Embracing the Neverending Dictionary Dive — 34 Comments

  1. Oh, nice!

    If I may be allowed to get a bit jargon-y you’re handling the dictionary tree by doing a depth-first search implemented with a stack! Which is that special kind of clever that in retrospect seems obvious but which never actually occurred to me (I had been doing breadth-first, which made things too quickly turn into an ugly mess).

    One nice thing about this approach is if you’re using a bookmarklet to look things up (like this one) it’s pretty easy to start from a word and pretty quickly click through to one whose definition is comprehensible, which is a nice confidence-booster.

    • Yup, that’s exactly how I think of it.

      And yes, a more temporary stack like a keeping all the definitions you don’t yet understand in browser tabs is also a good approach; it has the advantage of getting to cards you understand sooner, but the disadvantage of a greater potential of losing some of the tree if you don’t finish it before you close your browser. The main goal is adding understandable J-J cards to anki though, and you’re not wasting a ton of work in reading those definitions and opening those tabs, so I think it’s really just a matter of preference.

  2. You’re totally right about the dictionary dive seeming endless! The first Japanese sentence I added is out to 283 definitions unknown, and I’m still growing at a rate faster than I’m resolving branches, and the branches have covered everything from herbalism and trees, bugs, dinosaurs, textile terms, and accounting. At one point, I asked myself, “When the heck am I ever going to need to know the Japanese term for Mesozoic Era and Dinosaur?”

    The answer: When I was taking the JLPT N1. One of the questions was a paleontologist describing her craft.

    You never know when these “useless” words might come in handy for something other than playing Chrono Trigger in Japanese, so just follow the process and come out the other side as being much closer to fully fluent. Cherry-picking fluency might be tempting, but it might also be futile in the end. :)

  3. So if I’m understanding this correctly, I have to take the sentences I find and put them in my stack, even if I don’t understand the word(s) inside them.

    I also have to keep ‘diving’ in the dictionary FROM those sentences that I may not completely understand and repeat adding sentences from ‘deeper’ in the dictionary?

    Then while doing that, examine my stack deck and transfer cards I understand to my regular J-J deck? And if I don’t understand I take a word from them(for further stacking)?

    I’m just clarifying, sorry.

    • No, don’t enter sentences you don’t understand if you have a dive in progress. Just keep going on that dive fast enough to supply your preferred new-cards-per-day number.

      The only thing I recommend entering outside of the dive in progress is sentences that contain something new but that you understand without diving, such as figuring out from context or you understood the first definition if you happened to feel like looking it up. And if you are meeting your desired new cards per day, this is optional, though I think it is nice because the cards are both easier to make and more interesting to study.

      Once you finish the dive, then find a new sentence with a word that you don’t understand. If you’re like me, that won’t take any time at all so you don’t need to stockpile these ahead of time. But if you do want to stockpile some choice ones, don’t put them together with the dive; that should only have words from a single tree in it at any given time. Put them in a different deck (or tag) that you also don’t study, and then pick your favorite when it’s time for a new dive.

      Thanks for asking! On the internet, if someone has a question, there are often other people wondering the same thing.

  4. Pretty interesting method, and one I might try were I starting J-J now.

    Since I did nothing like this, let me explain how I dealt with the very difficult stages of beginning J-J.

    Simply put, just cut any branching definitions short when you feel they have gotten too long for your taste. That is to say, after the tree reaches a significant size, merely look the definitions on the “leaves” on a J-E dictionary (or at least enough of them to confirm the guesses you might have been making along the way).

    Some may view this as “cheating” but, presumably, the actual goal of doing J-J is to train the ability to figure out Japanese words based on Japanese sentences and, provided you do at least SOME branching, this method achieves just that.

    • Sorry for the double post.

      I made a dictionary-dive-deck with epwing2anki and ordered it with morphman [by japanese definition]. This method is great!

  5. The problem is that I have never, ever found a definition where I understand 100% of the words. It’s very frustrating. Maybe I understand all of them but a synonym. Then, that synonym leads me to another hundred words I don’t know, and it’s off to the races again…

    Heh. I might buy an elementary school dictionary as well.

    • STOP!

      You most definitely DO NOT need to understand ALL the words in the definition. All you need is to understand enough that you are convinced that your understanding of the word is in the right direction. And, furthermore, it’s perfectly fine, and probably inevitable, that your understanding of words at the beginning is vague (and possibly very vague). That vagueness will eventually be chipped away at by finding the words in more and more contexts.

      And, in fact, expecting to find definitions where you understand ALL the words is actually pretty much a fool’s errand… Having by now found countless (well, I guess technically they COULD be counted…) such definitions, I can say that those tend to be words that I could already pretty much guess the meaning of just by looking at the Kanji (and I’d expect this to be true all the way up to the high (fluent) levels, at which point the words one is missing are probably more technical/idiomatic in nature). Which if you think about it actually means that the word might not be even worth making into an Anki card. Words that are trully new enough to deserve tackling tend to bring other such words along.

      So all in all I’d recommend against the elementary dictionary. Embrace the uncertainty and the vagueness. Allow words to be shaped gradually from an initial broad understanding, and let go of the misconception that you need to have very precise notions associated to words from the very beginning (a misconception caused by only using a fully developed native language for pretty much all of your conscious life).

      • Thank you for the reply!

        That certainly is much more liberating. I guess I’m a bit of a perfectionist, which can work against me at times. It is a bit vague and a bit more unsure than attaching each word to an English word, but I like it much better. I prefer thinking in concepts more than thinking in translations.

        Since writing, I’ve found, a much more minimal dictionary. It makes my life a lot easier. Most of the definitions are only one or two sentences and they are usually much easier to understand than Yahoo! Sometimes, you sacrifice nuances and on occasion you’ll find yourself in infinitely cycling definitions, but it does pretty well.

        • Good to hear you feel a bit “liberated”. Honestly, it’s a bit disheartning seeing someone beating themselves up over not being able to do something that they shouldn’t really expect to be able to do. I’d say that an important part of good “perfeccionism” is to make sure you are not trying to do the impossible.

          Here’s my prefered analogy for how J-J (and Japanese learning in general) actually works: think of it as building a puzzle (though admittedly a very large puzzle, and the ways in which the “pieces” connect to each other are much more complex than any puzzle you are likely to find).

          At any time, you have an incomplete puzzle in front of you (your current knowledge). You then pick a new piece (a word, say), and your objective is to add it to the puzzle. Demanding perfect understanding of the word is like demanding that you both place the piece in the exact right place from the get go and also understand what the picture on it is. But this is clearly unreasonable, as maybe you don’t even have any pieces already placed that connect to it, and furthermore, you may even have trouble understanding what’s in a piece until you connect it to a few others.

          But, a lot of the time, you can still probably guess around where the piece should be placed, even if you don’t actually link it to anything, and, as it turns out, that itself is enough to progress. Eventually after you place enough pieces around a certain region the way to actually link the pieces naturally becomes clear, and you start getting much better picture of that region.

            • Glad you like it. And actually, your Tetris analogy played a role in me coming up with it. The analogy I’ve always favored for “personal use” is that of a graph, and I’d never actually bothered trying to find an analogy that non mathematicians would understand. But then I saw the Tetris analogy, which is quite nice, and I was trying to figure out the things about that analogy that worked, and those that didn’t, and the main critique I had was that “lines don’t really clear up” in Japanese. That is to say, when you complete a line it doesn’t vanish, in fact, it actually stays in place to guide you in completing more and more lines. And if you massage this idea just a little bit more, you pretty much get an abstract conception of what a puzzle is.

    • In step 1, in “understand it”, “it” refers to the sentence that you’ll be studying, not the definition. You only need to understand enough of the definition for it to do what it needs to do for you to understand the sentence. (So for example cards where I understand a new word from context don’t need any branching at all.)

      I came up with this approach to solve precisely that problem of branching on all the words I didn’t understand.

      • This!

        I’ve recently begun the J-J adventure, and several times I’ve had to force myself to remember that the definition is a means to an end, not necessarily the end itself.

        As with English, a good example sentence can say more than a dictionary definition ever could.

        And also like English, a dictionary definition will often have one part that’s way more complex than another. For example, I recently looked up 正面. The definition was:


        At first I got tripped up on 建築物 and I’m like, “Wait, what? Something about a building, or… something?” Then I see おもて and I’m like, “Ooooooh. Easy.” (Then went back and added a new card for 建築物.)

  6. I come up with a better way to manage those “dives”, instead of bookmarking everything or going through anki browser, I simply download a free mindmap program and put my dive in it:

    The “V” mark shows that I understand all the words in the definition, no mark shows that understand the word but the definition has some unknown words (I can come back and learn them ou just move on), and the “X” indicate that I still not learn those words

    • I actually tried something similar and it didn’t work out well for me, maybe because I tried at too low a level – I had too many leaves that pointed to other branches and it was sort of a mess. And it seemed like extra work to do the copy and paste from there to anki instead of just having it in anki to begin with.

      But if it works for you, it is a great visualization!

      Another good free mindmap program is XMind ( )

      • For me it wasn’t a extra work, every time I look to the branch I automatically read some words again which made everything stick so when I was reviewing I didn’t few like I was learning all those stuff for the first time, or maybe I’m just saying that because I come up with that idea, you know, the method is always cooler for the guy who invented it….

        But I still can’t figure out what that diving thing is all about, why not just go thorough random stuff and starting picking up words along the way?

        • The point of diving as presented here is to make English-free anki cards before you’re at a level when you have much chance of understanding a typical J-J definition.

          Whether anki is the right way to learn is a much larger question – in my experience anki is the most efficient, followed acceptably closely by making sure to look things up regularly during input, but it’s must less efficient to do neither and only hope that things stick from context. So the best thing to do really depends on whether you’d rather (1) devote a little of your day to anki (2) interrupt the flow of your daily reading (etc.) looking things up or (3) make progress at a slower rate but have the most enjoyable experience in the short term.

          There’s nothing wrong with “go[ing] thorough random stuff and starting picking up words along the way”; this article is just addressing people who would like to use anki.

          I imagine the mind-map solution is a good answer to use with the approach of referring to a reference while inputting? When you come across a word you don’t remember you can search for it in your map and either the tree is there already and in the perfect presentation to refresh your memory, or if it’s not a word you’ve studied yet you can build a tree for it.

          But I think it would also require a slightly higher level than I was when I first tried this approach in order to not to be branching on all those common words that made the branches connect in a large number of places and necessitated jumping around too much for the structure to be clear.

          • I’m not questioning anki, I use it. When I say “picking up words along the way” I mean going to post, manga page, photo wherever, look up the unknown words and copy-paste the sentences to anki, you know, that stuff that the boys call “mining”. I want to known what the big advantedge of going through a dictionary instead of simplify doing that.

            • Sorry for misunderstanding.

              The end goal is to be able to just enter the sentences from the source; the dictionary diving is in order to be able to use just one J-J definition per new word on a card, and understand them when reviewing even if you didn’t before.

              I guess I still don’t understand how you’re using the mind mapped definition tree once you’ve built it.

  7. -LOL the frame become so big that the “reply” button disappear.
    -So the branching process is all about understanding a definition by learning the words that are holding you back? So how you guys can have dives with hundreds of words?
    -The function of the mind map dive, like all mind maps, is to organize and connect all words when you first face them, so you learn all them in a focused and compact way, instead of dumping them on anki and learn piece by piece. Is like making a song just with words you don’t know and them learn how to sing it so you can learn a ridiculous amount of words in one go.

    -Every time you look to a word you already know (while re-reading a definition or example sentence on anki) you are wasting a precious second that could be spend looking and learning a unknown word, by putting in front of you just the unknown stuff you become more productive, this increase the amount of words and make your knowledge less deep, but since you don’t need to know a word 100% deeply in order do recognize it, learning everything in superficial way becomes a advantage. Looking back that’s what I did with RTK, instead of following Heisign’s advice and given at least 5 minutes for each kanji, I gave just 40 seconds (with means that I just made a story for it and move along) because i knew that I would review those fellas so many times on anki that wouldn’t make any difference in the end if I learned them perfectly or half-assed.

    Ignore the fact the I just come up with this explanation right now and you’ll see it makes sense.

    • “-Every time you look to a word you already know (while re-reading a definition or example sentence on anki) you are wasting a precious second that could be spend looking and learning a unknown word, by putting in front of you just the unknown stuff you become more productive,”

      What? If this was true, what, exactly, would be the point of even doing Anki at all?

      I’ve rambled about this multiple on this website before, but it is in my view wrong to think of “knowing a word” as a binary “yes/no”. Rather “knowledge of a word” is better measured in some sort of continuous scale topped somewhere around “you read and understand the word immediately the moment it appears in front of you even without consciously trying to do so”. A fluid reading experience is only really possible when most words you find are already in that state, and any repetition of a word you do, even on Anki, will keep nudging words forward in that scale. And once a word reaches the top, you will be wasting far less time than a second by reading it again.

      • To retain all those words of course, when you learn in a so fast pace it’s very easy to forget everything but with anki this isn’t a problem. I’m just talking about learning, aka “putting words in your head” if they will stay there or go deeper that’s something that your friends Immersion and Anki will take care of.
        I agree with you, words aren’t all 白と黒, but this mindset doesn’t need to be true, it just need to work, and it works. It keeps you going forward instead of spending time trying to learn perfectly words that you already would master by reviewing them on anki.
        Trust me, I did it with RTK, I’m a living proof, at first I wanted to keep them with me for more than 40 seconds, repeat the stories in my mind, make them more vivid, I thought that there’s just no way I could remember them, but then they went to Anki and after some reviews I felt like I was born knowing those kanjis.

  8. So with this method, you don’t input separate cards for definitions you don’t know? You only pick one card from the card and then add a sentence to it? Though wouldn’t that stop the connections with other Japanese words?

    • You do, just not until *after* doing any branching you need to do on the first card you added. One reason this is helpful is that unlike the sentence to study you don’t need to know every word in the definition, only enough so that it defines the word for you.


      You add card A. You understand everything but the target word in the example sentence, and all but two words in the definition.

      [to branch on] A

      Add card B for one of those words. Again you understand everything but the target word and two words in the definition.

      [to branch on] A B

      Add card C for one of those words. You understand card C so that goes on the study pile instead.

      [to branch on] A B
      [to study] C

      Now B is still the card to branch on, and you still don’t understand it. Add card D, which you also happen to understand.

      [to branch on] A B
      [to study] C D

      Now you understand B so you move it over to the study pile

      [to branch on] A
      [to study] B C D (anki puts them in the order you made them, not the order they were put in the deck, and I haven’t found it worth manually rearranging them)

      Now look at A again since it has again become the most recent card in the to-branch pile. It happens that with just that one additional word you understand what A means between the context of the sentence and what B means in the definition; you can sort of guess what the other word you didn’t know means in the example sentence but you’re not sure and it doesn’t really matter. Move A over to study.

      [to study] A B C D

      (Though if your trees always ended after so few cards, it wouldn’t really matter whether you follow this method or not; it’s a way to make huge trees manageable.)

    • Or did you mean multiple definitions of one word? In that case I do add them all.

      Say B had three separate definitions and you understood the second but not the first or third:

      [to branch on] A B3 B1
      [to study] B2

    • This is meant to be a refinement/minor variation on dictionary diving as presented by Adshap, not a different method.

      What do you mean by adding a card to a definition? (In my way of thinking, cards have definitions rather than definitions having cards.)

      Any time you don’t understand the current most-recently-added card in the to-branch pile, pick a new word to start branching on. It can be either a word in the sentence or a word in the definition of a word you haven’t figured out yet.

      • I mean to say that can you put in definitions to cards like the way Adshap has presented, or is it meant to be this way. Thank you for replying.

        • These cards should end up looking the same as the ones from that post: a sentence containing some new Japanese on the front and a J-J definition for each word you don’t understand on the back.

          The only differences are the order you create the cards in, and the fact that you start studying the cards you do understand before finishing the whole tree.

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