Using a Highlighter in Learning Japanese

The highlighter pen. A classic for the ages. Surround words and phrases with color, and acquire reign over them for eternity. Unbridled power. The highlighter was destined for Japanese language learning. Japan pretty much invented the precursor to the highlighter after all.

Should You use A Highlighter to Remember Japanese 1

Just one problem. Highlighting doesn’t help you remember. Colors are supposed to “highlight” words or sentences and make them stand out. That which stands out is supposed to be sucked in by your memory. Except it isn’t.

I was a Japanese textbook highlighter addict.

My textbooks were like magical rainbows. However, I took a slightly different approach. I highlighted everything I didn’t know, instead of trying to remember what I did. After making a highlight, I’d look up the word in a dictionary (J-E). I had lofty goals of returning to all of these books, and reviewing them to strengthen my abilities. I never did.

Writing out something by hand, or even typing it out, helped reinforce what I was learning. Putting a yellow stroke over it did not. It didn’t provide the secret signal to my brain to LEARN.

Should You use A Highlighter to Remember Japanese 2

What about the return to review everything I built up through colors? Yeah… that didn’t happen either. I was moving forward, fast. I could move to the next beautiful unknown textbook filled with intrigue and wonder, or return to a colorful mess of hundreds of things I would have to make sense of. Which sounds more appealing to you? The more these past rainbowed relics piled up, the more the thought of revisiting them vanished.

Moving from highlighter folly to highlighter prowess

My technique failed me miserably. It was time to put my highlighter to rest. I assumed I would never pull it out from it’s retirement.

Until Anki and J-J sentences.

As native books became one of the centers of my studying, I needed a way to keep track of all the words/sentences I wanted to take from those books and add to Anki. Stopping to look up a word and add it to Anki every time I came across something I didn’t know did not work. It spelled doom for any enjoyment (motivation) to continue. But I still wanted to know those words as I was seeing them in everything I was reading.

So the highlighter emerged once again.

Should You use A Highlighter to Remember Japanese 3

I began highlighting unknown words I wanted to look up. However, the purpose for highlighting them was to be saved for Anki entry later. I never interrupted my current enjoyment. Later on, when I began my Anki time, I would go through a book, one word at a time. And it worked.

This type of highlighting wasn’t about review. It was a fresh look at words I wanted to learn. It was a new quantifiable goal that I could go through daily. This is how I progressed through books and how I created my own Anki cards.

Life is easy today in highlighter land

Should You use A Highlighter to Remember Japanese 4

The highlighter pen has been mostly replaced with the highlighter function of E-book readers like Kindle. If I was still using this method today, I would be in word highlighter heaven. It’s instant, easy to return to, and you can effortlessly copy/paste words and their definitions directly into Anki. I didn’t have this life, but you do.

Highlighting away?

Have you used a highlighter (pen or e-reader function?) How do you use it?

Related posts:

The following two tabs change content below.


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


Using a Highlighter in Learning Japanese — 13 Comments

  1. I don’t have the option of highlighting in games, and prefer physical books to digital, so I’ve had to get a little more creative.

    What I do instead is keep a running notepad on my phone of unknown words I want to add, as well as their sentences for context. I used to enter them manually with the phone keyboard, but that was kind of awful. Nowadays I use a voice input app called 音声入力まっしゅ and it makes taking notes pretty effortless. I even get extra speaking practice as a bonus!

    • I like playing games too, and a method that has worked well for me has been taking screenshots when words come up that I want to learn for later (easy to do on PC but also PS4 and Vita). Then when I sit down to do ANKI I can just go through the images and copy the sentences, and even use text capture to help if I run into an unknown Kanji. That lets me play without having to be interrupted while saving lots of words for later, same idea that Adam is getting at I think.

      I prefer physical books as well though, so I’m in the same boat as you on that one!

  2. I could never bring myself to permanently mark any of my physical novels or manga, but I have taken to highlighting entries in a J-J dictionary I purchased recently. I highlight words that I’ve added or am going to add to Anki so that they stand out for quick reference, if needed.

    • I’m with you on this one… I never could bring myself to use a highlighter in a book. One approach I have tried is to use small see-through post-it notes. It is almost like highlighting except you can remove them when you are done with it.

    • I know a lot of people that feel similar to you in regards to marking up their books.

      Silwing provides a great alternative though!

  3. I don’t use a highlighter pen for pretty much the same reasons Adam outlined above. Instead, I use thin Post-It notes about the same width as a line in a book. Every time I find a sentence I want to add to Anki, I pop out a little sticker and place it so there’s a sliver of color just poking out at the top of the page. This means there’s no chance of me overlooking anything I found interesting when it comes to creating new cards, and I don’t lose momentum when reading.

    When I do sit down to make new cards, I can find the sentences I want quickly, and when I’m done, I just remove the sticker and stick it back in one of the early pages of the book to use again. I keep using them like this until the glue looses its stickiness.

  4. I bought novelizations of shoujo manga I’ve read and I just read and highlight all the words I don’t know.

    The story is easy to follow since its pretty much line-by-line of the manga, but I’m still highlighting 3-7 words a page.

    I felt bad at first, but once I realized I’m probably never going to read this again, and that a novelization of a manga aimed at 13 year olds isn’t high literature, I got over it. And the eraseable highlighters smudge the ink on the page.

    • I found even with highlights, you can still sell manga/books without a problem once you are finished with them (it doesn’t bother some people seeing it).

  5. Another great idea, eventually when I get over my slump (which will hopefully be soon) I can actually use some of these lol.

    • Yes, please do!

      And sorry to hear about your slump. I’ve seen the way you’ve studied and progressed. You’ll overcome it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *