New Years Resolution

Another year goes by, another chance for reflection and resolution. I was not super-dedicated to my studies over the course of this past year, and some life events led to me being fairly busy and having to put things on the back-burner for a little while. However, I am fairly satisfied with the progress and accomplishments that I did see. I am confident that I am starting 2017 off with stronger Japanese ability than I had at the start of 2016. I’ve also got a resolution for the coming year. 2017 will be my year of 多読!

Tadoku, or extensive reading, is going to be my primary focus for this coming year. I’m primarily going to be focusing on reading children’s books. Particularly, I’ll be reading from EhonNavi. For those unfamiliar with this site, I’ll be talking about it more soon. I’ve actually started some extensive reading for the past several weeks now, using a variety of sources, so I feel like this is something that I should be able to keep up for a while. I would ideally like to read every single book offered on EhonNavi (of which there are over 1000), during the coming year. I have no idea if that is a feasible objective, and maybe I’ll get bored and give up after a couple months. But, I think that this is something worth pursuing.

The nature of children’s books makes them kind of frustrating, in some ways. The grammar sometimes resembles nothing that I have ever seen in a textbook, and it seems like half of the words might either be onomatopoeia, or some strange modification of real words. They totally avoid kanji, which makes it harder to recognize words that I already know. But on the other hand, there are some good qualities to them. The language is simple, despite sometimes being unusual. Sentences tend to be short and use a limited vocabulary. Stories are short, so if you don’t like something, another brand new story is just around the corner. The pictures are also a huge help for understanding words and sentences that you wouldn’t be able to understand on their own. They are also a lot of fun sometimes.

I’ve decided on this because I would like to increase my reading speed and fluency. I would also genuinely like to be able to understand children’s books better. I mean, if a freakin’ kid who can barely talk can understand this stuff, why should it be so hard for me, right? I think that once I work my way through these, it should help open up the door to more traditional children’s manga and novels.

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.

Keep on truckin’

When I last posted here, I had just finished posting all of the Little Charo scripts, and mentioned that I wanted to spend a few more weeks studying that material, and then try to find another project to get involved in.

Well, at first, I thought that I wanted to try making a parallel Japanese and English script to the game Mother 3. But… this turned out to be waaaaaay more difficult and time consuming than I had imagined. While there is a complete Japanese script already posted online, the only complete English script online is cut up into bit and pieces and distributed across tons of different files, making it difficult to find any particular text that you want. I eventually came to the conclusion that simply playing through the English version of the game and transcribing it by hand would be the most efficient method. But that turned out to be far slower than I had ever anticipated. I also questioned the genuine usefulness of what I was trying to do, and finally decided to give up before wasting too much of my time on it.

From there, my thoughts turned to just playing the game in Japanese for my own benefit. I intended to play through first in English, then start over and go through the Japanese version with the Japanese scripts in hand. But… after playing through the game once in English, I realized that I really don’t like this game enough to play through it a second time. Meh.

After that, I decided to turn to anime. I came across Shirokuma Cafe a while back, and have really been wanting to go through it thoroughly with Subs2SRS. So I decided to give that a shot. But you know what? Trying to use Subs2SRS on that also turned out to be FAR more difficult than I had anticipated, at least at first. But, through my hours upon hours of trial and error, I have finally gotten to the point where I can Subs2SRS with ease!

Let’s talk about the issues I faced with Shirokuma Cafe for a moment. First, I wanted to create Anki cards that contained both the Japanese subtitles, English subtitles, image, and an audio clip. The fansub group Orphan put out some releases from Bluray sources that contain English subtitles. And then I find some releases from an apparently Chinese group called Kamigami which had released episodes with Japanese subtitles, but these were sourced from the TV broadcasts rather than Bluray, so right off the bat the two weren’t going to sync up perfectly. But, with a bit of effort, I was able to get them reasonably in sync with one another and proceeded to create my cards in Subs2SRS, and then began studying in Anki. I thought it was a bit odd that some of the subtitles had emoticons in them, but I thought “hmm, I guess the show is just trying to be cute.” I mean after all, the subtitles in the opening animation contain an emoticon, so it didn’t seem completely out of the question. I came across several words and phrases in that first episode that I couldn’t really figure out the meaning of, but I just persevered,  and then went on to episode two. As I began studying this episode in Anki, my concerns were growing too large to ignore. Not only did the subtitles seem to have EXCESSIVE amounts of emoticons, but they also seemed to contain a lot of typos. At this point I started asking around, and I discovered that the Japanese subtitles that I was using were not the official subtitles, but were actually transcriptions that the Chinese group had written! It was at this point that I went back to a lot of the words and phrases that hadn’t made sense to me, and I was able to see that the words had just been written down incorrectly! So this was a fine mess. Here I was trying to learn Japanese using subtitles that were filled with errors.

At this point, I noticed that there were other Japanese subtitles available on kitsunekko for Shirokuma Cafe. These looked like official subtitles, and did not contain any of the typos that plagued the other ones I had been using. But the problem is, these subtitles are timed to the original tv broadcast, with space left in for commercials and everything. So, they would require a bit of effort to sync up with either version of the episodes that I had. Also, for some reason or other, the subtitles for the first two episodes were in the .ass file format, while all the later episodes were in the .srt format. [As an interesting side note, I am the person who actually came up with the idea and specifications for the .ass subtitle format way back in the early 2000’s when I was a fansubber, but that’s a story for another day.]

So here we are, and I have English subtitles that are synced up perfectly to a bluray release, and I have Japanese captions which are apparently synced up to the original tv broadcast. And not only does the sync differ between them, but the line breaks are completely different as well. I spent a lot of time trying to get the Japanese captions synced up to the bluray video, but it appeared that this was not just a simple time shift that needed to be done. When I had one line synced up perfectly, another line would be several seconds off! It didn’t make any sense to me. In order to get things synced up properly, I really would have had to go through and completely re-time the episode, which would probably take around an hour or two. At this point, I thought “welllllll, I really don’t need the audio clips to be on my cards. Just the Japanese and English text is enough.” So, I just adjusted the sync as best I could to get the majority of the lines synced up, then I ran the script through Subtitle Edit to clean it up a bit and erase some of the closed captioning parts that I didn’t need. Then I dumped it into Subs2SRS, and it actually turned out pretty good. I was really surprised at how well it matched up the Japanese and English lines with each other. Not perfect, but there was only a small handful of lines that I needed to fix up manually.

So once again, I finally made it through the first two episodes, and moved on to episode 3. As you recall I mentioned above, starting with episode 3, the scripts were in the .srt file format. I didn’t think much of it at first, but once I began trying to sync it up with the episode, I was pleasantly surprised for the first time throughout this entire ordeal. Now, it seemed that the timing of the lines was much better, and with just a little time shifting (once at the beginning, and again at the point of the commercial break), almost every line syncs up to the audio almost perfectly! Episode 4 worked out the same way! At this point, it looks like I can Subs2SRS all of the remaining episodes with only about 5 minutes of prep work for each one! I could even turn the audio clips back on if I wanted to. But really, I don’t want to. I prefer doing my Anki reps without having to listen to anything. I do frequently listen to the full episode audio though, for listening practice.

All in all, Shirokuma Cafe is a really fun and cute anime, with mostly easy Japanese. After a rough start, I am now really enjoying studying with this show! I imagine that I might work my way through all 50 episodes, but its probably going to take me around 2 years if I continue at a rate of two weeks per episode. But, I think I might be able to speed up over time? Maybe? In any case, it solves the problem of me floundering around not knowing what to do. I have something here which I can study, enjoy, and actually learn a lot from!

Maybe I should post up my re-timed scripts here? I don’t know, maybe I’ll think about it. From episode 3 on, its really not that hard to fix them up yourself, if you wanted to study this anime. But I’ll consider it if anyone is interested. (update: you can find my re-timed episodes 3-6 in the comments below)

And in the meantime, what am I going to post here? Hmmm… maybe nothing. I mean, I’ll be busy studying Japanese, after all.

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.

Outcome

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.

Manga

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.