It’s been ages since I blogged about learning Japanese, so I figured I’d give y’all an update. I finished the textbook I was using last November, which raised the question of what to do next. I have some manga around and even a couple of collections of essays/stories, but I wasn’t sure I’d be up for them just yet. So, on a friend’s suggestion, I subscribed to a series of children’s books! The friend in question is an American with a Japanese wife, and they subscribed to the books for their kids; based on his description, they sounded delightful, and I’m certainly not too proud to read books targeted at two-year-olds.

Actually, I subscribed to several of the company’s series: I was pretty sure that the lowest level they offered was too basic for me, but the next five levels (going from 2-year-old through 6-year-old) all seemed plausible. So I subscribed to all five, planning to unsubscribe from the lower levels as I got more confident. In fact, I subscribed to them several months before I finished the textbook, so I had a backlog built up before I started reading any of them.

So I started working through my backlog of the 2-to-4-year-old fiction level, こどものとも年少版. (Which means something like “child’s friend early years edition”?) It was surprisingly hard, in some ways harder for me than later levels: it uses an awful lot of onomatopoeia (which Japanese uses much more than English in general), and I’m fairly sure that some of the speech forms are somewhat nonstandard parents-talking-to-kids forms rather than what I’d learned in grammar books. Fortunately, the books were totally charming, and while I wouldn’t want all books to be as repetitive as those ones are (a lot of doing the same thing on different pages with different numbers or colors or animals or whatever), it really helped me to have the same sentence structure and half of the same words to cling to while figuring out the rest of what’s on the page. And I’ve gotten a lot better at reading books in that series over the intervening months; the onomatopoeia words are even starting to stick.

Once I made it through my backlog of books at that level, I started on the next level: ちいさなこどものとも (little science’s friend?), nonfiction for 3-5 year olds. This was a great level for me: the sentences didn’t have the word usage quirks that previous level had, and the sentences were a bit more interesting while still not requiring me to look up an overwhelming number of words.

About a month ago, I made it through my backlog of those (I’d been reading one every weekend), and moved up to the next level. It’s called こどものとも年中向き (child’s friend targeted at intermediate years?), and is fiction for 4-5 year olds. And I’m enjoying the transition: the books are a bit longer than previous volumes (28 pages instead of 24 with more words to a page), but my practice from previous levels is paying off, as is my memorization practice, so they’re not taking too long. I’ve only read three books from that level so far, but they’re really quite varied: one was a regular story that confused my a lot until I realized that some of the word endings were in regional dialect; one consisted of scenes from a train station that might have fit better in the science series; and one was a counting/animal story that, honestly, probably would have fit better at an earlier level.

I’ve subscribed to but not started reading two more levels after that (one nonfiction, one fiction, both going through age 6); for now, I’m staying subscribed to the earlier levels, but I imagine at some point I’ll unsubcribe to those and add a subscription to something still more advanced. Also, for what it’s worth, all of the levels I’m subscribed to are kana-only, so my kanji practice isn’t paying off here yet. Though it’s paying off in other areas: for example, it’s kind of weird looking over at the spines of my Japanese go books and realizing that I actually recognize most of the characters I see there, even the non-go-specific ones.

I’m still listening to JapanesePod101, of course (incidentally, they just added a Chinese sister site, if you’re interested in learning Mandarin), and I’m spending a lot of time (almost certainly an unproductive proportion of time) memorizing vocabulary in general and Kanji in particular. In particular, I basically haven’t skipped a day using my memory program since it went live almost 10 months ago. (I usually use it during my lunch break at work.)

Which has been an interesting experience: in particular, at first, I ignored some of Wozniak’s suggestions, and I’ve learned that I was wrong to do so. To be clear, I don’t claim to be following any of his algorithms at all—I’m sticking with the algorithm I outlined here—but there are recommendations he makes that would apply to my algorithm that I ignored. In particular, he suggests a floor of 1.3 for the exponent; initially, I figured I’d put in a floor of 1.0 instead. But, after a few months, that turned out not to work at all: it was taking more and more time each day to review stuff because, once an item got tagged as “most difficult” (not too hard with kanji), I’d review it every single day for a month, and that clogged up fast. So I bumped the floor up to 1.2, and things got better; I then figured I should stop reinventing the wheel and bumped it up to 1.3, and I’m glad I did.

I’m also doing a better job now of following his suggestion of breaking up items into small chunks to memorize. Before, I would list all of the readings of a Kanji as one item: e.g. for the question 問 I would list the answer “もん、と(い)question, problem; と(う)matter, care about”. But now I break that up into three pairs: Q: 問, A: もん question, problem; Q: 問い, A: とい question, problem; Q: 問う, A: とう matter, care about. That has several advantages: individual items are smaller (as Wozniak recommends), I naturally focus more on the readings that are harder for me to remember, and I’m testing myself on something that actually matters when reading instead of an abstract skill. (I.e. I will encounter 問う when reading, but I will never be in a situation where it matters if I can list all the endings that you can stick after the Kanji 問.) In particular, the previous method wasn’t good at training me to tell whether, say, 上る was the reading のぼる or あがる. (It’s the former, the latter is written 上がる.)

Also, I made another Japanese-specific change while breaking up the kanji into multiple questions: I started writing the On readings (derived from Chinese) in katakana and the Kun (native Japanese) readings in hiragana. (So the answer to 問 is really モン.) It’s actually usually pretty obvious whether a reading is On or Kun, so that’s not important from a memorization point of view, but it meant that every day I was exposed to hundreds of katakana characters, so my katakana recognition speed has increased dramatically. (Incidentally, if any of you are learning Japanese, a recommendation: learn how to use your keyboard input method. Under Linux, you can convert a word to katakana by hitting F7; under OSX, by hitting control-k.)

Another surprise: I’d sort of assumed that some sort of geometric series magic would mean that I would be able to keep adding items to the database without increasing the amount of time I need to spend reviewing each day. Which, if you think about it for a minute, isn’t the case at all: e.g. if all items are at exponent 2 and I never make a mistake, then every day I need to review all the items I added yesterday, all the items added 2 days ago, all the items added 4 days ago, all the items added 8 days ago, all the items added 16 days ago, etc., and the growth here is unbounded. (Or rather, is bounded only by my lifespan!) I don’t think this is a big problem, but it might be; it does suggest that if I have too many items with small exponents then I’m in trouble. I hope that that problem will naturally ease: there’s a limit to the number of Kanji I have to memorize (I’m almost halfway through the official common usage Kanji list), and as I start reading more, I’ll get exposed to vocabulary more frequently in other contexts, which should manifest itself by the vocabulary seeming easier from the program’s point of view. We’ll see how it goes; if it gets too bad, I’ll cut down on the forced memorization and spend more of my time just reading and not worrying much about words I don’t know.

I had plans to quickly spiff up this application and make it multiuser, but that didn’t happen: basically, it became useable shockingly quickly, and I really didn’t have much of an impetus to improve it past that stage. It’s amazing what I’ve managed to leave out: for example, I assumed that I would have to implement a search functionality early on. But part of the basic Rails CRUD functionality is a URL that lists all the items, and combining that with browser search still works acceptably for search even though I’ve got over 3000 memory items listed. Or I assumed that I would have to secure it (and probably naturally add multiuser functionality as part of that) to get it useable while at work or travelling, but ssh tunnelling to an unsecure deployment was working fine for me until I got my new iPod and wanted to be able to use the program from the iPod’s web browser.

That’s changing now: aside from the iPod issue, I’ve recently gotten a bit frustrated with some UI elements, Miranda has shown some curiosity in using the program, and I just finished reading the paper version of the third edition of the Rails book. So now I’m pretty excited to start up my tinkering again! And in fact I started that last weekend (I continue to be impressed at how easy it is to write functional tests in Rails, incidentally), and I plan to continue with that on future weekends until the program looks/works a lot better. So: Jim and Praveen, I apologize for the delays, I’ll have a multiuser version available soon if you’re still interested! And anybody else who is interested, let me know; I’ll announce it here when it’s ready for use by people other than myself.

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