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  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  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”.

the next development

My listening comprehension is terrible.  Part of that is simply due to not enough time spent, I think; but getting listening material that’s 95% comprehensible is a lot harder (at the early stages) than reading material, because you can read as slowly as necessary but you can only listen at one speed.  Learning from context is pretty difficult when three fourths of the context itself isn’t understandable.  So to bring a few things together, I intend to combine incremental reading with repeated listening.  There’s a few different things I’m considering:

  • Anime or drama.  Get something with subtitles and put the subtitles in an incremental reading deck.  Watch episodes as you become familiar with the reading cards.  Alternatively, put the episodes themselves into their own SRS deck; or possibly along with the reading cards in the same deck.  Durarara!! has j-subs available and I can rewatch that pretty much limitlessly so I think it would be a good place to start.  Also maybe something like Hidamari Sketch.
  • Podcasts.  I’m mostly finished making this deck, just have to add in the audio.  I’m using Miki’s blog from japanesepod101.  They’re short, interesting, Miki and the hosts are fun to listen to, and I can get a lot out of them already without having read them at all.  Transcripts are in the episode comments.  I’m putting the audio on the same cards as the transcripts, although I might not listen to them every time; and also putting the podcasts on my iPod shuffle for random reinforcement.  I can usually get three to six hours of listening in at work in a day so this should work nicely.
  • Lyrics.  Basically the exact same as the podcasts.  Not sure if I’ll put the audio on the cards or not.  Can’t hurt to have it there I suppose.

readmod mid-way update

I didn’t post a pre-readmod post this time around because I really didn’t know what to expect.  Looking at my previous results, it’s clear something went very much off the rails somewhere.  I’m still not entirely sure what it was, but quite clearly, sometime around the one-year mark of  learning Japanese in earnest, I lost the plot rather badly.

However I think I might now be getting a little closer to the well-oiled assimilation machine that I want to be.  I’m not nearly there yet, but the fact that I hit 300 pages yesterday says something; it’s not impressive at all, no, but it’s over twice what I read in the previous contest all together.  And I’m enjoying it, too.  (Well until they get into the explainers – the history and science of Aqua (the ARIA world) are a little – strike that, a lot – heavy on the vocab.  Just drives home again how critical it is to stay within that 95%+ comprehension zone.  Those sections, even if I look up everything, I still often don’t quite get the sentence – it’s all just too much at once.)

It’s also become quite clear that for me, doing a lot of a few things works much better than spreading my studying around amongst too many different tools and approaches.  I guess I was the same way as a kid; play for hours with one toy more so than five minutes with a bunch of different ones.  So now I have to limit my toys in order to maximize their effectiveness.  Extensive reading (and its variant, incremental reading) has to be the cornerstone, and other techniques will be applied if and as they complement that.

incremental reading incremental update

A quite long while ago now I posted what was meant to be an introduction to this post; and this post was meant to take place two or three weeks after that one; and, moreover, this post was meant to be a definitive guide to incremental reading for language learning.

Some of that didn’t happen, and the rest won’t.  It’s become clear that developing this method will take considerable time, so instead of attempting to nail down something this fluid I’ll just dispense spoonfuls as I discover them. Herewith then, some of these, not really in any specific order.

Perspective first: I’m mostly talking here about the Alice in Wonderland deck.  These cards are anywhere from 400 to over 3000 characters long, and have a parallel English text along with the reading on the back of the card.  I’m also using a four-panel manga deck, of which more later.

One of the first things I noticed was that words that got skipped over the first or second or third time would eventually assert themselves and become clear.  This happened again and again with every card.  It felt quite remarkable really.  It was a bit like those shows where they take the terribly blurry surveillance camera pictures and hit a magical “enhance” button repeatedly.  Any photographer would kill for such a tool, but the language student has one available.

A problem I’ve encountered often whilst reviewing sentences is that the sentence gets memorized.  The first couple of words come into view and the brain rattles off the rest by itself, without really reading the sentence at all.  This does not happen with this deck – the cards are much too long.  There is no way to gloss over the text in this manner; no choice but to actively engage with it.

The text used for the Alice deck actually has very few kanji; so few in fact, that adding rather a lot more would make it easier to read.  Some parts are a little denser though.  The more kanji with unknown readings in a passage there are, the shorter the card must be.  Looking up words and readings is totally fine of course, that’s half the point, but once you have to look up as much as you know it just gets tiresome.  The tadoku principle of sticking to texts that you understand at least 95% of is still very much in force here.  You can get away with a little more, but it’s best not to push it.  Some words – 公爵夫人 was a good example – gave me a lot of trouble because there were too many unfamiliar kanji in a row.  This sort of deck is not well suited to learning such words.  (Eventually though it did stick.)  Sometimes a card will have a brief passage that is at a much higher level than the rest of the card.  The dodo’s speech was a good example (the Eaglet even interrupted him with “日本語をしゃべれ!”).  This can be frustrating because you keep having to come back to that card even though the large majority of it is perfectly clear.  I still haven’t confirmed a good solution for this but I think I do have one, more later.  Words that are reasonably clear from context stick like magic.  After the card interval is over a month or so I hardly even remember that there were ten or twenty words in it that I didn’t know at all.

The parallel text has proved completely unnecessary.  I never look at it.  I suspect this would be the case whenever a text is within the proper 95% to 99% comprehension range.

Perhaps it goes without saying (I’m saying it anyway), but you had better really, really love the work you decide to review in this way.  It’s pretty easy to get tired of it when you are rereading the same book piece by piece over and over.  Choose carefully.  It could be that a book of short stories, or a set of poems, or lyrics, would lend itself a little better to incremental reading.

Also about avoiding burnout – I found it best to limit myself to one review daily.  This usually amounts to anywhere from ten minutes to half an hour.  Because of this, cards often don’t get reviewed exactly on the day Anki decrees, so set the program to display cards from the shortest interval to the longest.  That way the fragile young cards don’t get put off too long.  Also, if there is a review due I don’t add a new card.  As you can imagine this has stretched out the process of getting through the book by quite a lot.

Grammar has started to feel natural, to the point that I very seldom think about it.  This should be the case with normal extensive reading, too, but I think there is a benefit to sticking to one author’s (translator’s, in this case) style.

Some of these cards I have made far too long.  Over 3000 characters – that’s too much at once.  To make them I took the line numbers in Notepad++ and took an approximately equal division of three for each chapter.  This did not work well.  Some passages with lots of conversation ended up being quite short, and others with more narrative were a great deal longer.  Better would have been to count characters and make cards of perhaps 400-800 characters.  Also, there’s no real reason to make the entire deck at once as long as you have the text file.  Just make the next cards as you need them.

My intention at first was to extract sentences as I went along, for my sentence deck.  My thinking was that once a card was over a certain interval, if there were still passages that were problematic, I’d isolate those.  I haven’t done this even once, though.  Instead, I’ve started a simple vocabulary deck.  As I begin each card, every new word gets put into a text file, and once I’m done the words get added to the vocab deck.  The idea is that by the next time I see the reading card, the new words will already have a review or two behind them.  This is something I’ve only started very recently, but it seems to be working well.  Usually when I see the word I instantly think of the context in which I found it.  This way, I am pretty sure the issue I mentioned of thorny passages in the middle of easy cards will be resolved.

About that manga deck: it’s a sort of hybrid of ordinary sentence decks and incremental reading decks.  Each card has a four-panel strip on it, but they’re short enough to treat them exactly like sentence cards.  They’re just a lot more entertaining! and of course images make things easier.  I highly recommend this, but it isn’t really incremental reading like I thought it would be.

That, it looks like, is the end of my notes for this time; I’ll post again once a few more have accumulated.  As you can see, the method is far from polished yet, but the current rough version is working well enough that I definitely intend to carry on.

quick poll: production vs. recognition SRS

The longer I work with my sentence deck, it seems the less production cards I make – less kanji writing, more recognition.  Not that I’ve actually added new cards in probably close to two months now, having been chasing (white) rabbit trails (quite productively I may add).  But since I was thinking of starting to add sentence cards regularly again, I’m curious what balance others have arrived at, so if you would be so kind, cast your vote, and even kinder still, comment and let me know how you’ve arrived at your current personal ratio.

unlimited tool works

Go to a photography forum and most of the discussion is usually about cameras.  Hang out with motorcyclists and most of the discussion is about bikes.  And I’d venture to say that in a samurai dojo, there was a great deal of talk about swords.

Likewise, in groups of people learning languages, the dominant topic is tools: which books, or no books at all; whether to SRS or not; what style of SRS cards; immersion versus intensive study; dictionaries, programs, apps, and on and on.

It could be considered that all this is much of a waste of time. The true expert thinks about his practise and his technique, and not much about whether the camera or motorcycle or sword he is currently using couldn’t perhaps be replaced by a better model, or upgraded somehow.  However, I can’t say I fully agree with this.  How many of us are at that level?  How long did it take Kiyonari to master the track, or Musashi to master swordsmanship, and how much experimentation with the equipment took place before it ceased to be a consideration?

There’s one sword that fits you and only you perfectly.  Don’t get attached to the old ones, and don’t be afraid to try new ones, until you find it.

Unlimited Blade Works