6-Month Update Nugget

Well, it’s certainly been a while since I last wrote an update here. I knew that was going to be the case last time I posted, but what I didn’t know was just how badly I was going to fall off the Japanese study train. The same thing got me that probably gets so many other people–life changes. Whereas I previously had everything worked out really nicely to where I knew exactly when I could study Japanese every day, now I’m running on a whole different schedule, and I don’t necessarily have access to the tools that I needed to accommodate my old routine. I’ve gotten married (to a Japanese woman, no less), taken on more responsibilities at work, and moved into a tiny apartment where there is not really space for my PC setup (my keyboard is sitting on a cardboard box on the floor as I type this). While my life is great in general, my Japanese studies are most definitely not going so well.

I thought that getting married to and living with a Japanese woman would be fantastic for my Japanese (but that’s not the reason why I married her, I promise!). However, that really couldn’t be further from the truth. We are living in the USA, so her priority is really on learning English. So English ends up being our default language all the time. The Japanese usually just comes out when her temper flares up, in which case it’s too fast for me to comprehend. On the positive side, she usually has Japanese variety shows streaming from YouTube and DailyMotion every morning, so that at least keeps me engaged with Japanese on a daily basis a little bit.

My Anki reviews have mainly been just that–reviews. I rarely find the time to sit down and add new material. Whereas I used to sit at my PC for hours every day, as previously mentioned, I don’t really have a good spot for my PC right now, so sitting down to use it for more than a few minutes is very uncomfortable. I used to use my PC for pretty much EVERYTHING related to studying Japanese, so that has really made things a bit difficult for me. This situation should only last for a few more months though, until I get my new house built.

So, my Japanese still sucks. I recognize that it still sucks. So what am I going to do about it? You certainly didn’t think that this post was just going to be me whining about how I can’t study Japanese, did you? No, I have plans to turn this around and get back on track!

I have actually started adding some new material to Anki. I previously mentioned that I had a lot of success studying collocations, especially thanks to the book Common Japanese Collocations. While I had previously put several hundred of these collocations into Anki and studied them as recognition cards, now I am going back and using cloze deletion to make them production cards. Because I am working from material that I already added to Anki, it just takes me few minutes on my PC every couple of days to add clozes to a few more cards so I can later study them on my phone. Studying the cards this way feels way better and more useful than when I was just doing recognition cards. I feel that this will really help me with speaking and writing.

I also recently came across a really cool website, called Animelon. I previously wrote about some cool ways to study subtitled videos using Pot Player. Well, Animelon works pretty much the same way, only through a website where they already have the anime and subtitles set up and ready to watch. You get English and Japanese subtitles, as well as other options like Hiragana and Katakana. The lines of dialog are displayed in a box beside the video and you can click any line to play it. You can also click any word in the subtitles to do a dictionary lookup (though it seems a bit finicky and doesn’t always work). While not really as robust as setting it all up yourself, its really nice because everything is all set up and ready to go for you. I imagine this site might not be around forever though, as I doubt they have rights to all the shows they are displaying here. But it certainly looks like it will be useful while it’s available.

Finally, there is a resource that I have known about for years, but never really taken advantage of. It’s the Hukumusume Fairy Tale Collection. This site has a ton of Japanese children’s stories and other content. Being that it’s for kids, it’s all fairly easy to read, even for the things that don’t have English. While this site is overflowing with content, there is one thing in particular that I am planning to focus on: 今日の日本昔話 Today’s Japanese Fairy tale.  They actually have a story set up for every single day of the year. So, I’m planning to (hoping to) visit and read the story every single day, to keep my reading skills sharp. I think I will probably fail at keeping this up, but I’m going to try. I wish the site was more mobile device friendly, but its not all that bad I suppose. This is a wonderful site though, so maybe I will write some more about it in the future.

Anyways, that’s where things stand for now. Things are kinda crazy, but I’m going to do what I can to bring my Japanese back on track.


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

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!