Stop studying sentences and start studying collocations

The Problem with Vocabulary Lists

For ages, people learned foreign words from vocabulary lists. This was all well and good for the most part, but some people noticed that it doesn’t always seem to be the best way of learning words. While it can give you the general meaning of a word, it doesn’t tell you anything about how a word is used.

Though, for a huge number of words, you don’t really need any context regarding usage. I mean, there is nothing terribly special about how one would use the word “cat” in a sentence, right? So in a lot of cases, vocabulary lists actually work just fine. But for a lot of words, you need to know a little bit more, or else you can end up using things incorrectly. Let’s look at the following example where I talk about getting dressed in both English and Japanese:

I put on a shirt. I put on pants. I put on a belt. I put on a hat.


So what happened there? In English, I use the same sentence pattern for each item. “I put on x.” But in Japanese, each item uses a totally different verb! So if I were to just learn each of those nouns individually from a vocabulary list, I might try using the same verb with all of them, and then get some weird looks back from whoever I am talking to!

A moment ago, I stated that for a lot of words, it really is just fine to use vocabulary lists. But, the problem for a learner is that you don’t know which words are ok to learn like this! So, people saw a need to have more context when learning new words in Japanese, and then came…

The Sentence Revolution

Popularized by the All Japanese All The Time (AJATT) blog, the idea that you should study entire sentences instead of words solved the whole context and usage problem. People soon began taking this one part of the AJATT method, and branched it off into it’s own thing that many people simply called “the sentence method”. For a while, a ton of people were sentence junkies, frothing at the mouth just thinking about where they could get their next sentence from.

I remember when a 2-part book called 2001.Kanji.Odyssey came out, and people were raving about it. These two books were basically just collections of sentences that contained words that used common readings for about half of the Jouyou kanji. I remember paying close to $100 to buy the books and get access to a community spreadsheet of the sentences that some people were putting together, so that I could then study them through Anki.

I just knew that this was going to take my Japanese to the next level. I was going to learn a lot of useful words, and more importantly, a ton of great kanji readings! And then I tried it. And I failed. Multiple times.

The problems were many. The sentences were really long and complex. They contained a lot of difficult words related to business and politics, and not a whole lot of words that I might use every day. Each sentence usually had multiple words that I didn’t know. It was nowhere close to being i+1 material.

Aside from the issues with that particular set of sentences, they have their own inherent problems in general. A major problem with reviewing sentences is that it takes a long time. It takes a lot longer than reviewing a single vocabulary word. Sentences also might have multiple things in them that can trip you up and cause you to fail the card. Trying to keep stuff i+1 is really tricky, and in the beginning stages it can be a treasure hunt just trying to find sentences that you can understand, and you often might be simply discarding a lot of sentences because they have too much new stuff in them. And what are you supposed to be studying with sentences anyways? Vocabulary? Kanji? Grammar? All of it at once? Again, this completely fails at being i+1. If you are trying to learn one particular new piece of information, a sentence can contain a whole lot of completely irrelevant information that only serves to waste your time.

So, vocabulary lists aren’t so great. But it sounds like sentences aren’t necessarily all that great either. Isn’t there some sort of middle ground, that gives you the context and usage information that you need, without the unnecessary complexity of sentences? Well, fortunately, there is!

Collocations – What they are and why you want to study them

Collocations are a really simple idea. They are simply groups of words that occur near each other more often than random chance would dictate. For instance, if the word “bath” is encountered in English, it will frequently be preceded by the words “take a.” So therefore, “take a bath” is a collocation. Easy, right? So instead of doing reviews of some useless sentence like “I took a bath after I got home from working last night”, which is full of irrelevant information, I would simply learn “take a bath” instead. Three simple words.

A lot of words frequently appear near each other because that is what society as a whole has implicitly agreed upon. For instance, we say “fast food” instead of “quick food”. If you are just trying to build up a sentence from the literal components, you wouldn’t know that one of these has a different meaning than the other one. But if you study the phrase “fast food” as a collocation rather than as two individual words, this other meaning becomes apparent.

I came across the idea of collocations when I stumbled across a book titled, fittingly enough, Common Japanese Collocations. This book is chock full of thousands of absolutely useful collocations that are relevant to everyday life. Click that link to see it on Amazon and use the “look inside” feature to see a bit of the types of collocations that are contained in the book. You will notice that most of them are just 3-5 words long. You will usually have a noun, particle, and a verb. Sometimes there might be an object as well. That’s generally all you need for a good collocation! I typed the first chapter into Anki by hand, and I must say, it has probably been the single most useful resource that I have ever studied through Anki. But I did stop after the first chapter because, well… typing hundreds of phrases into a PC is really boring.

But, the cool thing about collocations is that you can make them on your own! Found a sentence that has a word or phrase you want to learn? Great! All you have to do is cut out the extraneous parts, leaving only the bits that are relevant to what you want to learn! I usually break verbs down to the dictionary form, to avoid mixing unnecessary grammatical details into my vocabulary study. Remember you want it to be i+1 as much as possible. Google can also be a great resource for finding collocations, as its search suggestions often give you a good idea of what other words are commonly associated with each other.

So, in summary, vocabulary lists might be bad because you don’t learn how words interact with one another. Sentences might be bad because they contain irrelevant information. Collocations are the sweet spot between vocabulary and sentences, giving you just what you need, and nothing more. I recommend following up with this great article on collocations over at the Dark Japanese blog.

They’ve all got their own purpose

In closing, I would also just like to add that, although this article sort of puts down vocabulary lists and sentences, they have their places. Collocations on their own aren’t going to be the end-all-be-all of your Japanese studies. They all have their strengths and weaknesses, and you should study whatever you feel is most appropriate for a given situation. Studying vocabulary words in isolation absolutely will not hurt you–but it may just leave holes in your knowledge that you need to fill in through additional means. Sentences might make sense in the context of using something like Subs2SRS. Sentences may also be necessary for studying certain grammatical forms, or function words that operate on a longer clause. Take what works for you, and discard what doesn’t. I’ll probably be talking a bit more about collocations in the near future, so please bookmark this site or subscribe to the rss feed if you want to stay informed!

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