"Playful" Vocabulary Learning? (Gestures, Visualization, Stories etc.)

When I started learning French, I simply exposed myself to the language and after a few hundred hours of listening and reading I reached an “okay-ish” level in French. 6-9 months ago I started learning Japanese with the same approach but it seems like “just expose yourself to the language” is much less effective.

That´s why I´m experimenting with some “techniques” that are supposed to help with vocabulary learning.

  1. Linking words to gestures and actions

After opening a door in my apartment, I sometimes say “Boku wa doa wo aketa” (I opened the door). When I take out the trash, I sometimes say/think “Kusai!” (that stinks!). I learned “Head, shoulders, knees and toes” in Japanese and did the “dance” a few times…you get the idea.

  1. Visualizaton

Whenever it´s possible, I associate homophones with different senses/actions. “Hana” either means “nose” or “flower”. I associate “hana” with the action of touching my nose and I imagine a girl with a flower in her hair to get the other meaning. When I read “Ame ga futteimasu” I don´t only think “That translates to ‘the rain is falling’” I visualize that it´s raining outside.

  1. Describing what happens around you

When I go to the supermarket, I try to name everything I see around me (cars, grass, street, street light etc.) and try to come up with sentences (“Those people are in love”, “The car is turning right”, "The baby is crying…etc.)

  1. Kanji-Stories

Making up stories to learn the Kanji (Chinese characters used in Japanese) http://kanjidamage.com

What are your experiences with “techniques” like that? Are there any good techniques that I haven´t listed?


When I was a complete noobie to German I tried to associated German words with something. For me is sometime associating to my other 2 languages, mainly in english because it is a germanic language. For example I try to use word stresses like," Hin-Ter/hinter" and connect it to," Be-HInd/behind". Other times I just try to imagine the words or sentence eyes open, then close. It helps me about most of the time.

“For example I try to use word stresses like,” Hin-Ter/hinter" and connect it to," Be-HInd/behind". "

Yeah, this happened naturally when I was learning English/French. Doing this is muuuuuch more difficult in Japanese though.
I can´t really find a connection between “taijou” and “sun”, “nigeru” and “to escape” etc…

That´s why I´m looking for techniques, that don´t rely on similarities with other languages.


@Paule. You have a similar playfulness to your studying I just love. I, too, have experimented with linking and visualization. I’ve got the head. shoulders, knees, and toes song down pat in Korean as well as other silly songs like the 3 Bears that comes with it’s own dance.

When I couldn’t remember the word 생각하다 (seang-gak-ha-da, to think), I put myself into a thinking pose with 4 fingers drumming on my forehead to remind me it has 4 syllables and think “Gak! I HAD TO remember!”

I should try the describing what is around me. I practically rolled on the floor when I saw your Kanji link is to “Yo Mama” jokes.

I create my own flashcards, but that is time consuming to come up with a new visualization or memory cue for each word. I discovered a deck of 1000 Korean words on Memrise that has 5 or 6 memory ques for each word, and I can browse until I find one I like. It is faster, and someone else has already done the hard part of coming up with things to link memories.

Have you played Karuta? Even though I am not learning Japanese, I have been tempted to get these poetry cards. I know I saw an anime series on Crunchyroll that was one of the Karuta stories per episode. I can’t remember the name of it. There is also the anime series Chihayafuru.

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@Paul- May I suggest a girl named “Hannah” smelling a flower? (I know absolutely no Japanese; I’m just supposing hana sounds something like Hannah.)

And if taijou is pronounced as it looks to me:), I’m imagining a person, or even the sun itself, having once visited Thailand and fallen in love with a delicious fruit juice there. Now the person in the sun or the sun itself, is longing for some of that “Thai Jui(ce)”!

Associating actions with the words is like using TPR with yourself. (“There’s memory in muscle,” says Dr. James Asher.) An acquaintance of mine who had no experience with language learning, felt she made a breakthrough in learning Romanian when she began connecting signs from American Sign Language to the Romanian words.

The neat thing about knowing several languages as Paul does is that you have so many more chances to make these kinds of connections…I once visited Malawi and learned a few words of Chichewa. One of them helped me to remember the Russian word for “buy”. That was a fun connection!

So…not really adding any ideas here, just typing the thoughts that were sparked by Paul’s post.

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Of course, if you ever want to play a game of Hanfuda (Go Stop) with me, I have learned the basic rules, but I refuse to use money for betting as I know enough to know I should not be gambling! I bought myself a set of the flower cards for my Christmas present last year. I like the tactile fun of holding the cards and learning the game and saying it all in Korean. Great way to spice up my number practice by counting the score in Korean. I am sure you could do the same all in Japanese.


This way of thinking is pretty useful. That´s how I learn Kanji. “Hana” is pronounced the same way in German and Japanese. So calling the girl “Hana” and imagining that she has a flower in her nose might be even better xD

“Associating actions with the words is like using TPR with yourself.”

I guess you´re right.^^

“There’s memory in muscle,” says Dr. James Asher"

Definately. Have you ever tried singing in a foreign language while playing an instrument? Impossible without muscle memory. Learning a foreign language through “sign language translations” sounds like an ingenious idea.^^


I looked up “karuta” on Wiki and watched the first episode of the Anime. Interesting stuff.
“Karuta” is easy to remember because it sounds like the German word “Karte” (card) with a Japanese accent. (PS: it´s borrowed from Portuguese, “carta”)

“I like the tactile fun of holding the cards and learning the game and saying it all in Korean. Great way to spice up my number practice by counting the score in Korean. I am sure you could do the same all in Japanese.”

Yeah, playing card games (or board games or video games or…) is great way to practice a language. Learning to count in a foreign language is really hard for some reason.^^

I have a dreadful memory and can never tell a joke, but I can learn vocab and grammar from popular sayings or jokes: the sillier, the better. Things like “a computer helps us to solve the problems that didn’t exist before the invention of the computer” seem to stick with me. “Doctor, doctor, I am invisible.” “Next, please!”

My approach is quite similar, I try TPR (Total Physical Response), i.e. I say/hear a word and at the same time a make a gesture related to it. I repeat it at least 5 times. Sometimes, I try to create a fun/strange sentence using my new words, for example ‘Jack draws Rose, Jack drowns’ (in this case, I know what is ‘draws’ and I used it to learn ‘drowns’) and sometimes I used sentences using my native language.