Some recent research in how we learn languages has uncovered that there is no ‘language’ module in our brain exactly. We actually use our whole brain to learn words and use language.
So, for example, if I told you I saw a flying pig, you probably wouldn’t believe me, but you could easily imagine what a flying pig looks like even though they don’t exist in real life. Your brain can pretty easily combine your memory of a pig and your concept of the action flying into some kind of image. Maybe you imagine a pig with a cape or wings whizzing through the air.
The point is, that the words you are reading now are not how your brain sees words. This is just an easy and quick format for me to convey information to you, but it is not how you really think or use language. The abstract letters of this ebook are actually being changed into images (or sounds, smells, feelings, or tastes) by your brain in a rapid, automatic process whether you are aware of it or not or at least according to this new theory.
And actually the more abstract language becomes, the more difficult it is for people to understand. That is why a lot of N1 essays are so incredibly difficult to understand.
So it makes sense to have flashcards that are as concrete as possible. That are surrounded by images, sounds, smells, tastes, and feelings that you can use to plant the word in your head. Give it roots so it can grow and stay put instead of being washed away.
Pretty visual, eh? I could have told you that you need to build associations with visual representations, so that your brain can assimilate new words, but that doesn’t quite stick as well does it?
Anyway, there is a pretty easy way to create these visual flashcards so that you can really lock in the vocabulary. You can do it with a study tool I call ‘power labeling’. Basically, you are just going to label everything in your house or apartment using new words.
For example, you can take the word 窓(mado), meaning window and write it down on a sticky note. Be sure to write the hiragana first on the very bottom, then write the kanji directly above it. This is so you can later rip off the hiragana once you have become confident with it.
The last step is to write an example sentence using the new word. For 窓, we could use a simple sentence like the following:
Please open the window.
This is an excellent example of something you can use for a more basic vocabulary words. What about something a lot more complex?
Here is a lovely example from my N1 So-Matome Grammar book:
私は、家では たいてい ジーンズに Tシャツを 着ています。
(Watashiwa, iedewa taitei jiinzuni T-shatsuwo kiteimasu.)
I wear mostly jeans and a T-shirt when I am at home.
This is something you could easily put on your drawer that holds your jeans and T-shirts, so that you can see it every time you wear your jeans and T-shirts.
All right, how about those tricky abstract words that don’t really have an object you can label? For example, there is an N1 word, 経緯 (ikisatsu), which roughly means ‘details, particulars, or the whole story’. This might seem like a hard thing to find a physical object to match up to.
But, what about a grater? A grater breaks things down into smaller parts, and aren’t details and particulars smaller parts of the whole? So you could label where you store your grater with this word and an example sentence. Or if not a grater, maybe where you store your knives. They are used to cut things into smaller pieces as well.
The idea is to think differently about abstract words, don’t try to simply remember the word by connecting it to just the English translation, but connect it to as many other things as you can.
1) Find an object in your house or apartment that you want to use more often or are not familiar with.
2) Look up an example sentence using the object from a resource like Tatoeba.org. Or write your own sentence and have it checked with a native or a service like lang-8.com.
3) Write the example sentence at the top of a sticky note, then the word in kanji (if it is used with kanji), then the word in hiragana at the bottom of the note.
4) Stick the note to the object.
5) At first, practice just saying the word. Once you can say it easily without looking at the hiragana, rip off the bottom part of the note (the section that has the hiragana on it).
6) Later, once you are pretty comfortable with the word, rip the word off and just leave the sentence. Add more sentences and actions you can do with the object.
7) Remember to act out the action and really get into it. Seeing (and the other 4 senses) help you lock in the new word.