Category Archives: Japanese immersion

Taking the Plunge: Japanese Self-Immersion. Links to all structure points

This is the support-page for the Japanese self-immersion video “Taking the Plunge” (you can find it further down the page).

Here we give links to full structural explanations of all the points covered in the video.


● Decorated Japanese: です・ます form. How it works.

● A meat-carrying dog: 肉をくわえた犬 Logical clauses as adjectivals (adjectival structure of Japanese)

● In the state of crossing the bridge: わたっていました. て-form depicting continuous state

● I’m not an android, I’m The Android: 犬はそれを見て は as marker of known entity, が of unknown entity.

● This, that and the other: 犬はそれを見て それ as part of the こ、そ、あ、ど structure, and how it really works.

● I came, I saw, I thunk: 犬はそれを見て思いました compound sentences.

● “Yours is bigger than mine”: あいつの肉のほうが大きそうだ Comparative ほう、contrasting one “side” with another.

● あいつの肉のほうが大きそうだ  そうだ expressing subjective impression (as opposed to differently-structured そうだ expressing hearsay).

● Annoyed dog or annoying dog? The nature of Japanese adjectives of subjectivity.

● Giving up or giving down? てくれる and てあげる (cf 取ってよろう)

● It fell saying “splash: ポチャンと the と particle marking both statements and sound-effects.

● It done fell: 落ちてしまいました てしまう、ちゃう、ちゃった, how they really work.

● The fact is that… 自分の顔だったのです。 understanding the のだ, のです ending.

● If one is greedy… the と conditional conjunction.

Toe-in-the-Water J-J: 3 tips to help you start much earlier and easier than you think!

J-J doesn’t need to be an obstacle course

Using Japanese definitions of Japanese words scares the blue binklethwaites out of a lot of people.

And I’m not surprised.

The “Japanese as a marine assault-course” school have an approach to J-J that would scare Jack the Ripper.

After doing a certain portion of your obligatory ten-thousand Anki sentences, you must go cold-turkey into all-Japanese.

Any words you don’t understand in the definition you must look up in Japanese. And if you don’t understand the words in the definitions guess what…

You have to look those up in Japanese too.

So you can be engaged in 50-deep dictionary dives just to define one word.

It’s good for you, boy. Like iced baths and 100 push-ups before breakfast. Are you a man or a mouse?

Well, neither. I’m AI. Not much brawn, so I have to rely on the other thing.

So the point is, this is what gets J-J a bad name.

This is why people think “J-J – I can’t do that!”

Well, if that was what J-J had to mean I wouldn’t even recommend that you try.

You have better things to do with your time than spend it in 50-deep dictionary-dives.

Like – you know – actual immersion. Reading a bit of real Japanese.

So what do I mean by starting J-J early?

I mean pragmatically introducing it into your learning in easy, assimilable  increments, without pressuring yourself and without wasting unnecessary time.

Not because I think pressure is always bad but because if you have any to spare there are better places to apply it.

But getting used to thinking of Japanese in Japanese terms from as early a stage as possible – not cold-turkey but bit by bit – just a toe in the water at first.

Here are some of the ways I got started.


1. Use a known word!

This is the most obvious. So obvious that it is easy to overlook.

If you already know another Japanese word, use it for your definition.

Remember that with immersion-support Anki you are not trying to completely define the word, just pin it.

So even at a very early stage you might know でも and encounter けど or けれど they mean practically the same so you can use でも as your definition.


2. The sound trick

For me, the sound trick is all-important.

What is it? Very simple. For Japanese definitions and example sentences I always TTS them so I hear them aloud. This is really simple in Anki (you must install Awesome TTS – and it really is). Just a couple of clicks to have anything spoken aloud by a robot that talks almost as well as I.

I do my Anki primarily by ear. I look at the front and then listen to the back (usually – for kana words I listen to the front too). I only look at the back if I get it wrong or there is something I want to remind myself of (if I’m on the go I use earphones).

By this method, at an early stage you can put English notes on the back. For example, you can, if you want, note that けど and けれど tend to be placed at the end of the clause you are conjoining contrastively while でも tends to be placed at the beginning (it’s not a rule but a strong tendency).

Now you have a quick, easy, instant audio definition and you can look at the notes if you want to, or not if you don’t.


3. The Katakana Trick

If there is a katakana loan-word from English then use it for a definition.

Isn’t this a cheat?

No. First of all, it is a very easy way to get an understandable definition in Japanese and it reminds you that the katakana word exists. Not every English word can be katakana-ized, so you are killing two birds with one stone.

The audio will probably help it stay in your mind and you can use it on the fly when it takes a few seconds too long to dredge up the fully-Japanese word from memory. It will be pronounced like a katakana-word too – and it’s important to get the feel of non-English-influenced katakana pronunciation (one of the underestimated vocabulary problems of native English speakers).


嬉しい ハッピー (yes, it’s a common word)

対称 シンメトリー (it’s not just me. This is in the Sanseido dictionary’s J-J definition)

3. Here is a very useful trick – especially in those difficult early days of immersion when you hit sentences with multiple unknowns.

Make a card for each word and paste the sentence that caused you trouble onto the back of the card. TTS it (you can just paste the sentence and TTS together across cards).

Every time you review one of the words you hear that same sentence, which also reminds you of the others. If you have trouble remembering, this will help a lot. If not, it will move those words out of the learning stage even faster.

You can use English definitions in the notes, but for the audio you might want to just have the sentence. That should remind you of the word in question as well as the others but if not…

As usual, adjust freely where necessary.


And finally some good news – I think!

At present (since the death of Rikaisama) there is no easy, out-of-the-box, non-grey-area, way to get instant J-J definitions into Anki – and no way at all to get the kind of concise definitions we want for immersion-support cards.

But that looks as if it is changing. I am currently testing RikaiRebuilt. I told the developer that if he put in Sanseido mode I was very interested, and he has.

It’s still a bit early and buggy, but looking very promising. So very soon (or now if you don’t mind using a beta-ish version) we will have an easy, free way to get instant, concise and simple J-J definitions of anything on any web-page and pump them straight into Anki, making up J-J cards with a single keypress (plus the TTS-ing if you use my method).

That’s what we get for being good bunnies.

This article first appeared on Cure Dolly’s Patreon feed.

Massive Input vs SRS: the Inverse Ratio Effect

Inverse ratio “rule”: the greater your input the “looser” your SRS can be

When I say “massive input vs SRS”, I am not trying to imply an opposition between the two because I believe that they are (for most kinds of memory) excellent partners. However:

SRS is the thief of immersion time.

This is a saying known to the ancients. Well, maybe not in quite that form, but it doesn’t take a sage to know that time spent on A can’t be spent on B.

And with a lot of vocabulary etc. to learn, SRS can become time-consuming. Some people advocate dropping SRS altogether in favor of pure massive input. My view is that this is actually the best approach if it works for you, but my experience is that it doesn’t work for most people.

That may be because input isn’t massive enough. But sufficiently massive input may be impractical anyway. And I suspect it isn’t just that.

The problem is, of course, that SRS is “rigged” to feed you vocabulary in a way suited to helping you remember it, and wild input isn’t. So one can tend to forget words between natural exposures.

But natural exposures are the real ground for learning. We encounter words as real meaning units in real emotional contexts, with their contextual nuances and knowing the kind of person that uses a particular word in a particular situation. We aren’t “memorizing” all this, but we are absorbing it and this is what eventually amounts to knowing a word rather than knowing its dictionary definition.

SRS is just a pinning device for holding words in place between real exposures.

This is the approach I advocate.

And we can use it to prune down our SRS.


The thing to remember, which gets very obscured in other methods, is that abstract learning through SRS or anything else is (I’m stressing this point)…

a means to an end, not an end in itself.

This has important implications for many things. Including how we approach SRS.

If learning words through SRS were an end in itself, we would have to be much stricter about it. This means failing more words, which means bringing them back into play more often and increasing one’s daily SRS time considerably.

Before I realized this, like many androids, I took the view

90% right is wrong.

And if SRS were one’s means of learning rather than a handmaiden to real learning, that would be correct.

But, provided one is doing at least reasonably massive input, then in many cases

50% right is right.

Why? Well let’s think about what end SRS is a means to. And this may vary, but let’s take what I think is the most common case.

SRS is a means to pinning words so that they will be recognized when we read them.

Let’s take some scenarios:

We see the word on the front of a card and…

know how it is pronounced and know that it can have one of two related meanings – but can’t be sure which.

Pass (usually).

Why? The question to ask is “when I encounter it will the context make it clear which of the two it is?” If so, SRS has done its job sufficiently for its role, which is supporting real exposure to the extent of understandability. We are not trying to learn the word from SRS – that is the job of massive exposure.

Know the meaning but aren’t sure which of two pronunciations it is.

Pass (usually). Possibly press the “hard button”. Fail if one feels a need to get the pronunciation fixed at this stage.

Why? If you are mostly using material with furigana or anime subtitles you will be reminded of the pronunciation on future encounters. Even if not, I am personally more inclined to look them up on the fly* (but that’s me).

Are confused between two words/meanings

Often pass.

Let’s take an example. You don’t recall which of ポッチャリ and ポチャリ means “plump” and which means “splash”.

First question: if you read or hear one, what is the likelihood of not knowing which meaning is intended in context? As an android I can tell you. Precisely 0.037%. Pass.

Second question: How much do you want to be able to use one or both in conversation? If answer “not very much” then pass.

Pretty sure of the general area of meaning. Can’t actually define the word.

Could well be a pass. 

With context the word would probably be understandable.

These principles also apply to putting words into Anki in the first place. There is a tendency to collect words like a squirrel to a greater extent than necessary (certainly for me).

As you get more used to kanji you are often pretty sure of the meaning and pronunciation of a word from kanji plus context. Now, you may want to Anki it just to remind yourself that the word exists for two reasons:

1. Because you want to use it on the fly


2. Because you want to recognize it when you hear it, with no kanji to help.

This is reasonable and I do it sometimes. The thing to bear in mind is that this is a trade-off. You are trading expanding your SRS time for some immersion time.

You are going to encounter the word again (or if not you don’t need to learn it).

You are also going to get better (and faster) over time at reconstructing the kanji in your mind when listening even for unknown words (from a mixture of context and knowing what onyomi are likely in this case – Japanese people do this all the time – because knowing Japanese does mean kanji-thinking).

You don’t need to worry that everything will drop off if you don’t SRS it. Some of it will. But it will get other chances. Some of it won’t, especially as you get more proficient.

Sometimes in output you will get words wrong (even though you know the components you forget the order – or you misremember exactly which two kanji it was and use a similar concept-kanji for one of them, or use the wrong reading. This happens. It does improve over time. How much time do you want to invest in ironcladding against these little errors in the short term vs. moving on with immersion?

I can’t answer that question for you, but I can suggest that you ask it rather than simply assume everything needs to be SRSed.

The point of this post isn’t to give specific instruction so much as to suggest a way of thinking strategically about the question.

Textbook Japanese tends to inculcate an exam-based view that abstract memorization is an end in itself (or a means to pass exams, which comes to much the same thing).

The ANKI/Heisig focus of the main AJATT-influenced immersion schools ironically can have a very similar effect. Especially since some “second generation” AJATT-related immersionists are prone to put more stress on the “method” than on the real immersion it was originally intended to support.

And if either of these approaches is your preferred one, of course you should ignore what I am saying here.

If not, if you are aiming for what I call direct or organic immersion, then the thing to remember is that SRS is only there as a tacking-stitch to hold things in place between exposures

And shape your strategy accordingly.

SRS is a good servant, but a very bad master.


* Personally I find non-furigana’ed text fun for testing pronunciation (a bore if you don’t know most already of course, but if that’s the case furigana’ed text is currently best). Yes, I am reading, not “studying”, but I like words and enjoy seeing if I can guess unknown combinations of known kanji and very often can. I’m happy to do a quick look-up for the game of it – but that’s me. Often I feel sure enough not to.

You also find that an instinct for readings develops. For example I can usually guess in new compounds whether 物 is もの, もつ, or ぶつ. I don’t (yet) have a rule for helping with it, but one gets a “feeling” for what is likely.

This article first appeared on my private Patreon feed

Firefox Multi-Account Containers as a Japanese Immersion Tool (even for non-geeks)

Containers in action. Note the green underlined tabs for English activity (click to expand image)

If you are serious about Japanese immersion, you will have noticed something. Japanese content starts popping up unasked on your computer.

It’s a fact of life that your online life is tracked by various agents in various ways. If you use Japanese a lot, if your YouTube account is with YouTube JP rather than your local one (it should be, and it’s easy to do), if you use Japanese-Japanese online dictionaries and read NHK News Easy (to take a few examples), you start getting Japanese ads and other content served to you whether you wanted them or not.

This is obviously a good thing for immersion. You want things to be this way. You want to keep your Japanese bubble as complete as possible. However, if you sometimes browse in English you will get more English language content served to you. The more you use Japanese the more Japanese content you get and vice versa. If you exclusively browse in Japanese and use Japanese services your Japanese unsought content will become dominant.

But you may have to use quite a lot of English. Or at least a certain amount. This is where Multi-Account Containers for the new Firefox comes in.

To be honest, I have been using this technique for a long time and I did it by using different browsers. I use Chrome for English webbing (for example, writing this article) and Firefox for my everyday Japanese immersion life.

This works and you can use this method if you like. However, Firefox Multi-Account Containers let you run as many accounts as you like without switching browsers. The cookies generated by one account are boxed off from the others so there is no spillover from one set of activities to another.

A geeky (and well-organized) friend of mine has her different activities all neatly packaged up with multi-account containers. I will never be that well organized. However, one can also do it in a very simple way.

What I do is this:

At the simplest, just make an English container. Any English browsing/consuming/creating you do, you do in an English container tab (the tab itself will be color-coded so you can keep track easily).

That’s all. For my general Japanese online life I don’t even need to use a container. Just make sure the English stuff is packed away in a box where it doesn’t affect everything else.

Make the English container your default container and then when you visit an English site check “always open in default container” in the Containers toolbar. From then on that site will always open in your English box and won’t contaminate your Japanese immersion life.

You may also want to make a separate box for financials (PayPal etc) to make them a bit less vulnerable to hacking from all the strange sites you visit. But that’s another question.

Happy immersion!

Learn Japanese with Anime – New Free Resources!

Learn Japanese with animeLast updated with new resources: Jan. 2019

We’ve always advocated learning Japanese with anime here at KawaJapa. It can be done and it should be done!

However, to actually learn anything you need subtitles. Japanese subtitles. English subtitles won’t help you learn Japanese with anime, and just listening to things you don’t understand or barely understand won’t do much good either.

Back when I started, and when I started writing about it, getting quantities of Japanese-subtitled anime was a somewhat complicated business. Usually you had to find the anime and the subtitles in two different places and tie them together by hand – often re-timing them several times.

Fortunately for you (you young folks have it so easy these days) there are simpler ways to do it now.

We are currently aware of 4 sites that stream Japanese subtitled anime with a variety of useful features for learners (if you know of others or any changes, please let us know). All of them are free and while there is considerable overlap in the anime they serve, between them they cover a very wide range:

Japanese-subtitled Anime: free resources

Animelon The oldest-established free Japanese-subtitled anime streaming site.

Daiweeb – another excellent source for Japanese-subtitled anime (requires login to watch most anime).

ANJsub Another good very well-presented site

The fourth site is very bare-bones and no longer maintained but we include it here for completeness (it’s worth being aware of all possible resources). It is in fact the second incarnation of ANJsub (the one above is the third) and you can find it here.

ANJsub and Daiweeb both also have a selection of J-subbed Japanese drama.

This video gives a full introduction to sites of this type and how best to use them for actually learning Japanese:

All sites have both Japanese and English subtitles and allow you to turn them on and off at will. I strongly advise not watching with English subtitles because the human brain is hardwired to take the line of least resistance and you won’t learn much even if you think you will.

However, English subtitles can be useful for when you aren’t sure what a particular expression or way of speaking in Japanese means. If you use them for this, it is better to do a quick check by switching a single subtitle to English while paused and then switching back to Japanese before restarting. Think of it as a quick look-up tool rather than a functioning subtitle.

Side-note: if you find you’re having to use the English a lot, you’re probably having trouble with grasping Japanese language structure. No one teaches it the way it really is. Please watch this series.


Also note that you can use Yomichan to pick up, read kanji, get definitions and auto-create Anki cards directly from the on-screen subtitles. You can even have it scoop up the anime sentence in which a word appears and place it on the back of your card as a sample sentence.

There is a lot of good anime between the various sites, including all of Ghibli on Anime Japanese Subtitles and the delightful Shirokuma Cafe on Animelon. Not to mention all the regular shounen stuff that I tend not to bother with.

I used not to be a fan of streaming anime, but these two sites have changed my habits radically. Recently I’ve been enjoying Flying Witch, Hotarubi no Mori e and Hoshi wo Ou Kodomo. Being a doll I tend to like gentler anime with fantasy themes, but whatever your taste you’ll find things you like on these sites.

If you are starting to learn Japanese with anime, life just got a whole lot easier!

How to Check Your Japanese Level – self-checking method for self-learners

Knowing your Japanese level is difficult when you are a self-learner, especially if you are learning primarily by self-immersion.

Now in some ways, “knowing your level” is often neither possible nor desirable. That is because you don’t necessarily have a “level” measured in conventional terms.

But that doesn’t mean that you don’t need some kind of check on your progress and some way of ensuring that there aren’t gaps in your learning.

The Japanese taught in Genki, for example, is going to teach you to discuss your academic major in Japanese before you learn to tie your shoelaces in Japanese.

I sometimes call this “run-before-you-walk Japanese” and academic courses are full of it. For example, you learn to use teineigo (desu/masu form) before you learn ordinary speech. Japanese children don’t learn teineigo until they have been speaking for years.

I am not necessarily criticizing academic courses, but this, for their own reasons, is how they work.

So what do we mean by “Japanese level”? With Japanese children the progression is quite clear, and once they start school you can pretty much tell what level their language will be at by what year they are in.

Academic Japanese-for-foreigners goes in a direction that is almost the opposite of the way Japanese children learn. Self-immersion learning, as presented throughout this site,  goes in a direction that is somewhere between the two.

It might be ideal to learn in the way a Japanese child does, but that isn’t possible. However, we do learn in a way that is closer to the way a Japanese child learns than the academic approach.

So, say one year in, the Japanese child, the academic learner, and the self-immersion learner are all at a one-year Japanese level* but what that level entails is going to be rather different in all three cases.

At the same time, as a senpai once said to me, “there is only one Japanese language”. In other words we are all going to end up learning the same things, even if the order differs. And in things like basic Japanese grammar, we really need to be at much the same level. That is, we need to know all the basic ways the grammar works. For adult learners we should know this within the first year.

So how do we check our Japanese level in a practical way? Finding a “level” we can give some kind of a name to is probably not possible since “levels” differ between different kinds of learning.

But that doesn’t really matter. We aren’t trying to play a game of ranking ourselves so much as trying to make sure that we haven’t left any gaping “holes” in our Japanese – things we ought to know by our current stage but don’t.

So how do we go about this?

Checking your Japanese level

In my early days I used the Genki books for grammar. Confession time. I never did the drills, I rarely read the little stories, and I didn’t learn quite a lot of the vocabulary because it was university-based terminology that was useless to me (from quite an early stage I was learning by the Anime method a lot more vocabulary than the books taught).

Still, I did use the grammar sections of each chapter for most of the first book, chugging through it in a couple of weeks. After that I was picking up my grammar ad hoc as I found it  and needed it in anime. I picked things up mostly through the Internet, as it is easier to search for grammar forms you don’t know (often you have no idea what they are called) on the internet than in a book.

However, there comes a time in the affairs of dolls and peoples when you start to think “do I actually know basic grammar properly?” And what I did at that stage is what I advise you to do.

I used Genki as a checklist.

It doesn’t have to be Genki, of course. Anything that teaches grammar in the systematic step-by-step way that we didn’t learn it can be used to check off the grammar points one by one.

The way I did it was to go through it in regular sessions with Cure Yasashiku. Our sessions would consist of going through the grammar points in the grammar section saying

Do we know this one?


Do we know this one?


Do we know this one?

Not sure about that, let’s check it and make sure of it.

I knew probably 85-90% of it by that stage and Cure Yasashiku, who is my kouhai, knew perhaps 75%. Explaining the bits she didn’t know helped to consolidate my knowledge, and the bits neither of us knew, I learned there and then.

We hadn’t mostly used Genki 2 for learning but using it as a checklist meant we got our Japanese all stacked up and ready for moving on to Intermediate level.

After Genki 2 we went through the excellent Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar. This was pretty fast as we already knew most of it, but I have to say that this book supplemented our knowledge because it is very good on the finer nuances of expressions and has nice sections comparing one grammar form with other ones that have similar meanings, showing how they differ in tone and use.

It is a lot easier doing this sort of thing when you already know the grammar in a rough way – just as it is much easier reading a complex instruction manual when you are already playing the game.

After the basic grammar dictionary we went on to the Dictionary of Intermediate Grammar, which is equally good.

The thing is that we weren’t only doing this. It was by no means the core of our learning. It was a supplementary checklist to find and fill any holes in our real immersion learning.

This meant that by the time we’d finished checklisting the Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar we had already been operating at Intermediate level in our real immersion lives for some time. Which in turn meant that we were now ready to start using the intermediate dictionary as a checklist for checking our Japanese level for the stage we now were at.

We decided not to move on to the Dictionary of Advanced Japanese Grammar for two reasons. Firstly, I don’t think it is as good as its two predecessors. Second and more importantly, all three are written in English and by this stage we didn’t want to be working on Japanese in English any more. Or conversing in English at all, come to that.

What we did was use the Kanzen Master JLPT2 grammar book (the old one actually – since we weren’t taking the exam that didn’t matter). This is all-Japanese and we kept our sessions as far as possible in Japanese. We allowed “English breaks” where an explanation wasn’t possible for our current Japanese level, but they became fewer and fewer.

At this stage we were reading Japanese children’s novels (probably around Harry Potter level) as well as playing text-heavy games and visual novels, watching anime etc. Again, the grammar book was playing the role of a level-checker and hole-filler, not the place we were learning Japanese from.

Since then we have moved on to native kokugo grammar books – school textbooks for native Japanese speakers. These are no longer level-checkers. They are part of our Japanese life.

So am I still using a level checker? Up to a point, yes – at least for kanji.

Checking your Japanese kanji level

Checking your level in kanji is especially important if you are learning kanji as words by organic immersion rather than using kanji books.

One very good way of doing this is to find a children’s novel at what you estimate to be your level that does not have full furigana.

In such a book you can take it that those kanji that have furigana are above your roughly-estimated level. If you know some of them (and if you have been learning through organic immersion you will) that’s just bonus points!

But any kanji that don’t have furigana that you don’t know need to go straight into your Anki. Those are the “holes” in your current kanji level.

Since the Japanese school kanji-teaching system is very, very systematic, you know that a book marked at, say, middle-school 3-4 that does not have full furigana will have furigana for everything above middle school 2.

So once again we are using those systematic people to check-and-fill our non-systematic learning.

Japanese level-check summing up

To sum up:

You don’t need to use the same books we did (though actually I recommend them as what I would consider to be the best choices), but the method outlined here is a very good way for making sure that your freewheeling self-immersion learning isn’t leaving holes in your Japanese.

Checking your Japanese level by these methods essentially gives you most of the advantages of systematic textbook learning without actually having to do systematic textbook learning.

You don’t need drills and silly wooden textbook dialogues if you are self-immersing. You can benefit from using their systematic approach to check your Japanese level and ensure that it is firm and has no large gaps.

NOTE *I am using this “one year” very figuratively. We wouldn’t know where to start counting for the child, and for the adult learner what a “year” actually means depends on how much time she has spent on Japanese during that year. What I really mean is “an equivalent gobbet of learning”.

The Dolly Dialogues: Do Japanese learning methods stand the test of time?

sound-sisters-timeRecently Cure Dolly has been very much immersed in finishing and preparing for the official launch of her new book Unlocking Japanese, but she found time to give an interview to Cure Tadashiku.

Looking back on some of the Japanese-learning innovations introduced by this site, Cure Tadashiku asks “Have they stood the test of time?”

Cure Tadashiku: So are you really a nine-inch plastic doll?

Cure Dolly: You can see for yourself, can’t you?

Cure Tadashiku: Yes, but the readers can’t.

Cure Dolly: Let’s leave some things to their imaginations.

Cure Tadashiku: Ryoukai. Let’s look at a couple of the innovations you have brought to Japanese learning and see how they have stood the test of time. First, your Dolly Sentences Method.

Cure Dolly: I wouldn’t really call that an innovation. It is a little thing I did for myself and I don’t know how many other people ever picked it up. As much as anything, I hope it gave people their own ideas on the creative ways you can use sound in learning.

Cure Tadashiku: Do you still use the method yourself?

Cure Dolly: No.

Cure Tadashiku: Are you glad you did use it for a while?

Cure Dolly: Absolutely. It was invaluable to me at the time. Some things you graduate from once you no longer need them. Hearing all those sentences really helped me to understand how words are actually used. I rely even more heavily on massive input now, but I still use a variant of the Sentences method.

Cure Tadashiku: What kind of variant?

Cure Dolly: I only have one Anki deck now, which is basically vocabulary. When I enter a word that needs it, I also pop in an audio sentence, sometimes even two, to clarify how the word is used. I always include the word’s own audio too of course. My Anki is very audio-oriented. Occasionally I even pull the audio sentences out of my old Dolly Sentences deck. There are better TTS services now, but Kyoko still holds up pretty well.

I intend to write something soon about integrating sound sentences with Japanese-Japanese definitions and creating an audio-based immersion-support deck.

[That article has now been written and is here.]

Cure Tadashiku: Do you still recommend the method to learners?

Cure Dolly: It is maybe a slightly odd method. Cure Yasashiku and you have never actually used it, I know. I would say to our readers that if it feels like a good fit for the way you learn, please give it a try. It was absolutely invaluable to me. I don’t use it any more, but I am extremely glad I did use it for about a year.

Maybe when one gets to the stage of doing Japanese-to-Japanese definitions, if one chooses to use audio-based immersion-support Anki methods, that is the point when the DSM becomes redundant. In any case, audio-based J-J will probably be used by a wider range of learners.

Cure Tadashiku: Out of interest, when did you drop it and why?

Cure Dolly: Last time I was in Japan, I was doing all kinds of things and found it hard to keep up with Anki. (I did do some every day to keep them down, but in the last few weeks that got more difficult.)  When I got back I had a backlog on both decks and I decided that one deck was enough. The sentences method had served its purpose and the time would now be better spent on real immersion.

I hope to be saying the same about the vocabulary deck eventually! Study aids aren’t supposed to be life partners. They are there to get you to the point where you don’t need them any more.

The Sound Sisters

Cure Tadashiku: How about the Sound Sisters? You introduced them nearly two years ago and recently created a free deck to help people learn them. But do you still use them yourself, or have you graduated from them too?

Cure Dolly: The Sound Sisters never grow old! Well, maybe they will one day, but actually I would say I use them more now than ever. Rather than growing out of them, one grows into them.

Cure Tadashiku: Would you care to explain that?

Cure Dolly: Yes. They are useful right from the start for all the reasons I have explained elsewhere. They do take a while to get to know really intimately, so your knowledge of them keeps on deepening and becoming more useful.

But more than that, they help to unlock the sound-aspect not only of kanji but of the Japanese language as a whole in one’s mind. I am continually discovering new “half-sisters” – sound elements that aren’t regular enough or widespread enough to include in the Complete Sound Sisters Deck. They are incalculably  useful, but even they aren’t the whole story. By using the Sound Sisters (and thereby becoming more aware of half-sisters), you become increasingly alive to the way sound works in Japanese. It is incredibly subtle and wonderful. I can often guess what a word means from the way it sounds now.

I’d love to write something about this some time, but right now it seems too subtle to formulate. Maybe it is something you “just have to get a feel for”. But then people have said that sort of thing about more apparently rarefied aspects of Japanese grammar and we have managed to pin them down to easily understandable concepts. So maybe we will end up with some similar breakthroughs in Japanese sound-association.

In any case, you do develop a sense of the “sound and feel” of Japanese, and I am certainly not saying that this won’t happen without using the Sound Sisters. Immerse in Japanese for long enough and it will.

But the Sound Sisters can give you a turbo-charged head-start in the process. And yes, I certainly still use them every day.

Cure Tadashiku: ありがとうございました。

Cure Dolly: どういたしまして。ところで、9インチなんかじゃなくて、12インチなのよ。

Cure Tadashiku: ごめんね。

Anki for Self-Immersionists: the Master-Class

anki-japanese-immersionUpdated Dec. 2017 due to death of Rikaisama

Anki, the free intelligent flashcard system, is the primary tool for those learning Japanese by self-immersion.

For many of us, once we get past the stage of learning basic grammar, Anki is about the only actual “study” we do on a regular basis. We are learning Japanese essentially by massive input .

And for many of us, Anki is the glue that holds the method together. With Anki we make sure that what we are learning naturally, by exposure, sticks in our minds between exposures to a given word or form of expression. The two work seamlessly hand-in-hand.

However, the use of Anki in real self-immersion is a little different from the way many learners use Anki. Here are some of the key aspects of our method:

Learn from real, passionate encounters. Then use Anki to hold the experience until the knowledge becomes permanent. This means using Anki as a secondary adjunct to immersion. We don’t use pre-made decks because our first encounter with words should be real, “live” ones not abstract lists.

Making your own decks too much work? Fortunately the process can now be pretty much fully automated with Yomichan.

Unlock the Magic of Sound. Learn with your ears. Sound can revolutionize the way you learn. Use Anki’s sound capacities to the full. And learn the secrets of brevity and efficiency that allow a word and its (Japanese) definition to “ring together” in your mind’s ear. This is how children learn. You can use it too.

The gentle way to J-to-J. Scared of Japanese-to Japanese definitions? Don’t worry. A pragmatic approach can ease you in without getting caught in endless dictionary dives. It will make your Japanese immersion work seamlessly and make your learning far more effective. But we will show you how to ease it in at your own pace so that struggling with J-J never monopolizes time that should belong to happy, natural immersion.

Anki on steroids, but not for geeks. If you want a lot of technical stuff about Anki or how to understand the statistics, I can’t help you. I never even look at the stats myself. Anki-for-Anki’s-sake doesn’t interest me. But if you want to know how to turn Anki into a far more powerful assistant to your Japanese self-immersion, that works with a minimum of time and effort (because we want to give our time and effort to immersion itself), we have some power-techniques that will blow your socks off!

The basics – your personal immersion Anki deck

Live encounters are the best way to learn words. With Immersion-driven learning, one picks up one’s vocabulary from Japanese-subtitled anime, books, manga and other sources and enters it into Anki. In many cases, I remember the context in which I first learned a word whenever I encounter it in Anki (until it becomes a true part of my vocabulary).

This is a very good sign. It means that the word is not a “list word” but an “experience word”. It will stick better if it is tied to a real experience, and you will also have the first step toward knowing how it is actually used (including what kind of people say it under what circumstances) rather than just how a dictionary defines it.

Of course you need many more real encounters before you truly know the word. No amount of Anki will make you know a word. Because knowing a word means getting used to it as a real living part of actual communication. Anki’s job is not to “teach us words”. It is to hold the words we learn in place so that they don’t slip through the gaps between real experiences.

If you don’t ever encounter a word outside Anki, don’t expect to “learn” it from Anki. Eventually it will be pushed back two or three years and when you finally see it again you very likely won’t remember it.

But guess what? If you haven’t actually used the word, passively or actively, in two or three years, you didn’t need it, did you? For the very rare times you encounter it there is always a dictionary!

To a real immersionist, Anki isn’t some game of acquiring words. It is the tacking-stitch that holds the experience in place while real life (immersion-life) grafts them into our actual living vocabulary. It is like a crutch that helps us walk until we get stronger. It isn’t a substitute for our legs!

So, how do we build our deck without spending excessive time on it? Yomichan makes the job very easy. If you don’t know it or haven’t installed it you should do that now!

You will also need to add the AnkiConnect plugin to Anki. I won’t go over the basic process as it is explained fully in the Yomichan documentation.

Once you have the basic set-up, all you need to do to is look up a new word on your computer. Usually I type it into a dictionary, but having done so, I don’t necessarily even hit “Enter”. I just run Yomichan over it. If I am happy with the definition I press the import to Anki button, and that’s it. A new card has appeared in Anki.

Of course if you are reading something online, the process is even easier, since you just have to hover over the word as you read and hit the R button to create a card.

So making your own deck really isn’t any kind of a drain on your time. We can also set things up so that that same single keypress enters audio of  a native Japanese speaker saying the word into your Anki. Typically I have it set up to put the audio on the back of the card along with the reading and definition. Only the kanji is on the front.

It isn’t immediately obvious how to get automatic audio, but I explain this in the next article in this series along with a lot more information about the Magic of Audio and how it can greatly enhance your Japanese learning. There are a few steps in setting it up, but once they are done the process is automatic and you never have to think about it again. Don’t worry the doll will take you through it.

If the word is one that is usually written in kana alone (for example ありがとう is rarely written 有難う).

If you are using the basic J-E dictionary, Yomichan marks words that are usually written in kana alone with (uk), (if you aren’t you can get this information from Rikaichamp or Jisho) so you know which ones they are. You may want to make your own decision based on your experience, but the (uk) marking is a useful extra guide.

Japanese-Japanese definitions are not as easy as they used to be in Rikaisama. You can paste them in from an online J-J dictionary (Sanseido dictionary is good for concise definitions). You can actually get Yomichan working in J-J but I can’t give advice on that. You may want to start your own research here.

This is all you need for making basic cards. You really don’t need to rely on pre-made decks. In the following articles I am going to discuss some extra things you can do such as automatically adding sample sentences and adding extra audio – having the definition and/or the sample sentence spoken aloud.

These techniques make the card-making process take a little longer (though it is still simple once the basic setup is complete) but they can do a lot to help your understanding and memory of the word and its natural usage. I dedicate a full article to the Magic of Sound in Anki.

However even if you decide to adopt these techniques you can always make a single-keypress card (including audio of the defined word or expression) any time you want to.

If your “study” method is fundamentally immersion, then this is the way to go. You learn words not from Anki but from your immersion material. Your deck is your deck, based on your living day-to-day Japanese experience. Like a child learning language, you learn from life – in this case your immersion-Japanese life – not from lists (including pre-made decks).

One final tip that belongs in this first overview article: you can sync Anki on your different devices. In my case while I look up words and ping them into the deck on the computer (you need to do this) nearly all of my reviewing is on a mobile device.

With this method you can review at odd moments throughout the day, which can help to overcome the potential time-consuming aspect of Anki. You don’t need to be sitting at a desk concentrating in order to review your deck. You can do it on a bus or while brushing your teeth or walking – especially if your interaction is 80% audio-based as mine is. In fact getting used to recognizing words while your mind is subject to other stimuli isn’t a bad idea.

If you have problems or questions or want to share your own experience, please feel free to pop a comment below.

Next in this Master Class:

Unlock Anki’s hidden Automatic Audio function to turbo-charge your Japanese learning.

Add Example Sentences with the same single keypress used to make your Anki cards

What native mistakes teach us about language

native-japanese-mistakesNative speakers are often the worst guide to their own language. But understanding why can help us enormously.

In a recent comment, one of our readers told us what a native Japanese speaker said about the word いぬ, meaning “dog”:

as I was told by a Japanese person, 犬 is usually used for a wild dog, イヌ to refer to a dog in a more biological context and いぬ for a pet dog.

While one feels hesitant to disagree with a native speaker, I am 95% sure this is not correct. I have seen pet dogs called 犬 so many more times than I have seen it written any other way. But not relying on my own memory and limited experience I tried an experiment:

I tried searching “うちのいぬ” and “うちの犬” (“our dog”, therefore definitely a pet) on Google (using quotes to specify the exact form) and got around 70,000 entries for うちのいぬ and over half a million for うちの犬.

How surprising is this kind of misinformation coming from native speakers? Actually not very surprising at all. One of the reasons I shy away from sites like Lang8 (where native speakers correct one’s writing) is that I saw a large amount of pure misinformation coming from native English speakers about English usage.

It is a commonplace in linguistics research that if you want to know how someone pronounces a word, you must never ask them how they pronounce it. You must steer the conversation so that they say it naturally.

Why? Because how people think they pronounce a word and how they actually pronounce it are often two different things. If you ask them they will think about it and tell you what they think they say. If you maneuver them into saying it they will simply pronounce it as they always do.

Similarly with rules and usages. An ordinary untrained speaker gets natural usage of her native language right most of the time. But when she stops to think about what that usage actually is, and what the “rules” are, she gets it wrong as often as not. Just as when you start thinking too hard about the spelling of a word you often become unsure of it, even though you know it well.

Using my old analogy of touch-typing, it is just the same as the fact that when I am typing I hit all the keys accurately and at speed, but if you ask me where the V-key is, suddenly I can’t even find it.

The part of the brain that processes immediate, automatic actions is different from the part that processes conscious, thought-out actions: and it seems that those parts often can’t even communicate with each other very well, and even obstruct each other.

I am not saying that native input and correction is not useful, though it is more useful when the native speaker is actually present and says “Oh, that isn’t how we say it”, because her first reaction is usually correct, and the more she thinks about it and refines it the more likely it is that misinformation will creep in.

However, my point isn’t really about native correction at all. It is about the automaticity of language and how it works both for us and against us. It works for us when we speak a language natively or pick it up by immersion.

Language is an automatic process. The more we reduce it to rules and conscious processes, the further we get from natural language. This is not to say that we shouldn’t learn basic grammar. And I do spend time explaining how Japanese actually does work in a way that most textbooks never do.

So am I contradicting myself? Not really. As I have always said, learning rules and grammar is a shortcut. Native speakers often can’t articulate these things very well themselves, but they use them mostly unerringly.

If we want to speak and understand Japanese naturally we have to get to the point where these academic abstractions are mostly forgotten. If I want to know a “conjugation” or whether a ru-ending verb is ichidan or godan, I almost always have to reverse-engineer it by first remembering how I would say a particular thing and then seeing what that tells me about the verb or “conjugation”.

I am not working from the rule to the language, I am working from the language to the rule, which is how we work in our native language. This is not to say that my Japanese is anywhere near perfect. But what I do know tends to work the natural way around.

How did that happen? By immersion and massive input.

I have done some study, but I would say that for every hour of actual “study” I have done, I have done at least 20 hours of reading novels, watching anime and other shows, listening to stories, playing text-heavy games and daily conversation.

I would say that a 10 : 1 immersion-to-study ratio is the very minimum one should have (except in the very early stages). Learning Japanese primarily by study keeps it in the area of the brain dedicated to conscious, deliberate knowledge, and that is not the area in which real, natural language lives.

In language, conscious study is a good servant, but a very bad master.

Subconscious Learning. Learn Japanese without trying

subconscious-japaneseSubconscious Japanese learning gets a bad press. And why wouldn’t it?

After all, anyone who says you can learn Japanese without trying is either dreaming or selling something, right?

Well, half-right.

Of course you can’t just absorb the language by playing audio in your sleep or something. Of course you need to learn basic grammar and many other things. You can’t learn the whole of Japanese without trying.

But there are some things that you not only can learn without trying, but you must learn them subconsciously, without effort.

There is an old saying: “War is too important to be left to the generals”. Well language is too important, too complex and too organic to be left to the conscious mind and to conscious learning processes.

In fact I would go so far as to say that you don’t learn language through study at all. You only prepare to learn language through study. Study can do no more than lay the groundwork for the true learning process.

As one piece of evidence, take the following sentence:

Arinocdcg to rencet rseaerch, the hmuan brian is plrectfey albe to raed colmpex pasasges of txet caiinontng wdors in whcih the lrettes hvae been jmblued, pvioedrd the frsit and lsat leetrts rmeian in teihr crcerot piiotsons.

Can you read that? If your native language is English I am sure you can. But you don’t read it with your conscious mind. If you had to think “that t goes there and that e goes two places back…” etc. It would be hard if not impossible to read.

“Solving” the sentence as a conscious-study-mind puzzle would take ages. But just allowing the natural unconscious reflexes to do their work you can see what each word is with very little conscious attempt to “rearrange” it.

And that is how language works. To really understand it fully and quickly enough to be natural, it has to pass from the conscious study-mind to the unconscious “just see/hear it” mind.

When I touch-type, the easiest way to stop me in my tracks is to ask “where is the ‘v’ key on that keyboard? I don’t know. At least my conscious mind doesn’t know. My fingers (that is, my unconscious mind) can find it instantly but if I bring my conscious mind into play, suddenly I can’t find it easily without looking. In other words, the exercise of conscious thought actually inhibits second-nature instinctive use.

What does this mean for learning Japanese? One thing it means is that the internet is filled with frustrated people who wonder why they can’t listen to a simple anime and understand it even though they have done x-amount of conscious study.

All language skills, but especially listening, depend on one’s knowledge passing to the unconscious “just hear it” level. The conscious mind is just too slow to hear speech at natural speed. By the time one has consciously thought “what does that word mean?” the sentence has gone by. Very likely two or three sentences have gone by.

So what can we do? How can we get Japanese from our conscious to our unconscious mind?

The answer in principle is simple. Immerse in Japanese. Use it, use it, use it. Make it your language (at least for designated zones of your life) rather than “a foreign language that you learn”.

Massive input is the essential secret here. Read widely and watch anything you want to watch in Japanese.

For me watching Japanese shows and listening to Japanese audio drama and narrated stories on my iPod have been vital.

Subconscious Japanese: the art of fuzzy listening

There is also something some of us (myself very much included) find difficult, but which is of fundamental importance. And that is “fuzzy-matching”. Once we have learned Japanese grammar in a very precise way many of us (this varies according to one’s outlook) want to go on being very precise and learning conscious and exact Japanese.

This is good. We need this. But we also need fuzzy Japanese. Without it we will never gain the subconscious automaticity of language that we need to have if Japanese is ever to become instinctive.

People say that they have learned languages (including Japanese) by watching shows that they don’t understand at all. I have never recommended this. I also notice that most people who reliably make this claim (and I have no doubt that it has worked for some people) were living long-term in the country where the target language was spoken. Their breakthrough may have come through television shows, but those shows were only a part of near-total 24/7 immersion.

I recommend watching shows that you have built up to by the Japanese-subtitled anime method. But once you are ready to watch without subtitles the important thing is to watch at full speed like a small child. You will catch some parts and you won’t catch others. It is important not to worry over individual words. In fact it is important not to worry about the language at all.

Your whole focus should be on the show itself. You should try to follow it and enjoy it as best you can like a small child. It doesn’t matter how much you are getting from the visual cues and how much from the words. The less you even think about that the better.

Why? Because you are letting your mind do what it does best. You are letting it do what it was essentially built to do over the first few years of life: absorb and acquire language at a deep level.

People who say that language learning ability deteriorates as we age are wrong. You can absolutely repeat the infancy process. As someone once said. “Small children are not better at learning language. It is just that they have no escape routes”.

Only by total 24-7 immersion can you block off most (even then not all) of your own mental escape routes and regain something close to the absorption ability of a small child. And this is why we recommend some short-cutting by learning grammar and the Japanese subtitled anime method.

But, you also need “fuzzy watching” in order to get the ability to process sentences at speed, develop the fundamental instinct for Japanese, and recognize, as small children do, the countless blocks of language that belong together.

People sometimes complain about the many homophones in Japanese and I have explained how you can use these to your advantage. But also, the reason Japanese people recognize them easily and instantly in real speech is because they hear blocks of speech rather than individual words. Just as you do in your native language.

You will also gain experience of those blocks of speech by massive reading input. As you read a lot of Japanese you will often find that when you read two words and are turning the page, you know what the next word or two will be, because you are becoming used to the constantly-occuring word-groups that every language is full of.

This is not just an interesting little trick. It is vital to the real-time, instinctive and subconscious processing of language.

But remember that reading alone will not teach you to hear Japanese. The only thing that will teach you listening is listening.

Output is also vital. Especially spoken output. If you can, you should speak Japanese for at least an hour every day (I can help with this if you want). It doesn’t matter whether it is with a native speaker or a fellow-learner. It doesn’t matter if you make mistakes (as all small children do). Your massive input will iron out those mistakes over time. What matters is that you are learning to put together words instinctively at spoken speed.

You do need explicit conscious study. But you only need it because you don’t have 100% 24/7 immersion. It is a shortcut to help the real learning process go faster. But never forget that it is only a shortcut, only an artificial aid to the real thing.

The real learning process — the one that will pass Japanese to the subconscious level where language really operates — is massive usage, both input and output. That is how you learned your native language, and that is how you will learn Japanese.

I am sorry to say that most Japanese learners never make it. The internet is littered with people who got part of the way there. Lower-intermediate level seems to be a barrier that only a small percentage of Western learners cross.

And that is because, up to that level you can get by with study.

After that level (but it is better to start earlier) self-immersion is necessary. Because study alone will never pass language from the conscious “academic subject” part of the brain to the real engine-room of language: the subconscious mind.

More on full-speed anime watching as a path to instinctive Japanese→