I’m on the fourth chapter of my Japanese textbook now, enough for a new set of difficulties to surface. All of which ring vague bells from a decade ago; I’m trying to do things right this time, which means that I need better strategies for facing these difficulties than I had last time.

One problem: when I claim I know a vocabulary word, when I move it from the “review regularly” stack of flash cards to the “mastered” stack of flash cards, I want that to mean that I really do know the word! But, for an uncomfortable number of flash cards, what is really going on is that I can reliably, upon seeing the front of the flash card, recite what is on the back of the card. Which isn’t the same thing.

Some aspects of that problem show up no matter what language you’re learning. For example, I usually only do my cards in one direction, so I regularly drill going from megane to “glasses” but not in the other direction. Also, their are grammatical issues: to really know a verb, you should be able to conjugate it at will, and recognize it in any of its forms.

Those particular problems aren’t that big a deal for me yet. I haven’t learned too much grammar, and I’m doing a pretty good job so far in being able to go from English to Japanese even though I’m drilling Japanese to English.

What is a big deal is the presence of kanji. This increases complexity in a few different ways. For one thing, I have to go between three forms of the word (kanji, pronunciation, and English) instead of just two forms (Japanese and English). And, of course, a single kanji character can have multiple pronunciations, which may or may not have multiple readings, and which may or may not be signalled by adding some kana at the end. (After some experimentation, I’ve decided to exile all the extra kana to the back of the card, instead of leaving it on front.)

That’s the obvious problem, but there’s also a more subtle one. When I see a vocabulary card, I see something I wrote by hand, taken from a limited number of other vocabulary cards that I’ve written. So when I see, say, the kanji for bijutsukan, what I really see is a card with three kanji characters on the front, where in this case I happen to have written the kanji characters a little smaller than would be ideal, and a little bit off center. And, honestly, that enough is almost enough to allow me to uniquely identify the vocabulary card from among my current set, especially if one of the radicals in one of the kanji seems familiar for some reason.

But, of course, that doesn’t mean that I know the word at all: if I saw those same three characters in a Japanese book, I would have almost zero chance of recognizing them as bijutsukan, and for that matter I’d be equally likely to mistakenly think that some other sequence of three characters might represent bijutsukan. I now appreciate what kids learning to read and write English are going through when they see a sequence of letters and guess that it’s some other word that happens to start with the same letter or two and is more or less the same length: they don’t have any deeper grasp of the phonetics of written English than I do of the radicals that make up a kanji character, and in both cases we quickly get overwhelmed by the task of really understanding how a word is written.

So what do I do about this? Part of my solution is to simplify the problem. I can adopt a classic agile planning technique: recognize that there isn’t a strong correlation between the difficulty of a task and its business value, and that, when chosing between two equally tasks of equal business value, you’ll get the quickest bang for the buck by doing the easier one first. What that translates to in this case is that, all things being equal, I should try to memorize words made up of as few kanji characters as possible. So one is best, two might be okay, especially if I’ve seen one of them before, three is unlikely to be a good idea. And not all kanji characters are created equal: given a choice, I should choose characters made up of as few radicals as possible, to increase the chance that I’ll be able to really know the whole character. (As opposed to, say, having the left side of the character trigger a memory in me.)

That alone isn’t good enough, though: it doesn’t leave me with a strategy for dealing with important but more complicated characters/words, and doesn’t directly address the complexity of what it means to learn a character. To really learn a character, I should be able to write it out myself, and be able to reliably tell it apart from similar-looking characters, characters with, say, the same radical on the left and on the upper-right but a different one on the lower right.

The answer to both of these aspects of knowledge is, for me, the same: I need to learn to love radicals. Once I really know the radicals, I won’t have to, say, recognize and reproduce the thirteen strokes making up a complicated character, I’ll just have to recognize and reproduce the three radicals making it up. That’s not a simple problem, given that there are about 200 radicals to grapple with, but it’s at least a tractable problem. Especially since the radicals in a character aren’t chosen arbitrarily: radicals have meanings on their own, so you can frequently build up the meaning of a larger characters out of the meanings of its radicals, and radicals can at times lend their pronunciation to the pronunciation of the entire character. So there’s real structure to work with here; as I buff up my radical credentials, it should become easier and easier for me to learn more and more complex characters.

And, fortunately, I’ve recently acquired an excellent book on the subject. It does a great job of showing how the characters evolved (and is historically accurate, as far as I can tell), and of gradually introducing radicals and showing how they add meaning in more and more contexts. So I’m gradually adding characters from that book into my stack of cards to memorize, even if I haven’t run into those characters in my textbook, and trying to remember the evolution of those characters in the bargain. Should make learning characters more fun, and easier.

That’s the main problem; there are a couple of other problems that I’m running into as well, though. One is that there are too many new words in each chapter for me to be able to memorize. I was worried about this three weeks ago: it seemed like my stack of unmemorized cards was getting longer and longer. Since then, I’ve been doing a pretty good job of moving cards into the memorized stack, but I don’t want to ignore the problem. (Especially since I’m now adding vocabulary cards from a source other than my textbook!)

Part of the solution is to simply not memorize every new word in each chapter. Each chapter introduces maybe 80-100 new words; I’m pretty sure that I can get away with only learning 40 or 50 of them right then. So I’m picking the ones that seem particularly likely to be important, or particularly likely to be easy to learn, and I don’t sweat the other ones for now. And if, in subsequent chapters, I keep on encountering a word that I didn’t memorize when it first showed up, then I can always learn the word later. It’s not completely clear that this is a scalable strategy – maybe, once I get to chapter 15, I’ll have to memorize 5 new words from each of the previous 15 chapters along with an extra 50 words from that chapter, which would suck – but I think it’s worth giving a try.

The second part of the solution is basic queue management: the problem here is an unbounded queue. And if you don’t want to have an unbounded queue, then put a cap on it! So I could adopt a rule that I can never have more than, say, an inch of unmemorize vocab cards in the box. Once I reach an inch, I have to do something else until the stack goes down: some combination of memorizing a smaller proportion of words in each chapter, taking longer to go through each chapter, and learning to be more effective at memorizing words. I don’t have an exam schedule or anything that I’m working towards: I want to do this right, and to do this right I need to balance my capacities, my time, and the number of words that I’m attempting, instead of letting artificial pressures skew my attempts at the cost of a loss of effectiveness.

So far, all the problems I’ve talked about have been about memorizing words, but it’s also starting to get a little harder to put everything in the chapter together. In the fourth chapter, for the first time, I had a bit of trouble doing all the exercises in the chapter the first time through, because of a combination of not having all the grammatical details, the usage details, and the words at my fingertips. I think that, for now, the best approach is to acknowledge that this is a potential issue, and be alert for warning signs. So I’m planning to go through the exercises in this chapter until I can do them all easily; if that means it takes three weeks to get through the chapter instead of two, that’s fine.

I imagine that further non-vocabulary issues will crop up as I go along: needing to memorize conjugations, for example. It’s been a while (almost 15 years! Ouch) since I’ve had to deal with that sort of thing, but I was once adequate at memorizing grammar, so I assume I’ll be able to do it again, and I don’t think Japanese holds any particular horrors in that area. And further holistic issues will appear: getting practice in reading actual books (and finding a suitable gradual series of books to practice that), practicing spoken Japanese. I imagine that, once those become urgent problems, outside guidance will be essential; fortunately, outside guidance shouldn’t be hard to find around here.

Fun stuff.

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