New vocabulary is like a plant. It needs to put its roots down into fertile soul or else it might get washed away the next time it rains. Mind maps are a way of concretely and visually mapping out the roots to your vocabulary.
The more roots or connections you can make with what you already know the better. You want to try to mimic the way your brain recalls the word. The first connection you usually make is between the English word and the Japanese word, that is probably how you learned a lot of words in Japanese, but that is a little inefficient because you will have to always think in English than translate it to use the word.
To speak fluently, to make everything automatic, you will have to be thinking all in Japanese instead. So it is valuable to build up Japanese to Japanese connections in your head. You could do this by looking up words in a 国語 or Japanese to Japanese dictionary, but that is not really how words are rooted in your head is it?
For example if you look up the English definition of ‘cat’ (from dictionary.com) you get the following:
a small domesticated carnivore, Felis domestica
or F. catus, bred in a number of varieties.
Even in a learner’s dictionary, you don’t quite get the full picture:
a small animal that is related to lions and tigers and that is often kept by people as a pet
Now imagine if you have never seen a cat. Would this definition help you to understand what it is? Not really.
Now, if instead I told you that a cat is about the same size as a small dog, but has softer fur. And that they are one of the most popular pets. You would at least have a rough idea of what a cat looks like, right? This is how Japanese to Japanese connections should be made to make your conversation flow better and smoother. And the more connections you can make the better, of course.
Try to think of the word from all possible angles when you are building a mind map. What are all the possible ways you can root that word in your head so it’ll stick and you can easily recall it? The English translation is a start, but you can do more.
This process may seem a little more painful and involved than rolling through some flashcards or doing a set amount of SRS every day, but that is kind of the point. The more you push your brain to think, the more likely it will put down roots and these words will stick for longer and be easier for you to use smoothly.
Also, by creating the mind maps yourself, you are creating a personalized dictionary that is mapped to your mind and the way you think. This will make it easier for you to communicate in the way you are used to communicating in your native language.
I personally use an application called Freemind to do this mind mapping. It is freely available and is also multi-platform. The only drawback is it is not as user friendly as some of the other mind mapping software out there. I walk through exactly how to setup your first mindmap though so don’t worry.
You can also use bubbl.us which is a free online mind mapper. It has a beautiful interface and is really easy to use. The free version can be a little limited because you can only have 3 sheets, but it is worthy alternative to Freemind.
Again, this isn’t going to be the fastest way to study in words, but it might prove to be a fun little break from the drill and kill.
1) Open up Freemind (or another similar mindmapping piece of software) and start with a new word as your center node or mind as they are sometimes called. Type the word you want to study into this node in its ‘native’ form, how you would see it in a dictionary. In other words in kanji or if the kanji is extremely rare, like 其れ（おれ） meaning ‘that’, then use just the hiragana.
2) Start by adding the English of the word as well as the kana reading if necessary as nodes that branch off from the center node.
3) You might want to try adding a picture from flickr that illustrates the word.
4) Add in example sentences from Tatoeba. Try to find the simplest sentence that still manages to show the meaning of the word. For example, それは ねこです。 (This is a cat.) is probably not the best choice.
5) You might want to add a few synonyms as well. Use a good thesaurus to find a few synonyms that make sense to you.
6) If you want to take it even further, you could add antonyms or opposites of the word as well. Again, add as many things as you can to ‘root’ the word in your head.