Kikisuuji – An android app for practicing number listening

I just published my first Andoid app. It’s called “Kikisuuji” which is totally a real word that I made up, meaning “number listening”.

So, what’s this all about anyways?

Well, numbers were always really tricky for me in Japanese. Not in the sense of merely understanding them. They are very straightforward and easy to learn. The problem for me is understanding numbers quickly and in real-time. If I hear a number in English, I just instantly know what number it is. I don’t have to sit there and think about it. It’s automatic. But in Japanese, if someone were to say today’s date to me, I might have to sit there mentally processing it for 5-10 seconds to figure out just exactly what numbers were spoken, and by that time I missed the rest of the conversation.

So, I created an app specifically to train my listening comprehension for numbers! Using text to speech technology, it will repeatedly call out random numbers, nonstop. Your task is to just try to understand the spoken numbers without falling behind! There are several settings to help control the speed and the types of numbers that are presented, so you can start off simply and then work your way up to more and more difficult numbers. You can also practice times and dates as well!

I’ve been using it myself for several days now, and I’m definitely seeing an improvement in my recognition speed, though I haven’t improved as fast as I would have hoped. But, slow and steady wins the race! I recommend just using it for a few minutes of Japanese listening practice every single day. If you try to go at it for an hour straight, that will probably only drive you to insanity.

Oh, and did I mention that its totally FREE?! So click over to the Google Play store and check it out!

Stop studying sentences and start studying collocations

The Problem with Vocabulary Lists

For ages, people learned foreign words from vocabulary lists. This was all well and good for the most part, but some people noticed that it doesn’t always seem to be the best way of learning words. While it can give you the general meaning of a word, it doesn’t tell you anything about how a word is used.

Though, for a huge number of words, you don’t really need any context regarding usage. I mean, there is nothing terribly special about how one would use the word “cat” in a sentence, right? So in a lot of cases, vocabulary lists actually work just fine. But for a lot of words, you need to know a little bit more, or else you can end up using things incorrectly. Let’s look at the following example where I talk about getting dressed in both English and Japanese:

I put on a shirt. I put on pants. I put on a belt. I put on a hat.

シャツを着る。ズボンを履く。ベルトを締める。帽子をかぶる。

So what happened there? In English, I use the same sentence pattern for each item. “I put on x.” But in Japanese, each item uses a totally different verb! So if I were to just learn each of those nouns individually from a vocabulary list, I might try using the same verb with all of them, and then get some weird looks back from whoever I am talking to!

A moment ago, I stated that for a lot of words, it really is just fine to use vocabulary lists. But, the problem for a learner is that you don’t know which words are ok to learn like this! So, people saw a need to have more context when learning new words in Japanese, and then came…

The Sentence Revolution

Popularized by the All Japanese All The Time (AJATT) blog, the idea that you should study entire sentences instead of words solved the whole context and usage problem. People soon began taking this one part of the AJATT method, and branched it off into it’s own thing that many people simply called “the sentence method”. For a while, a ton of people were sentence junkies, frothing at the mouth just thinking about where they could get their next sentence from.

I remember when a 2-part book called 2001.Kanji.Odyssey came out, and people were raving about it. These two books were basically just collections of sentences that contained words that used common readings for about half of the Jouyou kanji. I remember paying close to $100 to buy the books and get access to a community spreadsheet of the sentences that some people were putting together, so that I could then study them through Anki.

I just knew that this was going to take my Japanese to the next level. I was going to learn a lot of useful words, and more importantly, a ton of great kanji readings! And then I tried it. And I failed. Multiple times.

The problems were many. The sentences were really long and complex. They contained a lot of difficult words related to business and politics, and not a whole lot of words that I might use every day. Each sentence usually had multiple words that I didn’t know. It was nowhere close to being i+1 material.

Aside from the issues with that particular set of sentences, they have their own inherent problems in general. A major problem with reviewing sentences is that it takes a long time. It takes a lot longer than reviewing a single vocabulary word. Sentences also might have multiple things in them that can trip you up and cause you to fail the card. Trying to keep stuff i+1 is really tricky, and in the beginning stages it can be a treasure hunt just trying to find sentences that you can understand, and you often might be simply discarding a lot of sentences because they have too much new stuff in them. And what are you supposed to be studying with sentences anyways? Vocabulary? Kanji? Grammar? All of it at once? Again, this completely fails at being i+1. If you are trying to learn one particular new piece of information, a sentence can contain a whole lot of completely irrelevant information that only serves to waste your time.

So, vocabulary lists aren’t so great. But it sounds like sentences aren’t necessarily all that great either. Isn’t there some sort of middle ground, that gives you the context and usage information that you need, without the unnecessary complexity of sentences? Well, fortunately, there is!

Collocations – What they are and why you want to study them

Collocations are a really simple idea. They are simply groups of words that occur near each other more often than random chance would dictate. For instance, if the word “bath” is encountered in English, it will frequently be preceded by the words “take a.” So therefore, “take a bath” is a collocation. Easy, right? So instead of doing reviews of some useless sentence like “I took a bath after I got home from working last night”, which is full of irrelevant information, I would simply learn “take a bath” instead. Three simple words.

A lot of words frequently appear near each other because that is what society as a whole has implicitly agreed upon. For instance, we say “fast food” instead of “quick food”. If you are just trying to build up a sentence from the literal components, you wouldn’t know that one of these has a different meaning than the other one. But if you study the phrase “fast food” as a collocation rather than as two individual words, this other meaning becomes apparent.

I came across the idea of collocations when I stumbled across a book titled, fittingly enough, Common Japanese Collocations. This book is chock full of thousands of absolutely useful collocations that are relevant to everyday life. Click that link to see it on Amazon and use the “look inside” feature to see a bit of the types of collocations that are contained in the book. You will notice that most of them are just 3-5 words long. You will usually have a noun, particle, and a verb. Sometimes there might be an object as well. That’s generally all you need for a good collocation! I typed the first chapter into Anki by hand, and I must say, it has probably been the single most useful resource that I have ever studied through Anki. But I did stop after the first chapter because, well… typing hundreds of phrases into a PC is really boring.

But, the cool thing about collocations is that you can make them on your own! Found a sentence that has a word or phrase you want to learn? Great! All you have to do is cut out the extraneous parts, leaving only the bits that are relevant to what you want to learn! I usually break verbs down to the dictionary form, to avoid mixing unnecessary grammatical details into my vocabulary study. Remember you want it to be i+1 as much as possible. Google can also be a great resource for finding collocations, as its search suggestions often give you a good idea of what other words are commonly associated with each other.

So, in summary, vocabulary lists might be bad because you don’t learn how words interact with one another. Sentences might be bad because they contain irrelevant information. Collocations are the sweet spot between vocabulary and sentences, giving you just what you need, and nothing more. I recommend following up with this great article on collocations over at the Dark Japanese blog.

They’ve all got their own purpose

In closing, I would also just like to add that, although this article sort of puts down vocabulary lists and sentences, they have their places. Collocations on their own aren’t going to be the end-all-be-all of your Japanese studies. They all have their strengths and weaknesses, and you should study whatever you feel is most appropriate for a given situation. Studying vocabulary words in isolation absolutely will not hurt you–but it may just leave holes in your knowledge that you need to fill in through additional means. Sentences might make sense in the context of using something like Subs2SRS. Sentences may also be necessary for studying certain grammatical forms, or function words that operate on a longer clause. Take what works for you, and discard what doesn’t. I’ll probably be talking a bit more about collocations in the near future, so please bookmark this site or subscribe to the rss feed if you want to stay informed!

Immersion doesn’t work

Immersion doesn’t work.

There, I said it.

Now, before I ruffle some feathers, let me qualify that statement a bit further: Immersion doesn’t work if you are immersing yourself in incomprehensible material.

This may include, for example, listening to random Japanese audio at all hours of the waking day, trying to play random Japanese RPGs when you don’t understand even half of the words, or watching lots of anime with no subtitles without really understanding much of it.

In other words, this is the time-tested method of learning by osmosis, just under a new name. The idea that you can become proficient in something by doing nothing has long been an attractive proposition for many people. After all, who wouldn’t want to be able to just download new information into their brain like Neo in The Matrix, without having to bother with actual studying or practice?

There are a lot of people advocating for this very thing though. For instance, it’s one of the key ideas proposed over at All Japanese All The Time (he says it even counts while you are sleeping! Double-awesome!)

But isn’t it a bit odd that quite often, the very same people who talk about how powerful ideas like “i+1” are, will also be talking about how you should spend the vast majority of your time consuming i+548 material? The i+1 idea, which says that you learn most effectively when you are consuming material that is just slightly above your current level, makes a lot of sense to me, and it has also been effective for me in practice.

My listening ability is probably my worst thing, currently. In fact, my crappy listening is what really prompted me to create this blog and take a closer look at what I was doing. I’ve spent hundreds of hours on actively listening to mostly incomprehensible auditory input, and I honestly didn’t get anything out of it. I’m not really sure why I would have expected otherwise. But for the past 2 weeks now, I have went on a binge of listening to massive amounts of comprehensible input, and I can tell you unequivocally that my listening ability has increased by noticeable quantities in this short time.

I personally think you should try to avoid any content unless you can understand at least about 80-90% or more of it. Reading material that you already understand will further cement your understanding of that material, and has other benefits like increasing your reading speed and comprehension. Using material that you mostly understand is also much more rewarding and fun, and doesn’t overwhelm you. Furthermore, you can only learn from context if unknown content appears in limited quantities. If you don’t know one word in a sentence, you might be able to figure it out. But if you don’t know 3 words in a sentence, you are pretty much stuck.

Think about it, we don’t start kindergartners off by reading War and Peace, right? They read sentences like “See spot run.” Heck, I’m not even sure if that’s a grammatically correct sentence, but they learn it anyways because its easy to read, and you’ve got to start somewhere. There’s no reason that you should think this no longer applies now that you are an adult. But hey, what do I know? You shouldn’t even listen to me anyways.

I think a big problem that most people have is simply finding material that is appropriate for them when their Japanese is still at a low level. So because I think this is extremely important, I plan to talk about a lot of beginner’s level content later on in this blog.

I’ll end this with a quote from Stephen Krashen, THE original i+1 guy himself:

“We acquire language in only one way, when we understand messages, that is when we obtain “comprehensible input.” Thus, we acquire when we understand what people tell us or what we read, when we are absorbed in the message. More precisely, we acquire when we understand messages containing aspects of language that we are developmentally ready to acquire but have not yet acquired.”

You tell it, i+1 guy, you tell it.

 

Why you shouldn’t believe a word I say about learning Japanese

If you’ve read any Japanese learning blogs or forums, you probably know by now that there are a lot of armchair educators out there who are certain that they know exactly how you should learn Japanese. You are doing everything completely wrong, but they can show you the one true way, and you will be fluent in no time!

Everyone’s got an opinion, and I’m no different. But I’m going to tell you straight up, just because I write something on this blog, that doesn’t mean its correct! In fact, you would have to be kinda ditzy to want to actually follow advice from a blog called “Nihongo no Baka” anyways, wouldn’t you?

But here’s the thing. While it might seem obvious to you while you are reading this post that you might not want to follow all of my advice, how many times have you followed someone else’s advice just because it was written on their website or on a forum? I am guilty of falling into way too many traps, and wasting tons of time on ineffective study methods, just because that’s what everyone else seemed to be doing.

Well sometimes even the largest crowds are wrong. And sometimes the people evangelizing about the great method that you have to follow are wrong. What makes someone qualified to tell you how to learn a language? Most people who are writing about how to learn Japanese have not yet been successful in becoming fluent. And so what if they did successfully become fluent in Japanese? Does learning a single language make someone an expert in the field of language study?

What about polyglots? If they have learned a ton of languages, surely they know what they are talking about, right? Well, maybe they do! But then again, what does fluency even mean? A lot of polyglots may be quite fluent in just a small subset of a language. They don’t necessarily have a broad knowledge of the language, but they may just know how to use a small part of it really well.

What about researchers? They do studies to find out what works and what doesn’t! Well, the thing about studying human minds, is that its not always black and white. There are many shades of grey. The brain is a terribly difficult thing to understand. And even though one study might find a certain result, other studies might seem to contradict it. And even if people are doing research, do you really know what that research says? Many prominent language learning sites talk about methods based on research that was done in the 1970’s and 80’s. That’s a long time ago! Some other researchers have found different results and come up with different ideas since then. Now don’t get me wrong, I believe in science. But are you looking at the research itself, or are you just taking the word of Joe blogger, who is giving his spin on it?

And then on top of that, we are all different. Many people like to think that if something works for them, then surely it would work for everyone else too. And if it doesn’t work for everyone else, then that’s because they are doing it wrong. If we all learned the same way, then our public education systems would be able mass produce armies of well educated children. Everyone’s making straight A’s after all, right?

So, what can we believe about learning languages? Honestly, I think you will have to sort that out for yourself. It certainly doesn’t hurt to read people’s opinions, see what has worked for them, check out research, try out cool new ideas, and so on. But, don’t just blindly follow something that’s not working for you, just because you thought that’s the way you are supposed to do it, or because someone told you that this is what you should do. Keep a log of what you are doing, so you know what works and what doesn’t work for you.

And for the love of God, take what’s written here with a grain of salt.

On the importance of goals and logging

One of my most important tools in language learning is actually something that I picked up by chance while dieting. I guess this will need a bit of an explanation. After all, what could learning and dieting possibly have in common?

Dieting for me is fairly easy. If my pants start getting tight and I decide that I need to lose a few pounds, then I just do it. But I actually used to struggle with dieting, before I figured out the trick to it.

First and foremost, keep it simple and doable. A  lot of people always try crazy diets with all sorts of rules and guidelines. But in reality, losing weight is a simple equation–just eat less calories than your body uses. By over-complicating things, you only increase your chance of failure. A coworker of mine was recently talking about this great new diet that she was going to begin, that would be sure to make her lose a lot of weight. The diet in question required her to eat a very specific list of foods every day. I asked my coworker if she even liked any of those foods, and she reluctantly answered “not really”. A couple of days later, I asked her how the diet was going, and she admitted that she didn’t even make it one day. No surprise really, I doubt I could have stuck with it either. In contrast, I easily lost 2 pounds that same week while still eating foods that I actually like.

There were a lot of times in the past when I would tell myself that I was “dieting”, but it never really amounted to anything other than thinking about dieting whenever I ate something. This obviously didn’t lead to any results, but I made myself think that I was actually doing something, and I would be disappointed that it wasn’t working. I only would have had to do two extremely simple things in order to actually diet properly. I had to set a daily calorie limit for myself, and then just count every calorie that I ate. That’s it.

You see, if you just say “I’ll try to watch what I eat”, but you don’t actually measure anything, then you only have an extremely fuzzy idea of what’s going into your body. Maybe you just ate 1000 calories worth of pizza in a single meal. You have no idea though, because you didn’t spend 30 seconds to find out how many calories were in it. But if you stopped at three slices even though you thought you could put away four, you congratulate yourself for doing a good job on your diet, even though you just made a pretty bad decision.

By contrast, simply by looking at the numbers, I can easily determine that a certain food will not be compatible with my target for that day, and I can substitute something else that is more in line with my goal. Instead of thinking “maybe this food isn’t a good idea”, I KNOW for certain that this food is a bad idea.

So basically what I’m saying, is that simply keeping a log of what you’re eating and how many calories it has is the key in making a diet actually work. Because if you don’t know what you are eating, then what are you really accomplishing?

Likewise, if you want to make progress in Japanese, you need to actually be aware of what you are doing, and where you are trying to go. This is a long journey, and it’s easy to get lost along the way. I hate to admit it, but I actually spent almost the entire last year without actually learning any Japanese. I just kept doing SRS reviews of old material every day, and it was like I was on autopilot. I kept working at it every day, so it gave me a feeling of accomplishment, and I had the perception that I was actually doing something. But in reality, I was doing nothing. The worst part of it all is that this isn’t even the first time that this has happened to me!

So, here is what I have done to fix this problem, and to make sure it doesn’t happen again: First of all, I set goals for myself. It’s important to have both a long term goal as well as some specific short term goals. After all, if you don’t know where you are trying to go, how will you get there? Next, I am keeping a simple log of what I’m actually doing to achieve those goals. This doesn’t have to be something that’s updated on a daily basis, but at least once a week seems reasonable. This helps to quantify what I’m doing into measurable terms. I can actually see if I am doing productive things and making progress. If I fall into a rut, it won’t take me a year to realize it.

The cool thing is, once you actually take a simple step like this, it makes it so much easier to actually get things done. You know exactly what you need to do, and you can work towards it every single day. Simply having a structure in place to guide you along is probably the most important thing to achieving any goal in your life, be it Japanese, dieting, or just about anything else.