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I just wanted to talk about a few thoughts I had regarding a recent video interview with Stephen Krashen and Steve Kaufman. Steve Kaufman is the man behind LingQ and is a very accomplished polyglot. He mostly advocates extensive reading and the idea of collecting massive amounts of words (very similar to Krashen). If you don’t know Stephen Krashen, I highly suggest looking him up. He has put together some very interesting ideas on second language acquisition that have had some incredible impact on self-studyers like you and I. Krashen’s main theories require “meaningful interaction in the target language” through comprehensible input.

“The best methods are therefore those that supply ‘comprehensible input’ in low anxiety situations, containing messages that students really want to hear. These methods do not force early production in the second language, but allow students to produce when they are ‘ready’, recognizing that improvement comes from supplying communicative and comprehensible input, and not from forcing and correcting production.” –Stephen Krashen

If you’ve talked with me or read any of this blog, you’ll probably realize that this is the particular ‘method’ (if you want to call it that) of language learning that I subscribe to, and I’m not alone. Many of the self-study language learning blogs out there regard Krashen very highly and take inspiration from his ideas.

Stephen Krashen

Back to the subject of the interview. There was one particular point during the conversation that stuck out in my mind. It’s something that Kaufman says at 19:45 – 20:10. To give some context to their discussion, Kaufman and Krashen are talking about the level of comprehension when reading things in your target language. As long as what you are reading is compelling enough, you shouldn’t be worried about finding completely transparent material (ie material that you can understand 100%). Kaufman says that it’s perfectly okay to deal with things that are fuzzy, or things you don’t understand completely.

“I always resented in language classes these comprehension tests. Nevermind the comprehension! I’ve got my half-baked understanding of what was there. I’ll revisit it in three months and understand it better.” -Steve Kaufman

This is the interesting part. When you’re extensively reading native text, don’t aim for complete understanding because you’re never going to get there. Aim for staying interested in what you’re reading. Read, skim, look at the pictures (if you’re reading manga), and make assumptions! Concoct a patchwork of understandable dialogue and fill in the rest of the story. It’s more about finding little nuggets of information that you can understand and then moving on. Maybe you don’t understand a lot of the story, highlight some interesting words or phrases and then put the book away for a few months. When you come back to it, you’ll probably be surprised by what you know.

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If you read Japanese Level Up, you’ve probably seen a few posts that encourage discussions about what kind of fun study materials you’ve been reading/watching/listening to over the past month. Other language blogs that I read have also started to participate, giving me lots of great resources to find new and interesting content (anyone been to Nayugen yet? If you like Japanese media, you gotta check it out). Anyway, I thought I’d jump on the bandwagon and share a couple things I’ve been using to learn Japanese.

Watching

Priceless

Priceless Priceless is about Kindaichi Fumio, an ordinary salary man whose life gets flipped upside down. His superiors craft a devious plot to frame him for a crime he has no memory of, and he is forced to leave his position. Eventually he meets two children in a park who teach him how to get by without depending on money. What I like most about this Jdrama is Kindaichi’s positive and carefree attitude. He doesn’t let anything knock him down as he continues to push forward.

I’ve been watching this with Japanese subtitles, focusing all my efforts at keeping up with the text and following the plot. So far it’s been pretty successful, which is a huge motivation boost for me. Being able to understand Japanese media without relying on translations was one of the biggest reasons I started learning Japanese. Now that I’m approaching that point, it’s only making me want to watch and read more!

Pokemon

pokemon-logo

But seriously, who doesn’t love pokemon? I managed to find the Japanese version of the original series without any subtitles, so I threw every episode in a playlist and set it to shuffle anytime I’m at home. Of course there’s the nostalgia factor that keeps me hooked, but Pokemon is also just a great children’s show. It will likely remain in my immersion environment set up for quite awhile.

Listening

100s – sekai no flower road

sekai_no_flower_road

This is probably my favorite Japanese band/album right now. 100s is a great pop/rock group formed around the singer/songwriter Nakamura Kazuyoshi. Great band. Great sound. I usually listen to 世界の私から about once a day. I would highly encourage everyone to check them out, even if you don’t like Japanese music.

Reading

Detective Conan

detective-conanDetective Conan is a insanely popular manga/anime series that has over 800 chapters of manga and over 600 episodes of anime. Don’t forget about the 16 movies that have been released, with a 17th coming out on April 20, 2013. Don’t get too excited though, because I’ve only read the very first volume of manga. I read through awhile back, highlighting vocabulary that I didn’t know. Now I’m going back through it again and looking up words that seem interesting and adding them to my ever-growing vocab anki deck.

I really like Detective Conan for a number of reasons. First, I’ve fallen in love with the characters almost instantly. The comedic timing is perfect, and the dynamic between all the different characters is hilarious. Second, there’s furigana over a lot of the kanji. This makes searching for vocab super easy. And third, it’s a detective book! They’re always solving mysterious cases, which keeps me engaged with the story because I always want to find out what happens next (even though I already know what happens).

Yotsubato

Of course everyone recommends this as a good introduction to manga if you’re learning Japanese, and I’m no different. I powered through 8 volumes during the Tadoku challenge and have read two more since then. Yotsubato is a fantastic slice-of-life manga that follows Yotsuba and her father through the everyday interactions they have with their neighbors, going shopping, going to the zoo, etc. Yotsuba is an amazingly adorable character who is always full of energy and asks lots of questions about what is going on around her. This is great for us language learners because we get easy to read explanations about everyday stuff. If you’re learning Japanese and have a basic grasp of grammar/vocab, I would dive right into Yotsubato and just suck up as much information as you can. I certainly wasn’t reading at 100% comprehension (nor should you expect that) but the more I read, the easier it was to keep reading.

Greetings, it’s been quite awhile. Are you well? Studying like a good language learner? Well, I wasn’t. I have just come back from a 2-week hiatus from learning Japanese. Why? Because I burned myself out.

I had just finished up inputting 1,000 J-E sentences into Anki and I was feeling good. However, I knew I had to change gears soon and I wasn’t looking forward to it. And to top it all off, my University workload has just been exponentially increasing, leaving me little time to devote to, what is ultimately just a hobby. So here’s where I am, I deleted every single Anki deck that I’ve made and I’m starting over. You may ask, “Why? Why would you scrap all that hard work and start from square one?”

Lots of Reviews

I’m sure anyone who uses Anki has been in this situation. Reviews start building up and you think, “I’ll just sit down and power through these later”. When the time comes, you sit down and do two or three reviews and then quit. When I deleted my decks I had over 2,000 cards overdue. Some people may have enough willpower and motivation to go through a large amount of reviews like that, but I definitely do not. I’ve discovered (through trial and error) that for me reviews need to stay around 50 for each deck if I want to actually do them.

No Motivation

The excess of overdue cards just completely sapped my motivation to do anything productive. I felt like I couldn’t learn anything new until I took care of all this baggage. I would open Anki, do a couple of reviews, get stressed out, then close it and continue to browse Reddit for the next three hours. This is a serious problem.

Is this something I SHOULD learn, or something I WANT to learn?

This is an interesting concept that many J-bloggers talk about. You should be asking this question for every card you put into Anki. Sentences or vocabulary that you feel like you should know won’t stick with you as much as sentences and vocabulary that you want to learn. That means getting material from sources that you enjoy and aren’t tiring or boring. My old decks had a lot of material that I didn’t care too much about any more, or had material that I felt like I should know solely for the sake of knowing it. This made reviewing a chore, and anything that is a chore won’t stay a habit for long.

Broad Goals or Too Many Goals

However, my biggest mistake is not defining specific enough goals. I had lofty plans of “becoming fluent”, “working on listening/speaking skills”, and “reading manga”. If you’ll notice, these goals are excruciatingly broad. It’s fine to want to do these things, but it is an absolute must to sit down and truly think about specific and measurable goals that you would like to achieve.

I also have the bad habit of trying to work on too many things at once. I’ve read enough about how our brains can’t multitask to know that to be an effective and efficient learner, I need to focus on one thing at a time.

To illustrate, the one thing that I am working on right now is transitioning to monolingual definitions on my sentence cards. I am basically doing what JLUP recommends in terms of definition branching, one word of the sentence bolded/blue on the front with a Japanese definition on the back.

Sample J-J Anki Card

Simple and effective. I’ll know I succeeded in my goal when, on average, the amount of new words just through definition branching drops below 10. Right now it’s around 30 and rising exponentially, so I have a lot more work to do. That’s my one thing right now. After a few months, I will reassess my progress and see if I can move on to something else.

Good news though, I’ve been slowly re-immersing myself in a Japanese environment, completing my daily reviews, adding sentences/kanji daily, and just generally feeling productive. So does that mean my deep Anki cleanse worked? For me, it did. For other people, this may be too drastic. Instead, you could go on a massive deleting spree and clean out your deck of cards that you don’t enjoy anymore, you could reschedule everything as a new card and start working through your Anki deck again, and of course don’t forget you can power through the hundreds of reviews and pick up where you left off. The point is, for most of us learning a language is a hobby that has an insanely high learning curve. It takes a lot of time and effort before you start seeing noticeable improvements. Don’t let this slow-moving pace eat you up. Be the master. Own it and abuse it, just don’t let it take over.

I recently finished reading through Detective Conan Vol. 1, and in doing so, I realized that manga is not as scary or intimidating as I thought. This could be a product of slow and steady incremental progress, but I think it’s more a matter of building mental barriers that need to be broken down.

Set Your Standards Low

Whenever I got my first volume of manga (Fullmetal Alchemist, by the way), I was so excited and ready to learn. Unfortunately my mind put all of these expectations on learning Japanese through manga. I’ve read all sorts of stuff online and in other blogs about the fantastic benefits of learning from stuff you enjoy, and I’ll be honest, that sort of set me up for failure. I had these grand visions of me rocketing up to the top of the “American guys who know Japanese” list because some people achieved fluency that way. I thought, maybe not consciously, that it’ll be as easy for me as it was for them. Boy was I wrong.

No matter how you cut it, Japanese is difficult. There’s SO MUCH I still don’t know. But that’s okay. I’ve learned to accept it now. Reading one volume of manga won’t put me at the level of Adshap or Khatz, so forget about them and set those standards nice and low. If you’re reading your first manga, expect to not understand much of anything. Because for the first 50 pages, you won’t. It will be a jumble of vaguely familiar words and grammar structures that you’ve only seen in Anki. And that’s okay. It’s less about the content and more about the process.

Skipping stuff REALLY IS okay

The very first page of Detective Conan? I still haven’t read it. It’s not because I don’t care about the story (I have actually seen the first episode of the anime at least 5 times). It’s because there’s text ALL over the page. The dialogue is long and verbose, there’s nothing happening in the art, and I’m just generally not interested in trying to fight through it all. So I skipped it.

The second page? So much better. It got me hooked into the story (”御主人、あなたです!”). After that, it was much easier to continue to the third page, then the fourth, then the fifth, etc etc etc. When you get to the point where you’re reading and reading and nothing makes sense, or you turn the page and there’s a giant block-of-text sitting there making fun of you for not understanding it’s subtle humor, just skip it.

DON’T use a dictionary

There’s two different ways that you can read something. Intensively, reading for quality, and extensively, reading for quantity. Both have their merits and are great for learning. But if you’re thinking about reading your first manga right now, go for the latter. Reading intensively at this stage will only mean headaches and frustration.

There’s a lot I don’t know, but I can look up the meaning. Vocabulary or simple grammar structures. Those are easy to look up because I know what keywords to use and what resources to look in. There are things that are much harder to look up, like colloquial phrases, complex grammar structures, slang terms. These are tough to define when you don’t have a large pool of knowledge to pick from. Reading intensively does have a lot of great benefits that I won’t get into here, but it does provide a lot of trouble in the early stages of learning a language. So if you actually want to finish that book you’ve had your eye on, shoot for extensive reading.

Since you’re not going to look anything up right now, how are you going to keep track of your progress? How will you learn these words and phrases if you just skim through them? My advice,

USE a highlighter

Yes a wonderful highlighter. They are fantastic. All bright and yellow (or red or blue or green), ready to point out how much you don’t know. It does this because you will be highlighting anything you want to look up later. Don’t know that kanji compound? BAM. Highlighted. What about that weird verb ending thing that you don’t really understand? BAM. Highlighted.

That’s the process. Read/skim/skip stuff you don’t care about, then “WHOA I understood that super basic sentence. That was cool. Except for that one word. I have no idea what it is. *highlighted*”. Then keep moving. Get through the whole book. When you look back, you’ll probably see that there’s going to be a lot less highlighting than you would’ve imagined (at least that’s how it was for me). There were large chunks of conversation that I actually understood and followed. Then there’s chunks of conversation where I highlighted a word in every sentence. And that’s perfect! That gives you,

1.) confidence that you aren’t wasting your time and you actually know some stuff, and
2.) a bunch of words to look up later, and accompanying sentences with context!

Just remember to do all that lookin’ up stuff later. Add em’ to Anki if that’s your thing.

Pick something that you like

This one is so obvious I don’t even want to write anything about it. It’s the same problem I faced when I was trying to force feed myself the Core6k vocabulary list. It tastes bad and I don’t like it. When you don’t give a shit about what you’re reading, you’re not going to like reading. And if you don’t like reading, you’re not going to stick with it. “Difficult” and “easy” are all subjective. Eating crawfish is too difficult for a lot of people, but that doesn’t mean I can’t love every minute of it. Struggling to fish out that tiny little piece of meat is SO worth it because it tastes damn good. Same with Japanese. Find your crawfish.

Just a quick thought I’d like to write out. As I’m working my way through Core6k, I’ve been getting batches of words that are pretty difficult to get into my head. Mostly political/business oriented words or words that aren’t something you hear in an anime. Until now, I’ve just been letting anki do all the work, and by that I mean failing the cards a lot until they stick. But the past couple of days I’ve tweaked how I do my initial learning.

If you don’t know already, I have a “Learn Deck” for my vocab cards. This is just a deck with micro intervals that let me review a batch of words repeatedly throughout the day. Then, the next day I delete them from my Learn Deck and add them to my Core6k deck for long term retention. The tweak in question involves generating two separate card templates. The first template is like this:

FRONT:
せいせき
成績

BACK:
せいせき
成績
results, record
成績が上がりました。

I put the reading on the front of the card so I’m only testing my knowledge of the meaning of the vocab word. The second template is like this:

FRONT:
成績

BACK:
せいせき

This template tests my knowledge on the reading of the vocab word.

This basically doubles the amount of cards I have, but makes each card easier to answer. Instead of having to recall the reading and the meaning for each vocab word for each card, now I only have to worry about one at a time. It has made the initial learning process easier and quicker, but only time will tell if it has an effect on my long term retention. I’ll have to keep an eye out.

 

Now that you have your immersion iPod all set up and play awesome native content, the next step is to learn the script of the language. For European languages, that’s not too hard. You’re most likely fluent in English so you don’t need to go about learning a brand new alphabet. However, I learned Japanese. And Japanese definitely does not use the same alphabet as English. So in my case, I just had to sit down and memorize the basic Japanese syllabaries: Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji.

 

Hiragana and Katakana are easy. I memorized them through brute force and mindless repetition since I didn’t know about Anki at the time. You’re smarter than me, so all you need to do is download a kana deck from Anki’s shared decks or create your own. Then blast through them and be a master in a matter of weeks.

 

Kanji is a huge barrier for most people who are interested in Japanese, but thankfully a man named James Heisig made it easy for us. He wrote a book called Remembering the Kanji. The book will give you a familiarity with all 2042 most commonly used kanji and makes learning vocabulary words that use those kanji a breeze. The real strength of his book is that it breaks kanji down into what Heisig calls “primitives”. Each kanji involves combining these primitives to create the character. Once you learn the primitives, learning kanji is really quite easy.

 

It may sound like I’m trivializing something as intense as leaning the meaning and how to write 2000+ kanji. I promise you it’s not as difficult as it sounds. I did it in 3 months. As long as you create the habit of completing your daily reps and plug away at 20 to 30 kanji per day, you will finish without any problems.

 

For more specific help in what deck to use, how to test yourself, card layout, etc, check out JLUP’s guide to mastering kanji. I think these are the best articles regarding how to approach RTK and (the next subject of discussion) sentence mining.

 

Part 3: Sentences (coming soon)

previously Part 0: Introductions

When you start learning any language, I think it’s very important to get used to the way it sounds. If you start this now, it will make everything easier later on. You can get used to the way the language sounds by simply listening. A lot.

I recommend setting up an “immersion iPod“. I recently went out and bought an iPod shuffle for this purpose. All you do is download your favorite native media (music, TV shows, movies, podcasts) and listen to them throughout the day. This let’s you get accustomed to the sounds of the language and the way people talk so that when you start learning words and phrases, your pronunciation will naturally fall into place. You won’t have to worry as much about developing proper accent because you’ve spent months listening to native content. Now, you can do this with any device that can play mp3s, but I like using my shuffle for 3 reasons:

1.) they’re only $50 dollars

2.) they’re small and portable

3.) if you set it up like mine, you can just turn it on and go about your day.

All I’ve done is take TV shows that I enjoy (and you really have to enjoy them. You’re going to be listening to them many many many times over), and rip the audio from them. You can use any sort of method, but Audacity is free, cross-platform, and really easy to use. I generally like breaking down each episode into 3-minute chunks, because going about your day and listening to an entire 30-minute anime or 45-minute drama can get tedious and boring. Break them down into smaller bit-size components to keep it fresh and interesting. Also, don’t forget to change out your listening material frequently. If you find yourself getting bored with that one episode of Fullmetal Alchemist, then don’t listen to it! Your priority here should be having fun and staying interested. It doesn’t matter how beneficial you think it is, if you’re bored you are not going to learn.

Part 2: Learn the Script