turning reading comprehension into listening comprehension: three simple strategies

Once you have kanji at least somewhat tamed, reading is the easiest skill to develop to a high level. You can take all the time you need to get through a passage, no one is rushing you, you don’t need to depend on anyone else to talk to or correct your writing, and you can do it all day long if you like. And especially for those of us using extensive reading as the foundation for our studies (which, it hardly needs repeating, I strongly support), we will most likely arrive at a stage in our learning where reading is quite far advanced above the other three skills. Then when you try to listen to material that’s at the same level that you’re comfortably reading, it’s completely incomprehensible. This can be very frustrating! It’s like solving a Chinese puzzle with mittens on. The question then is, how can we use that reading skill to boost our listening skill?

Certainly massive immersion is foundational to listening skill. Listen as much as you can. Listening is something you can multitask, so take advantage of that. Going out for a run? Headphones in. Punching numbers in Excel at the office? Headphones in. Deep discussion with your significant other? Headphones in. (Kidding … maybe?)

But that’s a little random for our purposes here, and doesn’t really answer the question. How then can we focus our listening a little more closely? Here’s three simple things I’ve found to work well, in order of precision.

Firstly, you might remember I’ve previously mentioned incremental reading combined with audio. This SRS exercise will result in exceptionally complete comprehension and retention of short passages. A quick summary of the method: find a source for short passages where you have both audio and text. You can select passages that are quite difficult as long as you find them interesting, but don’t overdo it because the quantity of repetitions you’ll need for a passage that’s too far over your level will only result in you getting sick of it. Podcasts are perfect material. I like the audio blogs over at japanesepod101. Your card, then, will have the text on the front, the text with readings on the back, and the audio. Have Anki set to not play audio automatically. Reviews are done by reading the card and then listening. Feel free to look up as much as you need to while reading. Particularly unfamiliar words should probably be added to a simple vocabulary deck or an MCD deck. The reading should be fairly easy though, because the point is to bootstrap the difficult listening with the higher skill level of the reading. Grading can be done like any other SRS card.

That’s the most effective method in some ways, but the focus is quite narrow, and there’s a lot of setup required. It also has a fairly high burn-out risk.

Secondly, let’s consider a method for using Japanese subtitles. Now, just watching video with J-subs is something I have found to be not terribly effective. It does aid comprehension, and I’m sure if you could read at the same speed as normal speech it would be a lot more effective than it is for me. But as it is, it often ends up going by all too quickly to be much use. So what I do instead is put the text of the subtitles file in Learning With Texts. (You could just as easily use a plain text file – maybe put them in an e-reader program like iBunko – and make MCD cards for words or grammar points as needed.) The process then is to first watch the video without subtitles, then read through the text carefully taking all the time you need to understand everything, and then re-watch the video. This should be done without too much delay between, but a day or two is fine. You will notice a big difference in comprehension between first and second viewings!

For this method, the video must be reasonably within your grasp before reading the text, otherwise two viewings won’t be nearly enough. And if you’re anything like me, two viewings of anything is already very nearly one too many, no matter how good the material is. Also, it must not be too long, or it will take you all day to study the text, and you won’t be able to retain all of it. I find the 20 minutes of a typical anime episode to be pretty much perfect.

That might still be too much structure for your taste, so lastly let’s consider a method (that’s so loose it can hardly be called a method) that will let you take in the most volume of text and audio of any of these. For tadoku, it’s often recommended that you concentrate on the works of a particular author for periods of time, since you get used to their style and their selection of vocabulary. We can take advantage of this for listening as well. Most anime are based on manga, as are many dramas. So all you need to do is watch your favourite series, read through the manga (SRS as much or as little as you like), re-watch the series, reread, etc., until you’re tired of it, which is your sign to move on to something else. Very often the lines in the anime or drama are lifted directly from the manga, and even when they’re not, they’ll be in the same style and using the same set of vocabulary. Sometimes you can also find audio dramas (”Drama CD’s”) that are also based closely on the manga. ARIA in particular has a great many of these, so you can get a lot of listening immersion that’s all based on material you already know from reading. As well as ARIA, I like みなみけ and ひだまりスケッチ for this approach. Any simple slice-of-life anime or drama is a good bet for practical and realistic everyday vocabulary. But make sure to follow your interests! The brain is like a little kid faced with a plate of broccoli; very good at rejecting what it doesn’t enjoy. Luckily when it comes to language even the chocolate cake is nourishing!

I always remember something loafyi said in the #ajatt channel one day – something like “when I can recognize a word in listening, that’s when I feel like I really have it”. I’ve found this to be very true. I hope that these simple common-sense suggestions can help you to use your hard-earned reading comprehension to raise your listening to a similar level.

when can i delete this srs deck?

“I don’t really SRS anymore” is something one occasionally hears from advanced learners, usually with a twinge of envy. Compared to reading, watching movies, conversing with natives, SRS feels like (and is) a pretty dry and mechanical thing. Some days it would be a nice relief to drop it entirely. Of course no native speaker uses SRS for their own language.

Then again some will insist that one should never stop SRS, even when the card intervals stretch into the years and no new cards have been added for a long time.

It’s actually very easy to tell approximately when you can permanently delete or suspend any given SRS card. SRS is designed to remind you of a fact just before you forget it; so if you see the fact (be it a grammar point, word, or kanji) in the course of your normal day-to-day use of the language with a greater frequency than the card interval, you don’t need that card anymore. In fact, keeping it around is a waste of time. You can see that this is always going to be approximate, going by intuition not exact statistics.

Thinking of it mathematically like this it’s obvious that an advanced learner will both have his average card interval much longer than a beginner, and will see the facts on those cards far more often, due to faster reading, better listening comprehension, and involvement with more advanced materials. Then the time inevitably comes when new material comes in so infrequently, is so easily remembered due to the massive context already absorbed, and old material is so ingrained that the whole SRS process can be dispensed with. You could graph the whole process if you wanted.

This is partly why I like to keep separate decks that are at least somewhat homogeneous. It is a time saving to suspend an entire deck of easy grammar, for example, rather than continuing to review that deck and suspending cards bit by bit. One also needs to learn to take a somewhat detached view of the individual cards. A dragon might know the details of every treasure in his pile, but it’s a bit much for a human; and anyway there’s so much treasure already there and flowing in all the time that a gem or two or a dozen will never be missed.

vocabulary multiplication

This is not something that you are likely to be able to do intentionally, but it’s really nice when it does happen; and with the large number of compound words in Japanese it happens quite a bit.

For example, today I learned 「栽培(さいばい)」,  the word for cultivating crops of any kind.  Looking it up, I found that I had, in effect, learned a bunch of other words automatically, because it’s part of quite a lot of compounds.  For example, 「温室栽培(おんしつさいばい)」, greenhouse gardening;「果樹栽培(かじゅさいばい)」, fruit growing; 「栽培所(さいばいしょ)」, plantation; 「栽培種(さいばいしゅ)」, agricultural variety or species; 「テラス栽培(てらすさいばい)」, terrace growing; and several more.

And the fact that an easily recognizable word forms a part of so many compounds makes it more likely that you’ll be able to infer the meaning of a new word in reading or listening.  You read or hear a word, note that 栽培 is a part of it, and immediately you can tell (even without context) that this new word has something to do with raising crops, which narrows the meaning down a great deal.

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sentence reviewing – yes, just started

It’s a bit embarrassing to admit, but I’ve just very recently started actually reviewing sentences, despite that supposedly being the cornerstone of my entire method.  First there was the kanji to learn, then core2k on smart.fm to go through, and the tadoku month in the meantime, and once I finished core2k I wanted to finish sentence mining Chino’s Sentence Patterns book before actually starting to review.  Well, that’s done now.

So initial impressions then.  Highly effective, yes, and especially (at this point) for learning kanji readings.  I still want to go through RTK2, but I need to figure out how my daily routine will play out with the new things I’m doing.  (It was easy before. smart.fm till done, kanji reviews, kick back with an anime.)  My card shows me the sentence in kana, and my task is to write it with kanji and, of course, understand it.  This is according to Khatz-dono’s thinking in this post.  It might get a bit old after a while, but so far it is no problem to do them all like that.  I think though, once my kanji knowledge has solidified, I’ll review more reading cards, and do less writing, simply because of the time requirement.  If you’re not familiarizing yourself with any new vocabulary or kanji there isn’t much point in writing the sentence, I’d guess.  So far it seems that about a minute and a half is required per sentence, so I can comfortably add about 20 cards from the core2k deck (sigh) and 10 from my main sentence deck, which is about 400 strong, all from that one book so far.

I think I’ll carry on exactly like this for about another week and then post a set of not-quite-so-initial impressions.

the last RTK post

One more piece of advice on RTK (learned, of course, by doing the opposite myself, and paying the price), and then I’m done, I promise.  (Until I think of something else.)

When making your first pass through RTK, it is not at all a problem to assign varying meanings to a single primitive.  For example, for the “person” primitive that goes on the left side of a huge number of characters, I used “Chuck Norris” (because Mr. T was a foo to try to pitty Chuck Norris), but I also used the generic “person”.  Then there was the “increase” primitive for which I also used the actual kanji’s meaning of “formerly”, and so on.  Quite a few like that.  It is not an issue when you are going from keyword to kanji, because you think of the story, and the story has the primitive names in it, so you get the right primitive even if there are more than one name for a single primitive.

However, it becomes a little bit of a snag (not huge, but annoying) when going the other way.  When trying to use the mnemonic for recognition, you look at the kanji, see the primitives, and think, “ok here there is Chuck Norris and a valley … hmmm … can’t think of the story … fail card.  Oh! “vulgar”.  Right, the story for that was “the people in the valley are so vulgar”.”  See where the problem is? had I always used the same name for that primitive, the story would have come to mind immediately.

This is of course an intermediate problem, and once the kanji is fully internalized it won’t even register as being any kind of issue at all.  But there’s no sense in making the intermediate steps harder than you need to.

two for the price of one

A frequent pattern in Japanese is the closely related transitive and intransitive verb pair.  These will use the same kanji, and usually the same reading for the kanji, but slightly different okurigana.  It’s easy to confuse the one for the other if you study randomly, but by studying pairs together, you can learn two verbs in no more time than it takes to learn one.

Let’s look at a couple examples.  How about:

集まる/集める (あつまる/あつめる)

Here, 集まる is the intransitive form and 集める is the transitive.  Both have the meaning of gathering or collecting.  So you might say, for example, ”虫集まる” – “The insects gather” – or ”彼は虫を集める” – “He collects insects”.  You can see the only difference is the next-to-last syllable, which moves from the あ row for intransitive to the え row for transitive.  Several of these pairs work the same way; another such is 決まる(きまる)- to be decided – and 決める(きめる)- to decide something.  But there are lots of different ways in which the pairs can vary and that is just one of the more common forms.

Koichi from Tofugu has put together a good basic list of such pairs on smart.fm, and that’s a great way to get started.  This interesting linguistic phenomenon can either really confuse you or make your learning more efficient, so you might as well use it to advantage!

RTK after story

Having finished the first part of Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji a little while ago, I’ve had some time to think about the experience.  Not that it’s entirely over, mind you; there’s still usually a hundred or so reviews a day, and I’m still not passing 100%.  Usually about 85%.  That should go up in fairly short order as the troublesome characters get concentrated toward the front of the queue and get dealt with.

You won’t find too many people who have used RTK that will advise others against it, and with good reason.  Still, there are some significant imperfections, or for most such points one could say incompleteness, in the system.

For those new to the idea (and I imagine that won’t be many of you) RTK is, briefly, this.  The concept is to assign a single keyword to each “primitive” (similar to what is usually called a “radical”, but not identical) and use these keywords to build an imaginative story for each kanji, assigning each one its single keyword in turn, with the idea that an interesting incident or amusing image is a great deal easier to remember than a random arrangement of marks on a page.  Furthermore, the order in which Heisig has arranged the kanji goes by related primitive element, and builds on previously introduced elements, using known kanji as primitives in their own turn as they form compounds.  Reviewing is done strictly from English keyword to kanji writing, under the assumption that if the writing is known surely the recognition will be trivial.

There are a great many advantages to this system.  With the story mnemonics, acquiring new kanji is very quick and retention is excellent.  Previously I had attempted the more usual brute-force method of massive repetition, but this didn’t get me past 500 kanji at best and most of those were very quickly forgotten.  I didn’t use an SRS system though, so I was handicapped there.  (I didn’t use SRS with RTK either; I used the Leitner box system on the RTK website.)  I have heard of more than one person going from zero kanji knowledge to the full jouyou kanji in two weeks with RTK; clearly, that is a feat both of memory and extremely hard work, but I can’t see how such a thing would ever be remotely possible without the use of this type of mnemonic.

The fact that the stories rely on breaking down the kanji into its component parts is also a great benefit, not only for ease of memory, but also for ease of getting the stroke order correct, and further down the path also for learning other kanji not covered in RTK.  This gives the student a good understanding of how kanji actually work, which makes learning unfamiliar ones a much simpler process.  Instead of learning 20 strokes all you need to learn is three primitives, for example.

The order of learning is unconventional, but a great improvement on either going by Japanese school grade level or frequency of occurrence. Since the thinking is that in order to read fluently, a knowledge of only a part of the kanji isn’t terribly helpful, no matter if it’s a rather large part, Heisig instead ordered the kanji by related primitive elements.  This leads to much improved retention in early reviews, since you know that all the kanji you’ll be reviewing that day have the same element, or one of only a few elements, however many you learned at a chunk the previous day.  It almost seems like cheating, but quick retention in the early stages saves a great deal of time overall.  Moreover, because of this order, you are never dealing with more than one unfamiliar primitive element at a time.

The emphasis on writing is also a strong point, but a flawed one.  The muscle memory does greatly aid retention, especially in the medium and long term.  And writing the kanji makes very certain that you fully know it, because you can’t miss even one stroke, or get the stroke order incorrect; whereas if one attempted recognition only, missing details is rather a lot easier.  The flaw in this, though, is what has been wryly dubbed “Heisig syndrome”, in which the student finds himself in the odd position of being able to write the kanji but not readily recognize it.  This is much easier to fix than the opposite problem though, and a relatively brief time of reviewing in the opposite direction, not to mention encountering the kanji in use, will soon have this sorted.

It must also be mentioned that the website dedicated to RTK at kanji.koohii.com is a tremendous user-generated help in getting through the kanji the RTK way.

The greatest single annoyance with RTK is synonymous keywords, due to the system of single keyword per kanji.  At first, these are not an issue.  As you work your way through, more and more pairs and even triplets of keywords will begin to crop up and trip up your reviews.  At the  moment I find myself constantly writing the kanji for “wedding” instead of “marriage”, for instance, and the group of “heir”, “inherit”, and “bequeath” are another of many such trouble spots.  It seems until around maybe 1300 or 1500 characters, this won’t even register as a problem.  After that, it’s a serious nuisance, more annoying because you actually do know the kanji, the problem was in the English keywords that you eventually won’t even be using at all!  As I mentioned at the beginning, at the moment I usually fail around 15% of my reviews; I would estimate around half these failures are caused by this issue.  I can only see the problem compounding as one tackles the next thousand kanji in the third volume of RTK, too.

Another issue, which is probably not of great concern to many, is the frequent inaccuracy of meaning.  Since the system is designed to facilitate memory, not to educate an etymologist, primitive elements are often assigned an arbitrary meaning that is easy to remember.  I wish there were a fusion of RTK and the accurate etymology found in such books as The Key to Kanji.  But kanji etymology is a subject of some fascination to me, whereas most people want simply to be able to read the character and don’t much care how it developed its current form.

In sum, even with the detractions mentioned, I would whole-heartedly recommend RTK to any student.  In fact I agree with Khatzumoto that learning the meanings and writing of the kanji should be the very first thing a beginning student does, because having done that any word and any sentence is open for your learning the actual language, not just its orthography.  And once you’ve finished the first 2042 characters, you will intimately understand how kanji actually work.  Be prepared for synonymous keyword troubles though.  It is mainly because of this that I don’t plan to use RTK for any more kanji, although I’ll certainly adapt much of the method as it fits, and will likely use Heisig’s order in RTK3 as well.