What you need to know to learn a foreign language by Paul Nation (book)

I finally got around to reading this great book by Paul Nation, What you need to know to learn a foreign language. The book is offered as a free PDF from his website. If you are unfamiliar with Nation, he is a leading researcher in Foreign Language Education with an interest in vocabulary acquisition and teaching methodology. While most of his research is aimed at the classroom, with this book he attempts to bring the results of his research to the student who might be trying to learn a language on their own.

It’s a somewhat short and easy-to-read book that just gets right to the point rather than giving you long-winded anecdotes and motivational stories. It could easily be read in a single afternoon. Much of the book in influenced by his “Four Strands Principle”, in which he believes that the most effective way of learning a language involves balancing your study across four different types of learning.

The Four Strands consist of:

  1. learning from meaning-focused input (listening and reading)
  2. learning from meaning-focused output (speaking and writing)
  3. language-focused learning (studying pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar etc)
  4. fluency development (getting good at using what you already know).

The main meat of the book consists of descriptions of twenty different learning activities that you can do, with different activities fitting into each of the different strands. He also spends a short bit of time explaining exactly WHY certain activities can be helpful. For instance, did you know that doing just a bit of timed reading can quickly improve your overall reading speed by 50-200%?

Here is a list of the different types of activities described in the book:

  • Reading while listening
  • Extensive reading
  • Narrow reading
  • Role play
  • Prepared talks
  • Read and write
  • Transcription
  • Intensive reading
  • Memorized sentences or dialogues
  • Delayed copying
  • Repeated listening
  • 4/3/2
  • Repeated reading
  • Speed reading
  • 10 minute writing
  • Repeated writing
  • Word cards
  • Linked skills
  • Issue logs
  • Spelling practice

I mention this just to give you a general idea of what you can expect to read about in the book. For the details of what each activity actually entails, you’ll need to read the book (which again, is free).

There are a lot of different opinions out there about how to learn a language. There is one camp which advocates focusing solely on input, and not worrying about anything else. Nation, on the other hand, argues that a fully balanced course is the way to go. While there is research out there to argue a lot of different opinions, we may never know for sure exactly what is truly optimal. With that said, nothing that Nation writes in this book feels terribly controversial, and it all just seems to make sense. I can’t imagine that these ideas could really steer anyone wrong, so I highly recommend this book for anyone who is currently learning a language.

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.


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.


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!

Japanese Games

Learn Japanese Through Video Games

Many people would like to be able to integrate video games into their Japanese studies, but it’s often easier said than done. It’s very easy to feel like you are in well over your head when it comes to most games. There are a lot of different factors that can make things more difficult than you would imagine, so I would like to discuss some of these things, and talk about what you should look for when trying to choose a game to get started with. And before we get into this, lets be honest here–most games are fairly difficult. Your Japanese ability needs to be at least equivalent to JLPT N4 level before even a small handful of games will begin to be accessible to you. For the majority of games, your Japanese probably needs to be at least at N2 level. But the purpose of this article is to try to break down some of those barriers, and open up more games to less advanced learners. So, if you are ready to learn Japanese through video games, let’s get to it!

Choosing a game

First of all, the most important thing is to choose a game that is on your level. If you can’t understand the majority of the game without having to look things up constantly, then you won’t learn much. If you feel lost, then it will only make you frustrated, and you will start trying to play the game without even reading most of the text. As I said above, your Japanese level probably needs to be about equivalent to JLPT N4 level before you even begin to think about playing through anything in Japanese, and N3 equivalency is probably more realistic. So in other words, you should be fairly proficient in Japanese before you can even hope to understand a real game! Prior to that, you will be stuck just using a handful of games specifically designed for learning Japanese, though the effectiveness and entertainment value of most of those is rather questionable. And when you do get to the point you can begin playing games, you are likely going to have to focus on games aimed at children first.

If you are still in the very beginning stages of learning Japanese, you might want to look at Influent, which is a game designed to help teach you about 400-500 words of beginner vocabulary. The Nintendo DS also had a Japanese learning game called My Japanese Coach, which teaches beginner level Japanese. Some critics have said that My Japanese Coach does contain a few errors, primarily regarding kanji stroke order, but I believe it should be alright for the most part. The real question though, is whether you should even bother with these as opposed to learning through traditional means? Since I learned through traditional means, I really can’t answer that for you. But, give them a shot if you like.

Now, when your Japanese ability starts coming together and you think you might be reaching the point where you could try playing something, you are going to have to think very carefully about what you will be able to play. If you are going to be spending money on a game, you definitely want to do your research before plopping down a large sum on something that might be way out of your league! First of all, you want a game that has a fairly large amount of text, and is of a reasonable length. This cuts out a lot of the classic games from the NES era, and cuts out several genres of games almost entirely. We are mostly going to be limited to things like RPGs or adventure games. You also want to make sure the game displays the text onscreen, and lets you advance it with a button press. This cuts out many things like action games which might have a strong story focus. After all, if you don’t have time to read the text, what are you hoping to gain from this? The difficulty of the language used in the game is also critical. A tactical RPG based on historical storylines or a sci-fi epic might not be the best choices to start off. But something that has a simplistic story involving more typical everyday things might be a much better option. Look for something where you have about 80% or better comprehension.

Many older games have technical limitations that can make learning from them difficult. For instance, in the NES/Famicom era, cart sizes were too limited to display kanji most of the time, or even a large amount of text in most cases. Things would also sometimes have to be written strangely in order to fit in limited space. Throughout the 16-bit to 64-bit eras, things improved a lot, but games were still often produced at low resolutions. This means that though they began using kanji in most games, it can often be extremely difficult to read, as the strokes often just blur together. If you need to try looking up a kanji in a dictionary, you might not even be able to do so, because you are unsure exactly what it’s supposed to look like. And don’t even expect furigana!

More modern games bring a lot of improvements that often make them better to learn from. Higher resolution text, furigana on occasion, and even voice acting all serve to make things easier on the learner. As good as that sounds, these newer games can bring their own problems as well. For instance, the 3DS system is region locked, meaning that for many people the only options to play a Japanese game on it are to either buy a separate Japanese system, or utilizing piracy, which could possibly get your system banned from Nintendo’s online services. This is a real shame too, because it has several games which are quite nice for learning from, such as Youkai Watch, which not only uses mostly simple Japanese, but has furigana as well.

Choosing a good game for learning Japanese turns out to be a pretty difficult task. After all, game creators are definitely not making their games with language learners in mind! But a little research up front will go a long ways towards stopping a lot of frustration down the road. Now, lets move on to how to actually go about playing and learning from Japanese games.

Use Scripts

When it comes to playing games in Japanese, scripts are your savior. Having a text file containing all of the Japanese text from the game you are playing makes things so much more comfortable, as it’s a lot easier and quicker to look up words and phrases that you might not know. But… there don’t seem to be a whole lot of Japanese scripts out there! This post on the Koohii forums links to a handful, but many of those games aren’t using the easiest Japanese to begin with. If you want to try your luck at searching for Japanese scripts online, the word for “script” is セリフ集.

If you can’t find a Japanese script, then the next best thing is an English script. While it doesn’t make looking up words any easier, it will help you to understand the storyline and give you some hints as to the meaning of some words and phrases that you have difficulty with. Loading up an English script into your tablet or phone and keeping it by your side while you play through a game can be a big help. You can sometimes find game scripts on GameFAQs, but it’s fairly hit-or-miss.

Another cool site is Learning Languages Through Video Games. This site has translated scripts for several games, mostly for the NES and SNES. Most of the games covered have very small amounts of text (Mario 3 isn’t exactly known for its intricate story!) so actually playing these games in Japanese probably won’t be terribly beneficial. But it can still be cool to go back and look through the translations for games that you might have played in your childhood.

Let’s YouTube!

But what if you can’t even find a script for the game you want to play? Well in this case, we can turn to “Let’s Play” videos on YouTube! While you play the Japanese game, you can follow along with a Let’s Play of the English version of the game. Or if you are lucky, you might find someone playing through the Japanese game while translating it to English in realtime, such as on the RisingFunGaming channel. Many Let’s Play videos tend to have a lot of commentary over the gameplay, so if you prefer not to hear that, you might also want to search for videos with “longplay” in the title. These videos generally don’t have commentary.

If you really aren’t that keen on actually playing games, you might find that watching other people play through them is just as satisfying. By simply watching a Let’s Play or longplay of a Japanese game, you can pause and rewind in YouTube to take things at your own pace, and learn from a game just as effectively as you would by playing it on your own.

And for improving your listening skills, maybe you want to watch some Let’s Plays done by actual Japanese gamers? Just search on YouTube for the word 実況 along with the Japanese title of the game you are looking for!

Or maybe you are more into the competitive side of gaming? The YouTube channel Shi-G features Japanese Smash Brothers tournament play, sometimes with commentary, sometimes without. Adding 大会 into your YouTube searching can bring back results featuring tournament gameplay, through many of the videos tend to be from tournaments outside of Japan, so they may not be useful.

Visual Novels are games too! Sort of…

Ah, visual novels. The finest pornographic literature that the world of gaming has to offer! If you are over 18 and have become fairly proficient in Japanese, then these might be a good option. While most of these really aren’t suited to be classified as “games”, they usually do tend to offer some amount of interactivity and branching story paths. And to be fair, they aren’t all pornographic, and some of them even make their way onto mainstream gaming consoles. Furthermore, these types of games are great for learning Japanese, not only because there are a ton of them and they all have massive amounts of text, but there are also some amazing tools available to make reading them so much easier!

By using Interactive Text Hooker and Translation Aggregator, you can extract the text into a copy/pasteable format and get dictionary and translation assistance in realtime! A newer application called Visual Novel Reader also looks like it has some amazing features, including many of the things you can get from the previous two tools, in addition to other features like crowd-sourced translations!

To get started with setting up the software and choosing some easy visual novels, you might want to check out this article at Visual Novel Tea Party, or the visualnovels subreddit, which has a list of easy VNs to start with, and a guide to getting your software set up.

Finally, if you just want to check this stuff out without having to spend a lot of time figuring out how to work all this stuff, you might want to take a look at The Asenheim Project, which has several older Visual Novels emulated through Javascript, allowing you to play them through your web browser and look up words using Rikaichan. Most of the VNs listed here have English translations available, so you could open two browser windows side-by-side, with the Japanese version in one and English in the other!

Remember to Have Fun

Trying to play games in Japanese, especially when you aren’t that good at Japanese, can be really stressful. If it’s not working for you, don’t force it! Step back for a bit and study some more, and maybe you will be ready later on. Games are supposed to be fun, so don’t let learning take all of the fun out of them!

And every now and then, you just need to unwind and relax. Here are some things to check out when you need a break:

Game Center CX

Most gamers will probably enjoy watching Game Center CX, a Japanese television show dedicated to retro gaming. It’s been going for over 10 years, and most of the episodes have been fansubbed! While the Japanese tends to be on the more difficult side in my opinion, its a fun distraction that gives a lot of insight into the Japanese viewpoint on retro games.

Legends of Localization

A cool website that I stumbled across is Legends of Localization, which takes a look at various questions regarding the translation and localization of games, and goes back to look at the original Japanese, to see what the games were really saying. It also has some in-depth comparisons between the English and Japanese versions of several games, including Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Earthbound, Final Fantasy IV, and more!

Alright, that’s it for now! In my next post, I will be listing my top 11 games for Japanese learners!