Japanese and French: goals and progress

Some quick background info: My language-learning goals include achieving native proficiency in Japanese and French, but the greatest obstacle for me is time. I’m currently a senior chemical engineering student, so time is scarce. I also work and have other responsibilities to attend to.

Several days ago I decided to begin using memory palaces to help boost my vocabulary in both languages. The basic idea can be summarized here:

The mnemonic images are a composite of two images, one for the semantic component and one for the phonetic component.

Current groups for French:
Nouns (objects)
Misc. nouns (not considered above): old Blockbuster, Reno
Verbs // starting palace: UNR DMS building, starting at the steps
Adjectives // starting palace: old Reno house, cul-de-sac
Adverbs // starting palace: Starbucks
Other connectors // starting palace: old Reno house, two-story
Expressions // starting palace: SM 64 level, Whomp’s Fortress

I’m working on making a similar list for Japanese.

I’m currently between semesters in school, so during this time I set the following goals:
50 words/day in French
25 words/day in Japanese (Japanese takes substantially more time than French because of the attention given to the characters.)
Come up with some sustainable routine that I can use during the upcoming semester.

Today I learned 50 words in French and over 25 words in Japanese.


Today’s progress:

I learned 50 words in French and over 25 words in Japanese, including the kanji. The memory palaces have been working beautifully–honestly much better than I was expecting. It seems like just the process of coming up with a mnemonic solidifies the word in memory without having to search for it.

I’ve been starting each study session by going through each palace, recalling all the words in order. After that, I use Anki to add more vocabulary and to naturalize the words that are already in a palace. Because French contains a lot of cognates, I think it’s more efficient to limit the use of memory palaces to words that are awkward. The cognates are basically free candy.

Some notes about Japanese:
I learned all the jouyou kanji about 8 months ago, but unfortunately due to school I haven’t been able to practice writing for quite a few months, which has caused my vocabulary and writing skills to atrophy. At my most proficient, I had a vocabulary of about 1,500 words, and I knew all the characters too.

My plan for Japanese right now is to go back over this deck and refresh all these words and their characters. So far this is going really well. I can still write all the characters, and the pronunciations are coming back pretty much immediately. In a few days I’m also going to start incorporating the “core 10,000 Japanese vocabulary” deck, which includes a lot of grammar and listening practice (at a normal native pace). All new words that I encounter here I’ll copy into a supplementary Anki deck that I’ll use for writing practice.

My biggest concern right now is just time. Studying today, for instance, took me two hours, and if I add more decks in the future, this time will definitely go up. It’s not a problem while I’m on break, but once next semester starts this may be impossible to maintain. I need to come up with some sort of balance.



Even though I haven’t posted for a few days, I’ve been maintaining my daily target of 50 words in French and 25 words in Japanese. I finished one of my French decks, so I moved on to another one: top 5,000 French words, presented in order of frequency. I was looking for a top 10,000, but I couldn’t find anything. My
French routine currently consists of Anki and Duolingo, which should (eventually) push me past the 5,000 word mark.

For Japanese, I’ve continued going through my old deck, refreshing old words while also adding new ones. And starting tomorrow I’m going to begin the core 10,000 Japanese vocabulary deck, which will further improve my vocabulary and listening skills.

I’ve also been getting a lot faster at forming mnemonic images, frequently pulling from my repertoire of phonemes from the Ben system. Here’s one example: 後退, koutai, meaning retreat or regression. For this I used the phoneme kOt from the Ben system, which is essentially an animated flying coat–an enemy from a video game. In the locus, the “coat” is flying backwards, which represents regression/retreat. Sometimes I’m also able to include radicals in the images, although priority is given to the pronunciations.

Current (approximate) word counts:
French: >1,000 words
Japanese: ~1,500 words, writing + recognition (with many words being very rusty)



I’m currently at ~1150 words in French and I’ve started the core 10,000 vocabulary deck for Japanese, which is going very well. It’s honestly a beautifully constructed deck. I’ve been running into a lot of cognates in French, so the need for mnemonics has been less over the past couple days. Basically, when I’m learning a new word in French I consider 3 possibilities: the word may be–for whatever reason–memorable to begin with, the word may be a cognate, or the word might be awkward and inherently less memorable. I’ve only been using mnemonics in this last case because I find that to be the most efficient.

Some examples (from part of my memory palace for verbs, which happens to be at the state university):

mener, to lead - Somebody leading around Mr Krabs with a dollar bill (money)
rapporter, to bring back - A rapper, rapping while moving backwards (bringing something back)
s’enfuir, to flee - A person, who’s on fire, running away
nettoyer, to clean up - A person cleaning up a pile of garbage using a large fishing net
manquer, to miss - Ross (from Friends) with a picture of his lost monkey. He really misses him.
réussir, to succeed - A business owner, pockets filled with cash, reusing a dirty trash bag and enjoying increased profits because of it
lancer, to throw - Somebody throwing a lance

And that’s the basic pattern behind all my images. When coming up with the phonetic part of the image I first try to brainstorm about multisyllabic words that would fit nicely, and if I can’t come up with something reasonably quickly, I use something monosyllabic from my Ben system phonemes. A couple examples:

rideau, curtain → rEd, redead (from the Legend of Zelda) - A redead wrapped up in a curtain, unable to move
baignoire, bathtub → ben, Bender (from Futurama) - Bender enjoying a nice bath

Current daily study time is 2 - 3 hours. If I can come up with a routine that only takes one hour, I think that would be sustainable throughout next semester (I hope).

edit I modified the penultimate example to fit better phonetically. Rideau (ʀido, IPA) fits better with rEd instead of rid. Although I was using rid before, I still pronounced it as ʀido. It was just the first thing that came to mind.


Update (Japanese):

The mnemonics have been working really well for pronunciations, but the written portion still poses a challenge. If my goal were to just learn vocabulary phonetically, then I’m sure I could double or even triple the number of words learned a day in the same amount of time. Everything that I’ve read though suggests that you can only achieve native proficiency with an intimate understanding of the characters, so that’s where I spend a lot of my time. Currently, these are two separate efforts (phonetic and written), but once I learn enough readings I should be able to merge them, at least somewhat.

Here are some examples of the mnemonics I’ve been using for Japanese:

試験 (shiken, exam) - shEk (Ben system), Sheik → Sheik (from The Legend of Zelda) taking an exam
発見 (hakken, to discover) - hok (Ben system), hawk → A hawk digging in the ground with its talons, uncovering a hidden crown
煙る (kemuri, to smoke/smolder) - kem (Ben system), chemistry → An Erlenmeyer flask emitting smoke
例外 (reigai, exception) - rAg (Ben system), ray gun → Four soldiers marching together, all with the same type of gun except for one, who has a ray gun
事実 (jijitsu, fact) - An ape doing jiu-jitsu (the ape representing evolution, a scientific fact)
展開 (tenkai, development/unfolding) - ten (Ben system), tent → Somebody unfolding and setting up a tent
失望 (shitsubou, disappointment) - A father being so disappointed in his son that he throws a sheet over his face so he doesn’t have to look at him
桜 (sakura, cherry tree) - sak (Ben system), sack → A cherry tree planted in a red sack

The phonemes don’t align perfectly–it’s a foreign language, so they really can’t–but they work well enough to recall the pronunciation without ambiguity. Also, for anybody curious, I used the Heisig method for learning the characters.


Hi I stumbled upon your post and want to share some insights I developed while studying foreign languages.
The biggest of these being - not actually “memorizing”.

I was raised bilingual, latter at school I was tough two more languages one of them being french.
To be honest I never picked up french. I could, kinda, read and comprehend spoken french because found analogies with other languages I knew, but speaking was something impossible. I always could not find the right worlds.

Also, I am always been a bit if an introvert, I always enjoyed being with myself and imagining different conversations with random people. At some point I stumbled at several interviews with Pasolini, although Pasolini is Italian in the interviews he spoke (a quite bad :slight_smile: ) french. I eventually ended up having some imaginary conversations with Pasolini, in french. I also watched more videos in french. Surprisingly after several weeks I was able to speak a decent french, which was quite far from native but it allowed to me to easily communicate with real french people and had dialogues of varying complexity.

The process of self-talk was actually not just dialogues, I tried to express an idea and if I failed I found a translation in google translate, or which turned out more effective, I just made a mental note like “in this context id do not know what to say”. Later while watching more french media and encountering someone in the as me context and trying to express the same concepts as I did I became more attentive remembered what I did not know.

The key here is not memorizing the biggest amount of words, but learning the absolute minimum to be able to comunicate and then, slowly building a functional language knowledge and having this process driven buy your self-talk and media you watch.

To be honest I am a bit skeptic of the classical way of learning languages, since it tends to focus on singular parts of a language like words. But language is very far from just words. Language is context. And people are quite good at remembering context. Also people are extremely good at remembering context when it is interesting to them. For example if you watch a stone faced idiot alike voiced actor in a “french learning” video saying to a, also ridiculously looking, women “Bonjour, sa va”. You just will be bored. Or maybe you will think something like “Oh…I should learn” and try to remember the thing. Or if you watch Pier Paolo Pasolini - one of the most influential figures if the 20th century saying “Bonjour, sa va”, well , this is much more grasping and the probability you remember and pay attention is much higher.

The bottom line is: you remember what you use and what is being used by others in interesting context, while having fun.

I also encountered a ted talk of Sid Efromovich which gives similar advice https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-WLHr1_EVtQ.

Good luck


What does native proficiency in Japanese mean for you?

This sort of self-talk that you describe is actually something that I’ve been doing a lot of over the past year. It may seem a little silly talking to yourself (especially for me, as I’m speaking audibly while studying in public), but I’ve found the practice to be invaluable. Like you said, it also gives me a chance to identify what I don’t know so I can fill in the gaps in specific contexts.

I understand what you’re saying, but I would have to add that a high level of proficiency in any language is not possible without a strong vocabulary, so if there’s a way to rapidly improve the acquisition of vocabulary I can only conclude that it must be a tremendously useful thing, assuming of course that retrieval is fluid.

I absolutely agree that the traditional methods for language learning, like those taught in universities, aren’t ideal. There are so many people I’ve spoken with who’ve taken years of a foreign language but can’t even hold a simple conversation. I could honestly write several pages just on the issues I have with the conventional teaching methods.

Absolutely true :slight_smile:

That’s a very fair question. I would define native proficiency as being able to read and write at a level comparable to that of a native high school graduate, knowing all the grammar, being able to communicate without hesitation (+ good pronunciation), and having a vocabulary of at least 10,000 words. 10,000 words seems to be the “target number” for native proficiency across multiple languages according to several sources I’ve come across.


Sounds like an ambitious target. I think it would be quite difficult to be able to do that without living in Japan. Maybe that’s in your plans :slight_smile:

There are only about 2,000 kanji that students learn through high school and most of what is written in newspapers has to be composed of these words. I don’t think many Japanese people know 10,000 kanji, though I guess many words are written in hiragana and katakana.

Good luck and I look forward to reading about your progress!


Oh yes, living in Japan is definitely on my list. My general study goal while still living here in the US is to build a solid language foundation so that the transition to living in Japan will be fairly easy, at least from a language standpoint. I don’t think achieving native proficiency in any language would be possible without living in the region. On that note, I plan to spend some time living in several different countries, ideally as part of my job. I’m studying chemical engineering and it’s not uncommon to have employees stationed overseas for project development (or so I’m told).

I don’t think so either. As you know though, a character doesn’t usually have a one-to-one correspondence with a word. While there are only 2,000 - 2,500 kanji in common use, these characters are used to make a number of words many (many) multiples more than this because of their occurrence in compounds, different readings, and the use of different okurigana. I can write over 2,200 characters myself, but knowing the readings and having vocabulary examples for each is quite different. :slight_smile:

Thank you. Unfortunately though, my progress will be fairly modest throughout 2019, but after I graduate in 2020 the pace will pick up drastically.


Good point :slight_smile:

Update + self-assessment:

I’ve reached well over 1,500 words in French, surpassing my word count for Japanese. In addition to mnemonics, I’ve also been using pattern recognition. For instance, in Spanish the word for homework, deberes, is derived from the verb deber (must/obligation). This is the same in French. You start with the corresponding verb, devoir, and then you take the plural nominal form, which yields devoirs.

Current strengths in French: vocabulary and pronunciation

Current weaknesses in French: irregular conjugations, remaining parts of grammar that I haven’t really worked on (subjunctive, conditional, and future), and some of the preposition uses

Japanese is a much slower pace. The kanji just make everything more complicated and time consuming. Progress is still there, but it’s radically slower than French. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like I’ll be able to meet the time demands for rapid progress in Japanese until after I graduate.


Update (Japanese):

Phonetically, Japanese vocabulary is going very well. The mnemonics have proven invaluable in this area, and even though my vocabulary has atrophied over this last semester, I’ve reached a proficiency with the words that I’ve reviewed that I’ve never had before. The mnemonics just make the pronunciation quick and unambiguous.

As for the characters, it’s going well overall. I can go from the characters to the pronunciation for all of my vocabulary, and I can write the characters for most words without hesitation. There are some though that still give me difficulty. Prompted by this, I decided to do some research about how proficient native Japanese speakers are at writing. It seems like, similar to in the US, actually writing things by hand in Japanese has become fairly anachronistic, and as it turns out a lot of Japanese people can’t write a lot of the common-use words themselves. Their recognition, however, is very good. I’m keeping this in mind now with my studies. While I still think writing is important, being able to perfectly produce all vocabulary in written form seems unnecessary.

For those interested, here’s a video showing Japanese people being quizzed on some common words.

edit Update for French:

So my vocabulary is currently > 1,600 (or possibly > 1,700). I’ve nearly exhausted all top 100/200/etc. lists for grammatical classes (adjectives, adverbs, etc.), and Duolingo is giving me new words at a pretty slow pace. I’m going though the “top 5,000 French vocabulary” deck, but it’s taking a long time to find words that I don’t know, which is expected because they go in order of frequency and I’ve only seen ~500 cards. Maybe I should delete the words I already know. All these extra cards are cluttering my reviews.

Plan: Reach at least 2,000 words before returning to school, continue with the top 5,000 deck and Dulingo until both are finished, then start on the 5,000 - 10,000 list while also drilling sentences with audio so that I can practice everything in context.


Reflection and plans for this semester:

Over the past week my study time has averaged about 3 hours. Because this won’t be sustainable throughout next semester I’m beginning the trimming process today, cutting back the number of daily words to about 25 for each language. In addition to taking less time to learn, the number of reviews will also go down substantially.

I’ve achieved my short-term goal for French, reaching a word count of around 2,000, which encompasses the majority of words that would be used on a daily basis. Japanese has been going well too, although it’s difficult to estimate a word count with the atrophy of my old vocabulary list along with the addition of new words. I might be around 1,600.

This whole approach of using mnemonics and organizing them according to grammatical class has been extremely effective. Words are learned quickly and retrieval is very fluid.

Just one more year in school and then I’m free. I may continue to post here periodically throughout the semester. I’ll just have to see how things go.


Just a quick update:

Integrating my language studies with school has been going much better than I thought it would. I’ve scaled back my studying, but I’m still maintaining a decent pace.

I’ve done quite a bit of research, and it seems like I’ve been underemphasizing comprehensible input in my study sessions, particularly in Japanese. Considering this, lately I’ve been focusing less on writing and much more on listening. I still practice writing, but not nearly to the extent as before. Now my study sessions consist of about 1/3 vocabulary (words without context) and 2/3 comprehensible input, which has been working really well. Even though it’s only been about three weeks, my proficiency in Japanese has increased considerably.

Another thing that I’ve been doing from time to time is incorporating multiple phonetic images into the overall (composite) mnemonic image. I do this if I think that some of the other syllables in the word might cause some trouble. Here’s an example:

力む (rikimu, meaning to strain): rEk + kEm → A recoil (enemy from a video game) straining to carry a woman in a kimono.

Both of these phonemes were taken from the Ben system. Also, like their application in the Ben system, the interactions between these images follow certain rules so that the order is unambiguous. The first image always performs an action on the second, and so on, just like in cards.

That’s all I have for now. I should be passing 2,000 words in Japanese soon. I would like to get to around 3,000 words before I graduate, and I would also like to achieve a strong linguistic core in French during that time. And then once I graduate I’ll spend more time daily studying all my languages, and I’ll probably also introduce Chinese at that time. I already have the Chinese spoon fed Anki deck.


A couple things I should have included in my previous post + one new thing:

There are a few other ways I’ve been incorporating semantic elements into the mnemonic images, specifically with Japanese. First, for humble/honorific verbs I always make sure that the person performing the action reflects the status connoted by the verb. For instance, if the verb is humble, the person performing the action will usually be kneeling, possibly with their head down. And if the verb is honorific, the person performing the action will be standing tall, and they may also be wearing a crown. To make things easier, I’ve placed many of these verbs as pairs in my memory palace. The images can interact with each other and there’s no ambiguity.

Another thing I’ve been doing is making sure to come up with images that clearly show whether a verb is transitive or intransitive. For example, 冷ます (samasu) is a transitive verb meaning “to cool”, and the mnemonic image is Samus blowing on some hot soup to cool it down. Soup, of course, is the direct object.

The new thing that I wanted to mention was a method that I came up with to use the Ben system for Chinese vocabulary. Each image corresponds to a syllable. The first consonant and vowel are phonetic, and the final consonant encodes the tone, which is just a numerical value 1 - 4. Here’s an example: 朋友 (friend, péngyǒu) → pen (n = 2 = 2nd tone) + gOm (m = 3 = 3rd tone). It’s obviously not a perfect deconstruction, but it works well enough to make remembering the word easy.


Really enjoying your updates. I think we learn so much about the art of memory by seeing how other people apply it. Thanks!


I’m glad you like them! :slight_smile: One of the reasons I’ve been doing this journal is so that other people could use it for reference. Even if you don’t apply the techniques the same way, I think examples are always useful. I know examples from other people have been useful for me.


Well an update is long overdue at this point, so here it goes:

Last semester was the first semester where I managed to maintain fairly consistent language study without having to stop due to homework. Unlike previous semesters, last semester I prioritized language study over my own classwork, which ended up working out really well. I got three A’s and a B+ (or four A’s–I never checked because, honestly, it doesn’t matter.). And now that the the semester is over, I’ve been devoting much more time to studying languages. Since I took my last final, I’ve been studying over 5 hours/day on average.

Here are my language-related goals for the summer:

  1. Reach conversational fluency in French
    I know somewhere between 2,000 and 2,500 words, so vocabulary isn’t an obstacle at this point. It’s just a matter of improving listening skills and the ability to rapidly form complex sentences. I’ve been studying with a girl from my university who’s already fluent.

  2. Read a complete textbook on Japanese grammar
    Specifically, the “textbook” is Tae Kim’s Guide to Japanese, and I’m just over 1/3 way through. I highly (HIGHLY) recommend it to anybody who’s studying Japanese seriously. It’s an amazing resource.

  3. Start laying the foundation for further studies in Chinese
    By this I mean becoming very proficient at all the tones and acquiring a vocabulary of at least several hundred words. 500 would be a nice minimum, but we’ll see. For now, pronunciation is key. My current word count is roughly 100.

  4. Improve general proficiency in Spanish
    This goal is a little nebulous, but it still made the list.

  5. Learn some basic German
    Another goal that’s a little vague. The idea here is to just get used to conjugation patterns and the different cases (nominative, accusative, etc.). This is sort of an extra goal. The others take precedence.

As for the memory palaces, not much has changed. I continue using the same techniques until the words are naturalized in context.

That’s it for now. I’ll continue to post with updates in the future.


Japanese - some reflection

So basically there’s Japanese and then “the other languages”. What’s worked for everything else doesn’t work very well for Japanese. In fact, just trying to say the simplest things can result in very unnatural constructions, even if they’re grammatically correct. The point is, I’ve had to refine my approach to learning Japanese.

In the other languages, part of my study sessions would be going through the dictionary, slowly accruing a vocabulary list, and then the application was straightforward. In Japanese this isn’t the case. Realizing this, I decided to start scrupulously submitting as many sentences as possible to native speakers for review to ensure that they’re as natural as possible. To do this, I’ve been using HiNative, and you can find my profile here.

The short-term goal has shifted from acquisition of vocabulary to becoming a fully autonomous speaker of the language (while sounding natural). From this point on, I’m not pulling any words out of the dictionary without many (many) examples illustrating context.

On a more positive note, all the vocabulary has radically improved my reading ability, and I’m finally at the point where most new words I come across are simply compositions of previously encountered words/readings. At this point, learning new words becomes much much easier.

Lastly, I thought I’d end this post with some things I wrote today, all of which have been “certified” as natural:

彼は私に静かにするように頼んだ。He asked me to be quiet.
僕は友達がパーティーに来たことに気がついた。I realized my friend came to the party.
私は彼が車を運転した人かどうかわかりません。I don’t know if he’s the person who drove the car.

As you can see, it’s not so much about length as it is about encompassing different patterns of speech.