimal overlap (Maybe, I think...).

But, my system isn't complete yet. I'd peg it at 80%. That last 20% is always the toughest, right? You're smart. I was hoping you could help me a little. Maybe test the method out. Or, tell me all the problems I haven't thought of yet.

A little disclaimer. If you give me any good ideas I might use them. In exchange, you can feel free to enjoy and use this idea. I hope it does good things for your Japanese and doesn't ruin your life forever.

“Kana AVO”

Kana AVO Spreadsheet

At the moment I’m calling this mnemonic method “Kana AVO.” What a terrible name. I hope to come up with a less terrible name someday, but knowing my luck this will stick. Here's the meaning behind the name:

Kana: It uses kana as the basis. Hiragana, specifically, though in theory you could use katakana as well. The sounds are the important part.

AVO: Each kana has three words associated with it.

  1. A noun with animacy (an animated thing, like a person, an animal, a robot, etc).
  2. A verb (something the animated thing does).
  3. An object (a noun that’s not animated, like a clock, or a cup or something).

The first step is to memorize the three words that are associated with each kana. In general this is pretty easy, since I made sure that the beginning of each word shares the sound that the kana makes. Some examples:

= Aardvark (animated thing), Applauding (verb), Airplane (object)

= Taxi Driver, Tazing, Tacos

= Bear, Begging, Bell

= Ruffian, Rubbing, Ruby

To use this method, the learner would go through each kana and imagine the story that is created from the three words. For あ, you would imagine an aardvark applauding at an airplane. That’s a pretty easy image to create in your mind’s eye, I think. Then, when you see あ, you’d only have to recall one of those, because they’d all be associated with each other. If you need to recall あ’s words, you might think… “hmm, I remember there was an airplane. Oh that’s right, an aardvark was applauding the airplane.” And then you’d remember "aardvark applauding airplane." With enough practice these associations would become second nature. Perhaps the learner could create flashcards to drill these associations for a little while, though I think many could be memorized by going through them a few times.

Memorizing Japanese Vocabulary

Let’s go back to my favorite example word, 食べる (たべる). Say you’re learning this word, and need to remember its meaning. Using the Kana AVO system, you would break the word up as follows.

た: Since it’s the first kana in the word べる, you would take the first word from the た associated words. In this case that’s “Taxi Driver.”

べ: Since it’s the second kana in the word たる, you would take the second word from the べ associated words. That’s “Begging.”

る: Since it’s the third kana in the word たべ, you would take the third word from the る associated words. That’s Ruby.

↑ With る, I'm debating on whether or not you would include this. You'd have to come up with some kind of consistent method. Maybe with the group 2 verbs that end with る (食べる, 出る, etc), whose stem form is the entire word minus る, you would omit it. But with the type 1 verbs that end with some other う-kana (行く, 遊ぶ, etc) you would include it. More thought and testing needs to be put into things like this.


Let's omit the る on たべる. That gives us:

た: Taxi Driver

べ: Begging

Now you would create a story using these two words and imagine it in your mind’s eye. You could say:

A taxi driver is begging. He is begging to me for food, because he wants to eat.

Now when you are prompted by the characters た and べ, you will recall the story of the taxi driver begging. Of course, there is much that can be done to make the mnemonic itself stronger. You could imagine yourself holding a Big Mac, and forcing the taxi driver to beg harder. You could smell the taxi driver. You could touch the inside of his mouth and say "how does that taste? Want to eat?" All manner of terrible things could be done in your imagination to help you to remember the meaning of the word たべる while using a begging taxi driver. But, that's the basics of this method.

Let's do a couple more examples. I literally just came up with these on the spot, so it's hard to say if they're examples that realistically show the potential of this method or not.

あそぶ (To Play)

あ: Aardvark Applauding Airplanes

そ: Sorcerer Sobbing at Soccer Ball

ぶ: Butler Burning Burger

With this we get: Aardvark Sobbing at Burger, because we take the first word from the first kana, the second word from the second kana, and the third word from the third kana.

An aardvark is sobbing at a burger. "Why won't you play with me?!" the aardvark screams. It pokes at the burger, trying to get it to play.

Now when you are prompted with an aardvark sobbing at a burger, you remember that the aardvark is sobbing at the burger because he wants to play.

まぼろし (Illusion)

How about a word with more than three kana. What do you do then? This needs more testing, but I imagine you would just start back at the beginning. So you have:

ま: Magician Massaging Manga

ぼ: Boar Boiling Bowling Ball

ろ: Robocop Robbing Roadkill

し: Shiba-inu Shining a Shipwreck

So that makes Magician Boiling Roadkill Shiba-inu. Quite the story right there. For し, I just wrapped around. Since it would take the 4th item in associated words, I just went through the first three and came right back around to the beginning for the fourth.

You come across a magician boiling a roadkill shiba-inu. He invites you to dine with him. After he finishes boiling the roadkill shiba-inu, he serves you your food. As you bring your fork down to poke some boiled shiba-inu, you realize your fork is going right through the meat. It was all an illusion after all! And you were so hungry, and it smelled so good! You feel peeved at the magician for tricking you like this. You go to punch him, but he was an illusion as well.

I wonder how this would work with 5, or even 6 kana words. That being said, I think that will be pretty rare, especially if you use dictionary form for your verbs.

Note: As with all mnemonics, they are only temporary. So, you would be using these to help you to remember words you can't remember off the top of your head. The stories are just tools to assist with recall. If you recall a vocab word enough times (using the mnemonics or not), neural pathways will get stronger to these words. Eventually you will throw away the mnemonic and be able to recall the word fluently. But, this method will let you memorize a lot of words very quickly. Drilling them with your favorite SRS is still going to be important, but with this you can add more words to your SRS every day without getting overwhelmed. Plus, you'll be able to remember the meanings of words without looking them up, as long as you've done a story with that word. That's the idea anyways.


Problems With Kana AVO

Photo by Sylvain Moreau

Here's a big list of problems that I’m trying to work out. Let me know if you have any ideas for any of them.

1. Short words:

For example, if you need to remember ある’s you have "aardvark rubbing." That's a tough set of words to make mnemonics with. And what about 見る? If we follow the rules set above, we would drop the る, and then all you'd be left with is the word "Milkman." I guess you could say "I see the milkman" or "the milkman sees you" to get to "to see" but I foresee some issues caused by short words. Maybe the answer for a lot of these is just "deal with it, dawg." There aren't that many short words. A majority of the words are going to be 2-3 kana long.

2. Long words:

The earlier example with まぼろし worked pretty well. But, I think this needs to be tested a lot more to find out whether or not it works most of the time. Four kana words seem to make sense, at least. But what about five kana words? Six kana words? These are going to be pretty rare, but it's something worth considering.

3. Cutting Or Keeping The Ends of Adjectives & Verbs:

Do you include the last character of a group 2 verb, even though it's always going to be る? What about group 1 verbs (I think the answer is to keep group 1 verbs whole and cut the る for group 2 verbs, but maybe you see something I don't). Then you have する verbs... and irregular verbs... And what about the い in an い adjective? I would say cut it, because it's always there and keeping it will just give you a ton of stories that end with iguana, invading, or igloo. Dropping the い may cause new problems that I'm not thinking of, though.

4. What to do with small っ?

I haven’t figured this one out yet. I am tempted to say you just drop it when creating the mnemonic, so いっぱい would be “Iguana Panfrying Igloos.” Of course, if you have a word that becomes another word when you drop the small っ, that's trouble. For example there's the words じこ & じっこ, and かこ & かっこ. There are many more than this, too. But, perhaps it happens infrequently enough to be worth it. Adding something new just for a small っ seems like more net work than dropping it creates.

5. Does this work with English→Japanese?

This method is made mostly to help people remember the meaning of a Japanese word (so that's Japanese→English). Does it work the other way around? Should it work the other way around? I'm going to just say... "in theory it should, I guess?"

6. What do you do with small ゃ, ゅ, and ょ?

Perhaps combination kana like きゃ, みょ, じゃ, etc., need their own sets of associated words. That being said, the reason I didn't do this was because it's so damn hard to come up with enough words that fit the kana. How do you come up with words that sound like きゃ when you have か words already? You could say "Character" but is this きゃ or か? I don't know. Maybe there's another way. I'm not sure if dropping the ゃ/ゅ/ょ is going to work as well as dropping the っ.

7. Some Association words just suck and I don’t know what to do about it:

In the spreadsheet below, I’ve yellowed the ones I don’t like. There aren’t that many verbs that start with a ず sound, though. Perhaps some words can have “exceptions that don't really sound like the kana” because “zooming” isn’t all that memorable and I’d rather have something better. I'd rather have someone have to deal with memorizing a weird mnemonic once than having to memorize a bunch of words using the verb "zooming" which is hard to visualize.

8. Some association words just don’t exist yet!

What’s a good animated noun that starts with a ざ sound that everyone will know AND is very imaginable? I don't know! What about an object that starts with a ぞ sound? Those are the two I haven’t come up with yet. They are marked in red.

9. What in the world do I do with ん?

I haven't thought of any good ideas yet.

10. Some things I haven’t thought of:

There’s probably a bunch of these. What have I totally missed the boat on? Tell me why this won't work.

Can You Help?

I made a public spreadsheet of Kana AVO’s mnemonic words. You can view it in all its inglory here: The Kana AVO Spreadsheet

Yellow = I don’t like the word and would rather have a better word.
Red = I don’t have a word.
? = I haven’t decided what to do here.

What do you think? Would you mind testing it out a little bit? Tell me what problems you run into. Or, tell me what you think will break. Anything, please! This project is too big for me to wrap my head around alone, at least in a very short amount of time.

I’ve posted this article on the LearnJapanese subreddit, hoping to get some feedback. That's a great place to leave long feedback. Or, you can tell me on Twitter: @mechakoichi.

<3 you. Thank you.

Header Photo: takako tominaga