Why You Need to Write Japanese

write-japaneseWriting Japanese is important. Vitally important.

I am not talking about pens and paper here. Whether you need to learn to write kanji by hand is something we have already discussed, and a brief summary of the answer is “not necessarily”.

But you do need to write Japanese.

That is to say, you need to express things in written form. There are four fundamental skills in any language: listening, speaking, reading and writing, and you do need them all even if you don’t intend to do a lot of all of them.

Input-only Japanese will only take you so far. Your mind needs to use Japanese regularly as a means of communication – yes, real two-way communication – if it is ever going to treat Japanese as real Language and not just something it plays at.

Spoken communication is very important. But written communication is too. In speech you will begin by expressing yourself very simply and will make mistakes.

With reading you have a chance to take in complex sentences that you could not follow at spoken speed (and without seeing the kanji)

With writing you get a chance to compose some of those more complex sentences. Your Japanese is still limited, but your written Japanese can be a lot less limited than your spoken Japanese. It can, and should lead your spoken Japanese into deeper and more complex levels.

When writing you have a chance to work out the correct way to express what you want. In speech you have to manage the best you can in real time. Communicating somewhere like the Kawaii Japanese Forums gives you the opportunity to learn how to express yourself.

It is good to use the method outlined in How to Write Correct Natural Japanese. Look for precedents for what you want to say. Instead of constructing an English sentence and dropping in Japanese words, you can find out how a natural Japanese sentence expresses the same idea.

You will never get this from speaking. You will get it over time from listening and reading, but it takes a long, long time because you are not really aware of the problems. Once you have struggled with expressing a certain kind of structure, you will be much more receptive when you read or hear it again.

Children learn natural expressions by hearing and using them. They have a huge advantage though because they don’t already have a different template for structuring that  thought. To them the structure they learn in their native language becomes the natural and only way to express it.

You will find it much harder to pick up passively because your mind will continually try to revert to its older and more familiar template. In certain not-very-useful ways, the mind is surprisingly language-neutral. Unless it was very impressed with a turn of phrase it will tend to remember what was said but not exactly how it was structured. And it will tend to re-build it for recollection in the manner it is most familiar and comfortable with. Which leads to “eihongo” (English-structured Japanese – the counterpart of wapanese).

You can hear and read a great deal of Japanese without this changing much, simply because even a great deal of Japanese does not add up to all your years of English exposure, or the fact that you first learned to structure language in English.

Writing intelligently, using precedents to make sure you are constructing a sentence in a Japanese manner, rather than using Japanese bricks to build an English house, helps you to internalize the correct manner of structuring Japanese and recognize it clearly the next time you see it.

In this way, even if you had no particular desire to write Japanese in the long term, writing Japanese is an invaluable aid to hearing and reading Japanese and really taking in its structures rather than gliding over them as the mind prefers to do.

Writing little stories (I started off that way), or a diary is a fine. But I cannot stress too much that your mind won’t take Japanese seriously as a language unless you are using it, not just practising it. When you are communicating something you want to say with other people the mind is suddenly forced to see Japanese as Language, rather than a game or an exercise. The mind works very differently around Language – its means of communication – than it does around other self-consistent structures like games or branches of  mathematics.

Part of the reason people find “languages” so difficult is that they never become Language. They never move from being games or exercises to being the primary means of communication. The mind cannot and will not prioritize other systems in the same automatic and intuitive way that it prioritizes Language.

So, 1: you should write Japanese and 2: you should write it communicatively.

One way to get started on this is to go to the Kawaii Japanese Forums. At the time of writing I am in Japan and popping some of my posts on the Forums. If you wanted you could reply, talk about your time in Japan, or whether you want to go to Japan, or comment on another thread, start a thread of your own about your favorite anime or… well whatever you might do in English.

Only in, you know, Japanese.

Sorry to sound oversimplistic,  but this seems to be a point  that most English speakers just don’t get. They spend time studying Japanese and even watching anime or reading Japanese, but then they want to talk about it. There are endless sites and forums discussing Japanese from every angle.

In English.

Well, of course in English. English is Language, isn’t it? Japanese is just – Japanese.

Japanese is fine for practising, studying and playing with, but when you actually want to communicate you naturally go back to Language.

These people also wonder why they never really internalize Japanese. After all, they work on it such a lot…

Problems with writing Japanese and their answers

1. I can’t express everything I want to in Japanese.

Answer: That’s right. You are a growing child in Japanese. Like any child you can express what your current level allows you to express. Children can’t “cheat” into some other language. If you want to grow in Japanese you shouldn’t either, at least for your Japanese life.

2. I might make mistakes and look stupid.

Answer: Not might. You will make mistakes. You won’t look stupid because you are learning and trying your best. Anyone who calls you stupid is stupid. I don’t know if there is some harsh culture of mistake criticism in Western Human circles these days. Anyway the solution I would suggest is to use a kawaii Japanese persona for your Japanese writing. No one needs to know it is you. That persona will be the Japanese child you are raising. Enjoy the freedom to grow a new you!

3. I don’t now how to express things properly.

Answer: Use our precedent method. It isn’t foolproof and you will still make mistakes, but it will get you a lot nearer to writing correctly and teach you an enormous amount of Japanese that you can’t learn easily any other way. Using the precedent method allows you to punch considerably above your weight in Japanese and advances you as you do it.

4. I don’t want to write messy text full of simple slip-ups.

Answer: This is a danger. As learners, we can’t proofread Japanese as efficiently as we can English. However there is a Secret Weapon.

Use Rikaichan or (better) Rikaisama. In this case I would suggest using it in English mode. Rikai, among its other great merits, is a formidable proofreading machine. Run it over your text and it will tell you

• Whether the word you used meant what you thought it meant.

• Whether you misspelled it.

• Whether you conjugated it correctly.

• Whether you made a 変換ミス henkanmisu. That is, selecting the wrong kanji when converting kana. Japanese people do this fairly often too.

And various other useful information. A quick proofread with Rikai will help you clean up your writing considerably. It’s kind of like having a Japanese-competent co-editor.

All right. If you’re ready to join the tiny elite of learners who actually use Japanese, you know how to get started.

Name your Japanese child and start raising her!

How Difficult is Japanese?

how-difficult-is-JapanesePeople sometimes ask things like “How difficult is Japanese really? Would I be better off learning French?”

Japanese is notoriously listed by the US State Department as one of the world’s most difficult languages, taking the longest number of study hours to learn. Are they right? How difficult is Japanese.

The truth is that Japanese is not an inherently difficult language.

Its grammar is logical and almost completely regular. French, like other Latin languages, has pages of irregular verbs. Japanese has just two irregular verbs plus a very small number of other minor irregularities.

The grammar, and to an extent the vocabulary, is modular in a way that European languages are mostly not. From basic rules you can build more complex sentences relatively easily. And sentences that look scary at first usually resolve down to combinations of the basic patterns you learned in the first few lessons.

The pronunciation system is simple and easy to learn. A few things, like the R-sound are a bit hard for English speakers, but you can be understood without getting it exactly right (even just pronouncing it like an L), unlike many languages where subtle differences of consonantal sound can change the meaning of a word.

Inherently Japanese is not difficult. But it is not at all related to English or other European languages. So if your first language is English, learning French can be likened to learning to play badminton when you already play tennis. Learning Japanese is like learning Kendo with tennis as your “native sport”.

And then there are the kanji. No arguing them away. They are beautiful and fascinating and they make Japanese vocabulary make real sense in a way that other languages do not without a deep study of etymology.

But learning them is definitely a long job.

So, would you be better off learning French? If you are seriously asking that question, then the answer is definitely yes. What I mean is that if you just want to “learn a language” and French is as good for your purposes as Japanese, then absolutely. You will find French much easier, especially in the early stages.

But, and I say this from experience, the easiest language is the language you love.

Truly learning any language is a labor of love. It takes dedication and real immersion. If you want to learn to “get by” in a language, it isn’t that difficult. If you want to truly learn it, you have to live it, at least with part of your life. And that is a big, time-consuming commitment to any language, however “easy” it is.

I didn’t give that time to French, Spanish or German, because although they interested me I did not love them. I certainly had no reason or desire to give any significant part of my life to them.

Japanese is the language I love. I want to spend my life with it. I want to read books in it, play games in it, talk to friends in it. My ultimate dream is to create beautiful stories in it. When I try to speak other languages (and I live in a non-English-speaking country) Japanese comes out. Japanese is where my heart is.

So how difficult is Japanese? In many ways it is one of the easier languages I would say, but there are significant barriers to entry. It does take dedication, but then so does any language.

If you love Japanese and want to give a part of your life to it, you will find it far easier than an “easier” language that you don’t love. I know I do.

If you don’t love it, you may well be better off with French.

How difficult is Japanese? A surprising note on kanji

I am currently in Japan on  a “no English” immersion adventure. This article was written in advance so that I could avoid using English.

However, something came up that is very relevant to this article and is a point no one seems to have noticed in discussions of the question of how difficult Japanese is.

Even people who like kanji “admit” that they make the language harder to learn. In the sense of raising the barrier to entry they do… but

I was recently helping a Japanese person in Japanese with English vocabulary, and we were also discussing Japanese vocabulary, all from a Japanese perspective. And what I realized is how much harder it is to learn English vocabulary, because there are no kanji.

Once you have overcome the initial hurdle of kanji – and I by no means know all the Joyo kanji yet – new words start to make sense.

If someone says a sound to me and tells me it means such-a-thing, I find it very hard to associate the sound with the meaning by brute force. People with very audial minds of a certain kind (mine is in some ways audial) may do better.

In the last day or two, for example, I have been told, just in the course of life, the words 保護色 hogoshoku, (animal) camouflage and 転回 tenkai, revolution. I had actually been wanting the word for animal camouflage recently as it happened. Attaching these meanings to the sounds would be a difficult task for me and would likely involve putting them in Anki and eventually getting to know them.

However, because of kanji, they were really very easy. The minute I heard 保護色 hogoshoku I knew what the kanji must be from other words – there was no need to look them up –  and it made perfect sense. Instead of “ah, so this random noise means this” I thought “Ah of course, so that’s how you say ‘(animal) camouflage’. That makes sense. I’ll know that now”. For 転回 tenkai, because it was on the fly, I actually made  a couple of brute-force audio-learning attempts (“what was that word for revolution again?”) Then I looked it up on my tablet, realized what the kanji were and had no further trouble. No need for Anki.

When considering the question “How difficult is Japanese?” One is apt to find it hard to dispute the State Department figures. After all, they are in the business of training people to speak languages, so they presumably know how many hours it takes to teach one language rather than another – so one might think.

But there is more to it than that. The State Department’s approach is highly functional, I would imagine. Their job is to get people functioning in a language in the sphere they need it in as fast as possible. A kind of up-market “fluent in three months” approach.

This will tend (as to a lesser, but still marked, extent does a University language course) to produce “run before you walk Japanese”. People who can’t do up their shoelaces in Japanese but can discuss the Economic Situation (or whatever they have been trained to do).

A 16-year-old native Japanese speaker has learned what amounts to an average of 6 words every day of her life. For really learning Japanese, rather than learning about it, or how to “function” in it, one needs a lot of vocabulary.

Kanji make the early stages more challenging, but if you are going all the way (as most State Department trainees, I imagine, are not), In the long run kanji is a wonderful investment that makes Japanese much easier.

Note to sharp-eyed readers. Yes I did notice that the book on this page’s illustration is about the psychology of love, not about the Japanese language, but as you see, it is relevant to my theme!

A Doll’s-Eye View of Japan

Alien-girl-cover-dolly500Cure Dolly’s book based on her first experiences of Japan has been published, just as the Doll herself returns to Japan.

You can read her current adventures, in Japanese, here but if you would like to read about her first adventures, in English, you should get this book.

It is only available in a Kindle edition because color printing still makes books prohibitively expensive and this book is full of color photographs.

For Japanese learners, An Alien Doll in Japan is a fascinating record of getting by in Japan with no English at all after one year of studying by what gets called the Dolly Method.

For Cure Dolly fans, of course, the book is a must. We reproduce the publisher’s introduction:

A Doll’s-Eye View of Japan

An Alien Doll in Japan is a unique look at Japan by the well-known Japanese language blogger Cure Dolly, who assures us that she really is a doll even though she can pass for human “on a rainy night or when people are seeing what they expect rather than what they see”.

However you take her, it is clear that Cure Dolly has very little Western-Earthling enculturation and so comes to Japan with a perspective that is neither Japanese nor, in any of the usual senses, gaijin.

Her “Doll’s Eye View” of Japan is unlike anything else you may have read. This book, lavishly illustrated with color photographs, covers her first month in Aichi Prefecture.

She photographs and writes about such things as Shinto shrines and maid cafés, but also about sides of Japan that are less often seen, ranging from family life and a day in pre-school, observing the enculturation of very young Japanese children, to wanderings in Japanese countryside and small city environments, observing everything with the passion and freshness of a doll to whom human culture as a whole is something strange and new.

At the time of going to Japan, Cure Dolly had been learning (she would probably reject the term “studying”) Japanese for about a year, using the self-immersion methods she advocates. She put her theories into practice by adopting the challenge of using no language other than Japanese during the whole of her stay, even in emergencies (of which there were several).

Cure Dolly’s aim was not only to live in Japan but to live in the language she has often declared that she is “in love with”.

Being a doll rather than a regular human, there are many occasions in which her inability to negotiate ordinary situations lead to results which seem funny only in retrospect. As she says, her newness in the language was in a way her best friend, since it served as an apparent reason for her difficulty with everyday human situations.

The book is full of intense love for all the things she sees and thoughtful, but often entirely unexpected, reflections on everything from infant education to cosplay, from uniforms to Japanese Denny’s.

As Cure Dolly says in her introduction:

When I left Japan, for the first time in my life, I experienced culture shock. Japan is not my home. I am not Japanese. I am sure I was almost as strange to the Japanese as I am to anyone else. And they were strange to me. But not as strange.

Seeing an airport full of gaikokujin, I was overwhelmed by the strangeness I had seen around me ever since I came to life. It has never become less strange to me. But after Japan it seemed even more strange.

Which is a rather negative way of presenting my experience. But perhaps it clarifies it a tiny bit.

I want to try to show you Japan through my eyes.

This is Japan as you have never seen it before!

Buy it now through Amazon: An Alien Doll in Japan

Dolly’s Japanese Total Immersion Challenge

Cure Dolly Returns to Japan
Cure Dolly Returns to Japan

So much is happening to your Dolly right now. The book covering my first month or so in Japan has come out just as I am in the final stages of preparing to go back to Japan.

Last time I went to Japan, my self-challenge was to speak and communicate only in Japanese. I was one year old at the time, in Japanese terms. That is to say I had only been learning the language for one year, but very intensively,  the loose “system” outlined on this site.

I succeeded in this challenge, even though my Japanese was far from wonderful. Even when the police questioned me about my suspicious wanderings (I got lost and apparently had wandered where I shouldn’t be) and asked if I spoke English, I said えぇーと、ちょっーとand generally looked as if English wasn’t exactly my long suit – because really, I had disabled my English circuit board – and they decided to manage with my Japanese.

This time’s challenge is bigger. I am three now, after all. My challenge this time is to think in Japanese. Of course it is much easier to control one’s outward actions than one’s thoughts and I cannot expect to have the 100% success rate I had with only using Japanese outwardly.

But, as we discussed in How to Think in Japanese, outward usage is the key to inner thoughts. Last time I was in Japan I wrote extensively about it, in English. Some of those writings formed the basis for the new book.

However, when you are going to write about an experience in English, especially if you are a writer at heart, you can’t help thinking about the experience in English. And thus experiencing the experience in English.

You are always thinking. “Oh, this is lovely! How will I describe this?” or “These feelings are so deep and so subtle, how can I convey them?” And of course you aren’t even thinking that precisely. What you are doing is internally verbalizing the experience itself in the way that you hope to convey it.

So this time I will be writing about my Japanese experience only in Japanese, and I will be isolating myself as far as possible from written as well as spoken English. Cure Yasashiku has kindly volunteered to translate my Japan Diaries into English for a few non-Japanese-speaking friends, so that they can stay informed. Everyone  who knows no or little Japanese is being very understanding about the fact that I will not be in direct contact with them during this time. The translations will not be made public, neither will I see them.

We have started a new blog, which will publicast my Japanese diaries proper, called 人形の日記 .This is the first website we have made entirely in Japanese, and I am really excited for it. Please follow it, and please feel free to comment (but only in Japanese, of course).

I will also be putting my diary entries on the Kawaii Japanese Forums. There I will likely engage in a little more dolly oshaberi at times that may not be suitable for the official Diary. Feel free to join the conversation (again, of course, in Japanese). Don’t worry if you need Rikai to help you read and don’t worry if your Japanese is a little basic. If you just say こんにちは I will be delighted!

Remember that the way to really make Japanese your language is to use it. Get your hands dirty, make mistakes. Use a fun Japanese-only identity if you are worried about silly people sneering at you, and know that you will end up way ahead of them with their sanitized “best china” Japanese that they never dare use in case they get a chip in it.

I have written a few articles in advance that will be posted when I am away, so you won’t be entirely without English Dolly blather (sorry if I raised your hopes there), and in case you don’t read Japanese, or you just want to get the backstory of what happened the first time I was in Japan, my book An Alien Doll in Japan has been released just today.

I am kind of hoping my two-year-old adventures will be a little bit less disaster-fraught. However, since the language wasn’t the main problem last time, that may be over-hopeful.

It will also be interesting to see how my Japanese reflections differ from my English ones.

So, mata aki ne, dear, dear readers. I want to thank you for supporting our humble little site over the last few years and for growing more numerous with every passing week. I always really enjoy talking to you and sharing my thoughts and findings on my Japanese journey.

That sounds a bit “farewell-y”, doesn’t it? It isn’t. I will be back during the Fall and continuing to share with you all, and I hope you will be here too (yes, you. Did you think I hadn’t noticed you? I am always happy to see your face).

And if you can manage a little Japanese, I will be very happy if you would give me a little ouen (support, cheering on) on my My Diary or on the Forums. If I’m honest, going alone to Japan is just a little scary. I am very shy and outside Japan I rarely cross a street alone. So if you just pop me the odd comment it will help me a lot! It will be good for your Japanese too!

I know there are a few hundred regular readers for every one who comments even once, but remember, even if you can’t manage a comment, Dolly loves you all!

<Wave ; style= tiny Dolly-sized handkerchief>



Harmonizing: How to Shadow Japanese (for people who can’t shadow)

Shadowing Japanese: You don't need to be a Great Detective
Shadowing Japanese: You don’t need to be a Great Detective

Shadowing Japanese is recommended by many people as one of the best ways to learn the language.

There are a few versions of Japanese shadowing around, but they all involve speaking at the same time as a native speaker, saying what she (or he – you should use a speaker of the same gender as yourself) is saying at the same time she is saying it.

Everyone agrees this is difficult, but I suspect it is a lot more difficult for some people than others. Those of us who have very poor short-term memory or lack a certain kind of vocal extroversion can find Japanese shadowing pretty much impossible.

And this is unfortunate because it really is a valuable technique. It doesn’t only improve your speaking. It improves your sense of Japanese rhythm and your ability to hear what a speaker is really saying rather than post-process it into sounds you are more familiar with.

I have recommended using the Amenbo no Uta for these reasons, but it is not a substitute for actual shadowing (though it is a very good supplement to it).

So let’s suppose you are like me and find shadowing to a live speaker or trying to shadow from a text to a speaker in real time prohibitively difficult. Is there a way to get over this problem and get the benefits of shadowing?

Fortunately there is. I call it “harmonizing” and it involves a somewhat unorthodox use of Anki. You are probably already using anki to build your core vocabulary, and you may be familiar with some of my non-standard applications of the tool.

Using Anki to shadow Japanese is even more unorthodox. We are not going to be using it as an SRS tool at all. The only role it plays in Harmonizing is that of a box for throwing up random sentences spoken by Japanese speakers plus text of what they are saying and a convenient one-button method of having them repeat the phrase as many times as you want.

This is why I call it harmonizing. We aren’t trying to shadow long or even medium texts. What we are doing is taking a short phrase spoken by a native speaker and getting used to speaking it in harmony with her. It may take several tries if you are poor at shadowing, but it is a nice contained way of doing it. You will get the sentence with a little practice and be able to say it at the exact rhythm of the speaker.

I aim to do each sentence in perfect harmony five or ten times, then move on to the next sentence. One interesting thing you will find is that some sentences that felt really hard to come to grips with the first time will be easy days later (even with the Anki SRS gap). You have picked up the rhythm of that sentence.

This is super important because the rhythms of Japanese are not the same as English rhythms and that is one of the main reasons Japanese is so hard to hear. By shadowing/harmonizing you are forcing yourself to catch the actual rhythm and pronunciation. With harmonizing you are trying to get your voices to “ring” together like a choir. That won’t happen unless you have the rhythm and cadence very close to right.

Once you have this it becomes easier to pick up what Japanese speakers are saying because your brain is not (or at least is rather less) trying to do what it has been trained to do for years, to translate all vocal noise into English-like sounds. It has become viscerally aware of another kind of spoken rhythm.

How to Shadow Japanese by the Anki Harmonizing Method

Here is the step-by-step guide.

1. Get a deck that has spoken sentences. You will find several in Anki’s shared decks service. Less than there were, since Anki has become more strict about copyright material, but still plenty for your purposes.

2. Start using the deck in the regular way. If the sound is on the back, pass the card immediately. You are not using Anki to test yourself in the ordinary way. If the speaker is the wrong gender or for some reason you don’t want to do that sentence, hit “easy” and make it go away.

3. When you have a sentence you want to work with (you should be able to work with most sentences spoken by someone of your own gender), use the R key to repeat the audio. It may take several tries at first before you get a reasonable harmony. Don’t worry. They are short sentences. Just ganbaru. Don’t despise single-word audio. You can get a lot from shadowing one word exactly right. You will find you can build up to longer sentences.

When you get that satisfying “ring” use the R key several more times to really internalize the rhythm you have now caught.

You are actually training your mouth muscles as well as your ear. There are hundreds of muscles in your mouth and different languages use different ones. You may well find you physically tire quite quickly at first. Don’t worry. It is more important to do a little regularly than to tire yourself with a lot in one session.

4. If you like the sentence and want to shadow it more, hit “hard” to make it come back more often. Remember this is NOT a right/wrong test. Forget everything you know about using Anki when you are harmonizing!

These are the basics of the technique and all you need to know. But let’s have a few

Extra Japanese Shadowing Tips

• It is a good idea to start each session with the Amenbo no Uta. If you can say it reasonably fast, or if you only use part of it, this takes less than a minute. It is not used by just about all Japanese speaking professionals for nothing. It really does help you get your tongue around the sounds of Japanese.

• Things to concentrate on are mora, and the length of “vowels”. I have talked about this at length in the Amenbo article. Remember that もう is two morae, not one syllable. ラッパ is three morae, not two syllables. The Amenbo will help you with this, but as you harmonize, be aware of it. It will be vital to getting that “ring” with your partner’s voice.

• Relatedly, be aware of how very short single vowels are, especially at the end of words. At first, if you get them right, you kind of feel as if you are clipping them off half-way through saying them.

• Try to feel the quality of vowels. Notice, for example, how お is somewhat like a shortened version of the sound we make in “door”, not the one in “hot” or “hoe”.

• Note that the T sound is made with the tongue on the back of the teeth, not the alveolar ridge, as in English, and that just about everything is pronounced further forward in the mouth than in English.

Not More Anki…

Shadowing  is a fundamental technique for helping you to truly get Japanese into your blood. But you may be thinking you don’t wnt to take on another time-consuming Anki obligation.

Fortunately this is not Anki in the usual sense. You don’t need to do it every day, and you don’t need to clear your deck. You don’t care if you get a massive build-up. This isn’t SRS, it is your personal shadowing box.

Yes, if you are building a core vocabulary and learning kanji you need a solid commitment to Anki or some other system. But using Anki for Harmonizing or shadowing Japanese doesn’t work like that.

It is good to do it pretty regularly, at least at first, but you are always in control. Do as much or as little as you feel you need. The SRS algorithm that is so important to the long-term learning of Kanji in particular (vocabulary should be at least partly handled by massive exposure) is irrelevant here.

So if you want to shadow Japanese (and you should) but you find the regular methods tie you in knots, here is the key to the magic door.

Use it wisely. Great treasures lie within.

Japanese Immersion: Why massive input is necessary

Japanese Immersion: Massive InputMy last piece on Japanese immersion, was entitled Massive Input vs Anki. A slightly provocative title perhaps.

I didn’t use it because I was trying to start a war. It was because I was and am interested in the interplay between an artificial learning method and the organic aquisition that comes from pure immersion.

I am not suggesting that we all give up Anki. It is a powerful system that helps us acquire and retain Japanese. However I do find that as one uses increasingly massive input one’s relation to Anki changes. I promised to report on my personal experience of intensifying my input.

I spent a month doing a lot of input, mainly watching anime with subtitles and reading books. How did it affect my relation to Anki? Let me summarize:

I have two Anki decks. One for vocabulary and a sound-based sentences deck. I found I was actually entering more into the vocabulary deck because I was picking up vocabulary very fast from my extensive reading (strictly with pure extensive reading you don’t look words up, but I was).

Often with a new word I will enter sentences because definitions alone don’t tell you the nuance of a word or how it is used. I did this a lot less. The reason was that with a higher level of Japanese immersion input I found new words recurring much more frequently than I would have expected.

Not only do the same authors/themes tend to use the same words but I was finding words repeating across different books and anime. I felt more confidence in being able to rely on seeing the word in the wild rather than needing example sentences for it. I was popping words (but by no means all my new acquisitions) into Anki to “pin” them. But I felt more confidence in natural encounters with a steeply increased rate of input.

I was also more lenient with myself in Anki. Usually I am pretty strict with myself. “Half-right is wrong”. What I found was that again, with a higher level of Japanese immersion, I had more confidence in my input. So I would think “all right I know pretty much what that word means. I’ll recognize it in context next time I meet it”.

This, of course is how children naturally learn language. They start off knowing roughly what a word means and sometimes use it incorrectly. But with continued exposure their knowledge of the word refines down to exactitude. With confidence in our rate of input we can be less afraid of getting words half-right because we know it is a step along the road and not our “only chance”.

Another thing I noticed is how wonderful the memory really is. Reading and watch/reading quite fast through a lot of material and resisting the temptation to look up things I did really know even if a little ambiguously (tolerance of ambiguity is important here I think) I noticed that I was recognizing words I had learned two years or more ago and hadn’t drilled since. I think we tend to over-drill words for fear of forgetting them when the real drilling they need is actual Japanese immersion: input, input, input.

I might not have recognized those words on an abstract word-list or in Anki. But in context, as living parts of real sentences that were in themselves living parts of a real story, I did remember them. And there was a sense of “Gosh, so that’s what that old glassy-eyed dead word in the attic of my memory looks like when it comes to life!”

Of course, nearly all my vocabulary came from real exposure in the first place, via the Anime Method and its close relations. But some of them had ossified into “Anki words”.

Real Japanese speakers know a huge number of Japanese words. How? By having total Japanese immersion all the time. But even with the degree of input possible to you or me, if it is truly massive it is surprising how quickly words start reinforcing.

Japanese Immersion: The “feel” of the language

Japanese, in both grammar and vocabulary, is a surprisingly “modular” language. As you get used to it you start to realize how beautifully it all fits together.

If you are reading (text or subtitles) more and more you encounter words that you don’t need to look up. You know what the individual kanji mean, and, with the context, it is clear what the two (or three) of them in combination must mean. Japanese has a lot of words, but the good news is that a lot of them come from understandable-in-context combinations of other word-elements one already knows.

One also gets the feel for Japanese sound-symbolism. This is a very unquantifiable subject, so I won’t say much about it. But I do find myself saying “Ah I can tell what that word means by the sound of it”. In some cases I may be subconsciously remembering a word I learned before. In other cases it may just be similar to a word I learned before because similar meanings often have similar sounds. It may also be based on lots of tiny frequently-occurring cues, such as the fact that sharp “s” sounds can tend to imply “doing” while gentle “r” sounds can tend to imply “being”.

I probably won’t ever write anything more detailed on this because there are no exact “rules” and countless exceptions. This isn’t a “method” one can “use” in a conscious way, but as you get used to Japanese you will find it working for you more and more.

Relatedly, as you read more and read faster, especially in books, you will find yourself anticipating. You notice that you read three words at the end of a page and while you are turning the page over you already know what the next one or two words will be. Just as in English, when you read “He had shifty” you know the next word will be “eyes” or “she combed her” will be followed by “hair”. If we know that she is attending to her own appearance (or just that she is alone) we only need “she combed” to know that “her hair” will probably follow.

Anticipation is a huge part of understanding. So is the recognition of words. Many people will pronounce a word wrongly when they have never seen it before (or only seen it occasionally) even when the spelling is not ambiguous. Why? Because we have long ago stopped spelling out words we read in our minds. We recognize general shapes and anticipate words. We don’t expect to really have to read an individual word. At most if it is a little unusual we might check if the middle letter is an e or an i. Actually reading a word – looking at each letter – and constructing the sound from that, the way a small child or a foreign learner does, has become an atrophied skill.

That is a good thing. It means that we can concentrate on the meaning of the text as a whole rather than expending mental energy on fully reading words we already know.

Japanese immersion through massive input helps us to develop toward the same level in Japanese. We start to realize that we are anticipating things and sometimes taking a word or phrase super-fast because we only need to glance over it to confirm that it is what we thought it would be.

This isn’t only a reading skill. As we learn what words tend to go together it becomes easier to hear bunches of words in speech.

Returning to the “Anki question” I reiterate that I am not really talking about replacing Anki. I don’t think that is a question one needs to worry about. What is important is to become aware of the importance of truly massive input and its function in organic learning. Considering that one only has so much time, this may impact the balance between Anki and actual input. But it is a delicate and shifting balance and one that each of us can work out for herself over time.

Fortunately Anki is not the all-devouring monster it can occasionally appear to be. Feed it less and it will diminish fairly quickly. My daily Sentences Anki is currently noticeably smaller. I may have occasion to step it up again later and I am still adding to it but not nearly as much as I was.

After an experimental month of much more massive input, my personal finding is that it works if anything better than I expected. I will be continuing with it and I am somewhat shifting the balance from Anki to Japanese immersion through massive input. It is a matter of degree. I always did a lot of input anyway, and I never regarded Anki as my primary learning tool (that was and is native Japanese material).

So really I am only moving a degree or two further in the direction I was always going. One can sometimes, I think, use Anki as a bit of a security blanket. We think it will stop us forgetting words (as you know from some of your old words that pop up looking like strangers, it won’t always do that). We distrust input experience as being too random.

I am beginning to feel that Japanese immersion input lets words and grammar drop only a little more than Anki does, provided it is sufficiently massive. And it keeps them in our mind in a live, organic way, rather than an abstract one, which makes them a lot more useful to us.

NOTE: Naturally this article is relevant primarily to intermediate learners who are advanced enough to be able to step up their rate of input.

Bonus Japanese Immersion tip: SMILE!

One final tip, which you may write off as a bit of doll-craziness. I don’t mind if you do. My royalties on it are very low anyway. In fact, come to think of it, I don’t even get any royalties.

When, in the course of your massive input you “ping” (as I call it) a word or phrase you recently learned, or one you are happy to remember, smile. Smiling makes you feel happy (try it). Or make a little “ding” sound in your mind. Or jump up and down and ワイワイ all over the room. Probably not the latter as you are trying to read quickly.

The point is to tell the pleasure centers in your brain that this is a Good Thing. Even a little fleeting smile will do that. Don’t try to re-memorize it (unless you have a special reason to). Let your Japanese immersion input work on that. Just very quickly “flag” it for your mind.

If it disrupts your reading you don’t have to do it. Just a little trick you may like to try occasionally.

Now read: Japanese Immersion: Massive Input vs Anki

Japanese immersion: Massive Input vs Anki

Japanese Immersion: Massive Input vs Anki
Japanese Immersion: massive input vs Anki

This site’s method is fundamentally Japanese immersion. While we do recommend learning basic grammar as a kind of “cheat” for getting started, the heart of the system is watching anime. It is also vital, after the initial stages, to have a lot of actual communication as well as input.

Which sounds kind of lazy, but if you know anything about the system, you know that watching anime in Japanese with Japanese subtitles is pretty intense, especially at first when you don’t know much.

The idea isn’t that it is easier than other methods (there is no such thing as a “get fluent quick” technique”). It is that you are learning Japanese “in the wild” from early on. Anime becomes your university, exposing you to real Japanese, building a core vocabulary organically and making the language a part of your life. And learning the written and spoken language in tandem.

The strategy of the anime method is to build your capacity for input. At first it takes you hours to get through a 20-minute episode. You have to look up half the words, investigate grammar etc. As you build vocabulary, learn how the language works and generally get used to Japanese, you become faster and faster.

You are approaching the point where true Japanese immersion through massive input becomes possible.

Now from the beginning we have recommended Anki as the means of learning vocabulary and at least some grammar. Anki essentially makes the old method of flash cards efficient and scientific, exposing you to each card at exactly the rate you need to learn it.

In a sense one could say that this is not true Japanese immersion. Some people, notably Tae Kim, whose excellent grammar site we strongly recommend, believe that massive input is the way to learn vocabulary and that Anki is too artificial. So in one sense one can say that massive input and Anki are opposed — in that one could conceivably (at least in some people’s view) replace the other.

Or rather massive input could replace Anki. If you can learn all the vocabulary and grammar you need through massive input then you clearly don’t need Anki. If you can learn them all with Anki you still need massive input, or all you end up with is a massive word list and a lot of abstract grammar.

So theoretically massive input can replace Anki and give a truer Japanese immersion environment. And practically too. One of my most respected (and advanced) senpai has never touched Anki or other artificial learning tools.

I have also made it very clear (well maybe not to everyone as I mostly wrote about it in Japanese) that I do not intend to use Anki forever. In my approach to Japanese immersion, I regard Japanese as my language. In my heart Japanese is much more my mother tongue than English, even though I currently don’t know it nearly so well. One does not use artificial learning tools for one’s own language. Like learning abstract grammar, it is a little cheat: a trick to get you over the (very tough) initial hurdles.

Japanese Immersion: replace Anki with Massive Input?

So, do we need Anki? Can we replace it with massive input? My answer to this breaks into two parts:

1. Yes, we can and should, eventually. Anki is like water wings. Unless we want to regard Japanese as a “foreign language” for our whole lives (and some people, of course, do) we do not want to be using artificial tools forever.

2. It is possible to learn without Anki (or anything similar) from the start. Some people do. But this raises certain questions:

Firstly, how do you learn? Some people can just hear a word and recognize it again, at least after a couple of times. I tend to need in many cases a mnemonic to tie the sound to the meaning. Otherwise it doesn’t stick. Mnemonics are temporary, but they are like the rough stitching that holds the fabric in place while it is being properly sewn. Some people don’t need them. I do, (though increasingly I make my mnemonics in Japanese) and I find Anki the perfect place to use them.

Secondly, and rather more importantly, how do you deal with kanji?

This is not a rhetorical question. There are several ways of dealing with kanji. A lot of people (and probably the majority of Japanese Immersion methods recommend this) begin by working through Heisig-sensei’s Remembering the Kanji which involves learning all the kanji in the abstract without knowing the pronunciations or any words associated with them. At a later stage many people learn abstract lists of the kanji’s various pronunciations.

Other people learn by the traditional method of writing each kanji out hundreds of times.

We don’t recommend either of these methods. They aren’t wrong. They do work for some people. It just isn’t how we do things. We believe in learning kanji along with everything else, organically. Our motto is “learn words, not kanji”.

The problem here is that kanji learning, unlike language acquisition, is not inherently “organic”. Children do not “just pick them up” the way they do vocabulary, grammar, speech and listening comprehension, through natural Japanese immersion

They learn them in class. And it takes them years.

But, they do not learn kanji in the abstract. From their first class they already know the words in which the kanji are used, and how they are pronounced. They never learn lists of on and kun readings or abstract Heisig-style “keywords”. They never (except possibly with some rare ones in high school) learn a kanji of which they don’t already know many real-word uses and (therefore) the main pronunciations.

So learning kanji organically “as you go along” is actually closer to the way they are really learned by Japanese children. Since we don’t have from-birth Japanese immersion we can’t replicate it exactly, but we feel our method comes closest to the real thing and to the way one can naturally learn them with a minimum of abstract study.

But kanji need to be drilled. Grammar and vocabulary may be “drilled” by pure Japanese immersion and massive input (and output), but kanji really do need to be drilled by some essentially artificial method or other. There is the endlessly-writing-them-out method, which I believe is overkill in a digital age. There is Anki (and similar systems). There may be other methods that work for you (do comment below). But one way or another, you are going to have to drill kanji.

For me, the simplest, most painless and most organic way of doing this is to use a simple vocabulary Anki deck with the kanji on the front, and the readings, definitions and any necessary mnemonics (for kanji structure and meaning and reading) on the back.

I won’t go into more detail here as this article isn’t about learning kanji, but by this method one is learning kanji and vocabulary at the same time and learning readings in the most natural way: one at a time, as one encounters them in real words.

But because learning kanji (like learning the alphabet, except that there are a lot more of them) is not natural like learning to speak, there does need to be a somewhat artificial way of drilling them. Pure Japanese immersion alone will not teach one the kanji, any more than it teaches Japanese children the kanji.

But, assuming one does use Anki for this, once one has built a solid organic core vocabulary and made friends with a large number of the more common kanji, is there a sliding scale between Anki and massive input?

Does pure Japanese immersion start to take over? At what point do the water-wings come off? Is it immediate or a gradual process?

As with most things, this will differ with different people, but I have been having some very interesting experiences with sharply increasing my Japanese immersion and massive input and its effects on my relationship to Anki. Read all about them in Japanese Immersion: Why massive input is necessary.

Japanese-Japanese Definitions: Getting Started

There comes a time when one has to start thinking about retiring the Japanese-English dictionary.

How and when one does this has been a matter of some discussion among the Japanese learning community. Some extreme immersionists recommend doing it quite early on. This tends to go hand in hand with the 10,000 sentences method, which I have never used, though I do have my own sentences method, but it is not central to my method and I am increasingly trying to use massive input to contextualize and naturalize words.

The argument for making a “cold turkey” switch to pure J-J definitions is that it makes one think in Japanese, and define words in Japanese terms rather than referring it back to English all the time. The problem with it is that at first it is very difficult and time consuming. It involves “branching”, which means that looking up one word may lead to a definition in which one does not know three more words. Each of these words may do the same. So looking up one word can “branch” into learning 50 words or more.

The reasons I have not done this are partly my own and partly common to a lot of other people who haven’t, I suspect. They are:

1. I learn words on the fly, while watching anime, reading etc. This is already quite a disruption but it works for me (I am not the kind of organized person who can put words aside for later). Going into a massive branching session that could take the rest of the day just wouldn’t work with the way I do things.

2. Relatedly, my way of going about things involves minimal “study”. As I am always saying, one should use Japanese, not “learn” or “practice” it. Now in a sense, all that branching is using Japanese. One is using it in the way a Japanese child uses it when she looks something up. She can’t go to another language. On the other hand she never encounters 50-deep ramifications. My technique has been to spend one’s time living in Japanese, not buried in reference books. I “do Anki” but that is the major part of my “pure study”. Branching would change the balance completely. I am not saying I shouldn’t do it, but it would be quite a change of approach.

3. I have very poor short-term memory. I have never been able to do simple math because by the time I have done the smallest sub-calculation I have forgotten the main calculation. I have a very difficult time putting details together. Therefore I suspect I would get into a hopeless tangle pretty quickly.

Now, having said all this, I am also an extreme immersionist and my aim is to make Japanese my language. So for me, and all of you who are dedicated to Japanese and in this for the long haul, the question is not whether we switch to all-Japanese and the use of Japanese-Japanese dictionaries etc. The question is simply when we do it.

For me, Japanese is my language. English is just a foreign language I happen to know. I certainly do not intend to be looking up words via some foreign language all my life, any more than I intend to be using Anki all my life.

If any of this resonates with you, then we all have the same question:

When and how do we make the change?

Currently I am in what I regard as a bridging stage, and I would like to share some of the techniques I am currently using to ease the transition to J-J and stop it turning into a monster.

Sanseido? Sansei!

Use a simple dictionary. If you are using an online one I recommend the Sanseido dictionary. It has brief and simple definitions.

Are simple definitions sufficient? Well it seems to me that the heart of the J-J method as we see it is to learn to experience the Japanese word in and for itself (rather than attaching it to the nearest-equivalent English word). For this purpose dictionaries are really only a crutch. One actually learns the word by seeing it in action. Preferably repeatedly and in different contexts. This is the only way you can learn the weight, color and tone of a word. No dictionary can give you that information.

The purpose of the dictionary is that of the mounting-block that helps you get your foot in the stirrup. The dictionary can’t ride the horse for you. What you need is enough information to get a preliminary grip on the word. Sanseido will give you this most of the time.

Another important value of Sanseido is that it is supported by Rikaisama. What this means is that you can go to the Sanseido dictionary online, enter the words you want, and if there are unknown words in the definition, then you can use Rikaisama to get Sansiedo’s definitions of those words without opening new tabs.

Getting definitions of definitions on the fly with Rikaisama

I have heard people talk about having 50 tabs open pursuing the trail of one word. I know that I can’t possibly juggle layers of information in that way. I may be the only one with that disability, but I suspect I am not.

With the method I am suggesting, if the definitions of definitions contain unknown words you can choose whether to open a fresh Sanseido tab and whether, and at what stage, to take a Gordian-knot-cutting peek.

I will do this sometimes, because essentially what I am doing is watching an anime or reading a book. This dictionary business is all peripheral, and my aim is to learn the words by meeting them.

But I also want to understand them as Japanese words/concepts, not as stand-ins for English words/concepts.

So here are some compromise suggestions:

1. If you get an English definition, make it at the second level at least. In other words, what goes into your Anki is a Japanese definition even if you “cheated” a bit to understand it. You will only do that once. Thereafter the definition you learn and are tested on is Japanese. You will be hearing that Japanese definition for a while to come. The English “leg up” will quickly fade but the Japanese definition will stay with you.

2. Yes I did say “hearing”. This is a matter of personal style, but I like to use Kyoko to have the definitions in audio on the back of my cards. I seem to be quite largely an audial learner, so on the front of the card I have the word in kanji. On the back the pronunciation of the word, and its Japanese definition are written and reinforced aurally. This is another reason to prefer succinct definitions.

I used to find that I often unconsciously remembered pretty much the exact words of a definition in English (even though I didn’t use audio for them). Why waste that surplus memory function by stuffing yet more English into the mind when it could be Japanese?

3. Exceptions. There are a few cases where you may want to give a word an “English pass”. If you really can’t understand a Japanese definition you can decide that you are not yet “old enough” in Japanese to know the word. You can also simply use the English definition. You don’t have to transition all at once. One of the cures here is currently at 25% J-J. I am probably just reaching around 75%.

There are also special cases where you may want to think about making an exception for a while. Two possible cases for this are:

a) Very abstract words. I have a hard time with these in English. It may be worth using English definitions until you have enough grasp of abstract Japanese words to use them in defining other abstract words.

b) New kanji. If you are using our approach of learning words, not kanji, you will encounter new kanji from time to time. In these cases, I tend to write a little story around the kanji elements to glue the kanji in place in my mind. This all goes onto the same card as the word definition (later I will tend to think of the kanji as 〜の漢字, 〜 being the word I first learned it in, or the one that has since become most prominent in my mind and seems to represent the kanji’s essence). I think it is legitimate to write the kanji-structure story in English if you need to, though increasingly I do it in Japanese. Which brings us to:

4. Mnemonics. Do you use mnemonics? Not everyone needs them. Frankly, while I have a better than average English vocabulary I am hopeless with new words unless I know their etymology. I can have trouble calling to mind the names of friends I meet online regularly. Therefore I pretty much need, in many cases, to give myself a handle to grasp a word by, that links its kanji, pronunciation and meaning. I write these on the back of cards because that’s the way my mind works. I sometimes need that extra reminder two or three times. Then it usually sticks.

But, and I believe this is important, If you are at the stage where you can even think of dabbling in J-J definitions, you can make your mnemonics in Japanese.

This is connected with the wider question of making Japanese your default language. You may not want to do it wholly as I do, but you certainly must do it in the “Japanese zones” of your life.

So don’t be one of those people who, the minute they aren’t actually buried in a dictionary naturally make their mnemonics in “real language”. For you, Japanese is real language. Why would you make mnemonics in a foreign language just because you happen to know it better?

Even if you have to borrow a foreign word for your mnemonic, frame the story in Japanese. Here is an example:

だだ 1 駄々]
甘えてわがままをいうこと. ▼~をこねる

This is Sanseido’s definition of 駄々, conveniently exported from Rikaisama to Anki with a single keypress. I add mnemonic notes in red. Here I have used English baby-talk “dada” (=父親)to link the sound to its meaning, but the mnemonic is in Japanese. I also remind myself that the repeated kanji is the だ of both ダメ(駄目)and 無駄.

It is best, though to use J-J mnemonics wherever possible. This can seem a little strange in that you will be using Japanese words in punning ways not connected with their real meaning. Is this confusing? I have to say I have never once found it confusing. It reinforces the word used as well as the word being “learned” and deepens one’s friendship with the familiar word. You have shared a little joke together.

And making friends with words is really the crux of all this. The dictionary and Anki parts are not the process. The process starts where they end. Of course you can be making friends with a word while it is still current in your Anki, but Anki isn’t where true friendship is made. True friendship is made through living, loving, laughing, hoping, fearing and experiencing together. This is why we always talk about using Japanese, not just practicing it.

The dictionary is where you are formally introduced to a word and both say a nervous hajimemashite. Anki is where you see it on the bus sometimes and learn to recognize its face. None of this has much to do with making friends. I suppose that is part of the reason I am disinclined. to get too tied up in dictionary-based work.

Having Anki’s interface itself in Japanese is important here too, I believe. This goes deeper than just J-J definitions. It is also a question of whether you are seeing Japanese as a “foreign language” that you work with through the medium of “real language”, or whether you see Japanese as real language so that everything that is “meta” to your anime or your learning is naturally in Japanese. Because what other language is there?

There is that funny foreign English that some level of my mind seems to know quite well. It can be useful at times, but the moment it has served its purpose, obviously I revert to Real Language.

HabitRPG – New Features

I have now been using HabitRPG for almost a year now, and it continues to be useful for me in my Japanese studies and in general. Some recent changes have made HabitRPG even more useful than it was before. We have written various articles about HabitRPG on this site, and Cure Dolly has previously written a very helpful article explaining this application.

Habit RPG QuestOne of the most important of these changes is that there is a Japanese translation available now. Of course, switching over to Japanese gives us the usual advantages of having one’s computer and applications in Japanese.  Because HabitRPG is a role-playing game as well as a productivity application, this also gives many of the advantages of playing games in Japanese. Many of the Quests are written in Japanese, and all of the pets, mounts, food, equipment and other items are listed in Japanese. This is excellent for reinforcing important vocabulary on a daily basis. For example, from feeding Pets in my Japanese HabitRPG, I now can recognize the word じゃがいも as potato, a word I frequently failed in my Anki.

Another very useful change is that Habits now count for damage against Quest Bosses. Previously, only Dailies and Todos would do damage to Quest Bosses. While it is certainly helpful to make immersion activities such as listening, reading, and watching Anime into Dailies, for many of these activities, one really wants to do as much as possible. With a Daily, once it is checked off, it is checked off for the day; one can not get credit for doing more than is required by the Daily. Habits can be clicked as many times a day as they are done. Of course, one always received Experience and Gold from Habits, I (and my party mates) have found that doing damage against a Quest Boss is extremely motivating, so having Habits “count” is a really wonderful change.

Habits are also good for immersion activities that are important but should not become a chore. HabitRPG punishes us for undone Dailies by dealing damage at our cron (the time we set for the beginning of the new day). When we are on a Boss Quest, the Boss does damage to the entire party, so it particularly important to do the Dailies on those days. For myself, there are certain immersion activities that I want to keep as optional, so that they psychologically remain leisure activities. For myself, some of those examples are reading novels, reading manga, and playing games. Now that Habits “count” against Bosses, I have more incentive to do those できるだけ (as much as possible).

Another exciting new feature is the Enchanted Armoire, which solved a huge difficulty with HabitRPG for long term use. The difficulty was that eventually one would buy up all of the available equipment, and Gold would become meaningless. One could forestall that trouble for a time by switching classes and buying up the equipment for all of the classes; however, sooner or later, one would reach the point of Gold losing its motivational value. Now, the developers created the Enchanted Armoire, which for 100 Gold Pieces randomly gives special items, experience points, or food.

My party donning items obtained from the Enchanted Armoire

Another wonderful change is the brand new option of creating Dailies which will become due in a certain number of days. Before one could only create Dailies that were due on specific days of the week. While the “number of days” option is not specifically useful to me with respect to my Japanese studies, it is useful for my other responsibilities, such as paying the rent and other bills, which are due on a monthly basis.

Oh yes, and the Japanese Deep Cave Adventures’ Guild is still going strong, and we are still playing Shiritori.