Japanese and French: goals and progress

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.


So much good news lately, it’s time to balance things out with some bad news.

So while progress in Japanese has been solid in most aspects, I recently became aware of the importance of pitch accent and how my current knowledge of pitch accent is lacking. For those who don’t know what pitch accent is, it’s probably best explained by example. Compare the pronunciation of the word convict as a verb to that of convict as a noun. You see the difference? It’s the same in Japanese. The difference though is that in Japanese the pitch accent isn’t 100% predictable. You simply have to have heard the word or you need to look it up in a pitch accent dictionary. Having said that, I’m currently in the process of cross referencing all my vocabulary against a pitch accent dictionary to ensure that my pronunciation is correct. I’m also now including a color notation to denote pitch accent in all of my Anki cards.

I also posted a question about it here to get further input.

Unfortunately, this is a major time sink, but it’s necessary. :disappointed_relieved:


I posted this on HiNative to assess the damage, and it turned out much better than I thought. I spoke several sentences which were basically representative of my speech in Japanese and then asked for a critique (inflection, pitch accent, etc.). The results were surprisingly positive. Yes, there were errors, but it wasn’t as bad as I thought. And soon all of those errors will be gone anyway.

Also, I further refined by pitch accent notation to differentiate between a flat pattern and downstep (underline):


Things aren’t as bad as I originally thought, although I have had to take a break from my textbook to focus on pitch accent.


Studies of pitch accent are going really well. I’ve gone through about 1,500 words so far, scrupulously notating each. It’s taking a long time, but it’s well worth the effort. Ultimately, I want to sound passably native, so pitch accent theory is essential. Nouns are static, but pitch accent often changes with verbs based on the conjugation, so that further complicates things. Here’s an example.

French and Spanish are also going really well. I recently uploaded some recordings, and I got very positive feedback for both. If you’re curious, you can find them here:



Done!! It took longer than I expected, but I’m finally done notating all the words in my Anki deck. I also feel like I memorized roughly 95% of them, so I’m happy about that.

This is the second overhaul I’ve done in Japanese. The first was when I took a break for several months to learn the kanji. I wish I had studied like this from the very beginning, but at least I’m on the right track now. To anybody who’s considering learning Japanese: Study pitch accent and kanji from the very beginning. You’ll make life easier down the road.

Anyway, having taken that detour I no longer have enough time to finish the textbook on Japanese grammar before going back to school. It’s unfortunate, but it’s all right. I’m going to continue to practice the pronunciation of all the words I know until they’re second nature. I’ll also be uploading some new recordings to HiNative to get more feedback.

At this point I need to start positing myself for a maintenance routine that I can use over this upcoming semester. I’m thinking that basically it’ll consist of 3 parts:

  1. Writing on HiNative to practice grammar
  2. Core 10,000 vocabulary deck to practice listening and expand vocabulary
  3. Current vocabulary deck to practice pronunciation (pitch accent)

All my other languages are already in a good position for maintenance, so there’s not much to change there.


wow, so much good stuff thank you so muhc for sharing, will come back for future updates guaranteed. well done !!!


This whole thread is super helpful thank you! Planning to start learning japanese and want to use it for a massive memory project, Trying to find a way to get a 1000-5000 word list with hiragana or romanji or katakana (i dont mind its just so I can read it phonetically) but also with pitch accent so I can memorise them all perfectly from the start but this has proved very difficult. Thank you for the pitch accent advice I had never heard about this before, or at least realised it was a big deal

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You’re welcome, ericam. :slight_smile:

To mcnallymemory: Yeah, no problem. From what I’ve read, it seems like pitch accent isn’t emphasized as much as it should be. Although Japanese is officially atonal, the tonal aspects are important enough that neglecting them can pose a real barrier to communication, or at the very least give you a really bad accent.

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