Look to your left. Pick something you see. (If you’re next to a wall, that works.)
Can you name what you see in Japanese?
If so, great! Look to your right. Pick something else. Can you name that? What about the thing next to it?
After years of studying Japanese, on my own and in classroom settings, I realized I still had blank spaces where the words for things I saw literally every day should be. It was way past time to change that, so I started to learn Japanese with pictures.
Why Use Pictures to Learn Japanese?
Using pictures to learn a language is a great way to build your vocabulary for basic objects. Objects are the easiest things to find pictographic representations of, making them the easiest things to study this way. Of course, anything that can be represented with an image can be studied this way. For example, an emotion could be illustrated by an exaggerated facial expression.
Studying with images gives your brain visual connections to the word. Then, when you see the object in a real-world setting, it’s easier to jump to the Japanese word right away—as opposed to thinking of the English word first, then searching your brain for the Japanese equivalent. Having that direct connection to words in your target language is one of the keys to fluency.
Picture learning is especially great for visual learners—anyone who absorbs information more easily in a visual format—but it’s helpful for most other learners, too. In addition to helping you identify objects on sight, having that extra visual context associated with words in your brain strengthens your memory surrounding those words, making it easier to remember vocabulary in general. Normally, you would get that context through natural interactions with the objects in question, but adding images to your study sessions works as a super-handy shortcut.
Plus, there are a lot of words you might want or need to know that you’re unlikely to encounter often enough in the real world to help much with acquiring vocab, and some you might not even encounter at all. If you don’t live in Japan, even the things you do encounter on a regular basis aren’t likely in the proper context for learning. Picture learning is a sort of simplified immersion simulation, where you’re basically creating your own personalized visual learning landscape.
The ability to customize what you’re learning can be used to a huge advantage with this method. In addition to all the everyday objects you can memorize—like things you find around the house, around town and out in nature—there’s an unlimited number of potential targets for personalization. Say you’re interested in a particular field. You can create flashcards with images specific to that field and learn how to talk about it in Japanese. Maybe you like certain genres of anime or you’re really into a video game series: take screenshots and make those into image flashcards.
What Kind of Japanese Language Lessons Can Be Learned with Pictures?
So okay, we’re all ready to get started learning Japanese with pictures—but first we have to think about the types of words we’re going to learn this way. Since you’re using a visual medium, you have to pick words that are easy to identify visually. As mentioned previously, the obvious first place to start is with objects. Objects tend to be pretty easy to narrow down to a one-to-one image-to-word ratio.
For example, if you see a picture of a pencil you can immediately think 鉛筆(えんぴつ), instead of “Hmm, I’m not sure what this image is trying to get across” or “There’s more than one word that this could mean, which one was this picture for again?”
Obviously this isn’t foolproof, because there are only so many highly simplistic images you’ll be able to find, and some objects have more than one Japanese word associated with them. Even in the pencil example, you could potentially use that same image to represent “writing utensil,” “pencil lead” or even “eraser.” To combat this you’ll have to choose your images carefully (which I’ll talk about in just a minute).
To get you started, here are some categories of objects that work well with image flashcards:
- Household items
- School/classroom items
- Office items
- Things in nature
- Culture-related items
Additionally, you can go further into these categories or include specialized groups such as:
- Things like dog breeds, flower species, etc.
- Items associated with certain professions or locations (things on a ship, on a farm, etc.)
- Items associated with interests or hobbies like:
That should give you a lot to work with, but what if you want more? What other types of vocabulary can potentially be learned through pictures? It depends on your brain and your learning style, because as useful as visual learning is, it can get complicated pretty fast.
Some next steps could be:
- Simple relative adjectives (tall vs short, big vs small, etc.)
- Simple, easy-to-identify verbs
But beyond that, you’re likely to run into confusion. Some cases for which you probably do not want to use pictures to learn Japanese include:
- Words with no clear visual representation. (What does “ambiguity” or “warmongering” look like?)
- Objects with too many different names. (More than two will probably trip you up.)
- Images where you can’t tell what you’re supposed to be naming. (“This picture has a flowery field, a dog and a bird…which one do I pick?!”)
Words or Phrases
Typically speaking, learning through phrases instead of individual words is highly recommended for language learning. Phrases or whole sentences provide additional context for learning vocab while also giving you some grammar foundations and teaching you how to actually use the words you’re learning.
Trying to represent an entire phrase in one image, though, can quickly lead to frustration. Incredibly simple phrases might work, but the more info you try to shove into every flashcard, the more confusing it’s likely to get. For example, imagine having one card for 犬 (いぬ/dog), one for 小さい (ちいさい/small), one for 床 (ゆか/floor) and one for 寝ている (ねている/sleeping).
Now, imagine having one card that represents “small dog sleeping on floor.” Every time you see this card, you have to remember you’re not naming one thing, you’re naming the entire image—and you have to remember the exact way it’s supposed to be phrased!
If that sounds fun to you, go for it, by all means. The problem you might run into, though, is that the more complex the picture, the more ways there are to describe it, meaning you end up just memorizing a set phrase, not naturally describing an image.
(That being said, there’s a “best of both worlds” option in the Extra Tips section at the end of this post.)
Even if the phrase is simple, if the picture is complex you’re likely not to remember exactly what you’re supposed to be describing. If you have a small dog in the picture, you have to have a large dog to compare it to, right? So then what are you trying to remember—the word for “small” or the word for “dog,” or both?
Learning through phrases is great, but for picture learning you probably want to keep it simple.
8 Steps to Learn Japanese with Pictures
Now we know what we want to learn. Awesome! What next? Why, we make some flashcards, of course.
1. Find a way to make image flashcards
Do you use Anki yet? Making image cards with this program is fairly straightforward. If you use a different flashcard software, check to see if it supports cards with images (and if not, Anki is free). StudyBlue is another highly recommended SRS flashcard option which supports pictures.
FluentU will allow you to create your own personalized vocabulary lists from words you’ve encountered while watching fun videos. To study those lists, it’ll generate SRS flashcard decks complete with audio pronunciations, images and even video clips from cool pop culture content!
You can also go old-school and make flashcards by hand, but that sounds like it would use a lot of printer ink and glue sticks, so I don’t personally recommend that method.
2. Decide what words you’re going to learn
Ready-made lists are helpful for focusing on words in specific categories, like the ones mentioned above. They’ll also help make sure you don’t miss words or revisit what you already know too frequently. Plus, you can check back in when you find a new, thematically-relevant word and fill in any gaps.
You’ll also have the option of making super-customized cards to fit your needs and interests, so have fun with it! Choose words related to an academic area of interest, favorite style of music, movie genres or anything else that strikes your fancy.
3. Find pictures
Google images is probably the easiest way to do this, as long as your flashcards are kept private and you aren’t making money off sharing them—otherwise you could get into copyright issues with the images you use.
Put the Japanese word into the search bar, not the English one! You want to make absolutely sure the image you choose to use actually matches up with what you think the word means. If the images you get for a word seem to be completely off-base, you’ll have to do a little digging to figure out why. Maybe you have the wrong word. Maybe the word is usually written in katakana, not kanji. Maybe there’s more than one common meaning for the word. Find out what’s going on, make the correction and then make your card!
Alternatively, use your own images. This method works especially well for those customized types of vocab lists mentioned earlier. If you’re using words you took from a game, an anime or any other type of media, use images from that media! Screenshots work great. The cool thing about this method is that the screenshot can help provide additional context for the vocab word, helping to form even more connections and trigger your memory more easily.
4. Pick an image that makes sense to you
If most of the pictures seem to be of the same thing, and that matches up with your translation of the word, then choose the picture you think will be most easy to identify as that particular word. Typically speaking, this means the simpler the image is, the better!
With screenshots, the added context can be a double-edged sword, making it difficult to determine what the target word is in the image. Some simple editing should help with this; using circles or arrows to point out what in the picture you’re supposed to be identifying will help you keep those context clues in place.
5. Make flashcards
For each card, put the associated image on one side and the vocab word on the other. Audio for the word in question can also be helpful if you have it, but it isn’t essential for this method. You can practice with audio in other ways.
You have the option of studying the cards by looking at the images and naming the words, or reading the words and picturing what they mean. I’ve personally only studied from the image to the word, but you might find that the other method works better for you. (And of course, you can also study both ways.)
7. Grab a picture dictionary
If you want to bypass the hassle of creating your own flashcards (it’s fun, but it can be tedious!) you can take the awesome shortcut of checking out a Japanese picture dictionary. This is also a great supplement to your flashcard study time.
This online picture dictionary provides a ton of basic vocabulary already grouped for you in helpful categories. Click on a category, and you’re presented with images labeled in Japanese—and each label is clickable, with recorded audio. The vocabulary in each category is also available in copy-pasteable text lists with kanji, hiragana, katakana and English versions of the words.
A picture dictionary like this provides for less structured studying than flashcards, but since all the work is done for you already it can be a great way to get started learning Japanese with pictures. This particular dictionary linked above is also a great way to see what sorts of objects you should be learning, so even if you would rather make your own cards, you can always use the vocab lists here to get started.
8. Follow these extra tips
To round off your flashcard experience and ensure that you’re learning the most you can, these tips will definitely come in handy.
- Try referring to objects in your day-to-day life in Japanese to reinforce the vocab.
- When going through your day, if you encounter an object you can’t refer to in Japanese (and you’re not already studying it), make a note so you can add it to your flashcards.
- Put sticky notes on things in your house to label them in Japanese. This might annoy the other people who live with you, but it becomes a question of priorities, really. Who knows, they might find this fun, educational or endearing.
- Add phrases or short, simple complete sentences on the vocab side of your cards to provide extra context and grammar usage. Plus, that’s one more memory connection to help with fluency.
- A variation on this theme is to do the reverse: Use an image or two to help illustrate a phrase or sentence on flashcards. A little more work, but you might find the added context helpful.
- Another variation on learning with pictures: Japanese children’s picture books! Visual context plus fun stories.
And of course, to leave you with one simple but very important tip, keep up with practicing every day—consistency is the key to learning Japanese!
Katie O’Hara is a writer, editor and blogger with a long and varied history of learning Japanese. (Pro tip: Don’t mention the city of Fukuoka to her unless you really want to hear how much cooler it is than everywhere else, at length.)
And One More Thing…
If you enjoy learning colorful, memorable Japanese lessons like these, then you simply must try FluentU!
You’ll discover tons of new Japanese vocabulary through all kinds of video content here.
Don’t worry about your skill level being an issue when it comes to understanding the language. FluentU makes native Japanese videos approachable through interactive transcripts.
Tap on any word to look it up instantly.
You’ll see definitions, in-context usage examples and helpful illustrations. Simply tap “add” to send interesting vocabulary words to your running vocab list for later review.
And FluentU has a learn mode which turns every video into a language learning lesson and gets you to actively practice your newly-learned language.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Japanese with real-world videos.