Tag Archives: japanese

adorable japanese picture books are adorable — ehon navi ftw!

I started studying Japanese almost two years ago (January).  That is shocking.  I am simultaneously impressed that I stayed with it this long, dismayed at how much time I have put into this essentially useless-to-me hobby, and shocked that I’m not further along by now because wow, Japanese is really hard.

But yeah, I’m still at it.  I love it, this interesting puzzle-solving hobby that has zero stress because it has zero connection to anything else in my life.  I think its like people who do the daily cross-word puzzle in the morning, or play a few round of solitaire to help them get to sleep.  Wani Kani, iKnow, Genki, Imabi, Tae Kim, Textfugu, and Japanese the Manga Way are my Japanese drugs of choice.  (Not all at once!  WaniKani is daily, the rest is in a complex rotation system that not even I fully comprehend.)

Plus this new one:  Ehon Navi.  First, if you click that link, you’re going to get a page full of Japanese except for one little English phrase, “Picture books for happiness!” which I love.  Yes!  A good picture book definitely is a happiness-inducer, isn’t it?  Second, Ehon is Japanese for children’s picture book and Navi I think is connected to navigation.  Basically the site has over a thousand Japanese pictures books scanned in that you can read for free—one time each (no going back!).  You have to register but it isn’t hard, and the reader-app they have is quite usable.  It’s basically having a Japanese children’s library on your laptop.  How cool is that?  And wow, Japanese artists KNOW THEIR CUTE.

I found Ehon Navi via Liana’s Extensive Reading blog.  Extensive Reading is the language learning strategy of, basically, reading a ton in your target language, at or below your fluency level, just gobs and gobs of stuff, casting aside anything you don’t enjoy (and don’t use a dictionary!).  It’s how I learned English so well, so it makes sense to me.  Plus, it’s super fun.  Ehon Navi gives someone who wants to try some Extensive Reading in Japanese, but has a low reading level (raises hand), a chance to level up through access to so many easy books.  Bonuses: gorgeous, funny art and charming stories.  It’s a win-win-win-win, really, with some win on top.

Liana has a walkthrough on how to register, and some clues about how to use the site if you can’t read Japanese well enough to navigate it.  Thanks so much for putting that together, Liana!  I have been enjoying this so much.  It’s been a shot in the arm of my Japanese, studies, really.  I can get lost in the slog sometimes and forget why I’m doing it.  Oh yeah, I like reading Japanese!

Plus, I used to read so many children’s books when the kids were little, and loved it, but I haven’t read picture books in years.  It’s surprisingly delightful to get back to it, even (especially?) in Japanese.  Simple stories, cute pictures, funny jokes.  Highly recommended.  If you’re studying Japanese and can’t read manga yet, maybe get over the fear of all that Japanese by jumping in to picture books.

learning japanese: that sinking feeling when you begin to understand the scope of the problem

My typical morning coffee lately: boat-sized mug, spoon (it stirs AND is a great bookmark), manga in both English and Japanese, ipod with Japanese dictionary app—I like Midori (1)—plus the notes I make.  A bout with Wani Kani (2) for kanji and vocab finishes out my breakfast.

japanese through manga

I’ve been studying ye ole Nihongo for about thirteen months now and with a kid manga like Yotsuba (3) (LOVE) I find that I can read about 33%, I can look up and quickly figure out about 33%, and with the remaining 33%, I have no fucking clue.

I kind of thought I’d be further along by now, but there you go.  Japanese is freaking hard.

(The little numbers go to notes at the end of this post, isn’t that fun?)

Surprisingly, it isn’t the kanji that messes me up.  It’s the pile of of extra little hiragana bits (particles! how I am confused by thee!) that seem randomly shoveled into every sentence.  And why can’t they separate the words with spaces, what is up with that???  No, they have to let all the words run together into one big pile of tofu and I can’t figure out what’s a word and what’s not, or what’s just been tacked on for emphasis.  To, Yo, Bai, Ne, Na, just sprinkled in helter skelter (for emphasis!), not to mention the whole Wa/Ga disaster.  I think I have No figured out, and possibly Mo, but that’s it.

But see?  A kanji is a freaking relief in all this mess, because hey, at least you know you’re at the beginning of a word.  Plus there are, like, fifty words that sound the same for every sound (shyo, I’m looking at you, and ryu, don’t get me started) so just because you’ve gotten the beginning and end of a word figured out, good luck knowing what it means.  A kanji nails some of that shit down.  Love me some kanji!  But then they skip the kanji on a bunch of stuff and I’m lost again in kana soup.

This might be the point at which the new and shiny has worn off the “learn Japanese” project, and the size of the undertaking is starting to become apparent.  This could take a decade.  Am I really up for that?

Despite my complaining, I enjoy studying Japanese.  The beautiful characters, the weird ass sentence structures, the SRS (4).   But honestly I wonder if my interest in Japanese might be some sort of disease, a mental illness with its own DSM-IV entry, because, I mean look: me studying Japanese makes no sense.  I’m probably never going to go to Japan, and if I do, it will probably be a short trip.  I don’t know any Japanese people.  Yeah, I love manga, but learning Japanese is years and years of effort.  Is reading raw manga really worth that?  Could I possibly be more happy and fulfilled as a person if I spent that odd hour a day doing something else?

Well, let’s see.  Doing an extra hour of housework each day would make the yurt a shit-load more tidy, but screw that.  Life is too short.  An extra hour of marketing and publishing work for my books would make me more money, but GOD that stuff is boring.  Okay, an extra hour of walking the dog would make Henry super happy but…oh yeah, I tend to study Japanese while walking Henry already, so not much change there.  My husband just helpfully suggested an extra hour a day blowing him and…okay, I can see the advantages from his point of view but, honestly, my jaw hurts just thinking about it.

What about yoga?  If I’d spent an extra hour a day doing yoga this last year, maybe I’d be some Cirque d’Soleil badass by now, or possibly enlightened, and yeah, that sounds pretty good.  Maybe I should do that in 2014?

Or how about an extra hour a day of freaking WRITING THE NEXT NOVEL, HELLO?

Except, it isn’t really a solid hour, more like fifteen minutes here, ten minutes there…Japanese fits into the cracks of my day.  They all add up to an hour, maybe a max of two hours if I take on a project on like a Lang-8 (5) post or a chapter of Genki (6).   But I can’t do that bits and pieces thing with writing. I need 45 minutes at least to really work.

But maybe fifteen minutes of yoga here and there throughout the day?  If I would do it.  But I can study Japanese while sitting down on my cushy bum, drinking coffee.  Hard to compete with that.

What about an extra hour of reading novels in English?  No learning curve!  Or an extra hour of learning a language I might actually use in a vocational sense, like, say, JAVA?  Or playing guitar?  I could be in a rock band by now.


The hardest part of learning Japanese is the feeling like I am wasting my time, and the guilt that I ought to be using that time for something more productive.  Something that makes sense.

My first sentences—after a year of study—SUCKED.  I can’t say anything!  It’s freaking embarrassing.  The equivalent of My name is Maya, I am American, I have a dog, His name is Henry, He doesn’t like the cold.  I mean, sheesh.  They’re great over at Lang-8, just correcting your shit, no shame, moving right along.  But so much work just to write a couple of puny little sentences with funny-shaped letters.  I can write NOVELS in English, why go back to See Spot run in some other language I’ll probably never use?

While another part of me is thinking, the only good reason to do anything is because it’s there.

Plus none of my best ideas have ever made sense.

I enjoy the process.  Quite a bit, actually.  And people do crossword puzzles and sudoku over breakfast with no greater goal beyond a bit of intellectual stimulation.  Maybe learning Japanese is like that for me.  Do I sound like I’m trying to convince myself?  Yeah, a little bit.

For now I’m still in it.  I’m going for year number 2.  What will my percentages be for Yotsuba on my 44th birthday?  Will I make it that far?  Tune in next year to find out.


Notes!  Here’s what I’m using in my Japanese studies at the moment….

(1) Midori.  It means green and is also the name of one of my favorite violinists, but in this case I’m referring to a Japanese dictionary on the ipod.  I like it because they have example sentences and everything is clickable.  I go on long click-click-click journeys through Midori all the time.  It also has handwriting recognition for looking up kanji, which is cool.

(2) Wani Kani.  A terrific kanji and vocabulary learning SRS site by the makers of Tofugu.  Paid but cheap ($5/mo I think). 50 levels, mnemonics, readings, the works.

(3) Yotsuba.  Really terrific manga series about a hilarious, adorable, green-haired girl.  The kids and I have read all the English versions, super sweet and FUNNY.  Very re-readable.  Good place to start with reading Japanese.

(4) SRS. Spaced Repition Software.  Flashcards on crack.  Very cool.  See Anki (7).

(5) Lang-8.  Crowd source your language learning needs with this terrific site where you can post anything you’ve written, a sentence, an essay, whatever, in your target language, and native speakers will correct it for you.  In turn, you correct their posts in your native language.  Boom.  Language learning happens.   You are not alone, with your Anki (7) and your Imabi (8)  you are in a sea of language learners all helping each other out.  Getting past the embarrassment of being stupid in your target language is the hardest part.

(6) Genki.  Most popular Japanese textbook.  I picked up a copy used when I realized I knew a bunch of words but couldn’t string a sentence together—it’s pricy, but accessible and comes with audio, which I like.

(7) Anki.  Really good SRS.  FREE (unless you get the iOS version which is totally worth it).  Lots of shared card packs for Japanese, like a Genki deck, or a Yotsuba deck etc etc.  Or make your own.  Indispensable for memorizing anything.

(8) Imabi.  Astonishing labor of love, all of Japanese grammar on one website, FREE, and the guy that does it is super nice.  I’ve spent some serious time over there.  Harder to get into in some ways than Genki, but much more in depth.

(9) Japanesepod101.  Free podcast, fun for listening to while walking Henry.

the japanese project continues–reading!

After starting on a lark one morning after a dream about shopping in Tokyo, nine months later I’m still happily learning Japanese.

A quick review: learned kana (the two phonetic Japanese syllabaries) that first week with ipod apps (Dr. Moku!) with the kids.  Did Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji to learn the shapes and a basic meaning of 2000 kanji in 3 months.  Next I drifted around for another three months trying to figure out what to do next, but finally landed on Wanikani, and Textfugu.  Which brings us up to date.

So, yesterday, haltingly, but with maybe 85% understanding, I read this:

This is a first grade sort of story about goldfish, nothing fancy, just Dick and Jane sort of stuff.  No big deal,  miles from reading, say, novels or, my goal, manga written for adults.

But still!  I felt pretty chuffed when I got through!  I mean, when I look at that block of stuff, I actually see words, not all of them, but a lot.  It isn’t just squiggles anymore.

Maybe Japanese is a scalable mountain, after all? At least, I think I might have reached the  first base camp, the point where some absurdly slow and awkward, yes, but still, some actual reading is possible.

Go me!

What I’m doing in my studies at this point:

WaniKani, crab-alligator, Rules!

I’m still working through Wanikani, a Japanese vocabulary SRS that covers nearly the 2000 basic kanji—including the readings (pronunciations), which I didn’t get with Heisig, plus 5000 actual words.  I’m on level 9 (of 50).  I usually do a round of reviews over breakfast and another in the evening.  I really, really like it.  Doing Heisig first definitely makes it easier, but if I had to do it over again, I probably would skip Heisig and just jump into Wanikani.  The mnemonics, these stupid little stories linking the shape of the kanji/vocab to its meaning and its sound, easily get into my brain, making learning very effortless.  And the SRS seems to be tuned properly, giving me older reviews just before I’m about to forget them again.  Plus the interface is smooth and pretty, a plus.  Two thumbs up!

Wanikani is my main, daily thing, but I also listen to Japanese while walking my puppy, Henry.  Either free-form native-speaker stuff, like the podcast Marimo.  Or I’ll listen to material I have the text for, such as the audio to Breaking Into Japanese Literature, with stories by Natsume Souseki and others, grand auteurs of Japanese literature.  Get Japanese into my ears, that’s the goal with this.

Marimo is relaxing, gals chatting, a bit of music, and I understand a word here or there.  Souseki is more dynamic, and I sit down sometimes and go through the text, picking up more words when I do.  I take this pretty easily, as much as is fun–it’s above my level really, but listening is good and reading a page or so is a struggle but an interesting challenge.  I imagine I’ll do more with this later, when I have more vocabulary.

Another good one for listening is Shadowing–Let’s Speak Japanese, a book/audio combo.  Shadowing is used to train people in simultaneous translation.  It’s repeating what you hear a millisecond after you hear it, as it’s still being spoken, kind of like singing along with a song if you don’t quite remember the words and so you’re listening a few syllables ahead to prompt you.

The Shadowing book is a series of short conversations, starting with the very simple and working up in complexity.  I’ll put one page’s worth of audio on repeat and take Henry out for a walk, listening to that group of interactions over and over, maybe a hundred times, almost like background noise.  Inevitably I begin to know them by heart.  After a couple of walks I can say most of them along with the voice actors.  Plus, after each walk I’ll read through that page again in the book for the text and the translations, matching up what I’ve been listening to to what I see/understand.  It’s a pretty effortless way to pick up conversational chunks of Japanese.  Since I’m mostly focused on learning to read Japanese, this is a nice listening/speaking portion to balance the visual learning of the rest of what I’m doing.

For grammar I have Tae Kim’s wonderful Guide to Japanese Grammar as an app on my ipod and I dip into that when I’m out and about waiting for something.  Ready to learn a grammar point at a moment’s notice!

And then there is my stack of Japanese grammar books, picked up used here and there, for short reading sessions in the bathroom, haha.

For additional reading practice at the sentence level I do a few sentences at Read the Kanji whenever I sit down to the computer.  Just five or ten, a few minutes worth.  Now that I know some vocab, this site is starting to be valuable for me. I love the smooth, well designed interface.  Reading sentences is important, I think, even if I don’t understand the whole thing.  Words out of context will only get you so far.  Vocab learned through context is much, much better.  I do wish Read the Kanji had audio, though.

Anyway, as you can see, I kind of go by the idea that quantity of short contacts with Japanese over the day trumps single long sessions a few times a week, both in working with my short attention span but also, and more importantly, in keeping it fun and easy.

I’m basically cultivating Japanese as a little side hobby, a few minutes here and there throughout the day.  Some people do crossword puzzles or sudoku, I learn Japanese.  What can I say?  It’s relaxing, interesting, and gives my brain something to chew on that has nothing to do with anything I tend to worry about, so it’s restful.

In three months I’ll have been at it for one year.  I’ll do another check in then and see where I’m at.  My idea is that I might be able to read one of my favorite manga series by then, Yotsuba, a delightful and funny kid manga that Sophie, Luc and I adore.  It’s a goal, but I one I hold loosely, no pressure.

By the way, if you haven’t read Yotsuba, I highly recommend—it’s available in English, no Japanese necessary!  Sweet, funny stories about a little girl and her dad.  Great art, laugh out loud, Yotsuba is one of the best selling manga in the world and for good reason.  It’s terrific.

Will I be able to read Yotsuba in Japanese by my 43 birthday?  Tune in in February to find out….

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.

how to learn 2000 kanji in 100 days with Heisig! Because, yes, it can be done.

Yep, I’m still learning the fascinating and complex Nihongo.  Today’s post is the Exit Interview for Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji, because that’s right, I finished it.  I am smokin’.

To repeat, I learned  2047 kanji in about 100 days, the 2000 kanji that Heisig covers in his first book, which are roughly the same 2000+ kanji that are considered the “general use” kanji for basic literacy in Japan.  Go me!  And by “know” I mean that I know their shape and an English keyword. Which is to say I’ve only scratched the surface of kanji knowledge.  But its a good, deep scratch.

Short version. 1) get a copy of Rememering the Kanji.  2) download Anki and put it on a mobile device like an ipod touch 3) download a Heisig deck to your copy of Anki, one with mnemonic stories (find it in the shared decks area of the Anki site) and set it to give you 20 new kanji a day 4) do all the reps that Anki gives you each day, without fail, for the next 100 days.  At the end of 100 days you will know a primary meaning and how to write each of 2000 kanji.  Boom.

Longer version. I used a vanilla Heisig deck, English keyword on the front, Kanji and mnemonic story on the back.  I wrote out the kanji each time and graded pretty strictly at first.  At first I did reps in the evening, but when the number of reps got too high to do them all at once (more than 50 or so, certainly more than 100) I started breaking it up into smaller and smaller chunks.  How do you eat an elephant?  One bite at a time..

Look, I totally did this, so if I can, you can.

(Along the way I also learned Hiragana and Katakana, the phonetic syllabary, together called the Kana, that go with kanji to make up the Japanese writing system.  They are super easy to learn, just get an ipad app that appeals to you, we used Dr. Moku and Kana LS, and bang it out in a couple of days. No sweat.  But back to kanji….)

So…was it worth it?

On the one hand, completing Heisig feels like I have successfully accomplished some grand task.  But on the other hand, it also feels like doing Heisig just gets me to the starting line.  Seriously.  If you want to read Japanese there is no way around the elephant of kanji in your path.  This method was super efficient for getting them into my head.  Yes, definitely worth it.  But for more detail….


Learning a Japanese word means learning (1) the way it is written (usually a combo of kanji and hiragana), (2) the way it sounds, (3) the way it is written in straight hiragana (related to how it sounds and also how you type the word into a computer), (4) the English meaning.  I’m now starting to learn words (more on that in another post) and knowing what I know about the kanji TOTALLY gives me a leg up.   Facing a new word, I already know how to write the complex shape of the kanji part of the word (no small thing with some of these kanji!) so, that’s part of (1), PLUS I have a sense of the English meaning so, part of (2).  Yay!

More importantly, I already have something in my head to hang the new information on, which is huge.  It is really hard to remember some random thing—but it is much, much easier to attach new information to something you already know.  Believe me, it feels like a freaking miracle when I look at those squiggles and am not starting from scratch.  Definitely worth it for that.

The biggest pro to Heisig, I think, is the way the thing is set up.  You learn a couple of radicals (the smaller bits a complex kanji is built out of) and then you learn all the kanji that can be made with those radicals.  Then you thrown another radical in and you learn all the kanji that new element can give you.  It’s a lot easier to learn twenty kanji that include the “turkey” radical, theme and variation, than to learn a bunch of unrelated squiggles unique to each word.  Patterns are everything and Remembering the Kanji is a genius for patterns.  Learning the radicals like this also make it easy to think up mnemonics—take the kanji for “angry.”  It’s made out of woman, crotch, and heart.  I’m not even kidding.  Betcha don’t have to strain to think of a funny story that includes angry, woman, crotch, and heart!  And suddenly that kanji becomes super easy to remember.

Bottom line: I really think that when learning something so complex, multiple, easy, passes over the information is a much more effective way to learn than one pass where you try to learn everything there is to know about that thing in one go.  Which is how they do it in academic language learning classes (four years of French in college here).  Heisig is meant to be a first pass over the kanji, giving you some of the vital information…which sets you up splendidly for future passes.

As a way into reading Japanese, I think it’s terrific.


With Heisig, you get a unique keyword for each kanji…which causes problems towards the end (say, over 1500 kanji in) because the kanji are not actually that narrow in meaning.  So as you’re doing your reps, you get dinged for giving the kanji for, say, tears, when it was supposed to be crying, or you put down the kanji for method when it was supposed to be system or technique.  You know your answer isn’t exactly wrong, because it’s artificial to say the kanji are strictly linked to that English keyword. It can be frustrating to get a card ‘wrong’ when you were just thinking of a slightly different keyword.

I solved this by just writing down both kanji that came to mind and grading the card correct if one of them was, in fact, the target.

An aside: getting a card “wrong” isn’t bad or shameful or whatever other schoolish wounding we might carry.  What it does mean in an SRS is how soon that card is going to come back to be reviewed.  If you grade a card flat out wrong, you’re going to see it again in ten minutes.  A little wrong and maybe you see it again in a day or two or a week.  Since you grade yourself, you decide when you think you need to see that card again.  If you know it but got the wrong keyword, maybe you mark it only partially wrong, and it comes around again soon, but not too soon.  Essentially, the harder you grade, the more reps you’re going to do.  More on that in a bit.

Another con (maybe, I’m not sure if this is a con exactly) is that I know the kanji English-to-Japanese much, much better at this point than I know the Japanese-to-English.  In (English) conversation, I constantly am thinking I know the kanji for that as words fly by, and I can picture the kanji.  But, conversely, when looking at Japanese text, I constantly am thinking I know I know that one but I can’t think of what it means!  Which is very frustrating.  I suppose I could reverse my cards and start going Kanji-to-English, but I haven’t yet.  We’ll see.

But the worst con…

The Hard Part to the Heisig/Anki Combo

Learning the kanji is blindingly easy for the most part.  Use the crowd sourced mnemonics at the Remembering the Kanji website (there are pre-made Anki decks with these already in there) and 20 a day is no problem.  They slide right into your brain.

The hard part is 1) doing your reps every single day (because they pile up to overwhelming burn-out sized proportions if you miss a single day) and 2) towards the end when you start getting a ton of reps a day even if you reliably clear your plate each night.  The hard part is sticking with it.  I got bored towards the end, I’m not going to lie.

And it got up to about 300 reps a day towards the end, which sucked and nearly burnt me out.  The only thing that kept me going that last week was the fact that I’d have 500+ reps due the next day if I skipped!  Impossible!  I was dragging that last couple of weeks.  But yeah, it seemed like my whole life had become Anki and kanji, which I do not want.

Solution: having a clear end in sight (and not far away) made that doable (for me and for my family, haha).  I like a project with a clearly delineated end goal!  I can suck it up if I know exactly when the suckage is going to stop.

But I hit the magic “end” a couple a weeks ago—just in time, too, or I was in danger of quitting—and I haven’t been adding more new kanji, just doing reps on the ones I already have, which reduces the daily rep count considerably.

Plus, I’ve also started grading more easily, which, as I mentioned, reduces reps.  Maybe I got it right but missed a stroke, or got the components right but the order wrong, I won’t mark it completely wrong now.  It’s gotten down to 150-200 reps a day, much more doable, maybe an hour, hour and 15 min, divided up throughout the day in ten or fifteen minute chunks. I’d like to get down to 100 a day, a number that now feels like a breeze to accomplish.  I guess I leveled up because when I started 100 seemed insurmountable and now it is my target easy number.  Basically, the better I know my cards, the less frequently they come around, maybe once every few months…total daily rep numbers come down.  Relief.

Of course, I still grade something wrong if I really missed it.  I don’t want to forget them, now that I know them!

A couple of random tips:

*Use a nice pen to write the kanji out.  Plus, I got a little tablet with sections of bright colors to write them in, and as I moved through I got a little boost by saying, oh, I’ve moved through the yellow, I’m into the green now!  By the time I get to the orange, I’ll be done!  Stupid, but it helped.  Kind of like the colored belts the kids get in Aikido.

*Kanji reps are the ultimate activity for when you are waiting in line, waiting for the kettle, waiting for the kids, walking the dog, any random few minutes where you normally just spin your wheels.  Chunks of ten or twenty kanji just take a few minutes.  Don’t try to do them all at once.  Knock those puppies out one chunk at a time.

*You can’t do just one.  If you even open up Anki to do ONE, you will probably do a dozen or more without even noticing.  So open it up frequently.

*Get an ipod/iphone/ipad, some mobile handy device that runs Anki that lets you easily take your kanji reps with you into yourlife.  Anki has a notepad feature you can turn on to let you sketch out kanji with your fingertip on the screen for when you are away from your nice pen and colorful paper.  Keep your ipod in your pocket and whip it out whenever you’ve got a spare few minutes.  Sitting down at a computer to do 150 reps sucks your brain out through your ears and leaves you zombified and burnt out.  Don’t do it.  Don’t make yourself hate Japanese.  Short bursts, frequently.

*Reward with chocolate as necessary.

An Alternate, Probably Smarter, Method

Sophie has been learning kanji, too.  She’s got about 300 in her deck and adds 5 a day.  She does 20 or 30 reps a night to help her relax before she goes to bed. In her pottery class she has been painting kanji into the glazes for her bowls.  For example she made me a pretty little sake cup with the kanji for sake painted inside.  So, that’s another way to do it.  No goal, no push, just meandering around because it’s fun.  She’s probably way smarter than me about this.

Either way, learning Japanese is like climbing Mt. Everest.  A big project accomplished a little at a time.  Next up, learning words.  And sentences.  I’ll talk about that in another post….

the japanese project — update 3

I’m at 1600 kanji.  In a couple of weeks, if this keeps up, I’ll know all 2000 of the general use kanji.  Which is kind of amazing, when I think about it, because the task looks so impossible at the beginning.  It will be 3 months since I started, if I keep on track.  In that time I’ve also learned the 46 each of hiragana and katakana which are cake compared to learning the kanji.  So that’s pretty cool.

I should say that by “know” I mean, I know how to write them, and I know one English keyword related to meaning.  No readings (pronunciations) yet, and no actual words.  Just kanji shapes and keywords.  It’s vanilla Heisig (of Remembering the Kanji) in an Anki deck.  It’s a starting point.  A scaffolding, upon which to add further kanji knowledge.  In other words, it’s kind of the same thing as saying “I just learned the alphabet.”  A big, honking, complex “alphabet,” but still: only the babiest of steps in the direction of actually being able to read.

It’s been pretty painless.  25 new kanji a day.  At 1600 cards in my active deck, it’s about 250 cards a day (I grade pretty hard) which I break-up into several chunks throughout the day.  2000 kanji will be a bit more, but of course I won’t be adding new ones, so it should progressively get more manageable. Mornings are best, because my brain isn’t mush yet.  30 minutes at a time, max.  Maybe 100 minutes total each day, give or take.  I write the kanji out before showing the answer.  I do all the reviews first and then do the day’s new kanji all at once, in the evening.  Like I say, pretty painless.  Sometimes those last 20 are a bitch, but it’s okay.

I picked up a kanji book in the library the other day and flipped through the lists of kanji that they teach Japanese kids from grade 1-3 and I knew 90% of them by sight.  That was surprising!

I’ve also kept on with the immersion, but I’m not very good at it.  Maybe an hour or two a day of listening to Japanese podcasts, anime, or audio books.  Certainly isn’t all japanese all the time, but it’s something.

But I’m thinking about the next thing.  What will my Japanese adventure be, post-Heisig?  I’m thinking vocabulary.  Typical words in Japanese have one or more kanji, plus, often, some hiragana as a suffix, plus pronunciation, and I know none of that.  Readthekanji.com looks cool for learning words in the context of sentences.  That might be a place to start.  Another is iKnow.com which has the advantage of including audio files for each word and sentence.  Both stack their vocab according to use, top used 1000 words for iKnow Core 1000, while Readthekanji follows the JLPT levels used in Japan.  Either of those could be good.  Reckon I’ll try them both and see what I like.

Learning a language is so diffuse a goal…how do you know when you’re finished?  I like the idea of discreet tasks such as finish Heisig, or learn 1000 most used words.  Challenging, but doable goals.

Sophie is still adding 5 new kanji a day and is up to 260.  She likes to do her reps at night, before she goes to sleep.  I don’t tell her to do it in any way, she just does it when she wants to.  I hope she sticks with it, if only my selfish reasons…it’s fun to have a learning partner.


a few reasons to learn japanese, or, why the heck am i doing this?

Short answer: manga.

I am certainly not the first person to fall in love with the literature of another culture enough to go learn the language so I can read it in its original form.  But in addition to that, there is  a ton of manga that just isn’t available in English at all.  Or it might be, if I wait long enough (either through licensing or by fan scans), but that’s like knowing there is a giant buffet of marvelous food, right on the other side of this wall, only they won’t let me in the door.

Pisses me off.  How do I get into this club?

And man, waiting for the English is an iffy game.  For example, Est Em, a terrific mangaka had—yes, HAD—several titles in English officially available through JManga, a digital-only site, including The Apartments of Calle Feliz, which I was really looking forward to after reading her Age Called Blue, which is dynamite. Est Em does all kinds of literary moves in her works, time jumps, telling stories backwards, interlocking stories, troubled characters who do the opposite of what they say, complex relationships.  She makes you work a bit more and the pay off is worth it.  I love her stuff. But then JManga goes out of business!  Just this month!  And I didn’t get a copy of Happy End Apartment in time!  Now the only version available is in Japanese.

I’m so annoyed about this.  Annoyance is a big motivator for me.

Or, say, there is this lovely shojo title Taiyou no Ie by Tammo, about a make-shift family of smart, funny, grumpy, tsundere-type young people who have lost their parents through death or abandonment and are making a go of it together in this big rambling house.  I’ve read some of the scans and really liked it, but they only go far, and it isn’t licensed in English.  If I want to find out the ending, or pay the mangaka, I’ve got to buy the Japanese.   You see where this is going.

Another good one, The Heartbroken Chocolatier by Mizushiro Setona, an award winning shojo manga about a guy who becomes a chocolatier to seduce the girl he loves, even if she’s a two-timing bitch who is married to someone else.  Ha!  I love the warpedness of this guy.  The part I’ve read is bitter and sweet, just like the gorgeous, mouthwatering chocolates the main character is constantly making and eating, oh my god, get me to the chocolate store NOW.  Can we say CHOCOLATE PORN.  But only the first bit of this story has been scanned.  I would dearly love to read the rest….

Jillions of people on this planet can read both English and Japanese.  It can’t be impossibly hard or anything.  Why can’t I be one of them? 

A final example: Yoneda Kou, an amazing, amazing storyteller, flawed only in her apparent tendency to leave stories hanging—her title list is littered with abandoned series that just break my heart.  One of my favorites, The Songbird Doesn’t Fly, I’ve written about here.  But only one, ONE title of hers is officially licensed, No Touching At All, a really strong, complex, interesting love story.  Great stuff.  I bought that one—digital only, as the English is out-of-print (!!!)—but I want to have more of her work to pour over as a writer, just to figure out how the heck she is doing what she is doing with these characters.  But the only access I have is spotty fan scans.


And in her case, I don’t just want to read her stories in Japanese because of a lack of available English version, I also would really like to read her stories in Japanese because that’s how she wrote them.  Listen, Japanese is a language that is all about context—Japanese leaves out vast swaths of stuff you say explicitly in English.  Kou’s characters are like that, too.  I’d really like to see how they speak in their own language.  The thought gives me a bit of chills, actually.  Does that make me an otaku?

PLUS, if you have any kind of book fetish at all, you would love the gorgeous way they do book design on some of these Japanese manga.  I mean, wow.  I go to the local comic shop with its tiny two shelves of manga and I just…fondle.  So preeeeetty!!!!  I don’t know if you can tell from this photo of the front and back of Songbirds, but the cover is impeccably elegant.  There is an obi, a paper band, around the bottom, see it?  And the texture of the paper is sumptuous, with the gorgeous caligraphy-style kanji and Kou’s beautiful, disturbing artwork.  Makes me want to forswear digital.  Except the convenience/cost wins in many situations….

Anyway.  Obviously, I need to know Japanese.  Right?  This is not a crazy mountain I have decided to climb, but a mere roadblock between me and my drug of choice.  Lots of people do this.  People learn languages all the time.  And hey, I’m at 1100 kanji and halfway through the kana.  Plus, I find the more I learn the more into it I get.  This is doable.  Maybe.

Okay, I will probably run out of steam at some point and that will be okay.  But I have this idea that if I can get “reading in Japanese” up and running even a tiny bit, the whole project will become somewhat self-feeding.  I mean, I learned English so well largely because I read copious amounts of the stuff.  If I can read even the simplest of Japanese, that leads to reading more, which scaffolds one up into reading even more….seems like the same path might work for me again.  Just have to get over the first hump….

In summary.  A few reasons to learn Japanese long answer: Yoneda Kou.  Chocolate porn.  Tsundere families.  Happy endings.


the japanese project, update 2

I’m up to 1000 kanji!  That’s half way!  Go me!

And I finally had a big mental breakthrough with the whole reading Japanese thing that will be perfectly and boringly obvious to anyone who knows both a character-based writing system and an alphabet-based writing system, but was super hard for me to wrap my brain around.  Stubbornly, stupidly hard.  Here it is:

1) If you know an alphabet, you can read something out-loud and be in the ballpark for pronunciation, even if you have zero comprehension.

2) If you know characters, you can read something silently to yourself, be in the ball park for comprehension, and have zero idea how to pronounce it.

I don’t know why this was so hard for me to grok, but I kept wanting to sit down and sound out my Japanese copy of Yotsuba, because that’s what you do when you are learning to read…that is, that’s what you do when you are learning to read an alphabet-based language, which is my only frame of reference.  Instead, with Japanese, I can get a gist of what the characters are saying from the kanji I recognize, but I can’t read a syllable of it out loud, which kept making me all confused.  It’s funny, really, how much I kept banging my head against this wall.

I’m starting, a little bit now, to add some pronunciation information to my small store of Japanese.  And hey, I can get my macbook to type in hiragana—fun!—plus I’ve got Perapera on my browser, a plug-in that lets me roll over any Japanese on the screen and get meanings.  PLUS there is saiga, an online kanji dictionary that has sound files with everything.  COOL.  So many fun things to play with!

I’m experiencing the learning of the kanji (recall that we are using Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji for this part of the Japanese project) in this basic level (kanji and a keyword, no readings, no pronunciations, no compound words) as basically opening up a file in my brain for that kanji, and then moving on.  Without that file, when I come across that kanji somewhere, it’s just a tangle of weird scribbles.  With that file, I have something on which to hang more knowledge.  So far I like this approach.

In that vein, I’m still adding 20 kanji a day to my Anki deck, but it’s getting pretty intense with the reviews, about 200 a day, about 80-90 minutes (done in several small shots throughout the day).  I might take a few days off from adding new ones to get the number of reviews down to a reasonable number, or just drop the number of new kanji down to 10 or whatever.  So far I’m just been doing it, but it’s a lot.  Sophie, on the other hand, is adding five kanji a day to her Anki deck and is done in fifteen minutes or so.  I’m jealous.  But even more I’m jealous of her amazing memory.  It comes so easy for her! Luc, too.  Is it because they have newer brains less constricted with the flotsam and jetsam of 42 years?  Would it be twice a hard to do this if I was 84?

The most fun is playing “spot the kanji” when we watch anime.  We recognize more and more.  The credits come up or street signs and we pause the screen and call out all the ones we know, like kanji bingo.  Stray words are starting to leap out from the dialogue, too.  “What”, “I”, “like”, “therefore”, “eat,” not that you could get much meaning from such a scattering, but baby steps, baby steps.  Will this trend continue?  We will see.

It’s all still fun, that’s the main thing.  Keep trucking with the kanji, keep playing, and oh, I’d like to knock out katakana (the other syllabary) soon.  Need to sit down for some ipad time to do that.

Last update here.  Project post here.

the japanese project, update 1

I know five hundred kanji.  No kidding!  (Here is the first post about learning Japanese.) There are  2000 in the official basic literacy set for Japanese folk, so, in theory, I am 25% there.  I’m adding about 20 kanji a day, which so far has been doable and leads to about 100-150 or so cards a day in Anki (that’s like electronic flashcards in a spaced time schedule depending on how well you were able to remember a given card on a given repeat).  Takes less than an hour.  This photo is one day’s Anki SRS session.  If I keep doing it, 20 kanji a day, I’ll know all 2000 kanji by the end of April.

Sophie is learning maybe 5 a day.  She has an amazing memory, although much less stamina than I do for sitting and studying.  It’s kind of a foreign concept for her, haha.  Luc picks up maybe one a day, without trying, although he picked up all  the kana very quickly.  “What’s ‘mi’ again?” I say and he calls out from the other side of the yurt, “the one that looks like a ’21’ !”  He thinks all the kanji look like our cat, Momo.  “She’s sitting down, that’s her profile.”  “She’s standing, that’s her tale.”  “That’s Momo when she sleeps on her side!”  I have to say, I just don’t see it.

Here’s the thing: I have no good reason to learn Japanese.  Shouldn’t I use this time and effort on something that makes more sense?  Why am I doing this?  What is the point?  All I’ve got in answer to that is, it’s fun.  It’s interesting.  Maybe it will stave off dementia a few more years.  But mostly, it’s fun.  So why not?  I admit, I feel a little guilty.  Which I think is weird.  But there it is.

But it’s so cool to recognize about 25% of the kanji and maybe 80% of the kana on the credits and street signs in the anime we watch!  And I can recognize radicals (parts of kanji) in many others, even if I don’t know the particular kanji.  “That’s ‘wild dogs’ and ‘rice field’ and ‘king!’ ” or whatever. (I just made that up, I don’t know if there is a kanji with those three parts!) The kids and I pause on any screen with writing and point out the ones we recognize.  Which adds a whole fun game-dimension to watching our usual shows.  I wonder if one day I’ll be able to read manga in Japanese?

But, more practically, I have no end goal.  I just don’t want the pressure.  Mostly I just say, “what is the next fun thing to do in Japanese?” ad do that.  Although I would like to hit that 2000 kanji.  Doing that is such a proscribed picture, much more defined than “learn Japanese.”  We’ll see.

Oh, and it’s my birthday today.  42!  My life is passing before my eyes.

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.