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.

Pibo – Even more children’s books on your smart device

So I recently wrote about EhonNavi, which lets you read thousands of Japanese Children’s books for free, but did you know that there is also another service called Pibo which has hundreds more completely different children’s books which can also be read for free?

Pibo is completely a separate service from EhonNavi, and offers some different pros and cons. First of all, while EhonNavi is primarily a site for desktop computers, Pibo is designed primarily for phones and tablets. Upon visiting their website, you will see prominent links to get the app from either the iTunes App store or the Google Play store. There is also no signup procedure–just download the app and you are ready to start using it!

While EhonNavi shows you scans of physical books, the books on Pibo are all digital. As such, the artwork is much more crisp and clear. The books on Pibo are also completely voiced. That’s right, you can follow along as the book is read aloud to you! There is also no limit to how many times a certain book can be read, unlike on EhonNavi, where you only get to read each book once. Also, like EhonNavi, books can be browsed according to their age level (although I feel that many books fall into too large of an age range).

There are also a few downsides to the service as well. For one thing, there is no apparent way to see which books you have read already. So if your goal is to read every book that is offered, you might need to keep a list yourself. The books are also always displayed in a completely random order, which exacerbates the problem further. I have created a list of every book title, which you can grab here (updated Feb 5, 2017). The number of books available is also significantly less than what you could find on EhonNavi. However, with nearly 400 available already (and growing!), that isn’t a huge problem.

So now, it’s worth mentioning how the service operates. When you first install the app, you get a 1 week free trial to read as much as you want. After that free trial is up, you can still read up to 3 books for free every day, which seems quite generous. You can also purchase a subscription for less than $5 per month, which allows you to read all you want. Seems like a pretty fair price to me.

All in all, I think this is a good complement to EhonNavi. You don’t have to choose either-or. They both work great together! When I am at my desktop, I use EhonNavi, and when I am on my phone, I read 3 books on Pibo. I urge everyone to check out both of these free services to try them out and get some reading practice!

EhonNavi – An amazing free resource of children’s books

Several years ago I heard about this site where you can read Japanese children’s picture books for free, EhonNavi. I visited it for a few minutes, but didn’t spend nearly as much time with it as I should have. At first glance, it appeared to me that most of the books on the site would only allow you to read a small sample of the book, and only a handful of books could be read in full. So, I didn’t really think it looked too useful. That was a huge oversight on my part though, as I recently learned when I revisited this site again. In fact, they currently offer over 1800 children’s books that you can read in their entirety, for free! And while they do offer many thousands more which you can view only a sample of, its very easy to search for only the books that can be read completely. Another problem that I had when I visited the site a few years ago, was that I just looked at one or two random books, and saw that I was not able to read them easily, and I just assumed that these sorts of children’s books would not be useful for me. That was another huge mistake! Because, this site does in fact allow you to sort them by age level, which means that you can specifically start off with just the most simple books, and then work your way up to the more difficult ones. Looking back now, I feel really dumb for having let myself miss out on this AMAZING resource, just because I didn’t spend enough time with it to really see what it could offer me.

While I feel that graded readers (stories written specifically for learners of a language) are the best type of reading material for beginners, I would probably peg native children’s books as the second best type of reading material. As I wrote in my previous post, I have made it my New Year’s resolution to try to read every single book offered on EhonNavi. In just the first week, I have read over 100 of them, and I feel that I am already seeing benefits from it. If you would like to start reading as well, let me show you how to get started with this site.

How to Register (free!)

First, click over to http://www.ehonnavi.net/

Next, click the button in the top-right that says メンバー登録のご案内, as seen in the image below.

EhonNavi register button

When you arrive at the next page, simply press the big orange button.

Continue registration

You then get to a form, where you simply need to enter your email address and your desired password, and then select the 2nd option for the 3 radio buttons in order to say you don’t want to receive marketing emails from them. Finally, press the orange button to register.

Enter details

After that, they will send you an email to verify your email address. You simply need to click the link in the email, and it will take you to the login page, where you can login with the email address and password that you just specified.

How to Read (Requires Adobe Flash)

Once you are logged in, in order to browse only FULL books (as opposed to samples), just click the link in the menu labeled 全ページためしよみ which you can see highlighted in the image below.

Browse full books

This will take you to a page that lets you browse the books in a variety of ways. You can see recommended books, rankings of the top books, and other things. But I think the most useful way to look at the books is by age level, starting with the easiest books and then working your way up to the more challenging ones. In order to do that, you will want to scroll down to about the middle of the page, and look for this:

Browse by age

As you can see, there is a list of links showing ages from 0 years old, up through 12 years old, and then also a listing of books for adults. I strongly recommend starting off with 0歳, even if you think you can read more advanced ones. Reading something that’s too easy isn’t going to hurt you, after all!

Please note that you need to click the the ages listed on that page, as opposed to the ones up in the top menu, if you want to only see listings for entire books. If you click the ages in the menu at the top of the site, it will show you many books that you can only read a small sample of.

When you are browsing the books that are available, you will see small icons under the book. A yellow icon means you can read the full book. A green icon means you can read a sample of the book. A gray icon means that you have already read the book, and are not able to read it again.

browse books

That’s right, after you have read a book once, you are not able to read it again. That’s the only catch to this site, and I suppose that is the condition on which they are able to allow the books to be read for free in the first place. If for some reason you really want to read something a second time, I supposed you could always just register a new account with another email address.

As for how the lockout actually works, once you open the book to start reading, a 15 minute timer starts. Once the 15 minutes is up, the button will turn grey, and the book can not be opened again. However, you can open the book multiple times within that 15 minutes if you need to, for instance if you accidentally close your browser window or something like that. Also, if the 15 minutes runs out while you are reading the book, you can still continue reading and flipping between the pages as much as you like, but if all of the pages haven’t loaded, then you might not be able to view the whole thing. It seems to load just a few pages at a time, so if you open a book and let it sit on page one for a half hour, then you likely wont be able to read the whole thing. For this reason, the ideal method of reading these books is to just read straight through, without stopping to look up words in a dictionary or create Anki cards or anything like that. Once you have finished reading, then you can flip back and take as much time as you like to study the book further. Furthermore, if you open a book and realize you aren’t going to be able to finish it right away, the best thing to do is flip through the pages and make sure all the pages load, and then leave your browser open until you can come back and finish reading it.

So, there you have it. If you aren’t using this great resource already, I highly recommend it. Some of the easiest books might seem odd or unusual at first, because a large amount of the content consists of sounds (onomatopoeia) rather than actual words. Reading them has proved useful even for me though! After reading several books, I started to get a hang for what all those sounds actually mean! Sure enough, you see the same ones used over and over in similar situations. And then once you get up to around 3歳, you should see the language starting to get more and more “normal”, other than the fact that they don’t really use kanji until you get to some of the more advanced books. In any case, the sheer amount of content here, if you can work your way through it, should seriously level up your reading ability and provide a great pathway towards reading manga.

Oh, and you can also use this site from your smartphone or tablet! I’ll talk more about that in my next post.

PotPlayer

Study Subtitled Videos Using PotPlayer

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

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

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

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

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

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

Little Charo Box

Little Charo – The Best Video Game for Japanese Learners

Back in 2011, a video game was introduced late into the Nintendo DS’s lifecycle, with little fanfare. That game, 「えいごで旅する:リトル・チャロ」(Little Charo Travels in English) would end up being an absolute gold mine for Japanese learners looking for a game with language on the easier side. But, for whatever reason, the game went almost unnoticed among Japanese learners at the time. In an era when the Nintendo DS was seen as a great tool for Japanese learners, and many sites were posting lists of the best DS games for learning Japanese, it seemed odd that this game never got a mention. The Nintendo DS was on it’s way out by the time this game was released, and more and more people were getting smartphones, so maybe people had already stopped seeing the DS as a useful tool for Japanese study. Even I ended up getting sidetracked and stopped playing the game after a few episodes. But now, a few years later, I’ve decided to give it another go and make my way through to the end.

What is Little Charo?

Little Charo was originally an educational television series that aired on NHK in 2008, and was designed for teaching English to Japanese viewers. The show featured short anime segments, accompanied by people discussing the English used in these segments. Charo is a super cute little puppy, which makes it very appealing and fun to learn with. The Nintendo DS game, released a few years later, is heavily based on those anime segments, but with the storyline fleshed out a lot further. The game is basically like a storybook or visual novel, with the main focus of the game simply being to read the text.

What makes it so good for learning Japanese?

There are a lot of reasons why I think this is the best video game for Japanese learners. For one, this game is fully bilingual, allowing you to change the text from English to Japanese at the touch of a button. This is way better than trying to follow along with a separate script as you play a game! The translation is quite accurate, as it was designed for the purpose of education. They didn’t take a lot of liberties with the phrasing like you see in many other translations. This means that when you encounter a Japanese word that you don’t know, you can generally figure out its meaning by looking at the English translation.

But speaking of scripts, those are available too. I actually dumped them from the game’s rom myself, and will be posting up new episodes weekly, right here, as I work my way through the game. And you will probably need the scripts, because the one thing that this game doesn’t go easy on is kanji! There are about 1,300 kanji used in the game, and there is unfortunately no furigana. But by using the scripts, you can easily look up the readings of the kanji via rikaichan. Having to play without furigana is actually a good learning experience though, as annoying as it may be. When furigana is available, we tend to rely on it instead of actually learning to read the kanji. Many words will be used repeatedly throughout the game, so you can definitely count on learning to read some kanji by the time you get to the end!

As far as the difficulty of the text in the game goes, it doesn’t really get any easier than this. The game was originally written so that the English would not be excessively difficult. As a side effect of the game’s English being easy, the Japanese translation also ends up being easy as a result! I don’t want to give the impression that it’s a pushover though, because for a learner, this language can still be somewhat difficult, especially when you encounter words that you are unfamiliar with. But in the grand scheme of things, I really don’t think you would find any other game out there that has Japanese on this same level of difficulty. I would strongly recommend that your Japanese ability be at about an N4 level (in JLPT terms) before attempting to tackle this game.

Also, this game is long. Like as long as a novel or an RPG. This is fantastic, because learning material on this level is so rare, so its great that it will last you a long time. The game does not get progressively more difficult as you go. The first episode of the game is probably a good representation of the entire thing. Some episodes will be easier, some episodes more difficult, but overall, there is not a huge amount of variation between them. Theoretically, the later episodes should be easier, because you will have picked up a lot of vocabulary and kanji early on.

If you would like to see the level of difficulty of the Japanese presented in this game, I have recorded a video of the entire first episode.

I have no intention of doing a recording of the entire game, because if you want to learn from it, nothing really beats playing it for yourself so you can take the text at your own pace. So then, you might be wondering…

How can I play this game?

As a Nintendo DS game, it is region free, meaning that the cart will play on Nintendo DS and 3DS systems from all around the world. The only place I have found to purchase it currently is from Amazon, where you can get it for about $35 at the time of this writing, which I think is well worth it considering the length of the game and the amount of content it has.

But if you aren’t having any of that, the game plays perfectly on the DeSmuME emulator. You do just need to change one setting to make the sound work properly though. Go to the “config > sound settings” menu, and set the Synchronization mode to “Synchronous”. Don’t ask me where to download the game rom, but if you can’t find it in the first page of Google search results, you are doing something wrong.

If you get stuck while playing, here is a walkthrough in Japanese!

Let’s Do This

It’s always more fun to play with a buddy than to play alone, right? And studying is more fun in a study group! So, for about next 30 weeks or so, I will be posting up information on the game one episode at a time. I will include scripts and frequently used vocabulary words. If you have questions about any of the Japanese in the game, post your questions in the comments, and me or other readers can try to answer, and then I can archive the questions for everyone to benefit from!

I have already posted up a page for Episode One of the game, so check it out, and spend one week studying the content of that episode as much as you can! I will then continue to post a new episode each week, so we can all go through at the same pace! Be sure to bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed so you can check back here each week. If you have arrived here a little late to the party, that’s okay too, you can just go through the game at your own pace!