Onomatopoeia is probably one of the fun and recreative aspects of the Japanese language, and I have always been assuming that most Japanese learners remember and use these cute words effortlessly.
Now, I don’t think that I have a childhood trauma relative to onomatopoeia (but who knows?), but the truth is that I can’t remember them. I know some of them, of course, but only the most commonly used.
Not being able to learn something that almost every text on the subject qualifies as “easy to remember” has been annoying me for a long time now, but I have done nothing to tackle this problem. The only way I dealt with onomatopoeia until now, was to add these words to my Anki deck as standard vocabulary. But I have come up against a few problems:
- It is a real struggle to guess an onomatopoeia through its English translations. Some share a similar meaning, and translations hardly convey the differences between related onomatopoeias. As a result, when I see the “English” card, it is a hassle to guess the Japanese onomatopoeia, and anyway, being able to deduce an onomatopoeia from an English translation is not very useful. What would be helpful and practical would be to be able to associate an onomatopoeia to a situation, a feeling, or even an association of words.
- Some words are used with “と” or “する”, “している” when others are used with “だ”, “の”, etc. If I were to learn Japanese onomatopoeia as standard vocabulary, I should also learn how to use each of them correctly. I have tried, mainly because I had to for JLPT N2, and it was more boring than I can say.
- Even if I can remember them through Anki, it does not tell me in which context I can use them.
Generally speaking, onomatopoeias make sense in a context, a situation. Learning them through flashcards has not proven efficient to me.
But how am I supposed to learn Japanese onomatopoeia in context? I see a lot of them in novels, but I will not remember them if I don’t use a spaced repetition system. For a long time, I didn’t know how to go about it until I decided to try something out.
I have started a new Anki deck for onomatopoeia. I am using Anki’s function called “cloze deletion” to create my notes.
On the front, I have a complete sentence, sometimes several sentences, that contain an onomatopoeia. The idea is to give as much context as possible so that I can see how or why this onomatopoeia is used here. I also give a “hint”, which is the English “translation” found in the dictionary. If I give an example with イライラ:
This is how the front card appears. The back will just display the onomatopoeia in blue. I also use the Awesome TTS plugin to read out loud the onomatopoeia when the answer is shown. The idea is not to know what an onomatopoeia means but to know in what situation it can be used.
That’s it! Thanks to Anki’s cloze deletion system, this kind of card is easy to create.
Now that I came up with a solution, the challenge is to go on with this system and create new notes regularly. I will try to add notes to this deck every time I come across an onomatopoeia in a novel or any other source. I find it easy to remember words if I can tell in which book I saw them, which character used them, in which context and so on.
The problem is that I may be lazy and stop adding notes to this deck after a while. I will see an onomatopoeia in a book, find it great, think: “I must add it to my deck!”, then go on reading telling myself that I will come back to it later, and then forget. If this happens too often, my new deck will never grow. In the end, I will conclude that it didn’t work, but I would not know if it failed because the idea was bad or because I didn’t even give it a proper try.
What it takes is self-discipline. It will be annoying to do it at first, but if I can keep on with this system for some time, taking notes while reading will become an evident thing to do.
I am glad that I am finally doing something to remember onomatopoeia and not just complain about my lack of skill in this domain. I don’t know if it will work, but I want to give it a try. I will post again about my progress in some months.
My English notebook
What really puzzles me among this whole onomatopoeia thing, is whether the word “onomatopoeia” is uncountable or not. I have seen text saying “Onomatopoeia is…” and others saying “Onomatopoeia are…”, some people say it’s uncountable, others say that it’s okay to write “onomatopoeias” if we need a plural. My Oxford Advanced Learner’s dictionary says that the word is uncountable, but Grammarly does not underline it if I write with a final “s”. 🤨