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.

january tadoku – let’s read!

What if I told you that there was a language study method that wasn’t studying at all, and in fact barely even a method?

And then what if I told you that this method has been demonstrated over and over again to be more effective than just about anything else?

Do you remember the hours you spent as a child (if you were anything like I was, and, I’d guess, like most people reading this site were) devouring story after story, book after book? There’s very little the human mind hungers after more than knowing how a story ends. And there’s only one way to find out – just keep reading. So you did.

But the stories were not all you learned. While you spent those hours and days reading, your mind was processing what it saw, spotting patterns, storing vocabulary, organizing small patterns into bigger ones, learning which words could be expected to be seen with which others and in what order, strengthening and deepening over and over all those millions of connections that make up what we call language. And as time went on this unconscious learning grew and grew, and you graduated from children’s picture books to teen novels to Robert Frost and Shakespeare and Hemingway and Tolkien and the Brontës and Thoreau and, in short, became a master of the English language.

And then one day you decided to learn a foreign language, so you went out and bought a textbook and started memorizing grammar and vocabulary … or was I the only one that did something that silly?

I invite you to go back to that time of exploration and wonder, to start the process over, to find new stories in a new language, to see new things that you couldn’t see any other way. And don’t worry, the mind will take care of sorting out the patterns, as long as you let it see enough of them.


The 多読 (たどく, extensive reading) contest has been going on for a while, but has had a brief hiatus recently. But now we’re back on track and ready for another month of all-you-can-read, beginning January 1st. Registration is simple, and explained here. Many languages are supported, and if you like, you can read more than one. You can view scores on the web app, and can report your reading either there or using Twitter. Most pages at the end of the month wins! (No prizes. You already got a massive boost in fluency, what more do you want?)

It’s true that the most advanced learners have a nearly insurmountable advantage for the top position, but that certainly isn’t the only competition there is. You can pick someone close to you and compete with them (I always do this. I think most people do), you can compete with someone you know, and most importantly you can compete with your past self. If seeing that your score is two or five or ten times what it was in a past contest isn’t encouraging, I don’t know what is.

I look forward to reading together with all of you!



The Power of Reading – Two Stories

What is Extensive Reading?

What is Extensive Reading?


Extensive Reading: What Convinced Me

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when will i be done learning japanese?

There are projects that you can take on that have a clear end point: when you’re done, you’re done. You can build a boat, or write a novel, or take a journey around the world.

Then there are projects that you can take on that you will never ever be done with: rather, they become a part of your daily life; eventually, a part of your identity; you will strive to the end of your days to finish them and you never will. You can train to improve your personal best 40 km cycling time trial, or endeavour to truly express your vision in photography, … or you can learn a language.

There is no such thing as done. There will always be more to learn, more depths to plumb, deeper understanding of grammar, keener intuition of expressing yourself in writing, broader knowledge of literature, more refined sensitivity to connotations, more idioms and sayings to appreciate; and the perfect brush stroke will elude you for a lifetime, just as it has thousands of calligraphy masters before you.

And this is something that I am grateful for, and would never wish to change.

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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.

anki 2.0 – filtered decks and making things stick

Since I do most of my reviewing on my phone or iPad, I hadn’t jumped into Anki 2.0 like many people already did. Now that I’m on the new version and am discovering its capabilities a little, I quite like what I see. My favourite of the new features has to be the filtered decks. I suppose you can use these for cramming before an exam or the like, or studying just a certain subset of vocabulary for instance, but what I really like to do is using the ability to re-review the day’s failed cards at the end of the day. Usually I have my reviews done by noon, so later on in the day it’s really nice to get another look at the cards I missed. Some stubborn vocabulary cards especially benefit from this extra look.

It’s easy to set up a deck like this. Just go to tools > create filtered deck, and put your search and options like so:

Options for Today's Failed Cards

That search will find all the cards you marked wrong in the current cycle, and unchecking the “reschedule cards” option will turn this into an additional review instead of replacing the next day’s reviews, which would defeat the purpose in this case.

Once you’ve made the deck, it will be automatically synced to your mobile client as well, and you can also edit settings there. For that matter you can create the deck on the mobile client too; just hit the “filter/cram” button at bottom right in the decks screen.

Filtered Deck Settings on Mobile

Then to review it, just hit “rebuild deck” on desktop or “build deck” on mobile, and enjoy learning faster!

the small boy principle

A long time ago, I read an account of an explorer’s solo ski adventure across Labrador. It must have made quite an impression on me since I still remember much of it; but one of the things I remember most was his eating system, which he called the “small boy principle” — eat first what you like most! Pulling a sled across the snow all day takes so many calories that it didn’t matter much what you ate, as long as you got enough of it. His stash of chocolate was gone first, as I recall. Lunch was massive peanut butter and jam sandwiches, over 1000 calories each. I’m not sure what else he carried, but he’d made sure it was all stuff he liked, since he’d have to be eating it by the trainload.

I think the tie-in to learning Japanese should be fairly self-evident. You’re going to need a huge amount of input — you’re after all trying to catch up with people who have had Japanese input and nothing else from the day they were born — so you’d better be sure you enjoy it, and not try too hard to eat your broccoli, as it were. Luckily even the junk food is good for you! That ridiculous game show? That eye-roll-inducing drama? That laughably juvenile shounen manga? All of it just packed with nutritious Japanese.

Sure this isn’t going to teach you business Japanese, or academic Japanese. But until your language skills are at least equal to the average Japanese teenager’s, what are you doing trying to learn that stuff anyway? And I assure you you’ll learn more from ten hours of romance manga than you will from twenty minutes of Serious Study of dreadfully boring stuff picked out for you by dreadfully boring people. (And if business or academic language is your box of truffles, have at it!)

There’s no chance of any shortage of the material you like most, either — Japan produces more media of all kinds than anywhere else in the world (or so I’ve heard. Anyway, there’s lots.). No chance, then, of any need to study something you’re not interested in, or feel that you “should” study, because you’ve run out of the junk food.

So eat your chocolate, it’s good for you!