Shaking Up My Language Studies

Sometimes, you have to shake things up to get the trains moving again. And yes, that's a terrible mixing of metaphors. Bear with me.

It's been a wonderful month. I got a promotion at work, which has kept me busy. I fell in love. (Well, I was already in love, but...never mind, long story.) I've been doing various fun things with my children. I bombed the JLPT N2.

Okay, that last bit wasn't wonderful. But it didn't scar me for life either. What doesn't kill you, makes you stronger. Unless you're Nietzsche and contract syphilis, in which case you just go mad and die. But, hey, there's always an exception to the rule.

Point is, I have a lot of changes going on in my life, and I've had to do some hard thinking about how I make room for all these wonderful things. It's left me scrambling to figure out where my Japanese studies fit into it all. I love reading and listening to Japanese, and hope to use the language in my work within the next year or two. Plus, I have several great Japanese friends now. It's not something I want to fall by the wayside.

Post-JLPT, I found myself extremely unmotivated to study. Part of it was that my attentions have been required elsewhere. The other part? Probably burnout. I've studied hours a day for seven months. I've made tremendous progress. But if I'm going to become proficient at this language, I need a study approach that's more slow and sustainable in the long haul. I need my language studies to become a long-term habit, not a short-term obsession.

(Aside: This, in my mind, is one of the big dangers with the "All Japanese, All The Time" approach. That, and the fact that this method of studying is really only practical for college students with no job, no partner, no kids, and few friends. More on that later.)

I decided what I really needed to do was do something dramatic to re-start my studies. I needed to change up my study routine.

About a month ago, I stopped using my self-made Anki deck. It had ceased to be fun. It was loaded with old terms I wasn't really using and didn't need just yet in my long-term memory. I like Anki; but I'd come to hate my deck.

Hence, Step 1 in the Shake It Up routine: I deleted my old Anki deck and began re-creating it from scratch am creating a subs2srs deck instead. I'm going to continue learning vocabulary from context, and use subs2srs along with daily podcasts from NHK News to improve my overall listening. I'll be focusing my subs2srs energies on listening to a number of episodes of K-On!! Season 2. (NOTE: I changed my strategy here because I wanted to try out Judith Meyer's "30 Days" program.)

Step 2 is to start focusing on handwriting, so that I can produce kanji from memory. I haven't ignored writing, but it's definitely waaaay behind my reading. I haven't decided on the approach I'm using for this yet; it's between subscribing to Skritter, or simply listening to NHKジャーナル and アニメ and attempting to transcribe what I hear. I'll likely go with the later option, because Skritter, at $10/month, costs more than my monthly Netflix subscription (egads).

How have you shaken up your language learning recently? Inquiring minds want to know!



CrunchyRoll Tip: Use Left Arrow to Jump Back 10 Seconds

As a lifelong オタク, I like to use アニメ for Japanese listening practice. My latest fixations are BTOOOM! (ブトゥーム) and the classic 百獣王ゴライオン(Hyakujuuou Go-Lion, "King of All Beasts Go-Lion"), which American fans of my age probably better remember by the name Voltron.

CrunchyRoll is a great, legal way to watch a ton of アニメ. And in most cases, we Japanese learners can turn off subtitles and watch shows with raw dialogue. CR just put up the full run of ゴライオン (albeit with hard-coded English subtitles, but that isn't the end of the world), and it's a fun blast from the past. It's also strange watching the show in the original Japanese, as the show was edited considerably for a young American audience. But more on that in a later post.

At any rate, I split my アニメ watching between watching raws in CrunchyRoll, and watching Japanese-subtitled shows in VLC. VLC has this neat shortcut, ALT+Left Arrow, that will rewind a video by 10 seconds. It turns out that CR has this too, except the shortcut is just Left Arrow. This is highly useful for language learning, as it allows you to rewind and re-listen to a section of dialogue repeatedly.

There are a few other shortcuts defined in the CR Flash Player, but none quite as useful as this one for language learners. It would be nice to be able to toggle subtitles with a single key; this could be used in conjunction with Left Arrow to verify that I understood a Japanese sentence fully. (And it'd also be nice if CR obtained the 日本語字幕 for these shows as well. I know we'll never get that, but hey - a geek can dream.)



One thing that really frustrates me about my speaking isn't my speaking. It's my listening.

I meet once every two weeks with some good Japanese friends from Mill Creek, and we do language exchange for about 90 minutes (25 minutes Japanese only, 25 minutes English only, then free-form). It's good practice, but I'm continually flustered by my inability at times to follow key parts of the conversation. The words just fly by too quickly, and my mind can't connect the dots quickly enough. I can ask my friends to slow down and repeat - which I do, and they do, because (1) they're awesome people and (2) they ask me to do the same thing with my English. :) But it's still frustrating.

So I'm working like hell to bring my comprehension up to speed. Fortunately, I have a ton of material on hand with which to work: a full 24-episode season of K-On!! with 日本語字幕, the Nippon VoiceBlog material, and NHK ニューズ with accompanying video clips. When I don't feel like studying per se, I can drown my attention in audio-only experiences, such as the HOTCAST and そこあに podcasts, or new アニメ on CrunchyRoll.

Am I worried that listening won't fall into place within the next couple of months? Not really. One of the first things I worked on when re-starting my Japanese studies was listening to and reading 花咲じいさん。Despite having studied Japanese years ago, I could barely make out anything in that story without intensive studying. But I slogged through it. And another after that. And another, and...etc. Now, six months later, I can listen to an arbitrary 童話 and usually make out at least 70% of what's being said, without reference to the text.

I know that a lot of my "problem" is simply that my brain can't process Japanese quickly enough, because it doesn't have enough familiarity with the language. The only solution to that is 練習、練習、もっと練習.

Japanese - or any language, really - isn't out of anyone's reach. It just takes time and persistence.


Practicing Vocabulary at Your Own Pace

One of the reasons I ultimately became tired of Anki was its scheduling component. I found this limiting in two ways. First, I had to use it every day, and I had to slog through a defined quantity of  words every day. Second (and this may sound pradoxical), I could only use it once every day! Yes, you could Steady Ahead and Review Ahead, but that's not the same as having a big, endless bucket of words that you can drill yourself on at arbitrary times.

Recently, I saw a video of Steve Kaufmann's in which he stated that he likes flash card programs, but only if they let him study at his own pace.

I like that approach. What I want from a vocab drilling program is:

  • The ability to drill a big bucket of custom words. These need to be my words, the ones I encounter reading NHK ニューズ, 昔話/童話, Nippon VoiceBlog, etc. 
  • A Leitner/SRS algorithm that periodically re-quizzes me on words with which I've had problems, and pushes out words that I know with some confidence to a later review date.
  • No scheduling system! There will be days when I barely touch my word bucket, and days when I lay in bed for an hour reviewing 語彙. 
  • Quiz from J-E, not from E-J. (J-J - i.e., the ability to use Japanese definitions - would be an added bonus.) 
  • A bulk import feature.
In short, I want a vocab app that adjusts to my schedule, not the other way around.

One program that does this for kanji is KanjiBox. It is by far my favorite kanji review program. I credit obsessive use of KanjiBox with my current ability to stumble through Japanese newspaper articles. 

Unfortunately, KanjiBox's vocabulary feature leaves much to be desired. Because of the way KanjiBox's interface is constructed, the vocab quizzes you on translating English meanings into the corresponding Japanese word. I want to quiz from J-E or J-J. KanjiBox is great for quizzing yourself on readings, but not on meanings.

Yesterday, I started using Japanese Flash, and it meets some (though not all) of my needs. I'll post a review shortly. If anyone knows of any killer apps that meet this criteria, let me know. 


日本語の勉強日記: Time for Some Changes

I've been thinking lately that it's time to change up my Japanese study method. I've internalized a lot of vocab and grammar, and now it's time to put it into practice.

1. Stop Using Anki. 

I have over 3,300 active words in Anki right now. It's not the total of my passive vocab (which probably hovers around 6,000 or so), but it represents a substantial number of the words I've learned in the past five months. I credit Anki with vastly improving my ability to understand both written and spoken Japanese.

At this point, however, it's just a drag. I feel like I'm learning more - and more quickly - by reading and listening. Anki was great when I could barely make sense of the basics, but now that my comprehension is starting to pick up speed, it feels like it's time to take off the training wheels. So I'll be shifting over to using Steve Kaufmann's "random repetition" approach to language learning. 

I still plan to make short lists of words I don't know that I encounter in my reading, and studying them briefly after reading an article. And I'll drill myself on random kanji readings in KanjiBox, an app I absolutely love. For the most part, I'm going to rely on repeated exposure to drill new words into my noggin. 

2.  More Speaking Practice

My spoken Japanese still sucks, mostly because I only speak once every one or two weeks. So, starting today, I'll speak at least three times a week for the next month.I want to see, after all of this studying, if it's possible to push my speaking ability up a level or two with regular practice.

3. Continue As Much Reading and Listening as Possible 

This is status quo, though I might try and push myself to read even more NHK than average. On the listening side, I'm continuing to listening to NHKジャーナル, NHK's daily news show podcast. I can usually pick up a lot from this if I've read the news earlier in the day. I'll also be working my way through アメリカの小学生が学ぶ歴史教科書, a.k.a. What Young Americans Know About History. This little gem, which I picked up at Half Price Books, is a summary of E.D. Hirsch's books on American history, with Japanese and English parallel text. すごい!

Not sure how it'll all turn out, but looking forward to the journey. I'll keep you updated on my progress in the coming weeks. 


Grokking Japanese Place and Personal Names

I've been absorbed in reading NHK News lately, so this link from the RevTK forums was a welcome site. Reading Japanese Crime Articles isn't as detailed as the Mizutani's 新聞で学ぶ日本語, but it provides some useful information on the structure of Japanese newspaper articles and on the terms used for specific crimes. Author Stephen Smith also includes a number of actual Japanese crime articles accompanied by his own translations, so that learners can check their understanding of the text.

Two of the hardest aspects of reading Japanese newspaper articles are reading place names and personal names. Personal names in particular are baffling, as the same set of 漢字 may have multiple pronunciations. Smith recommends using the Japanese Zip Code Lookup tool on the 日本郵便局 Web site for place name pronunciations. While that works, it should be noted you can also find place name pronunciations on Wikipedia JA; every article on a place begins with the location's pronunciation in hiragana.

You can use the same method to discover the pronunciations of names of politicians, actors/actresses, and others both famous and infamous. As for those who don't merit their own Wikipedia page, readers of NHK or FNN can usually suss out a pronunciation by watching the news clip that accompanies the article.

FYI: If your 漢字 aren't quite up to snuff, but you want to read the sample articles included in Smith's paper, use KanjiTomo, a free utility that uses OCR recognition to detect 漢字 in PDF and image files.