New Years Resolution

Another year goes by, another chance for reflection and resolution. I was not super-dedicated to my studies over the course of this past year, and some life events led to me being fairly busy and having to put things on the back-burner for a little while. However, I am fairly satisfied with the progress and accomplishments that I did see. I am confident that I am starting 2017 off with stronger Japanese ability than I had at the start of 2016. I’ve also got a resolution for the coming year. 2017 will be my year of 多読!

Tadoku, or extensive reading, is going to be my primary focus for this coming year. I’m primarily going to be focusing on reading children’s books. Particularly, I’ll be reading from EhonNavi. For those unfamiliar with this site, I’ll be talking about it more soon. I’ve actually started some extensive reading for the past several weeks now, using a variety of sources, so I feel like this is something that I should be able to keep up for a while. I would ideally like to read every single book offered on EhonNavi (of which there are over 1000), during the coming year. I have no idea if that is a feasible objective, and maybe I’ll get bored and give up after a couple months. But, I think that this is something worth pursuing.

The nature of children’s books makes them kind of frustrating, in some ways. The grammar sometimes resembles nothing that I have ever seen in a textbook, and it seems like half of the words might either be onomatopoeia, or some strange modification of real words. They totally avoid kanji, which makes it harder to recognize words that I already know. But on the other hand, there are some good qualities to them. The language is simple, despite sometimes being unusual. Sentences tend to be short and use a limited vocabulary. Stories are short, so if you don’t like something, another brand new story is just around the corner. The pictures are also a huge help for understanding words and sentences that you wouldn’t be able to understand on their own. They are also a lot of fun sometimes.

I’ve decided on this because I would like to increase my reading speed and fluency. I would also genuinely like to be able to understand children’s books better. I mean, if a freakin’ kid who can barely talk can understand this stuff, why should it be so hard for me, right? I think that once I work my way through these, it should help open up the door to more traditional children’s manga and novels.

Micro reading with Anki

I have to admit, I’m not much of a reader. I used to love reading when I was a kid, but I just can’t force myself to sit down and read anything these days. Part of it probably comes from being forced to read a ton of difficult books that I hated during high school, and part of it probably comes from my ADHD and the large number of distractions in my life these days.

So when it comes to learning a language like Japanese, simply not reading anything can obviously be quite detrimental. I’ve tried to force myself to read over the years, but it’s just so annoying, I can never stick with it. Reading would be no problem if I just just jump in and out whenever I want, read a few sentences here, a few sentences there, just whenever I feel like it. But reading to learn requires a bit more setup and time investment than say, just picking up a reader’s digest while on the toilet. For instance, I might want to look up words while I’m reading, keep track of sentences to review later, and things like that. Reading on a digital device has the problem of it being difficult to keep your place in the text saved whenever you are reading a web page or something like that. If I want to just invest five minutes towards reading right now, I literally wont make any progress.

Anki has been a great help to me over the years when it comes to learning Japanese. I can just pop in for five minutes here, five minutes there, and before I know it I’ve spent 30 minutes of my day studying, using nothing but down time that would have been wasted otherwise. I wanted to be able to read the same way. I can’t dedicate 30 minutes to reading something all at once. But if I can put in one minute here, ten minutes there… I would be able to make a lot of progress.

I don’t know if there is any existing term for reading in small chunks at a time, but I’m going to call it micro reading. I spent several days thinking about micro reading and how I could implement it into my life. I searched around for existing software and even considered writing my own dedicated application for it, but then it hit me–Anki is already the perfect platform to implement my idea of micro reading!

Here is the basic concept of how it works:

  1. The text you want to read has to be parsed into a format that can be imported into Anki, one sentence per card. (my Little Charo scripts are perfect for this!)
  2. Tweak some settings in Anki just for your reading deck (settings can be found below)
  3. Go through the reviews to read your text one sentence at a time.
  4. If you understand a sentence, you mark it good/easy. If you don’t understand something in a sentence, fail it.
  5. At a later time, come back and delete all of the cards that you marked good/easy. As for the cards you failed, you can study or research the material further, or move it into another deck for normal reviews.

So first of all, this method can not be used with everything. Physical books or manga obviously wont work. E-books that are locked down with DRM are out of the question too. But articles or stories that you find on websites can be used, as well as things like scripts of games or movies. As long as its plain text in a digital format, it can be modified to work.

Anki Settings

When importing your text, you want to create a special reading deck specifically for these cards. You definitely don’t want to dump them into one of your existing decks! In the import settings, you will also want to be sure to select “Import even if existing note has same first field”. This will keep Anki from discarding duplicates. Because our purpose is to read an entire story or article, we do not want any sentences to be missing!

micro reading import settings

Next, you want to go into the deck options, and set up a new options group specifically for this deck. Again, you definitely don’t want to go changing the options on any existing deck! Now, there is some flexibility here as to exactly how you set this up, but here is how I have done it. I set “steps” to 10080 which is a week. This means that even when I fail a card, it wont come back for a week. The reason for this is because this deck is NOT going to be used for reviewing anything. I don’t want any cards to come back to me a second time! The key thing to remember with this method, is that you are going to have to go back into your deck and do something with your failed cards. How often do you plan to do that? Daily? Weekly? This is what you want to consider when setting up the steps value. You want it to be long enough so that cards don’t start coming back before you have had a chance to clear them out.

Next, make sure “order” is set to “show new cards in order added”, and then I set “new cards/day” to 9999 so I can read as much as I want.

Next there is the “Graduating interval” and “Easy interval.” Anki has three answer buttons for new cards: Again, Good, and Easy. My idea of micro reading has no concept of “good” or “easy”; it simply uses a pass/fail paradigm. Thus, I set both graduating interval and easy interval to the same value. You can feel free to make them different if you think it will help you in some way. The actual value you put for the intervals isn’t very important, I just like it to be clearly different than the interval specified in “steps”.

Finally, you want to make sure that “bury related new cards until the next day” is UNchecked.

micro reading deck options

And so, now you can start reading in Anki! Just go through, read the text on the card, mark it pass (good or easy) if you feel good about it, or mark it fail (again) if you want to look over something on the card later.

Then later on when you have some time, we go into Anki’s card browser, and select the failed cards. You can quickly find all of your failed cards by searching for: “is:learn deck:Reading” (or whatever your reading deck is named)

Now you can take your time with these failed cards, look up words you don’t know, or maybe move the card over into one of your normal review decks. Then, you want to go back and delete all of your passed cards.

Alternate Method

Rather than fussing with your deck settings, you could just simply delete cards that you can read, and suspend cards that you want to check again later. With this setup, you never even actually review any cards, you just simply delete or suspend. Depending on your Anki client(s) this might be a little tricky to do. The desktop Anki client has an annoying shortcut for suspending cards, but I’m sure that could probably be changed some way. The Android client lets you set up gestures to delete and suspend, which is pretty easy to use. I have no idea about the iPhone client. If you ever use the web client, I believe you are stuck using the deck settings method.

Outcome

I have actually been using this method for about a week now. My objective was primarily to just help me make some amount of progress in reading, as opposed to not reading anything at all. In that regard, it has been a big success. I am actually reading far more than I thought I would! I believe that the biggest advantage of this method is that it completely separates reading from studying. While I am reading something, I don’t have to fuss over whether or not I want to look words up in a dictionary, or if I want to add something into Anki, or whatever. I just read and mark stuff to come back to later. Even if I never do anything with the cards I failed, I at least made some reading progress! This is definitely how I will be doing most of my Japanese reading for the foreseeable future.

Manga

Intensive VS Extensive Reading – Is there a silver bullet for language learning?

I occasionally see arguments being made regarding language learning that extensive reading is better for you than intensive reading, or vice versa. Often it might be backed up by a personal anecdote, such as “I was doing intensive reading for AGES and I didn’t make any progress at all! Then when I switched to extensive reading, my reading ability shot through the roof!”

But this is not really an article about reading. It’s more about different study methods, and why you shouldn’t necessarily listen to anyone who tells you “you should do THIS and not THAT”. Let’s look at intensive and extensive reading as an example of this.

Intensive Reading – Involves carefully and methodically reading a passage for the purpose of comprehension. May involve looking up words or grammar. Is usually very slow and takes a long time to progress very far in the text.

Extensive Reading – Involves reading text quickly, with little concern for complete understanding. It doesn’t matter whether you know all the details as long as you can see the big picture. There is no time for things like looking up words in a dictionary, you just want to get to the end.

So, which of these reading methods do you think is better? It’s apples to oranges, isn’t it?! It’s not really possible for one to be “better” than the other, because they are fundamentally different things with different goals and objectives. Will intensive reading help you learn a language? YES! Will extensive reading help you learn a language? YES!

Okay, so some things will work better for some people, and some things will work better for other people. Article over, right? Nope, because that’s not my point here at all. I don’t believe that it’s simply a matter of “this works better for me, so I will just do this”. Rather, it’s a matter of cross-training. Being well-rounded and ensuring that you get plenty of practice and experience in ALL aspects of the language.

Thinking about intensive reading and extensive reading, it might seem that they are two completely different things. One of them can train certain skills, and the other can train other skills. But they aren’t actually completely separate. They are actually linked in certain ways that compliment each other. Doing a lot of extensive reading can be a big benefit to you when you are reading intensively, and intensive reading can also benefit you when you decide to do extensive reading. How is this?

Well, let’s imagine a scenario in which you have been focusing solely on intensive reading for a while. You are learning a lot of new words all the time, and you pride yourself on being able to fully understand the stories that you are reading. But, no matter how long you do this, you are still coming across a never-ending list of new words, like an insurmountable wall. Despite still learning new things, it feels like you aren’t making much progress, and your reading speed is really slow as well!

So now you switch to extensive reading. In a short time, you notice a massive improvement in your reading speed. You start to realize that some words just don’t really matter all that much, and probably aren’t worth your time to stop and look them up. You will probably come across them again at some point, after all. You make it through a book ten times faster than you ever would have before, and it feels great!

Now at this point, if you were the hypothetical person that I mentioned in the first paragraph, perhaps you have come to the conclusion that extensive reading is the way to go, and you were doing it wrong all along up until now, so you go on some forum and try to spread the gospel of extensive reading. But the only problem is, your extensive reading progress did not occur in a vacuum. You had built up a tremendous amount of knowledge through intensive reading, but had neglected certain skills. When you begin to practice through extensive reading, those skills would quickly be brought up to par because they are building upon what you already have. If you had originally started out purely with extensive reading, then you likely would not have made progress as quickly, and you would have run into other sorts of problems. For instance, most of the words that you encounter could go unlearned even after numerous encounters with them, or you might have feelings of being completely lost because you don’t comprehend a single thing you are reading.

It all contributes to your overall understanding of the language. If you focus on one area, then you are going to get better at that one thing, and you are still going to suck in other areas. But even training in just one area still increases your overall ability. So if you later go out and focus on an entirely different aspect of the language, you aren’t starting from scratch, you are starting from a solid foundation.

If you have followed some of the posts I have made on this blog, you might know that when I originally started this blog, I had real issues with my Japanese listening ability. I had done very little practice in this area, despite the fact that I had learned tons of words and grammar. So I began doing some extensive practice with Japanesepod101.com, and I saw huge noticeable changes in my listening ability. Some might look at this sort of progress and say “Wow! Japanesepod101.com must be the best way to learn Japanese! Look how fast I’m improving!” But honestly, Japanesepod101.com is not just some amazing resource that will take anyone from zero to hero. The fact is, I was already fairly decent at Japanese, but my listening ability just sucked donkey-butt. Because I had a strong foundation to work from, that’s why I was able to improve my listening ability rather quickly. By the time I started reaching more difficult lessons in Japanesepod101.com that are more in line with my actual overall ability, my listening gains started slowing down a lot.

I think a good analogy for this is the Olympic games. Michael Phelps set an amazing record of winning 8 gold medals during the 2008 summer Olympics! And he has won 22 Olympic medals in total! But… those medals were all for swimming. Because of the similarity between events, there is a very large amount of transferable skill from one event to another. What I mean is, getting a medal in both the 100m butterfly and the 200m butterfly is quite different than say, getting medals both in fencing and archery.

With learning a language, the different facets like input & output, speaking & reading, etc, are all interconnected. You aren’t going for gold medals in totally separate events, you are just training to be well-rounded in different facets of one overall thing. You can’t JUST read, or JUST have conversations, or JUST do Anki reviews. You’ve got to cross-train in everything, and each individual aspect that you get better at will simultaneously help you to get better at all the others.

And if you suddenly change up your study methods and you find that you are making much better progress, that doesn’t mean that you’ve found a better study method, it just means that you’ve found your weak spot.

 

Run software in Japanese mode without the headaches

Over the years, I have often seen people recommending to run one’s operating system and all of your applications in Japanese mode. This will apparently get you to thinking in Japanese more frequently, and you’ll learn a lot of computer related terminology.

But I’ve never done this, for one big reason: it’s annoying as hell. When I am trying to get work done, I don’t want to sit there wasting my time guessing at what the kanji are saying, and messing around with things by trial and error trying to figure out which menu option is the one I need to click on. When you get stuck trying to read something, trying to look up the text can be annoying as the font sizes are usually very small, making it both difficult to read and difficult to use an OCR application on it.

But I recently realized that there was a better way to ease yourself into the all-Japanese immersive PC environment. You see, most software has its interface translations stored in simple text files! This makes it really easy to get a full list of every single part of the interface, in both English and Japanese. There are a couple of different ways to benefit from this. For one, you could just dive straight into the Japanese version of an application, and refer to the English translation file when you have trouble reading something. Or you can approach it more slowly, by first reading through the Japanese translation file, adding words to Anki, and then switching over to using the application in Japanese at a later time, once you have learned the words it uses.

So how do you get these translation files? First of all, just check inside the folder where an application has been installed. In Windows, this is usually “C:\Program Files” or “C:\Program Files (x86)”. After peeking around inside an application’s folder, look for a folder named something like “locales”, “languages”, or “translations”. This will usually contain translations for several different languages, so all you need to do is find the Japanese file, and the English file. Not every application stores its translations like this though, and not every application has a Japanese translation. If you can’t find anything, just move on to a different application.

When you do find translation files, they could have different extensions, such as .ini, .xml, .dat, or something else entirely. But most of them can simply be viewed in a normal text editor like Notepad. Sometimes, you might find files with a .mo extension. Unfortunately, these are not text files and you are unable to view them.

Sometimes, translations and language packs are available as a separate download for some applications. If you can’t find a translation installed on your PC, then try checking the website for that software to see if anything is available.

To give you a quick peek at some of these language files, I put together a small pack with the English and Japanese translation files for “7-zip”, “PotPlayer”, and “notepad++”. You can grab it here to take a quick peek at how these files are typically formatted, and to see if this might be a helpful way for you to ease into using your PC in Japanese!

PotPlayer

Study Subtitled Videos Using PotPlayer

I previously wrote about studying Japanese through the use of Anime, Dramas, and Movies, but I always felt that there was still a step missing from the equation. I mean, sure, you can use great tools like Subs2SRS to ease the creation of Anki cards, but what about the process of actually watching the video? How do you efficiently look up words and try to understand sentences while you are watching it? This was a question that bugged me for a long time. While there are some solutions, such as opening up the script in a text file and following along, loading the video and script into Aegisub to go line by line, or even rigging up AGTH to capture the text output from the player; all of these methods are pretty clunky and leave something to be desired.

But just recently, I came across PotPlayer, and discovered that it actually makes the whole process as smooth as you could ever imagine! It feels like some of the features in this player were practically designed for someone who is learning a language! A few great features that I love about it:

  • Click on words to either perform a search or copy it to the clipboard
  • Copy the entire subtitle line to the clipboard, can be assigned to a shortcut key
  • Shortcuts to seek to the next/previous subtitle, allowing you to easily replay a line
  • Subtitle explorer displays all lines in a separate window for you to browse and seek to a particular line
  • Load multiple subtitle streams, so you can have Japanese and English at the same time
  • It remembers the last file you had open as well as your position within it, making it easy to pick up where you left off
  • Has options for adjusting the synchronization of subtitles, as well as the font
  • Is an otherwise completely full featured player, with tons of options and advanced features

I honestly don’t know what else I could want or expect in regards to watching subtitled video. This works great in conjunction with JGlossator, which will automatically look up helpful information on any Japanese subtitles that get copied to the clipboard.

I’ve put together a short video showing how to get up and started with using PotPlayer to study Japanese from subtitles:

Do you know any other software or tools to help with studying Japanese while watching videos? Let me know in the comments!