Don’t Learn Things Just In Case

Have you ever been reading through something, come across a word you don’t know, and look it up on the spot, add it to Anki, or save it for later? Of course. That’s a major part of learning Japanese and is completely normal. But have you ever been in the same situation, and after finding the meaning of the word, thought to yourself:

Do I really need to know this?

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After a few seconds of thought, you decide you might as well add it “just to be sure.” It’s Japanese after all.

I used to be obsessed with learning everything.

Every word, every saying, every field of Japanese. And I would add everything to my Anki deck. For those of you that have been through The One Deck, you’ve probably come across some words where you wonder why they were in there. My train of thought was, “hey it’ll just make my Japanese better.” If there is the remote possibility of using it in the future, it has value to keep around.

This results in Anki bloat

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Anki Bloat: filling Anki with things you don’t really need, but are keeping them there just in case.

I learned over time that this was bad. One word here or there adds up to dozens of words, then hundreds of words. And it’s not a one time thing. Words you aren’t sure if you’ll ever need you rarely see in the real world. Which means that you aren’t getting outside reinforcement, and the only time you see them is through Anki.

Anki works because of its combination of immersing with native materials. If the only time you ever see a word is in Anki, it becomes harder to remember, especially when these “learn just in case words” often have unique kanji that aren’t used in other words. Now you have words that frequently appear in your reviews because you keep getting them wrong.

They are taking up space. They frustrate you. They make Anki harder to use. Over time as these words appeared, I had to remove them to avoid the annoyance of seeing them.

What creates bloat and what doesn’t?

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This comes down you, and is why you must make a choice. The words found in the Jalup 5000 you almost always need to know to be a functioning adult. But once you go off into the wild, you start to have to reflect upon what you want.

Do you need to know dozens of different types of trees?
Do you need to know all the technical terms used in metallurgy?
Do you need to learn smaller cities/towns around Japan?
Do you need to learn all the elements of the periodic table?

It depends. Your job, your location, your personality, or your interests may say yes. Or no.

Make the choice.

Don’t feel guilty for not learning things. Decide “I don’t need to know this.” This eventually becomes a split second decision. This is how you function in English. You need to do this for Japanese as well.

Bloat stories?

Have you chased any words or sets of words based on certain themes that you realize now you completely had no need to ever touch?

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


Don’t Learn Things Just In Case — 23 Comments

  1. At where I’m at, the question I try to ask myself is: ‘Do I need to know this RIGHT NOW?’ If the answer is no, and it’s a word I will eventually need to know, I know I’ll encounter it again.

    • Yeah, you’ll always get another chance if it’s an important word or expression. If you don’t, then there would have been little value in learning it anyway.

      Manan once mentioned something about this that iirc he called the “deja vu” effect. Basically it’s where you skip a word, then see it come up again later, and go “oh yeah, I saw this before” – and when that happens, it’s probably a sign that it’s worth learning.

      Also notable is that you probably don’t have to add words that are obvious the first time you see them. Like let’s say you know 直接 and 交通, then when you see 直通 you’ll probably be able to figure it out on the spot. In those cases I just confirm that I’ve guessed the meaning/reading correctly, and if so I don’t even worry about adding it to Anki.

  2. I have been doing this for the last 3 years and I have accumulated 9160 words outside the scope of JLPT! Fortunately, I haven’t added them to Anki yet. I just saved them on Tagaini Jisho. I agree that it can be an unhealthy obsession. There are anime series that I gave up on watching because I was frustrated that I couldn’t catch and record each and every word. When I know a certain word in English, I’m almost sure to record it in Japanese if I encounter that word.

  3. When reading this article I came to think of a very good example of when you see that this is done naturally in your native language. As part of a party game I have often encountered a challenge we usually call “Category”. The first person chooses a category (that might be tree species, car brands, chemical elements, Pokemon or whatever that person feels like) then he/she starts out with naming a thing in that category and then the next person names a thing and so forth. The first person to either repeat a thing that was already said or being unable to name a new thing has lost. Sometimes the challenge goes on for a long time if that particular group of friends are all interested in that particular category. But most times it comes to an end within the first few rounds since at least one person has no clue about things in that category. And it’s not like anybody starts pointing fingers and saying “You suck at [insert-native-language]” because of that ;) at most we’re laughing saying “You suck at [category]” and that’s okay. You can either fix it if you want to by spending time learning about the topic or you can decide you do not care since other things are more important to you.

    • Great story to explain the concept (also, this game sounds like it would work really well as a game to play in Japanese!).

      It’s important to remember that you are allowed to suck at things in Japanese, and it says nothing of your ability.

  4. Great article. Having left the safety of Jalup 5000 recently, this is something that I have been thinking about a good deal myself.

    I try to limit myself to words that feel common. The first word is usually easy enough, since you have a nice sentence and all. However, for me most words still lead to branching, and this is where I find that good judgement is needed. Every branched word requires a sample sentence. If I have trouble finding a suitable one, then it was probably not a very common word, so this is another rule I use to filter what I add. I am also fairly accepting of words I don’t fully grasp in definitions. If I understand what a word means from the kanji and definition, then I am OK with having one or two words in the definition that I don’t fully understand. In my experience gaps fill themselves over time if they are important.

    • As you found out, branching can be dangerous in this area because while your target word you want/need, sometimes some of the definition words you don’t. This becomes really apparent in science, medicine, animals, insects, etc. (at least it did for me). Which is why it’s okay to not know every word in a definition if you understand your target word.

  5. It’s like finding an epic sword (word/sentence) in an RPG (anime/manga) that you’re just dying to use, but it’s 10 levels too high for you. You lug it round in your pack (anki) for hours and hours, you sacrifice so much other booty (words/ sentences you can understand) that you could have had if you’d just left it, stashed it (suspended) or sold it (deleted). You finally reach the right level to use it and then the next shop you come to you see a better one. Which you can’t afford (understand) yet because of all the booty you sacrificed earlier to keep your current sword.

    If only I’d learnt this the easy way XD

    • Haha loving it. And sometimes it’s like finding an epic sword and carrying it around even though you fight with an axe.

  6. When I find a word or phrase I’m thinking about putting into Anki, I have been checking it out on to see if it’s common or not. If it gets a few hundred hits, then I add it. I used to just look at the number of Google hits, but 用例 is much more specialized for that purpose. Also, it really gives you a feel for how the word is usually used.

    • Just bookmarked this site. Thank you :’) I have a huge list of underlined words in a novella I am reading in Japanese and recently I had to learn over 100 words just to make it to 向け which in hindsight feels silly. I was just so excited to start making/mining J-J cards! However, many of the cards required to get to 向け were from the Jalup series or from Manan’s Beyond Jalup deck. Some were from the The One Deck.

      * But I got lucky because 向け has over 30,000 hits so I didn’t end up wasting my effort :’)

  7. I would love to use this advice, but unfortunately I’m in a university course where in the first semester they had us learn “astronomical observations”. At first it was a joke between the students, but it was actually on the test (ノ・Д・)ノ ~┻━┻

  8. Good article illustrating an important point.

    Instead of “just in case” vocabulary, it’s better to replace those with “just for fun” vocabulary. Sometimes there are words you think won’t show up anywhere else but just for fun you take the time to make a mental note of it. That fun association makes the word easier to learn and oftentimes your “just for fun” word actually shows up in many places. For example, you might have thought that you don’t need the word for zebra but just for fun you decide to learn it. Well, then you find yourself reading about escaping zebras in Japan!

  9. Ugh, I’ve been bitten by this bug before. The way I deal with it is, if the word is too hard to understand despite context and the definition (which might have too many words I don’t know), I just don’t add it. I can learn it later.

    I work on low hanging fruit right now.

    Though I’m more than happy to look up words I am curious about to get some gist of the meaning… then keep going on.

    But there’s not much more demotivating that failing all these cards you added “just in case” that you never see in your readings and watching. I’ve deleted cards because of how annoying it is.

    • I used to do this a lot with my own deck. And when I kept coming back to cards years later that I thought “I have never ever seen this word used anywhere in reality again,” I finally tossed them, wishing I had never added them in the first place.

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