A lot of us get stuck in learning Japanese or other languages. We get bogged down in the tedium of memorizing new words or studying dry grammatical explanations. Fortunately, a technique known as sentence mining can help break you free from that drudgery and revive your love of language learning.
The challenge with language learning
I’ve talked about my own Japanese language journey and the challenges of reaching “fluency” before.
In a nutshell, you want to get to the point where you can stop learning from textbooks and apps and learn instead from native materials. In other words, instead of “studying”, you’re immersing yourself in TV shows, books, online articles, and daily conversation.
The problem is that getting to the level where you can understand even basic native language materials is a long haul. For Japanese it means knowing, at a minimum:
- Knowing foundational grammar. Sentence structure, verb and adjective conjugations, common forms of expression (e.g., expressing want/need, conditionals, potential, etc.), particles, and other grammatical constructs.
- Words. Lots of ’em. The low watermark for “fluency” is around 10,000 words. Getting your first 2,000 will provide a solid base for understanding the basics of the language and bootstrapping yourself to the next level.
- Kanji/kana. And, of course, as you learn words, you’ll also need to learn the kanji used to spell those words, along with their on/kun readings.
Drowning in my flashcard backlog
Of these three, I always find words the most challenging. Particularly, I’ve struggled with finding an efficient system for learning words that doesn’t eventually become overwhelming.
The way many language learners learn words is by using digital flashcards. Tools like Anki implement a spaced-repetition system (SRS) algorithm that uses success or failure to determine how often you need to review a card. If you know a card well, it pushes out the review to a later date. If you’re struggling to memorize it, it shows it to you more frequently to further memorization.
You can use flashcards any number of ways. But let’s be honest – many of us use them to learn words in isolation. I may have a flashcard for 簡単 with the reverse side showing that it’s pronounced かんたん (kantan) and that it means “easy” in English.
But this approach has a lot of problems. First, it’s very easy to study too much with flashcard systems and find yourself drowning in reviews. People can spend up to an hour a day clearing their reviews. Visit any language learning forum and you’ll find years-long threads on managing review backlog.
Second, it doesn’t account for context.
A single word often doesn’t have a single meaning. This is especially true of verbs. Tae Kim gives a great example with the verb 乗る (noru; to ride). The use of 乗る is straightforward in a sentence like 電車に乗る (densha ni noru – ride the train). But it has many other uses, like in 話に乗る (hanashi ni noru; jump at the chance) or 調子に乗る (choushi ni noru; to get excited, to act cocky).
取る (toru) is another good example. Jisho lists 17 separate English meanings for this verb depending on context. Japanese dictionary Goo has its own entry broken down into 13 separate categories. Sure, you can 取る an object, like a salt shaker. But you can also grow old (年を取る; toshi o toru) and take something the wrong way (悪く取る; waruku toru).
Sentence mining: learning usage, co-locations, and more
How do you get a handle on all these diverse meanings and usages of a word?
One popular tactic is to abandon studying individual words. Instead, you study the words in the context of sentences.
In other words, you wouldn’t study 取る on its own. You’d drill it in a sentence such as その本を取ってみてください (sono hon o totte mite kudasai; check that book out) or 中立の立場を取る (chuuritsu no tachiba o toru; take a neutral stance).
Language learners refer to this practice of finding and drilling sentences as sentence mining. The goal is to find useful sentences and phrases – usually short – that help solidify the meaning of a word as someone might use it in the real world.
Start sentence mining without mining
Where do you find sentences, though? Especially when you’re just starting out?
If you’re just learning a language, the best way to start is with a good textbook or a language-learning app. My personal preference is to use learning apps that pair sentence drills with solid explanatory texts breaking down grammar and cultural points.
My current favorite app for this is Rocket Languages. (Note: Affiliate link – we earn a commission a no cost to you if you make a purchase.) Rocket is my favorite way to get in on the ground floor of a language. They have in-depth explainers at the start of each unit where native speakers discuss the unit’s grammatical points in-depth. The rest of the units are chock full of sentences along with functions to practice listening, speaking, reading, and recall.
One thing I like about Rocket Languages is that it’s free-form. You can hop back and forth between lessons and review previous lessons easily. This is great for an ADHD brain like me. It lets me hop around and learn a little bit of various grammatical concepts – e.g., present tense vs. past tense – simultaneously.
Unlike Duolingo or similar apps, Rocket Languages isn’t just a bunch of drills. Each unit has several podcast-style lessons that are full of Korean dialog from native speakers. And each lesson describes critical grammar points in detail.
Confession: I haven’t used Rocket for Japanese (though I’ve taken a tour of the lessons). However, I do use it daily for learning Korean and have found it one of the more useful systems.
Advanced sentence mining
At some point, you’ll want to ditch the training wheels and tackle native materials head-on. When that time comes, you can do your own sentence mining. Copy or write down sentences or phrases that you find interesting or useful. Add them to an SRS deck like Anki or Memrise and practice a few every day. Or, just keep them in a notebook and review them when you have a spare 10 minutes.
How do you select sentences you find in the wild? Which ones work best? Here’s my advice.
Select short sentences
You’ll want to select sentences (or even sections of sentences) that are relatively short. Alternatively, copy a section of text and bold the portion that particularly interests you. Long sentences will quickly become a chore to review regularly.
Select sentences with one unknown element
Ideally, select a sentence with a single element – a grammar point, a word – that you haven’t mastered yet. The more unknowns in a sentence, the harder it’ll be to learn anything useful from it.
When should you stop sentence mining?
At some point – e.g., when you’re watching shows or reading novels and understanding over 80% of what you ingest – I’d say ditch sentence mining entirely. At that point, you’re approaching fluency. Mass exposure and repetition can replace sentence mining as your primary learning strategy.
Learning another language should be fun! But rote memorizing bits of information quickly becomes painful and boring. With sentence mining, you can learn new words and grammatical concepts the same way they’re used in the real world.