Measuring the English vocabulary acquisition of Japanese learners

Yoshie Ishikawa, Ayano Otaki, Hiromu Okamura, Tomohiko Shirahata


The measurable vocabulary knowledge of Japanese learners of English (JLEs) has yet to be fully investigated. This study, therefore, attempts a detailed investigation of JLEs’ vocabulary knowledge to clarify the relationship between the frequency of words and their difficulty level and to identify the factors that affect the difficulty of vocabulary learning. We tested 192 university-level JLEs on 1,035 verbs, requesting that they choose a correct Japanese translation.  The average number of correct answers for each verb was compared with its frequency ranking. Moreover, the characteristics of verbs that received high and low percentages of correct answers were examined. The three major findings were as follows. First, the average number of correct answers was 751.97 (72.65% of the verbs investigated). Second, the average number of correct answers decreased as the frequency of the verb decreased. However, this tendency diminished beyond the 4,000-word level. Finally, not a few low-frequency verbs garnered a high percentage of correct answers; these were verbs that included affixes or were English loanwords that were possibly known to JLEs. However, other low-frequency verbs received a low percentage of correct answers because they had abstract or multiple meanings and lacked clues that could facilitate an understanding of the word’s meaning. We concluded that these were the main factors affecting the degree of difficulty in learning each vocabulary item. Regarding this study’s pedagogical implications, efficient use should be made of English-based loanwords and affixes, and university-level JLEs should intentionally learn low-frequency words.


Vocabulary learning; vocabulary size; vocabulary tests; word lists; Japanese learners of English

Full Text:



Aizawa, K., & Iso, T. (2007). Estimating word difficulty: The divergence from frequency levels. Annual Review of English Language Education in Japan, 18, 111-120.

Aizawa, K., & Mochizuki, M. (2010). Eigo goishidou no jissen aidiashu [Collection of practical idea for English vocabulary teaching]. Taishukan.

Aotani, M. (2012). Eigo gakushuron [A theory of English language learning]. Asakura Shoten.

Brown, D. (2012). The frequency model of vocabulary learning and Japanese learners. Vocabulary Learning and Instruction, 1(1), 20-28.

Browne, C., & Culligan, B. (2008). Combining technology and IRT testing to build student knowledge of high frequency vocabulary. The JALT CALL Journal, 4(2), 3-16.

Daulton, F. (2008). Japan’s built-in lexicon of English-based loanwords. Multilingual Matters, Ltd.

De Groot, A. M. B., & Keijzer, R. (2000). What is hard to learn is easy to forget: The roles of word concreteness, cognate status, and word frequency in foreign-language vocabulary learning and forgetting. Language Learning, 50(1), 1-56.

Ishida, T. (2022). Nihonjin eigogakushusha to eigobogowasha no tangohindo kouka hikaku [Comparison of word frequency effects between Japanese learners of English and native English speakers]. Journal of Nihon Fukushi University Education Center, 10, 23-30.

Ishino, H. (1983). Gendai gairaigokou [Thoughts on current loanwords]. Taishukan.

JACET Committee of Basic Words Revision. (Ed.). (2003). Daigaku eigo kyouiku gakkai kihongo risuto JACET 8000 [JACET list of 8000 basic words]. Japan Association of College English Teachers.

Kazahaya, H. (2015). Sokudoku eitango 2 joukyuuhen kaitei dai 4 han [Rapid reading English vocabulary 2 Advanced level, 4th ed.]. Z-kai.

Kitano, M., & Chiba, K. (2018). Goi chishiki no ichisokumen: Nihonjin daigakusei no rikai ga husokushiteiru koshiyohindogoi ni kansuru kousatsu [A profile of vocabulary knowledge: Identifying high frequency English words unknown to Japanese university students]. Journal of Department of International Studies, Bunkyo University, 29(1), 19-29.

Laufer, B. (1992). How much lexis is necessary for reading comprehension? In P. Arnaud & H. Béjoint (Eds.), Vocabulary and applied linguistics (pp. 126-132). Macmillan.

Laufer, B. (1997). What’s in a word that makes it hard or easy: Some intralexical factors that affect the learning of words. In N. Schmitt & M. McCarthy (Eds.), Vocabulary: Description, acquisition and pedagogy (pp. 140-155). Cambridge University Press.

Masumi, A., & Ishikawa, S. (2014). Koukousei no eigoryoku o suiteisuru goitesuto no kentou: Saizu tesuto to sokudo tesuto no hikaku [Examining a vocabulary test to estimate high school students’ English proficiency: A comparison of size test and speed test]. Journal of International Communication Center, Kobe University, 11, 14-30.

Matsumura, A. (2022). Daijisen dezitaru ban [Daijisen, Digital ed.]. Shogakukan.

McLean, S., Hogg, N., & Kramer, B. (2014). Estimations of Japanese university learners’ English vocabulary sizes using the vocabulary size test. Vocabulary Learning and Instruction, 3(2), 47-55.

Milton, J. (2007). Lexical profiles, learning styles and the construct validity of lexical size test. In H. Daller, J. Milton, & J. Treffers-Daller (Eds.), Modelling and assessing vocabulary knowledge (pp. 47-58). Cambridge University Press.

Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. (2018). Kotogakko gakushu shido yoryo [A course of study for high school]. Kairyudo.

Mochizuki, M. (2016). JACET 8000: The new JACET list of 8000 basic words. Kirihara.

Mochizuki, M., & Aizawa, K. (2000). An affix acquisition order for EFL learners: An exploratory study. System, 28(2), 291-304.

Nakata, T. (2019). Eitango gakushu no kagaku [Science of English vocabulary learning]. Kenkyusha.

Nation, I. S. P. (2003). The role of the first language in foreign language learning. Asian EFL Journal, 15, 1-8.

Nation, I. S. P. (2013). Learning vocabulary in another language (2nd ed.). Cambridge University Press.

Nation, I. S. P., & Beglar, D. (2007). A vocabulary size test. The Language Teacher, 31(7), 9-13.

Nonaka, T. (2020). On development of English vocabulary size of Japanese junior college students. Nigata Seiryo Junior College Research Bulletin, 50, 181-190.

Okamoto, M. (2008). Assessing lexical knowledge of English at low-frequency levels: Implications for vocabulary teaching. Annual Review of English Language Education in Japan, 19, 141-150.

Rogers, J., Webb, S., & Nakata, T. (2015). Do the cognacy characteristics of loanwords make them more easily learned than noncognates? Language Teaching Research, 19(1), 9-27.

Sato, K., Terauchi, H., Matsuya, A., Funaki, T., Yamada, H., & Cannegieter, D. (2021). Future directions of English language education at Takachiho University: Based on the vocabulary knowledge of its first-year students. Takachiho Ronso, 55(4), 1-17.

Shimo, K., & Tone, M. (2019). Shisutemu eitango 5teiban [System English vocabulary (5th ed.)]. Sundaibunko.

Stoeckel, T., Stewart, J., McLean, S., Ishii, T., Kramer, B., & Matsumoto, Y. (2019). The relationship of four variants of the Vocabulary Size Test to a criterion measure of meaning recall vocabulary knowledge. System, 87, 102161.

Usami, M., & Urata, F. (2020). Eitango tagetto 1900 6teiban [English vocabulary target 1900 (6th ed.)]. Obunsha.

Webb, S., & Nation, P. (2017). How vocabulary is learned. Oxford University Press.

Whitford, V., & Titone, D. (2012). Second-language experience modulates first- and second-language word frequency effects: Evidence from eye movement measures of natural paragraph reading. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 19, 73-80.


Article Metrics

Abstract view : 0 times
PDF - 0 times


  • There are currently no refbacks.

Print ISSN: 2355-2794, Online ISSN: 2461-0275

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

View Journal Stats