Learning Japanese: Online Flashcards and Vocabulary Lists

by Paul Goodchild

If you’re living in Japan one thing I will say is that learning the language will definitely 0pen up the world to you here.  You will be able to read menus in restaurants, communicate with more people and while you’ll always be different you can at least live a semblance of normality.

If you’re actively studying and you’re particularly interested in learning kanji, then I’m recommending here thee site that pushed my vocabulary and kanji recognition to the level it is now.  Flashcards are great, and I have tried them, but I’m too lazy.  I don’t like sitting down to write them all out, it’s just not something I find enjoyment in.  I prefer the electronic approach; it just works best for me.

Kantango wordlists

The site I use is: Kantango.com

Note, if you can’t read Japanese on your computer/browser, please check out this how to on displaying and writing Japanese characters.

You need to register for the Kantango site, which takes only a second or two.  When you log in, you’ll be presented with a screen displaying your ‘folders’ on the left, and the wordlists for that folder on the right.  It’s all very simple.

Click the ‘New List’ button and give it a name.  For example, I have created lists such as ‘Train Station Vocab’, ‘Body Parts’, ‘Fish’, ‘Colours’ etc.

Once created, you’ll be brought to the contents of the wordlist, which is currently empty.  On the left is your search bar and this brings me to one of the most powerful aspects about the way this site search has been designed.

When you search (and you can search using kanji, romaji, hiragana and katakana!), let’s say you put in the one character, it returns a result that is an exact match, by default.  Alternatively, you can choose between:

  • Exact Match
  • Starts With
  • Ends With
  • Partial Match

…and then re-run the search.  By selecting ‘Partial Match’ it will return every term in the dictionary containing that kanji and due to its helpful labeling system, it will tell you if the word is useful by indicating it as a “common word” within the meaning description.  Select the words you’d like, and  ‘Add to Wordlist‘.

Before I get to that, I’ll digress a little though:  One approach I take to learning is to pick a kanji and learn the crap out of it.  How does one actually learn the crap out of a kanji I hear you murmur?  Well since kanji in general are ideographs, they may be used in isolation or in conjunction with other kanji to convey meaning.  The best way I have found for me to consolidate a meaning for one is to have a list of words learned that contain that particular kanji character.  That way, rather than just simply learning a kanji, how to recognise it and it’s dictionary meaning, I have learned the meaning as a feeling or a idea so that when I see it, I can be fairly sure of its influence in a compound.   So, let’s take the following kanji as a example here:

予 : beforehand, previous, pre-

So where is this kanji found in compounds?  In the following:

予定 : plan, schedule
予報 : forecast, prediction
予防 : prevention, precaution
予算 : budget, estimate
予感 : premonition, presentiment

I’m sure by now you can see or feel the meaning of the particular kanji we want to learn by now?  All the compounds above have a feeling in-common… and that is of something that has “come before”.  A really neat advantage to this is also that you can then guess at the meanings of the other 5 kanji used in the compounds and you’d be fairly accurate in doing so.  The best way again is to pick one of them and grab say 5 compounds which contain it and learn them.  This approach is the single biggest contributor to my kanji recognition ability right now.

So how does this fit into Kantango?

That’s just one approach to learning and quickly finding related words and phrases

Kantango flashcards

After creating at leaset one wordlists that you want to study, browse to it.  You have many options to manage the words in there and technique I’ve found useful is that of “Word Tags”.

This is a powerful method, at least I found it so.

Lets say the first 3 words of your list, you feel, are in your brain and you’re not going to forget them.  Check the boxes beside the words and using the left-side menu drop-down box “Mark checked words…” whichever level you feel appropriate.  Note: you can not only tag the words, but also separately the kanji.  So you may feel you know the words, but you haven’t mastered the kanji… this tool provides that level of differentiation.

Next, click the Flashcards button and you’ll be brought to the flashcard set-up screen.  Choose to be either presented with the English meaning, or the Japanese (in Kana, Kanji or Romaji, or any combination of them) and then have the flip side show whatever you want.  The tags then allow you to select the words that you want to review after you mastered them, or just work with the words that are tagged as “New”.  Or all of the words in the list.  You can pick and choose without having to set up a flashcard set of everything in the word-list.

Sharing is Caring

Kantango allows you to share your wordlists with other users.  If you’d like to see my wordlists, please take a look here – I have also included all the vocab lists for Minna no Nihongo books 1 and 2, by chapter.

I hope you find this tool useful… there are many tools out there, but I have yet to find another that is as customizable and doesn’t require the use of a heavy Java/Flash plugin.  Enjoy! 🙂

  • Toestubber

    I recently marked various flashcards in a kantango list as “needs review” or as “learned,” but now I don’t see the point. I’d assumed I could then review only the cards that need review, but there doesn’t seem to be any way to do that, or even to sort them based on the tags. It’s weird, like the site programmer set up the first half of a sorting system, but then never finished the job.

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