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!