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Sep 3, 2011

Building Vocabulary Without Kana

If you recall from the post Building Vocabulary with an SRS we focused on how to look up words that had furigana, or a kana guide to reading the kanji. While the majority of cases in beginner-oriented media will have furigana, upon progressing into media targeted at older audiences these kana guides often disappear. This leads to the difficult situation of looking up a word without knowing how to pronounce or type it. Here are some techniques for looking up these words without kana.

  • The best situation is where a word is in digital media that you can select. In such cases simply copy the word from the document and paste into a dictionary. I realize it's silly to state this, but perhaps some people have forgotten about this shortcut.
  • The next method is for people who learned the kanji with the Heisig book. Oftentimes when I would find a word that I didn't know and couldn't find a kana guide for, I could remember the Heisig keywords with some effort. If you can remember the keyword for the kanji in the word, plug them into the “Study” page of and then copy/paste the character.
  • This approach is best for those who have been studying for a while or already have an extensive vocabulary, but can work for others as well. If you can't figure out how to say the particular word that you are looking at, then try writing words that share kanji with it. A simple example is 取引, where you could realize you know 取る and 引く. Simply remove all of the extra characters, slap the kanji together, and you can now search the new term in a dictionary.
  • The final means for looking up words without kana that I'll discuss is to use an electronic dictionary with a writing function. These dictionaries are extremely valuable in moving on from beginner level material, so investing in one will definitely help you to keep moving forward. With such a dictionary you write the unknown word on the screen and the program finds the word you wanted. For a guide to getting a cheap electronic dictionary with this function for the Nintendo DS, read The Ultimate Portable Dictionary article.

With these techniques for finding words without kana you should be able to continue building your vocabulary from even more media sources. If you still cannot find a word after employing these methods, then my advice is to leave the word where it is. That word doesn't deserve to take up any more of your time. If it's truly worth learning, then it will appear before you again another time.

Finally, I realize that I have omitted a method for looking up these words: a kanji dictionary. I personally have never used a traditional kanji dictionary because they are simply too time consuming. If you cannot find a word using the above methods, then I say again - skip the word. Using a bulky and time consuming kanji dictionary is not worth the effort. If you really want to find a specific word, then get an electronic dictionary or some other electronic kanji identifying program.

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