the post Heisig slump and the trail of discarded japanese learning methods

In Japanese language learning circles, there is a phenomena known as the post-Heisig slump.  By Heisig I mean going through the 2000+ kanji in his Remembering the Kanji as I describe here.  I had read about the slump, various J-learners on forums and blogs talking about feeling lost as to how to proceed after finishing RTK.  I thought I would avoid such silliness.

I didn’t.

Basically, when you get done with Heisig and the kana, you feel like you’ve just learned something big (and you have) but it is totally useless.  I could look at piece of Japanese writing like, say, this one:

…and be able to identify 90% 0f the characters…but read none of it.  How frustrating!  I mean, I can throw down an English word for most of the kanji here but that will give maybe 10% comprehension , especially  considering words that combine two or more kanji, the result of which doesn’t mean what any of its individual kanji mean.  So, essentially zero comprehension.  Heisig gets you to the starting line.

What to do next?  Khatzumoto over at alljapaneseallthetime learned through immersion and by, apparently, jumping into sentences.  Based on the site Anti Moon, where Polish speakers were learning English in this way, he reckoned he would learn 10,000 sentences a be fluent (he got to 8000 or so) and he was.  Way cool.  He later switched to MCDs or multiple clozed deletions as an easier, faster “sentence” (they are basically fill in the blanks in blocks of text) and now says this is his preferred method for various reasons.  I read all this, nodding my head, okay, okay, I’ll give it a go.

I bombed. I tried both sentences and MCDs but got no traction.  I didn’t know what I was looking at, it was like that first look at a 20 stroke kanji—goobledygook.  Disheartening.  Exhausting.  And in learning a language on your own, being disheartened is the kiss of death, because you’ll quit.  I needed something else, I didn’t know what.

Maybe some grammar?  I mean, tell me something about what I am looking at when I stare at Japanese text, please!  Khatz is pretty frowny face on studying grammar (unless you’re having fun doing it) but I needed some signposts, something.  I picked up Japanese the Manga Way: an illustrated guide to grammar and structure, and I highly recommend it.  Short little sections on various grammar points with manga examples, clear break downs, charts, approachable tone, well designed.  This helped.  I can’t read a lot of it at a time without glazing over, but little bit by little bit comprehension dawns.  Repetition helps, too.

Which makes this the perfect book to leave in the bathroom, as each section takes just the right amount of time to get in a bit of Japanese while you’re, um, doing your business.

Here’s an example:

Bite size chunks, well explained.  And since it uses examples from the same handful of manga, in story-order, as you work through the book, you start following the stories as well, getting to know the characters, laughing at the jokes.  The book builds from simple to complex grammar as it goes, and does a good job of explaining the differences between formal and casual Japanese.  Really a very well organized book.

I also picked up a few sections of Michel Thomas’s “Total Japanese” from audible with some credits that were about to expire.  I thought the kids and I could listen in the car.  And we could.  It was okay.  I definitely learned some vocab and some basic sentence structure (for polite, formal Japanese, which is kind of useless for reading manga or watching anime, but there you go) so it wasn’t a loss.

But it was pretty boring.  Not as bad as the Pimsleur we checked out of the library.  That was  torture, we couldn’t get through one disk of that, “TURN IT OFF, MOM!”  But even so, I didn’t end up downloading all the available lessons of the Michele Thomas.  I may go back to it, it’s possible, it wasn’t awful.  But so far I haven’t.  Not sure I would recommend unless you got your hands on a copy for free or super-cheap and had nothing better to do…I don’t know, just listening to straight up Japanese podcasts or whathaveyou might be more useful long term.

Little did I know, leaving Michel Thomas behind would only be the beginning of my trying and discarding various learning methods as I struggled to get my feet under me post-Heisig.  On the road to learning Japanese, there is a lot of road-kill.

Human Japanese, an ipad app, was actually the first thing we tried when we were just fooling around with Japanese hiragana way back at the beginning.  This is a textbook with a friendly tone, easy to understand explanations, and clickable audio files for all the Japanese.  Nice culture notes, too.  We started learning Japanese by reading this one out loud.

But I ended up dropping it.  1) Vocabulary lists just don’t work for me.  Yes, I could enter them into anki and make up my own mnemonics, but it’s too much trouble.  If there is too much friction, it just won’t get done.  And since every other chapter is basically a long vocab list, things ground to a halt.  2) No kanji.  I understand why they did this, but for me, it didn’t make sense.  I knew the kanji and wanted to learn how to use it.  No good.  Although I see they have an Intermediate version now that includes kanji.  But I think I’ve moved on.

But it did seem like for me, trying to go from kanji to sentences or MCDs, a la Khatz, had been too big a jump.  I needed something in between:  words.  After all, a Japanese child learning kanji already has words—she can speak the language.  Compared to that, I had done it backwards (which is fine, I’m not a Japanese child).  Once I zeroed in on this goal (something like,  learn 1000 words!) I thought I had a handle on my next language learning target.  The ultimate goal was learn enough to be able to start reading, and then the reading itself would be the primary teacher.  1000 words seemed like a doable start.

Next I found Memrise, a very cool webpage that uses anki-style flashcard SRS with crowd sources mnemonics for learning all kinds of things.  Including Japanese. People create their own decks and then others pile on and enrich them with photos, audio, funny memes, etc.  I really like the energy of the place and the way the site is put together.  Upbeat and fun.  I thought for sure this was going to do me right.

But I drifted away.  The site seems to load slowly for me, giving a drag to doing reps that was more of a turn off than I thought it should be, but there it was.  Friction is friction.  Also, kanji is not a focus, at least in the decks I was trying out.  Despite liking it (except for the slow loads) I found I wasn’t going back.

I switched to iKnow.  iKnow is another SRS flashcard, type site, a little more slick and polished than Memrise, and a pay-for service (cheap, but still).  They have what they call the “Core 1000” meaning, I reckon, the most used 1000 words (it actually goes up to 6000 words).  Learn these, in 100 words chunks, and you will be on your way.  That sounded good, that’s just what I had been looking for.  Sign me up.

And it’s pretty terrific.  iKnow is Anki on steroids.  Each target word has a photo, a sentence or two and high quality audio to go with it, plus they’ll hit you with the kanji, or the audio, or the meaning, or the fill-in-the-blank on a sentence, all for the same word, so you get it from all angles.  The sentences are really useful, as I found myself making links between the sentences (you hear them over and over so you end up memorizing them) and the grammar I was reading.  That was satisfying.  And the app (I was doing this mostly on the ipad) is super fast with friendly little sound effects. (Actually Sophie hates the sound effects and made me turn them off.  I liked them, though.)

I did 200 words, woot.  And then…I guess I got bored.  Getting bored is a big problem with learning a language on your own, almost as bad as being disheartened.  One problem was that after 100 words iKnow deemed I had “mastered” them (yeah, right) and that’s it, you don’t see “mastered” words any more.  Which means I’m forgetting, have forgotten, the words I put all that time into.  That is disheartening.  I mean, I probably sort of remember some of them—but they aren’t being used, so they aren’t going to stick.

The name of the game seems to be get enough Japanese in my head to be able to start reading and then reading itself will be the periodic exposure that keeps me from forgetting what I know.  But putting something in doesn’t mean it’s IN.  Without periodic reinforcement, everything fades.

I thought of keeping my “mastered” words fresh by doing them in Memrise.  But I’m still doing Anki reps on Heisig to keep from forgetting the kanji I learned…add to that Memrise and iKnow…flashcard overload!!!  Not fun!!!  All for a few hundred words!

But what else could I do?  I mean, at this point, I just need to find something and stick with it.  Quit whining and learn some Japanese, already!

Which brings me to Textfugu and Wanikani.

Textfugu is the Japanese textbook created by Koichi of Tofugu, which is a great Japanese culture blog, very funny and interesting.  Textfugu is friendly, funny, with bite-size pieces, clickable audio, and it encorporates kanji.  Plus, there are built in anki decks for vocubulary, Yay!  No vocabulary lists!   All the good bits of the two texts I had already looked at (Human Japanese and Japanese the Manga Way) plus fixes for all the downsides I had had with them.  It’s a for-$$ site, but not too bad, and certainly for the amount of work put in, Koichi deserves to get paid.  I’m on Season 3, and enjoying it.  A fair amount of what I’ve done so far is review from my other various sources, but it’s pulling all the bits I’ve picked up together in an orderly fashion which is nice.  I’m sticking with it so far, we’ll see how far I go.

Where Textfugu aims to teach grammar, Wanikani is the kanji/vocab learning side of things.  It’s another flashcard SRS with 1700 kanji and 5000 vocabulary words, nice audio, funny mnemonics, slick interface, fast response, and pretty charts and colors to keep you going.  It’s very well organized, building on itself in a methodically, easy to understand way.  So far I really like it, though I’m only on level 2.  I would definitely recommend it.

But wait, didn’t I already learn the kanji?  Why would I do this again?

Well, as I’ve said before, Heisig is a solid first pass on a complicated piece of learning.  Heisig gives you the kanji shapes and an English keyword, but nothing on how to pronounce them or how they are used in actual words.  Wanikani fills in both of these blanks.  Bam.  A second pass to add more detail and content to the framework already in place.  Plus it adds those 5000 words (which are usually kanji + some hirigana, or possibly muliple kanji).  Double bam!  Sounds like just what I was looking for.

I do wish it had sentences, like iKnow.  But Textfugu has a sentence deck as part of what it’s doing, so I’m hoping that the sentence side of things comes into play there, making a nice Japanese sandwich for me to eat.

Koichi estimates it takes between 1 and 2 years to get through Wanikani.  I’m kind of hoping I’ll be on the shorter side of that since I’ve done Heisig.  He also says you should be able to start reading some simple things after a few months.  That sounds good.  Japanese is such a huge, amorphous task, having a map and guide feels really useful.  Even more, having a sense of measurable progress seems to be a huge part of staying motivated.  Just diving into immersion and swimming freestyle every day…it was hard to keep the faith that I was getting somewhere.  Khatz talks about this a lot, the intermediate blues.  But I like having this structure to keep me focused and not bored.  We’ll see if it hurts me to have someone hold my hand through the garden of Japanese for a while.

I’ll check back in with updates on my Japanese Project in a few months.

3 thoughts on “the post Heisig slump and the trail of discarded japanese learning methods

  1. Shannon

    Good for you, Maya. I get what you are saying, completely. It is why I fail, I’m pretty sure at languages. No one to practice with and putting it all together. May you continue to get past that intermediate blues and truly get comfortable with the Japanese. I am rooting for you! 🙂

  2. Daniel

    I hope your Japanese studies are still going strong. I had a similar experience of jumping around with resources (still do).

    Just to let you know, IKnow has a review mode/tab on the site and apps that schedules reviews of your ‘mastered’ items and courses.

    I dropped iKnow after the core2000 in pursuit of better things but must say that I miss it. It’s one of the reasons I’ve made it this far.

  3. Pingback: the japanese project continues–reading! | mayaland

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