Using Pictures to Aid in Dictionary Understanding

Not all definitions in the dictionary are created equal.  Now assuming I’m not just bad at visualizing definitions, I find using images in Anki cards for words that are not defined well to be absolutely essential in studying Japanese.

There are some words that you can’t learn from the definition.

This is a very important concept to remember.  Most people know and understand this when it comes to their native language, but when they are studying Japanese, they completely forget that often you can’t just use a dictionary.

Generally these type of words fall into two categories:  1)  The description doesn’t give enough to your imagination to visualize it, 2) The thing is pretty unique to Japan, which makes it even harder to visualize, since you’ve never seen it before.

Here is a short list of some of the categories that contain elusive definitions:

1.  Trees
2.  Plants + Flowers
3.  Insects
4.  Colors
6.  Made-up/fairy tale/legendary creatures, animals, plants, etc.  (ex.  Tengu)
7.  Fabric/Textures
8.  Birds
9.   Japanese Food (or any food for that matter)
10.  Fruits and Vegetables
11.  Fish
12.  Tools

Words found in these categories are necessary to having well-rounded Japanese.

What’s wrong with the definitions for words in these categories?

Let’s do a quick example for a simple word.  Assume someone just said the phrase:


The word you don’t know is probably .  So you look it up in your J-J dictionary, and what do you get:


If you couldn’t follow this definition, you are not alone.

Problems (headaches?) with this definition:

1.  It is incredibly long.  This slows down your Anki reviews.
2.  The vocabulary is incredibly brutal.  With definitions like these, if your Japanese level isn’t 50+, the definition branching process isn’t very effective because looking up the words you don’t know lead you to similar definitions.  To be honest, there were one or two words in the definition that I had never heard of.  While of course I look up the J-J definitions, for the sake of showing you the ridiculousness, the word  紡錘形 in English means “spindle shape”.  Yea . . .
3.  There are no sample sentences.
4.  It is discouraging because you won’t understand a lot of it and it makes you feel like your Japanese is lacking.
5.  It uses some extremely advanced kanji that are rarely used elsewhere.
6.  It uses the word itself in the definition.
7.  Even if you read through the whole definition and understand everything the definition is describing, you may still not understand the word.

If we translate the above definition of 鮭 to English (which you wouldn’t actually be doing in your real studies), you’d roughly get:

Of the 鮭 species of ocean fish.  About 1 meter long.  Its body is a spindle shape.  Its adipose fin is near its tail fin.  It’s backside is a dark blue.  It’s stomach-side is a silver white.  It swims in the North Pacific ocean, and enters rivers to lay its eggs.  Its meat is a dark red color.

Now I picked an easy word that everyone knows in English.  This is the definition of salmon.  Now imagine how much worse it would be if it fell into one of the categories where it was unique to Japan or something you’ve never seen before.  I’d give another example, but I think one monster definition is enough for you to get the picture.

Putting images in Anki cards

What makes this method so great is its simplicity.  Insert the unknown word into Google Image and then save the picture.  Insert it to into the answer side of the Anki card, and have it appear alongside the J-J definition.  So similar to the definition, you won’t see the picture until you’ve answered the card.

If the definitions are so difficult, why don’t I just cheat and look up the word in English?

Because you are doing J-J, and using English as a crutch is dangerous to your studies.  Trust me on this.  However, in a later post I will deal with the one exception of where I believe using English should be allowed. 

I like pictures, should I just add them for as many cards as I can?

Definitely not.  Struggling through the J-J definitions is what improves your Japanese on a very deep level.  Save pictures for Anki cards when you really need them.

I bet you were expecting me to use a certain cliché about pictures in this post.  Well I didn’t.  Sorry to disappoint you.

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Founder of Jalup. Spends most of his time absorbing and spreading thrilling information about learning Japanese.


Using Pictures to Aid in Dictionary Understanding — 5 Comments

  1. Not to undermine the awesome post you made about the power of pictures (great idea), but… this post made me think about my favorite J->J dictionary… an elementary school dictionary! Yay!

    The definition for “鮭” is:

    To me, that definition is easy to understand, and I know immediately which fish they’re describing. Maybe I spend too much time watching nature shows, though. You get a bonus of learning the names of their… delicious? :x ..roe.



    ….maybe it doesn’t work as well with plants XD
    I don’t even know with pictures what the rest of those things are, though :O Wait, is that one frog legs? :X

    Anyways… I love my kid dictionary >____>

  2. If you add pictures to the J-J definitions, isn’t there a risk that your brain might swiftly associate that picture with whatever word you know the picture of in your own language, thus undermining the J-J part?

    Do you think it would be a good idea to insert the picture into the answer section but way down so you’d have to scroll down to see it? That way you’d see the Japanese answer/definition first, reflect on that for a while until you have an idea what it means and then finally scroll down to the “second” answer which would be the picture.

    • I think you learn to associate the picture with the Japanese word since you are looking at both at the same time. Of course your mind may shoot to the English definition, but that may happen regardless of the picture being there, and this general problem fades with time.

      Though I do think that sounds like a good idea having to see the Japanese first before you can see the picture.

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