Fluent Czech: On Going From PolyNot to PolyGlot

I don’t pay much attention to how-to-learn-languages material generally, figuring that my time is better spent actually doing Japanese; and on top of that I don’t like videos because it takes a lot less time to read the same information and it also sticks better, for me at any rate.

This nearly hour-long video, I have now watched three times.

If like me you’d prefer just to read it, just for you, I took notes (they’re fairly raw though, fair warning). Click through to read.

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tadoku wrap up: tune your brain (plus, awards)

Try this experiment: I assume most of you have your pipe organ and your grand piano in the same room. Play a chord on the organ and hold if for a while – then let go, and listen to the piano. You didn’t touch the piano, yet there’s the same chord sounding. That sympathetic resonance is what extensive reading feels like. The more you read, the more Japanese-tuned strings in your head start to ring, the more you understand – not because you studied, but because you resonated.

This affects your brain in many wonderful ways, but the effect I noticed the most this go round was the jump in my listening skills. That’s right; listening – and that even though I spent far less time per day on active listening than usual. Most of my time listening this month was music, and that mostly background. But the hours a day of reading left enough of an imprint after only two weeks that I was hearing new words and phrases again and again in songs I’d listened to dozens of times.

Try it, you’ll like it!

This tadoku contest was almost all about manga for me. If you’re going to spend a hundred or more hours at something you’d best be very sure you pick something you enjoy, and as someone who is both very visually oriented (as a once and future photographer) and loves a good story, manga is perfect for me. Also helpful is that a volume of manga doesn’t take that long to get through, so you feel like you’re making swift progress. The final tally put me at just over 2600 equivalent pages, so around 13000 pages of manga – good enough for my first top ten result, and well over double my previous score.

~

Herewith some awards:

The Rembrandt Award for Best Art: 黄昏乙女xアムネジア

Not picking on the old Dutchman randomly here – めいびい’s art has powerful chiaroscuro effects that reminded me strongly of the Dutch masters. Backgrounds and scenes are moody and detailed, perspectives draw you into the page, and on top of all that, he is the absolute master of facial expressions. I’d recommend this manga even if you couldn’t read a word of Japanese. It came close to getting best story too, but among some strong albeit very different competition was:

Best Story Award: こばと

CLAMP are very good at setting up your heartstrings for maximum tweakability and this is a wonderful example. Truly one of the most beautiful stories I’ve read in years, in any language. Leaves you misty-eyed and smiling and hopelessly in love with the deeply real and human characters (even the ones that actually aren’t human, which is, well, the majority of them).

Rossi Award for Most Epic Single Volume: 神のみぞ知るセカイ volume 19,

the last in the long arc that starts around volume 9. Honestly, the pacing and tempo is excellent throughout the arc, but volume 19 turns up the intensity to nearly unbearable levels and keeps it there without missing a single beat right to the finish line. Like a good race, it hurtles along with utter inevitability and yet you aren’t sure right till the end exactly how it will turn out.

びっくり Award: この彼女はフィクションです。

I got this four-volume manga expecting nothing more than substance-less entertainment; and certain it is that there is rather a lot in here specifically designed to amuse middle school boys. Amazingly, though, somewhere under the dross and in the midst of the trainwreck is a really good story with surprising depth. What does a high school boy do when the ideal girl whose character he’s been writing for ten years appears in front of him? What if he’s already fallen for someone else? Can she change and grow now that she’s in the real world and not only his notebooks? The characters are certainly in a bizarre situation, and in the hands of a lesser storyteller would have been mere laughable paper cutouts, but you end up really feeling for these people – if that indeed is what they are. Even all the rubbish around the main storyline has the disconcerting yet fascinating effect of the reader never quite knowing at any moment whether the story is completely going off the rails, or working as intended as it lurches and crashes to its conclusion. Which leads me to –

がっかり Award: この彼女はフィクションです。

Same manga. Now, yes I just called it a really good story with surprising depth, but the absurdities and annoying irrelevancies are still there in abundance. This series would benefit immensely from a ruthless editor. Two volumes would have been sufficient. Alternatively, more back story and more exposition could have been added. Either way, this author is not to be trusted with his own pen. More importantly, the story comes so close to raising and dealing with some really very deep and interesting questions – significant among them that of “to what degree is a character a person?” – and yet every time it nearly gets there it veers off on some trivial tangent or some development seemingly designed to break your suspension of disbelief. I am neither recommending this manga nor saying to avoid it, just saying that as bad as it is it’s really quite excellent, and that as good as it is it’s still a trainwreck. Oh, it must be said, the art is very good, actually among the best I read this month. Characters are highly expressive, and very individual despite there being rather a lot of them.

Strawberry Cheesecake Award: ひよ恋

If you want cloyingly sweet fluff, this story of the highly improbable (yet absolutely inevitable, because this is shoujo after all) love between the tallest boy and the shortest girl in the school will satisfy the most romantic thirteen-year-old girl part of your heart. And yet as eye-rolling as it potentially could be, the writing is good enough and the characters are lovable enough that you get all the happy and none of the faintly ill feeling. As a bonus, the language is very easy. If you’ve just finished よつばと and feel like you’d like some romance, I do recommend this. Just make sure to have some espresso with it to counteract all that sweetness. Oh, I also like that each chapter has a column of hand-written commentary from the author. Her writing is quite neat and makes good practice for reading handwriting. She also seems like a really sweet person (surprise!).

~

The tadoku contest is designed to help you establish the practice of extensive reading as a regular habit. There is always a danger of going a bit overboard during the month and burning out, thus reaching the opposite effect. I was a little concerned that this might happen, but in the end I just want to keep reading. The world is full of wonderful stories, and the correct number to have read is always just one more.

tadoku and the forgetting plateau

SRS systems operate on a more or less exponential curve; every time you pass a card, the next review is scheduled at a time in the future that is the previous interval multiplied by some calculated constant. And if you pass the card every time with the same difficulty ranking, the review schedule will continue along the same formula until the interval reaches into multiple years, multiple decades if you bother with SRS long enough.

The trouble is, I don’t think that actually works. Yes for fairly short time periods it does work; up to a few months. But there comes a time when a card that you haven’t seen (and let’s limit this to simple vocabulary or kanji cards for discussion’s sake) outside the SRS system will be forgotten no matter what the elves inside the black box say (that’s how computers work right?).

I began to notice this with my vocabulary deck (since abandoned), which I kept up for probably close to two years. I also definitely notice it with my kanji recognition deck using the RTK keywords – there are some pretty rare characters in there. Take a look at the lifetime stats for this deck:

写真 2013-09-03 9 52 18 PM

You can see that while for both young and mature cards the “good” button is the large majority, the overall percentage correct is significantly lower for mature cards; as well, the “hard” button was proportionately used a lot more, nearly double in fact. I doubt I’m the only one whose charts will look like this. And the reason for that is exclusively, I believe, that the standard SRS curve breaks down over multiple years; that no matter what the numbers say, if you haven’t seen a kanji or a word for a year or more you’re very likely not to remember it.

And as to what’s to be done about this problem, if in fact it is a problem? You might quite persuasively argue that if you haven’t seen a word for two years you likely don’t need to know it. But that depends on whether you’re sufficiently engaged with the language or not. For example I don’t really do anything at all with German any more so there are many very basic words that I don’t know, but if I were actively reading, or conversing, or whatever, it would very quickly become apparent that I did in fact need them. So if mastery of the language is your objective then yes, this is a problem – and the solution I completely unsurprisingly postulate is simply this, read more! The algorithm might be a bit off but if you see the word even once or twice in between that two, three, five year review interval, you’re certain to remember it; and the very best way to do that is to maximize your time actively engaged with the language; and the very best way to do that is to read more.

Additionally, I would caution (voice of experience – hey, it’s all I’ve got to stand on here) against adding very rare words or characters to your decks in the first place. Sure it might be a cool word, but if it shows up in one spot in one book and you aren’t likely to see it elsewhere for years, just enjoy it in the moment and then let it go. Once you’re more advanced and more likely to see it a bit more frequently, then feel free to add it, if you still think you need to. And of course knowing which words fall into this category only comes from doing this wrong multiple times, so maybe just ignore this paragraph.

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.

how to stay monolingual: making use of recursive lookups

If you advance beyond the beginner stage in your language learning, the question will arise soon enough: “How do I switch over to monolingual study?”  Thinking about Japanese in English is of course how we start, and even at advanced levels an English explanation of some abstruse point can quickly get you unstuck, but there’s no denying the multiplicative power of thinking about Japanese in Japanese.  Usually the suggestion will be made, “Do recursive lookups”; with the idea of looking up every word in a Japanese definition that you don’t understand, again in a Japanese dictionary; looking up any unknown words in those second level definitions; and so on, until you’ve branched out enough that no more unknown words remain.  Depending on the case, you could get five new words, or twenty, or fifty out of this.  But that sounds like a lot of work, and then once you’ve done that, what do you do with them?

In case you’ve somehow been missing it till now, there’s a brilliant Japanese learning resource in a location you might not immediately think of; the IRC channel #ajatt on Rizon.  It’s a sort of blender for ideas and pretty often some excellent stuff comes out.  Today, the subject was nesting definitions and massive context cloze deletion (MCD) SRS cards.

It got a little long, so the rest is behind the jump, posted as written.  There’s examples too.

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give yourself a project

If you’ve been learning a language for any length of time you’ve surely come to realize how amorphous and hard to measure your progress actually is.  Sometimes you get a bunch of notable insights in a row but just as often, probably more often, you can go weeks without noticing all that much difference in your skills.

This is where it might be time to take focus off your creeping language XP bar and focus on some quest chains – er I mean projects!

I have found this to be notably useful.  For me, a good project is something with a very clear end point, and a time span of around three months.  That’s short enough that you can see measurable progress every day and feel that your goal is inexorably drawing near, while being long enough to give a big shot of satisfaction at finishing it.

Going through Remembering the Kanji volume 1 is maybe the first such project that many people start with, and it’s a great example.  Averaging a very doable 30 or so a day, this will take a little over three months, and once you’re at the end you have laid a tremendously useful foundation for reading and writing.

Another project I benefited from was taking Naoko Chino’s All About Particles, mining all the sentences, and SRSing them until I knew those particles cold.  You can do this with a lot of different grammar books, or even phrase books, shadowing example books, etc.

Right now I’m about a month away from “finishing” (that is, having no more unseen words) the JLPT 1 list on readthekanji.com.  Again, an easily measurable, highly defined and structured activity that will take a few months but well under a year.  I think a year is too long for this sort of thing to be really motivating.  If you want, you can define a long term goal – “I want to read Heian poetry” – and break that down into several sub-projects, each of which will take you a large part of the way through.  Think of it as timeboxing on a very long scale.

The next project on my list is an incremental reading deck with audio, made from Miki’s audio blog on japanesepod101.com.  I think this will bring a lot of things together and greatly aid listening comprehension. (I do have this Anki deck available for download as I mentioned before.)  There are about a hundred cards, so if I add two a day I can get through in a bit less than two months.  Perfect.

In a way language learning is like the easiest MMORPG ever.  As long as you stay logged in and doing something, anything, you’ll level up and get rewards.  The time put in is the single biggest factor in your language skill, so as long as your method(s) makes even remotely some kind of sense, if you just keep at it you’ll win, no need to worry about your eventual success.  However, the process can easily start to feel endlessly long, and that way lies burnout.  Giving yourself concrete objectives that you can finish gives you that sense of progress, and gives you things you can point to and say “I did that, so I can do more”.