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

Comments Off on january tadoku – let’s read! Posted in Uncategorized

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.

Comments Off on when will i be done learning japanese? Posted in Musings

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!

to go faster, go slow longer

I am a laughably bad runner. Absolutely terrible in fact. Because of this, I keep running.

I’m training for my first half marathon now (time goal: finish same day I start) so Monday I ran the longest I ever have in my life so far – 15km. Today, two days later, calves still sore, I did 5km in the fastest time I’ve clocked in several months.

When learning Japanese, the time it takes to comprehend things is one of the biggest sources of frustration there is. Even once you can get through a short story or a manga chapter in reasonable time, it might take months before some of the details snap into focus and you finally understand the points that were beyond you the first time.

But the mind and the body are built much the same. If you want to run fast, you have to put in a lot of distance. If you want to read fast, fully understand fast spoken dialogue, speak without hesitation – you have to plod through characters in the tens of thousands at whatever pace you can manage, listen to days and weeks and months of audio, and practice conversing until even the fencepost gets tired of you. And if you do that, the fluency will come, the speed will come, that feeling of effortlessly flying along with your favourite author will come.

Physical or mental, there’s no shortcut, but the proven path is well proven, if you will only stick with it long enough.

Comments Off on to go faster, go slow longer Posted in Motivation

it’s not the method, it’s the madness

Once upon a time there was a wealthy old tortoise who had a large garden. The garden was very beautiful, and at the end of it there was an enormous wall. On the other side of the wall was the sea. One day the tortoise decided that it was time to change the view and that he would like to be able to see the sea behind his garden.

He called his four gardeners, the rabbit, the bear, the dog, and the tanuki, and said, “This wall must come down. I want to see the sea. I know it is a very large wall so I will give you as much time as you need, but eventually, the wall must go.”

None of the gardeners knew anything about demolition, so they were not sure at first what to do. They read a little here and there, and got some advice from the other animals, some of whom sounded like they knew something about the subject.

The rabbit was very clever, and decided that he had to understand the structure of the wall in order to break it down most effectively. He studied for a long time until he knew exactly how each brick and post and pin was put together. Then he got some good but simple tools, and once he finally got started, the demolition went smoothly. It still took a while, but after two years of steady work his section of the wall was down.

The bear wasn’t especially smart at all, but he was very very strong. He tried to do what the rabbit did, but gave up after a few days of puzzlement, and set to work furiously with his enormous paws. The wall came down in no particular order, but after two years hard graft his part was cleared, and he was also stronger than ever.

The dog thought the best way would be to get the very best tools he could find and learn to use them as effectively as he could. No one spent more on equipment than the dog did, and no one was better at blasting, disassembling, bulldozing, and so on. He also had to work every day for two years, partly because it took him a while to master his formidable arsenal, but his part of the wall came down neatly and steadily.

The tanuki had no great inclination for work, but needed to at least look busy, so he also began studying how the wall was put together, and started collecting tools, and started a little manual labour, but his study was never good enough to satisfy him so he kept getting different books and plans, his tools didn’t seem to suit him quite right so he kept changing them, and as for grunt work with the sledgehammer, he didn’t like that at all at all, so never lasted more than a few minutes. He discussed the work at great length with the other animals, and understood it perfectly (from the standpoint of several different theories), and frequently mustered up some fresh resolve and began work again, but after two years his wall was a little dented and scratched but just as high and thick as ever.