japanese, one kanji at a time — anki, ajatt, tim ferriss, and benny lewis

I was joking the other day about learning Japanese because we spent last Wednesday learning the hiragana on the ipad—but look at us, here we are a week later still at it, clocking about 20 kanji a day and up to about a hundred now.  It’s fun, like learning a pretty code, or a kind of stylized art.  Who knows how far we’ll go?

One thing I hadn’t considered when we started this is that learning Japanese puts me and the kids on the same level with regard to reading.  For example, in English, Luc is at the “sound it out” stage with reading, and in hiragana, so am I.  So we both squint at the Japanese and make the sounds and feel elated when we get the word a minute or two later.  It occurred to me that the two of us struggling together like that is a totally different experience for him from him struggling to get a word while I sit there already knowing the word and biting my tongue.  He kind of hates the pressure (even though I put none on, it is built into the scenario, you know?) of him reading in front of me, so he rarely does it.  But reading Japanese together—such as we manage—is fun, both of us flailing around and then fist bumping when we get it right.

The first step of learning hiragana—thinking “I bet there is an app for this”—was pretty easy.  46 characters is a doable task, easily accomplished.  But when our interest in Japanese stuck beyond that, how to approach it, what is the next step?  Thousands of kanji, compound words, vocab, grammar, pronunciation?  Yikes!

Keep it a game, just like hiragana was for us, play at it, do it for fun—I mean, we just won’t if it isn’t.

Tooling around the internet looking for an idea I ran across this blog, All Japanese All The Time, AJATT for short, written by a young man who taught himself Japanese in 18 months by watching anime, reading manga, and doing SRS (more about that last one in a minute).  Hey, now that sounds like just the method for us!  Khatzumoto, as he names himself, ended up getting a job in Japan and lives there now, how cool is that?  And Khatz is big on learning is fun, fun gets done, classes suck, if you aren’t enjoying it, screw it, move on—which fits right into our unschooling philosophy.

AJATT suggests two things to start: 1) learn the main kanji first, 2000 of them, using the book Remembering the Kanji and an SRS system and 2) creating an immersive environment where you have fun Japanese stuff, music, anime, manga, around you all the time, playing in the background, even if you don’t understand it.  Well, the immersive thing is easy for us to pull off—we cut out a piece of cardboard to cover the bottom bit of our tv where the subtitles show and boom, Crunchyroll gives us as much Japanese as we care to listen to.  Now how about this SRS thingy?

It turns out memory has a highly predictable fade-out curve.  Actually I had just been reading about this in Tim Ferris’s new(ish) book, the Four Hour Chef, which I had thought was about cooking (it is, in part) so I hadn’t picked it up (not really interesting in cooking), until I realized the book is really about learning, something I am very interested in.  Speaking of Japanese, Ferris learned Japanese while in high school in Japan by tackling the 2000 “basic literacy” kanji (the same 2000 Khatz says to get under your belt first) all listed on a poster he put on his wall.  One poster’s worth of kanji seemed a doable task and broke the mountain of Japanese down into doable chunks, an important part of his learning method he calls “compression.”  Ferris has tons of stuff to say in Chef about speed learning, languages, memory, breaking things down, etc.  It’s a cooking book in that he uses learning-to-cook as the test subject he applies his fancy learning techniques to. It’s a fun book.

But back to SRS.  Basically, we forget at a very predictable rate—unless we are re-exposed to that nugget of memory in a repeated fashion.  Each exposure to that memory has a longer half-life, until finally the half-life is longer than your remaining life span and you will, essentially, never forget it.  So the trick in memorizing something is exposing yourself to it say, a kanji, just before you forget it again, with each exposure further out in time.  At first that might be every minute, or ever ten minutes.  Then once a day.  Then maybe in four days.  Then again in a week.  SRS stands for “spaced recognition software” and is a computerized flashcard system that does all of this automatically.  That is, it repeats the kanji (or whatever) in a spaced manner, depending on how you rank your ease of recall, for best retention.  Here’s how it goes: the SRS shows you the kanji (or the meaning of the kanji, you could do it either way) and you think or or write down the meaning (or kanji) and then look at the answer.  Then you rank it according to how hard it was for you to answer.  You had no clue or got it completely wrong?  The SRS’ll show you that card in another couple of minutes.  Part-way right?  Maybe in fifteen minutes.  Easy?  Tomorrow or the next day.  Super easy?  It won’t show you that card again for several days, or a week, just as you might be starting to forget it.  And then that re-exposure will extend that kanji’s life in your memory for another chunk of time.  Isn’t that nifty?

Here is a terrific article about all of this in Wired magazine that says all this much better than I do, and with pictures.

There are several SRS programs out there.  Anki is the one we downloaded because it is, say it with me now, FREE.  Supermemo is another, created by Piotr Wozinak, the Polish researcher who is behind Supermemo and if featured in that Wired article above.  Surusu is another free one, created by Khatzumoto from All Japanese All The Time for his own use, also free and web based.

We loaded up Anki with a Remembering the Kanji deck from the shared decks available on the Anki site, and boom, we’re learning kanji.  Anki shows us the cards, starting at the beginning of the book and working through, and we just do the card, rank it, and move on.  Then, depending on how we rank it, Anki will show us the same flashcards again in a minute, ten minutes, a day, next week, etc, just enough exposure to keep it in memory, not too much to waste our time, not too infrequently so that we forget.

Anki use is mostly Sophie and I, although Luc watches from the side and makes the occasional suggestion when we get stuck.  It feels super easy to do, not like pounding vocabulary used to when I studied French in school.  It’s like a video game, really. Twenty new cards a day doesn’t feel hard yet, just like leveling up.

We also got Japanese versions of the first volumes of Yotsuba and One Piece, two of our favorite mangas.  They look so cool with all those characters crawling all over the pages!  Japanese manga as it is meant to be read!  The otaku in me smiles in delight.

An aside, there is a cool video interview/conversation between Tim Ferris and Benny Lewis, another speed-langage learner and ployglot (I think he knows six or ten languages or something crazy) with some interesting things to say—and then, in the interview Tim holds up his copy of volume one of One Piece.  Sophie and I looked at each other in surprise and did this happy cheer, like, yeah! One Piece fans unite!  Great interview and actually the first place I heard of Khatzumoto, it was just in passing, but I noted it down and went and found it.  The webs, they will take you anywhere you want to go, one click at a time.

After learning the 2000 kanji, Khatz has some next-phase advice on new sorts of Anki cards that include sentences and paragraphs, but we’re not there yet.  Honestly, I have no idea if we’ll actually get there.  Learning 2000 kanji is a big enough task!  Do we have the motivation and interest to follow through on such a big project as really learning the whole langauge?  Who knows?  Who cares?  It’s fun today, and that’s enough.

I’ll tell you one thing.  If we DO learn Japanese we are SO going to Japan, I don’t care if we have to take out a second mortgage.

Oh no!  Time to go watch more anime and read more manga!  Darn.  Here is that interview for your viewing pleasure.

5 thoughts on “japanese, one kanji at a time — anki, ajatt, tim ferriss, and benny lewis

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  4. Paul Gamble

    This is an AMAZING article! I was actually looking for a link to buy that poster Tim Ferriss used and stumbled upon this post.

    Just amazing!

    I’ve talked to learn Japanese and using any and all methods. Everything you suggested is GOLD!

    Thanks again!


    1. maya Post author

      Hello Paul, nice to meet you. It’s hard for me to believe but this post is two years old. As is my Japanese studies. If you’re curious, here is the list of my japanese-related posts, including finishing up the 2000 kanji with Heisig (yes, I did it)(not sure it was the best way to go, now, prob would have started with wanikani if I had it to do over), and what came next. I wish you luck on your own studies!


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