Acquire Japanese Vocabulary and Grammar – Collect 10,000 Sentences

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Ancient stairs to a castle
Your journey to fluency in Japanese begins here.

Okay. You’ve set up your Japanese immersion environment. You’ve learned ALL the jōyō kanji. You’ve also learned all the kana. Give yourself a huge pat on the back for getting this far. You are cool. You are awesome. You are a beautiful person. You’ve already done what most people could very easily but don’t do.

With the preliminary steps taken care of, let’s get into the core of this method of studying Japanese now. The sentence collection phase.

You will collect 10,000 unique Japanese sentences and enter them in your SRS. Don’t look at me like that. I know you can do it because it’s not difficult at all. It’s a repeatable process that is easy to implement, and if you stay consistent, 10,000 will go a lot faster than you think.

But before getting into the how, let’s talk about why on earth anyone would want to embark on this seemingly impossible (but actually stupidly easy) mission of collecting 10,000 Japanese sentences .

How collecting and reviewing 10,000 sentences will make you fluent in Japanese

Reading is at the heart of the sentence collection process. You find a unique Japanese word (perhaps multiple words) in a sentence and decide you want to know that word forever. Then you enter that entire sentence into your SRS program (i.e., create your own custom flashcards). When you review the card you will be reading the sentence aloud, checking to make sure you understand the whole sentence, and writing it down by hand. (There are actually multiple potential card formats you could use that I will share with you in a future post).

You will be reading tons and tons of Japanese. You will be giving a home to all of that juicy, native Japanese you encounter in your immersion environment so that you can study it later.

Oh, and don’t worry about spending too much time on reading Japanese! Your learning will be balanced out by other forms of practice (speaking, listening and writing). These will come from being in your Japanese immersion environment and also the supplemental practice you will do (shadowing, dictation, speaking with native speakers, etc.).

Listening to the experience and wisdom of those before me

The idea that collecting 10,000 sentences and reviewing them in your SRS will make you fluent in Japanese is not my own. I discovered that by taking the advice of other adventurous and creative people who discovered this wonderful combination of theory + technology, I could learn Japanese quickly with very minimal effort. Not to mention having a lot of fun!

I first got the idea from Khatzumoto, the dude who got fluent in Japanese in 18 months. Khatzumoto got the idea from reading Antimoon, a blog written for learners of English using a similar method. Also, there was a group of Polish people who used this method to get fluent in English (tried to link their website but either its unavailable or I just can’t find it!)

Stephen Krashen and the magical input hypothesis

It all started when a guy called Stephen Krashen came up with the input hypothesis which states that one learns a language by lots of comprehensible input – which is language that you read or hear that is understandable to you but slightly above your level. It is reasoned that getting lots of this comprehensible input is what eventually leads to the output of correct language (i.e., speaking and writing).

I’m not here to argue whether I think this theory is “right” or “wrong”. All I know is there has been a growing body of people that have applied this method via SRSing, such as Khatzumoto, or Antimoon, and have been successful in learning a second language. I also had success with this method, which is why I’m excited to spread the word and share it with you today.

Have you ever heard a song over and over again, and suddenly one day you realized you knew all the words by heart, even though you never practiced singing it before? It’s a lot like that. You hear and read enough Japanese and one day you will realize that you accumulated so much time getting the correct language in your head that all the important components like grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation will just be there.

This is not something we think about much, but it’s also how we learn words in our first language too. Often we will hear a new word (maybe a slang word) over and over until one day we find ourselves saying it in conversation. It’s not like we hear the word once in the wild, write it in a notebook, and go home and practice saying it aloud over and over again until it’s memorized. No, the accumulation of hearing it many times causes us to learn it (often unconsciously). We learn our own language with tons of comprehensible input so why don’t do the same for learning Japanese?

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t use output oriented activities (such as speaking or writing practice). In fact, I think they are very important! I’m just saying, getting tons of comprehensible input is a huge component to becoming fluent in a language. And, it’s quite easy – much easier than exerting yourself to the stress of conversing with a native speaker when you don’t yet have a great command of the language (again, I think speaking the language is very good practice when you’re ready for it).

And here’s where the SRS comes in: essentially everything you enter into your SRS becomes comprehensible input. When you go through the process of looking up the words you don’t know and creating a custom flash card for them, the once unfamiliar becomes comprehensible to you. Then you are able to get that same input over and over again as your SRS program does the work for you  and schedules when you need to review that card in order to retain it in your memory.

This is why I love the SRS program so much (I personally use Anki). You can take little snapshots of the Japanese you hear or read in your environment, create your own little “teacher” robot that knows exactly what you want to learn and when you need to review it in order to keep it in your long-term memory.

I absolutely recommend that the bulk of the sentences you collect come from real-life Japanese, i.e., the Japanese you hear and read in your Japanese immersion environment (coming from Japanese native speakers). Hearing real Japanese as opposed to textbook example sentences is what is going to give you the most natural sounding Japanese. Conversely if the majority of the Japanese you study comes from a textbook you will start to sound like a textbook.

Now maybe in the very beginning you will want to use something a bit more structured, like a textbook or something to get the basics down. You might try this for the first couple hundred sentences  or so just to get a basic feel for how Japanese works. This helps you transition in to using “real Japanese”, which can seem daunting at first. I recommend Tae Kim’s Grammar Guide, as the example sentences are exceptionally natural sounding. And they teach you natural Japanese from the start (common verb contractions, emphatic sentence endings, etc.) – stuff that you’ll almost never see in a textbook. I actually went through the entire guide and took one example sentence from each point and added it to my Anki deck.

I say don’t ever use textbook examples of Japanese to build your SRS deck but actually what I mean is use them sparingly, and let the bulk of the sentences you collect come for your Japanese immersion environment, IE, from the books/manga you read, or from the Japanese movies/anime/drama you watch. Almost every guideline I have laid down in this guide I have broken, or will break at some point. Use whatever resources you need to get you wherever you need to go, when the time comes.

Collecting sentences is a fun way to learn Japanese

Another cool thing about studying Japanese this way is that because the bulk of your sentences that you will be collecting and reviewing will be coming from your Japanese immersion environment (i.e., the Japanese comics, movies and other media that YOU love), your brain associates Japanese with having fun. Because your brain associates Japanese with fun, you are much more likely to do Japanese just because you enjoy it, not because you have to.

When I think back to my earlier “hardcore days” of studying Japanese, I mostly reminisce about all the Studio Ghibli I watched and all the Dragonball manga I read. Good times.

Oh I put in the work reviewing my sentences in Anki too. Around five hours of adding and reviewing sentences a day. But guess what, I barely remember that. I mostly just recall the fun I had being in my Japanese immersion environment I created.

I believe that because I associated the Japanese language with having fun, I was able to put in five hours a day into SRSing. Had I been adding boring textbook examples to my sentence collection rather than fun movie dialogue and lines from manga, my tolerance for how much Japanese I could have reviewed in a day probably would have went down a lot. The lesson? Fun is a priority.

Why 10,000 sentences?

Well, I suppose somewhere around 9,000 would have you sorted. 12,000 would also be good.  Somewhere around 10,000 just seems to be the critical amount of exposure it takes to become fluent. And 10,000 is a nice round number to shoot for as a landmark. I first got the idea from alljapaneseallthetime.com and decided to give it a shot.

When I hit 10,000 sentences I was able to consider myself fluent in Japanese. I was able to converse with native speakers comfortably on a wide range of topics, read Japanese novels written for adults without the aid of a dictionary (as well as newspapers, manga, etc.), I was able to write comfortably (although admittedly in Japan, handwriting things does not come up a whole lot with the exception of filling out forms) and I was also able to watch Japanese movies, drama, and anime with a 70-80% comprehension rate (depending on the content and what audience it was aimed for).

Now of course 10,000 sentences doesn’t have to be the end of your journey. For me it was just a landmark. I’m currently at around 15,000 (not including kanji cards) and intend to keep going! I have a friend who’s sitting at around 30,000 sentences that speaks phenomenal Japanese.

I would recommend hitting that 10,000 mark first to get a solid foundation in Japanese down. Then if you want, you can decide to either slow down on the new card adds and use that time to focus on other learning activities, or learn Japanese through osmosis (chillin’ in your Japanese immersion environment and loving life).

At any rate, 10,000 sentences wont make you a god but it will give you a handle of Japanese that most people would dream of!

The basic sentence card format

Okay, so you are watching a Japanese movie that you bought (with Japanese subtitles turned on) and you come across a sentence in the dialogue you would like to add to your SRS. How should you format your card?

What follows is the most simple and effective card format I believe. It is what I used for a long time (I will describe card format variants in a later post).


FRONT:

sentence in Japanese (containing one, maybe two words you aren’t yet familiar with)


BACK:

pronunciation + definitions of words

(+ translation of sentence in English if absolutely needed)


In reviewing this card, your task is to read the card aloud, understand all the words and the meaning of the entire sentence. You should also write out the sentence by hand (maybe not for all your reviews, but some). Set a quota like twenty sentences a day to write by hand.

Let’s check out a concrete example taken from my personal Anki deck (thanks Wikipedia!).


FRONT:

食事とは、基本的には栄養、すなわち人間が生命を維持し活動し成長をするために必要な栄養素をとる行為である。


BACK:

しょくじとは きほんてきには えいよう、 すなわち にんげんが せいめいを いじし せいちょうを するために ひつような えいようそを とる こうい である。

維持 いじ sustain

栄養素 えいようそ nutrient(s)


The definitions I added (sustain and nutrients) were the newly encountered words.

Here, I didn’t add an English translation of the entire sentence (as I didn’t need one). Although, adding the English translation for the entire sentence is optional (if you have one). I personally don’t add full-on sentence translations too often because I want be able to understand the Japanese, as opposed to associate it with an English sentence. Although sometimes an English translation might be required, particularly if you are studying a grammar point and need some clarification.

As far as the basic card format goes, that’s it! Pretty simple right?

Theres a few other points to making sentence cards I’d like to mention…

Monolingual definitions AKA Japanese only cards

Whenever it’s convenient for you (and the sooner the better), I’d recommend adding monolingual definitions. This means rather than adding a Japanese to English definition for unknown words as shown above, you add a Japanese to Japanese definition (definitions of Japanese words in Japanese). This is in order to eliminate English from the equation entirely so that you are thinking in Japanese as much as possible.

So the example card from above that I gave from my own deck actually looks like this:


FRONT:

食事とは、基本的には栄養、すなわち人間が生命を維持し活動し成長をするために必要な栄養素をとる行為である。


BACK:

しょくじとは きほんてきには えいよう、 すなわち にんげんが せいめいを いじし せいちょうを するために ひつような えいようそを とる こうい である。

い‐じ〔ヰヂ〕【維持】[名](スル)物事の状態をそのまま保ちつづけること。「健康を維持する」「現状維持」

えいよう‐そ〔エイヤウ‐〕【栄養素】生物体が、栄養のために体外から取り入れる物質。緑色植物では窒素・燐(りん)・カリウムなど、高等動物ではたんぱく質・炭水化物・脂肪・無機質・ビタミンなど。


Definitions complements of http://dic.yahoo.co.jp/ – a great dictionary with lots of example sentences as well. The Sanseido Web Dictionary is another good option for adding monolingual definitions.

It’s actually quite easy to go monolingual, and you can do it at a much earlier stage in learning Japanese than you think. In order to keep this post as concise as possible, I will write about making the conversion to monolingual cards in an easy, systematic way, in another post.

If your just starting out, no need to stress about this! But after adding maybe a thousand sentences or so you might want to start considering going monolingual.

Where to get your sentences

First priority – Your Japanese immersion environment

In case I’ve done a poor job at making this clear (highly likely), I want to reiterate one more time. The majority of your sentences will come from the Japanese immersion environment that you created for yourself.

This means most of your sentences will be real Japanese, as opposed to Japanese from textbooks. This is because your sentences will come from Japanese you read (manga, novels, newspapers, magazines, internet articles) or from Japanese you hear (movies, anime, television, podcasts, audiobooks, YouTube, or real life conversations).

If you want to enter Japanese that you heard from an audio source, I recommend that you only enter sentences in your SRS that have confirmed, written transcripts to accompany the dialogue, such as a Japanese movie that has Japanese subtitles, or an audio-book that has the accompanying transcript with it. This is to eliminate potential errors when adding it to your collection. If you can, you want to avoid studying incorrect Japanese.

One “hack” I use to get around this, is if I hear a word in some audio with no provided transcript (perhaps a movie with no Japanese subs or even a real life conversation) I will write the word down that I think I heard and look it up. Then I will add the example sentence from the dictionary.

TIP: Sentences coming from electronic sources such as internet articles are generally the easiest and quickest to add because all you have to do is copy and paste! And they will be generally less susceptible to typographical errors.

Medium priority – Japanese you pick up in everyday life

If you have Japanese friends that you speak Japanese with (especially if you live in Japan), or if you happen to encounter words in your everyday life somehow, you will probably want to keep a little memo pad (I use my iPhone) of words that you encounter and would like to remember. That way, you can go home later and look up the meanings of those words and add the sentences. Either you can actually write down the sentence that you hear in conversation word for word, and then check with that native Japanese speaker, or, you can just write down the word and go home and later look up an example sentence containing that word and add it.

Again, whatever you add, make sure you have some kind of confirmation of what you heard. Either being from the person you heard it from, or just that you copied and pasted it from a trusted source such as a dictionary.

Low priority – Word lists and other study resources such as textbooks

Again, adding Japanese sentences taken from real Japanese is the shiz. Not only do you learn the word intellectually, but getting the whole context (the visual images, the tone of voice, the background story), you make a real emotional connection with the words you learn.

However, there will be times when you will want to add sentences from textbooks or other study resources for whatever reason. Especially in the very beginning (maybe up two 200 sentences or so) when indulging in something like a Japanese book made for a Japanese native speaker might seem intimidating. There also might be a time when you want to use a vocabulary study list for a very specific outcome (I recently I went through all the JLPT vocab lists N5-N1 and added all unknown words).

Now, I didn’t use JLPT vocab lists in the beginning, mind you. I did this AFTER I already considered myself fluent. This is what I mean by “use for a specific outcome only.” My outcome being to ace the heck outta JLPT N1.  besides using Tae Kim’s Grammar Guide in the beginning to get the basics of Japanese down, I didn’t use anything but real-life Japanese in the beginning.

I’m sure during your journey of learning Japanese you will come up with many unique situations that will fit your own life/circumstances, and you will find your own crude, yet clever solutions to them.

When it comes to creative pursuits (such as learning a language) it is better to never EVER talk in absolutes (such a joker… 🙄 ) and always be willing to keep an open mind and bend the rules if necessary.

Turning learning Japanese into a game

The best thing about the 10,000 sentences process is that it bears a clear path with an achievable object. It turns learning Japanese into actionable steps. A process. A game. And knowing the exact plan of action is what makes a goal appear achievable to us and thereby, allows us the motivation to take the steps to achieve it.

Furthermore, 10,000 sentences can be broken down into daily goals. For example, if you did 20 sentences a day, you would reach 10,000 in 500 days. I heard somewhere that your daily reviews in Anki will average out to your number of added cards per day, multiplied by ten. This means if you add 20 cards a day, you will have about 200 reviews due per day.

I find this to be an accurate rule of thumb because I personally currently add 20 cards a day and I see around 200 reviews every day. It takes me roughly an hour to do my new card adds and my daily reviews.

Of course, how many cards you want to add a day and how much time you want to take SRSing will be totally up to you! Using the same logic above, you could spend two hours a day instead of one and add 400 cards, and reach 10,000 sentences in 250 days.

So that’s it!

Once you get the hang of it, you’ll find that adding new sentences is really easy. Just make that commitment of doing it every single day, and as you close that gap between where you are at now and 10,000 sentences, your Japanese will noticeably get better and better, and all this Japanese that you’re exposing yourself to in your immersion environment will suddenly make sense.

Wow, this was a lengthy, probably confusing post! Feel free to ask any questions in the comments 🙂

Back to The Unorthodox Guide to Learning Japanese [Table of Contents]

4 thoughts on “Acquire Japanese Vocabulary and Grammar – Collect 10,000 Sentences”

  1. Hi! I really liked your articles before this about learning the kanji first and such. I understand what you were recommending I do with the sentences here after about 200 or so, but before that I am a little confused. I am currently learning the kanji, and I’ve got Genki 1 on the side that I work on when i can. Do you think that I should take out the example sentences directly from the text? Or should I use vocab from each chapter as it’s given and try to create my own sentences? (i can always have them checked on lang 8)

    thanks!

    i didn’t make it clear that I’m still planning on finishing the kanji first. I’m just someone who likes to plan ahead haha

    1. Hey Alexa, thanks!

      If it were me, I’d add the example sentences word for word from Genki. It would allow you to work more quickly through Genki without having to take time to wait on people correcting your sentences.

      That being said, I can see power in making your sentences because your cards end up being more personal (provided that the Japanese is correct).

      But like I said when it comes to Anki, I personally don’t make my own sentences. I rather get Japanese that comes from native resources because I find it more effective for my learning.

      Good luck!

      1. Thanks for your quick reply! This really helped clear things up. Sorry about this, but I do have one more quick question- after I get through however many sentences are in Genki, where do you think I should look to find good sentences that have somewhat similar vocabulary in them? I just have a feeling that after Genki, I’ll still have trouble finding sentences in my vocabulary range. Do you think that this is the case?

        1. Yeah, the perfect scenario would be that each new sentence you add to Anki would contain just one unknown word. That way it wouldn’t be so overwhelming.

          However, for me when I first started, that was rarely ever the case! As long as you are able to understand all the vocabulary and grammar in the sentence you want to add, I’d say go for it!

          So once you finish Genki 1, I’d say you have a few options. You could always move on to….wait for it….Genki 2 and building on what you know using the Genki system. You could also move on to something else like http://www.guidetojapanese.org/learn/grammar and start adding their example sentences.

          However, what I most recommend is that you start adding sentences from some native Japanese source such as a Japanese children’s book (made for Japanese children), some Japanese manga also made for younger audiences or even anime if you can get exact subtitle transcriptions of the Japanese being spoken.

          When I was at the 200-something-sentence stage I did a mixture of all above. Most of my sentences came from the wonderful http://fantajikan.com/ podcasts which are children’s story audio books with the exact transcripts. Although for some reason, it seems the site is down right now :-/

          Anyway, I know in the beginning it all seems crazy and there is a lot that is hard to understand. I’d say for now, put the blinders up and skip the Japanese that is too hard and add the Japanese that is only slightly above your level (i.e., maybe one or two new words in a sentence).

          Good luck!

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