toolset refinement

I was once amusingly characterized as mistaking the acquisition of learning tools for actual learning.  In fact, it almost seemed like a fair point at the time.  However, I’ve noticed that my toolbox is becoming ever more lightweight as time goes on.

I started with a few textbooks and reference books, most of which I no longer use.  Also, at one point near the beginning, I had sixteen apps on my iPhone relating to Japanese study.  Now I use three.  As for websites, the sites I use have also gotten fewer in number, as have the blogs I read.  It’s like an apprentice woodworker, who might start with a dozen planes in his toolbox but eventually finds he never uses ten of them.

All that notwithstanding, I don’t think there were any mistakes in that approach.  Some of these tools, like the excellent Human Japanese app (an introductory text with quizzes and games), were only useful at certain times.  When they were useful, I got a great deal of use out of them, but they have been outgrown.  Others had duplicate functionality, or near to it – and how would I know which I liked had I not tried both?  I don’t think language learners should ever be concerned about getting too many resources, too many tools.  You don’t know what will click with you until you try it, so if it looks even remotely useful, by all means acquire it and give it a go.  If it wasn’t right for you, there’s an easy way to tell – it’ll collect dust.  And if it was, it just might become indispensable, at least for a while.

I think towards the end of one’s language learning curve all you’d need would be something to read, something to review, and a dictionary.  And once the language is mastered, you’d have your library and nothing else.

i won readmod

But, in fairness, so did everybody that participated.  I heard quite a few comments to the effect of “I never imagined I could actually read this much real Japanese, and in only one month” – and I’ll add my signature to that line as well.  At the beginning of the month I looked at my pace and concluded that, perhaps, with a strong effort, 200 pages might be possible; and in fact I did end up with 204 pages, and it wasn’t even that hard.  Also, I must here register my astonishment at the actual winner of the contest, BlackDragonHunt, and the runner-up, Seizar86, who both somehow managed to read over 2000 pages.  I don’t know that I’ve ever read that much in one month in English (not that I kept track), and I considered myself a thoroughbred bookworm.

Now, of course, the question is, was extensive reading more effective than vocabulary study and sentence SRSing?

And the answer is: I still don’t know.  More precisely, I don’t know if it was, at this point in time.   Later on I believe it would be (although I don’t think one would ever want to abandon SRS entirely, because rarer vocabulary and usages wouldn’t be reinforced adequately simply through extensive reading), and that is for one very simple reason (that Kanjiwarrior already brought up in his post about this); namely, that reading is an enjoyable pastime that one can cheerfully do all day long, but SRSing is work, and one can only do so and so much work.  So while, true, SRS is probably more efficient (not that it can be considered fully in isolation, because you have to get sentences from somewhere), several hours of reading is going to beat half an hour of SRS every single time.

That it works, and very effectively, is however not in question at all.  I noted that in the month of reading, while my vocabulary didn’t go up much, my comprehension level certainly did.  Also, my own early experience in English is a good indication.  I was reading Dickens at age 6 or 7.  And no, absolutely I did not fully understand what was going on.  But I understood enough to enjoy it, so I kept reading, and reading, and reading.  I was blessed to grow up with a large library and by the time I was ten or so I’d read nearly everything in it.  Being an only child, and growing up in the country, it was a pretty quiet time; so I think I can be fairly confident in saying that my current English ability (such as it is) is mainly due to this same extensive reading.  Even a fairly brief time can be highly beneficial, as is recorded in two case studies on antimoon; the one student recorded remarkable progress in the span of a single summer, and the other over only two years.

So why do I still have doubts about whether extensive reading is the best way to learn right now, and in Japanese?

Firstly, I found that as long as I stayed within the confines of the lower level graded readers, I could easily understand what was being said; but as soon as the grammar got a little more complex, in the advanced readers and certainly in the various non-didactic Japanese sources I used, I got lost very quickly.  Therefore, I think I would benefit from a little more study of grammar construction before charging forward.  And yes, I know, no one explains grammar to a Japanese baby; but the reason for that is that they don’t know any language at all!  As soon as you have a good grasp of one language, you have both an understanding of how a language works, and a framework to discuss it.  So while a child must learn strictly by example, because no other way is possible, an adult can quickly understand grammar with a simple explanation and a few examples, after which recognizing the constructions in the wild is far easier.  Naturally there is no point overdoing grammar study; this isn’t math or chemistry.

Secondly, I found that I was still far too dependent on furigana.  I want to learn kanji readings as quickly as possible now (which will probably mean RTK2, I think), and that will make a tremendous difference in reading ease.  At the moment, without furigana, sounding out new words is impossible, and looking them up is impractical – it takes too long and interrupts the flow of reading.

Worth mentioning is the importance of rereading.  Those Dickens novels I mentioned before – I don’t know how many times I read Great Expectations over the course of my education, but it was quite a few.  Each time I understood more, and each time I remembered more.  Rereading is what brings the SRS effect into extensive reading, and adds greatly to its effectiveness.  However, for the contest, since I was attempting to maximise my pagecount, I did no rereading at all.  I would suggest that a partial score be implemented for rereading in the next holding of the reading contest; perhaps count 0.5x pages for the first rereading and 0.25x thereafter, or some system like that.

So what now?  Certainly I’ll keep reading, but I think it’ll be a few months still before I can make it my main focus again, this time for good.  For now, I’ll finish core2k, build my sentence deck, and start working through RTK2.

どうもありがとうございました to LordSilent for hosting this contest.  It was a great experience.

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 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.

more simple math

As I approach the end of the 2042 kanji contained in the first volume of Remembering the Kanji, I’m finding (unsurprisingly) that with more cards to deal with my failure rate on reviews is increasing.  At first, it was unusual to have more than a 10% failure rate, and most of the time it would be around 5%.  Now, I’m not surprised to see over 20%, and probably average 15% or so.

I was thinking of attempting to reduce this rate by adding only very few new cards per day for a while.  Usually if I only add a half dozen or ten cards, I easily remember them all the next day, and longer term retention on such cards also seems to be a little higher although I have no hard data to support that.  So the thinking went that I could remember the kanji better if I take a slower pace, and I do believe that I would.  Given a week or two of this, easy cards would move further down the boxes, harder cards would see more reviews and then in their turn become easier, and the daily number of reviews would go down while the failure rate would also go down.

The other option is to keep adding as many new cards as I can find time for every day.  This is usually around 30, sometimes 40.  That way I would be finished adding cards in about two weeks from now, but my failure rate would continue to climb.  I might even occasionally damage my delicate OCD psyche by adding new cards with restudy cards still existing (horrors!).

Deciding which route to take, though, is quite simple.  First the goal must be clarified, and then a little elementary mathematics must be applied.

The goal is simple enough; finish RTK1 and begin reading and SRSing sentences.

The math is just as simple.  100% sounds better than 80%, and to a perfectionist indeed it sounds much much better.  However, 100% of 10/day is 10; whereas 80% of 30 is 24.  Therefore tolerating errors allows over double the rate of progress as not tolerating them.

Full speed ahead it is then.

aesthetic division of space

That is, in short, the whole art of composition; whether in a painting, a photograph – or a kanji.

My latest Photo Life magazine arrived in the mail a couple days ago, and in it was a profile of a quite remarkable photographer, one Stéphan Barbery.  He lives and works in Kyoto.  He has clarified to me what is at least one aspect of why I am so drawn to the kanji.

I’ll let him explain in his own words, quoted from the article:

Chinese ideograms, and more particularly the regular writing style called kaisho in Japanese, are the result of several thousands of years of creation by the most beautiful and profound sprits of humanity.  These geniuses worked on an object very similar to that of a photograph: a kanji moves within a frame and must make the most of balance and unbalance, symmetry, continuity and rupture, the contrast between full and empty, shadow and light, depth and form, movement and rest, micro and macro, harmony, elegance, and overall strength within the limits of this frame.  All of this is contained within a single symbol that is not simply visual, but also bears meaning, often indirect – profound in its indirectness.

Learning to write kanji is more than simply becoming aware of each of the elements of a single character.  It is to feel one’s point of view being transformed in the way that one perceives, evaluates, and appreciates the world.

Writing kanji involves movement: it’s about feeling the movement in your hand, in your body, like a dance that allows us to look more carefully.  The photographer’s body that wanders, curious, open to being amazed, ready to be surprised, struck by beauty is not that different from the hand that holds a paintbrush and is also looking for that momentary flash, that instant.

This is not to say that his photographs all look precisely like they could be a kanji character.  Some of them do; many don’t.  But I think he has hit upon the heart of the kanji’s aesthetic appeal – that near infinitely varied arrangement of lines and space, all constrained by the same regular square frame, all with their own beautiful internal tension and balance.


You can see more of Mr. Barbery’s work here and purchase his book here (I did).

the visual language

Most would agree that the most difficult thing about Japanese is the kanji.  And sure there’s over 2000 of them – over 3000 if you want to master all the kanji used mainly in personal names and other uncommon uses.  But for general literacy, just over 2000, and it doesn’t really help a lot to know most of them; you really need to know all of them.

So the temptation is to think, “Well, kanji is pretty advanced; I’ll learn what I can in spoken communication, and use kana for reading (or – shudder – romaji).”

Do not do this.  Do not even think this.

In fact, for someone just setting out to learn Japanese, the kanji should be the very first thing to master, perhaps even before you learn your first vocabulary word*.

The reason for this is that kanji make reading a lot easier.  Easier? really? yes.  In fact, a sentence written entirely in kana can be nearly incomprehensible.  Where does one word end and another begin?  Well, if you have kanji, it’s immediately obvious.  But more than that; what does this particular word mean, when there’s a dozen homonyms for this string of three kana?

If you think i’m exaggerating, consider the case of the word(s) こうか.  Take a wild guess how many different words (not shades of meaning) are represented by this brief string of characters.  Five? Ten? surely not more than a dozen, no?  Wrong – there’s twenty-three**.  Twenty-three!  Now granted, the intonation will be different between many of them (but you can’t tell that when reading); and granted, the context will be a massive help; and granted, this is an extreme example.  But what if you know the kanji?  Then this case becomes trivially simple, because each of these words is written with different characters.

Learning vocabulary is far simpler when you are already familiar with the kanji.  Since you have the meaning attached to the visual code of the character to hang your memory on, sometimes you only need a very few reviews to remember a word for life.  Often enough you can make a very good guess at the meaning of the word the first time you see it.  Without them though, you’re swimming in homonyms and characters that make no more sense than hieroglyphics.

I read somewhere that the Japanese (and, I would presume, the Chinese) use an entirely different part of the brain for language than other language groups that use alphabets or syllabaries.  I could easily believe this, because relating those visual symbols directly to meaning without the intermediate phonetic step feels very different than scanning a string of letters that, other than the order, all look the same.

(Current status: at present I’m at 950 cards on the RTK site, so almost halfway through the first step, which I expect to finish sometime in June.)

* you will note that I am, unsurprisingly, a hypocrite.  In my defense, I came to this conclusion rather later than I would have liked to, after a considerable degree of frustration at mixing up words, not remembering words I ought easily to have recalled, and not being able to read words I “knew”.  As soon as I realized what was going on (yeah, I’m a little slow) I started to devote nearly all my dedicated study time to kanji.

** taken from results listed in Kotoba!, the dictionary I mainly use.  Highly recommended, by the way.