Natsume – Japanese Writing Support System

I want to tell you about an amazing tool that I have been using for a while, that seems to be relatively unknown amongst the majority of Japanese learners. It’s called Natsume, and it basically allows you to search for collocations from amongst a large corpus of native Japanese sentences. For more information on collocations and why they are beneficial for language learners, see this previous post I wrote.

This tool is especially beneficial for when you are trying to write in Japanese (it is called a writing support system, after all). You may often struggle knowing just which nouns go together with which verbs, or which particle makes the most sense to use. With the help of this tool, you can look up the words you are trying to use, and see just how they are typically used by native Japanese people.

Rather than go on all day about exactly what this thing is, I’ll just provide you with a short video that I put together explaining how to use it.

For further information on Natsume, I recommend reading this thesis by Bor Hodošček, as well as this journal article by the same author.

The sentences that Natsume pulls data from are from the Balanced Corpus of Contemporary Written Japanese.

Natsume – Japanese Writing Support System – 日本語作文支援システム

Beginner’s Media – Erin’s Challenge

One of my focuses with this blog is to point out various interesting media that is suitable for beginner and intermediate level learners. The most important thing for being able to learn from any type of media is ensuring that the media is at or just slightly above your level. If you can barely understand anything, then you are not going to learn much.

One of the most basic video sources is part of a course titled Erin’s Challenge! I can speak Japanese, produced by the Japan Foundation. Essentially a free multimedia textbook, it teaches Japanese through videos and manga.

Through a series of 25 lessons, you can watch a short video detailing the life of Erin, a new international student at a Japanese high school. Each lesson has both a beginner video and an advanced video, with four different subtitle options available on all of them: Kanji, Hiragana, Romaji, and English. All four subtitle tracks can be toggled on and off independently.

In addition to the videos, there are a number of additional features. A script is available which lets you play each line of audio individually, with a pop-up dictionary explaining the words. A short manga with audio lets you practice reading. And then there are review questions and exercises to practice what you have learned. Grammar explanations and example sentences help ensure that you understand everything that occurred in the dialogue. There are also additional videos explaining different aspects of Japanese culture, and a picture-dictionary in each lesson helps to teach additional vocabulary.

A while back, I generated an Anki deck from the scripts and audio. You can download the deck here. It is set up to test listening, but you can of course modify how Anki displays the deck to you. It also contains every line, so you will probably want to delete a lot of them. I did not find the deck itself particularly useful, and these days I don’t really advocate reviewing full sentences like those contained in this deck. Simply working through the lessons on the website and then moving on to something else will probably suffice. But, there it is if you want it.

Overall, this is a fantastic resource for the self-directed learner. While aimed at beginners, intermediate-level learners might benefit from listening practice in the advanced lessons, particularly if you still have trouble watching much of anything else yet. This is one resource that I would gladly pay for, but the fact that it is free is just icing on the cake. If you feel like you aren’t anywhere close to being ready to watch and understand real anime or dramas, this is an excellent starting point to help get you up and running.



Unlock the power of your memory

Memory is a key component to learning any language. In fact, it pretty much all boils down to memorization. But are you using your memory effectively, or just wasting your time? This is a question that I sometimes find myself wondering about. In this post, I will talk about a variety of topics regarding memory, which I believe can be utilized for actually learning Japanese more effectively.

Amazing Mental Abilities

Human beings are capable of some absolutely amazing feats of memory. In recent years, people even pit their memories against each other in memory sports competitions, which involve things like memorizing a full deck of cards, or an incredibly long series of random digits. Having personally been involved in the hobby of Rubik’s Cube speed solving for a number of years, I was always most fascinated by some of the amazing blindfolded solving records. At the time of writing this, the world record for someone solving a Rubik’s cube blindfolded is 21.17 seconds. This includes both memorization of the entire cube and then solving it. You might think that quickly shoving something into short term memory in the course of a few seconds isn’t entirely relevant to what we are talking about here though. A fair assessment. But what if I told you that the same person who holds this record, also currently holds the “multiblind” record, in which he memorized and solved 41 cubes in under an hour–with all of the memorization done before the first cube was solved.

Your initial reaction to something like this might be that someone who can perform such a feat must be a genius or some kind of savant. But generally, these are just normal people. It’s not that their memory is better than your memory. They just know how to memorize better than you, and they have improved their skill through practice.

One of the most telling stories is that of Joshua Foer. He was a completely normal journalist who went to the USA Memory Championship to do an article on it. Becoming so enamored by the idea that anyone could learn the skills needed to memorize large amounts of information so quickly, he dedicated one year to learning it himself. He came back to the championship that next year, and emerged as the winner and new USA record holder in the “speed cards” event.

In historical times, a memory was an important thing. There were times before computers existed. Times before voice recorders. Times before pens and paper. In the matter of about a decade, phone numbers went from being a thing people were memorizing constantly, to things that that no longer needed to be committed to memory. Students in this day and age often wonder why they need to memorize anything, when they can find the answer on Google in a matter of seconds. Technology allows us to utilize our memories less and less. While that certainly has many benefits, it does unfortunately leave many of us in the position of not really knowing how to memorize things anymore.

So, why don’t we go through various techniques here, and think about how they might apply to learning a language.

Spaced Repetition

This is the main one for language learners, I think. And most people have caught on to it, so I’m not going to waste this article talking about it much. But essentially, by reviewing material at increasingly longer and longer intervals, we can strengthen the memories of that material with a minimal amount of time invested. It lets you learn more material in a shorter amount of time. Since learning a language involves committing such a huge amount of material to memory, efficiency is key. The utilization of spaced repetition software like Anki really ought to be a part of everyone’s study regimen. This thing alone probably leads to better long-term gains than any other item that I’ll talk about here, and unlike the others, there is nothing to learn other than the software itself. So in short, use spaced repetition.

Imaginative Memory

A well known technique for ages, it was brought to the forefront of Japanese study by James Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji. With thousands of learners having completed the course and subsequently being able to write over 2000 kanji from memory, there is no doubt that it works. The technique basically goes like this: we remember things that are out of the ordinary, and we forget things that are mundane. There is probably very little that is more dull than a vocabulary word. So in order to make it interesting and memorable, we must simply visualize some sort of absolutely crazy off the wall situation involving that word, typically an image or story. The more details we include, and the harder we try to visualize it–possibly even incorporating thoughts about taste or smell or other senses into it–the more likely we will be to remember it later. Polyglot Benny Lewis mentions that this is a key to how he manages to memorize hundreds of words quickly.

Method of Loci / Memory Palaces

This is a fantastic method for learning lists of information. As such, its not super useful for every aspect of learning a language, but some people have found it useful for limited purposes, such as learning the readings of kanji. The method basically exploits the fact that we have very good spatial memory, and it involves a mental journey through a well-known location, like your house, school, or around your town. It works best in conjunction with imaginative memory. You will basically follow a fixed path through your location of choice, and at various memorable way-points you will associate an item that you want to remember. It probably works best through example, so here is a great example showing how someone might memorize the list of US presidents using this method. I mentioned a moment ago that some people had success with using this method for learning kanji readings. One such way that this could be done, is by noticing that many kanji utilize the same on’yomi readings, and grouping together kanji that share a reading. You can then use a memory palace to learn this list of kanji which use that reading.

Although I haven’t seen many people advocating it, I believe variations of this system can be used for learning vocabulary as well. For instance, if you are taking a journey through your home, think about all of the objects and locations that you encounter on your journey. Those are all vocabulary words that you can learn during your journey. I found this article which talks about how one can effectively learn foreign vocabulary using this type of system, in conjunction with linkwords (discussed below).

Update: After writing this post, a great new article about using Memory Palaces to learn words and phrases appeared on the fluentin3months blog, which you can read right here.


I’ll just lazily copy straight from Wikipedia.

Linkword is a mnemonic system promoted by Michael Gruneberg since at least the early 1980s for learning languages based on the similarity of the sounds of words. The process involves creating an easily visualized scene that will link the words together. One example is the Russian word for cow (корова, pronounced roughly karova): think and visualize “I ran my car over a cow.”

I see people using this method often for learning on’yomi readings of kanji, though it applies equally well to vocabulary words too. One notable example is the KanjiDamage site, which claims “you can learn 1,700 kanji using Yo Mama jokes.” The author explains:

I give each ONyomi a specific English keyword, which is used in every mnemonic for every kanji with that ONyomi. Thus, しょう(SHOU) becomes SHOW, か(KA) becomes CAR, etc. In the case of our example kanji, まい (MAI) becomes MY.

While the LinkWords method is not entirely without criticism, I believe that it can definitely be beneficial in helping one to learn more efficiently. One thing that you definitely need to watch out for though, is ensuring that your pronunciation does not suffer. Because you are associating sounds from your native language, it can be very easy to use those native words in place of the correct pronunciation that you are trying to learn. But as long as one remains aware of this fact and attempts to correct any errors as soon as they appear, I can’t see there being any major problem arising from it.


Alright, count of hands here. Who still needs to sing the alphabet song every now and then to remember what order letters come in? I have my own hand up, and I hope I’m not the only one here, as that would be quite embarrassing. Rhyme and song are very effective at helping us to remember things. Do you know why a lot of the world’s oldest literature is poetry? Because it was easier to pass down through oral tradition that way. And be honest, you probably remember the hook to almost every pop song that you’ve ever enjoyed, assuming you could understand the lyrics.

I remember sitting in my college Japanese class, and my teacher making us sing aloud a ” て-form song.” I recall it feeling rather degrading that I, a college student, was being treated like a 5-year-old. But you know what? That song helped me remember how to conjugate the て-form.

Here’s a cool example of how it can work:

But what you come up with doesn’t have to be nearly as long or elaborate. Maybe you can put a list of related vocabulary words to the tune of a well-known children’s song. Or maybe you just come up with a single rhyme or sentence to help you remember a particularly tricky word.

Are these techniques really a good use of time?

One might wonder if investing the energy into some of these techniques might take longer than just brute-forcing something into our memory. There is a reason that I started this post off by talking about memory sports. When people use techniques like these, they are not simply doing it to memorize lots of information–they are trying to memorize lots of information as fast as possible. Therefore, it stands to reason that at least some of the techniques that I have mentioned here will very likely end up saving you time in the long run. But I do have to admit, these aren’t things that you can just immediately get good at. At first, it will probably slow you down a lot. But as you get better and more experienced with the techniques, you get faster. That’s how it works with anything really… you can’t just expect to be proficient at something overnight. It takes practice. But as I’m sure you are aware, learning a language is a long journey. Every now and then, it doesn’t hurt to stop and look around for short-cuts.

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.


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!