Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Japanese language learning process in more detail

I blogged a few weeks ago that I’ve jumped back into my Japanese language learning after being lazy and letting it slide. I’ve been keeping my Japanese language study habit for about a month now, and I wanted to blog about my process in more detail.

One thing I had noticed about my Japanese is that I tended not to do it if I left it to do at the end of the day. I realized that it was just like my exercise—if I didn’t do it first thing in the morning, it never got done. So I started doing my Japanese right after my exercise in the morning. I treated it like one of my “frogs,” as I read about in the book Eat That Frog!: 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time.

The book is based off of a Mark Twain quote: “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” It suggests doing your “frogs”—your important things that you’re likely to procrastinate doing—first thing in the morning in order to get it done, and it talks about how you can discipline yourself to do it.

I’m terrible at forming good habits. I have to really work at it. So I defined my four “frogs”—exercise, home chores, Japanese language, my daily Bible reading. Then I started doing my “frogs” right when I work up. 

My Japanese language study became part of that frog-eating routine. It suddenly became much easier to make sure I do my Japanese language study each day, and I’ve been extremely consistent.

My Japanese language learning process:

Not sure if this will be useful to someone, but here’s what I did when I first started learning Japanese (again).

I took Japanese classes in high school and one year in college, so I wasn’t starting from zero, but I had forgotten a lot. So I had gotten the Genki I: An Integrated Course in Elementary Japanese and Genki II Japanese language learning textbooks, which were more current than the books I had used in college, and went through them. (A free alternative is the Tae Kim Grammar Guide website.)

I started WaniKani.com at the same time to learn my kanji. It’s a paid subscription website, but the first 3 levels are free, which is one school years’ worth of kanji. WaniKani is actually quite fun for me, but the problem with WaniKani is that you don’t have control over the timing of when you study kanji or vocabulary. You’re stuck studying it in the order of the website software. Since I was adding kanji and vocabulary from my Genki textbooks, I wanted to be able to study them with flashcards.

When I was in college, we didn’t have smartphones (OH THE HORROR) or the plethora of useful phone and desktop apps, so I was really glad to find the Anki flashcards app (it’s free for the desktop, but the mobile app costs money). What’s more, there were tons of user-made flashcard decks so I didn’t have to make them myself.

For kanji, I used the All in One Kanji deck, and for vocabulary, I used this Core 10k deck. When I came across a kanji or word in Genki, I’d tag them in the deck (usually with the Genki lesson number) and then create a Custom Study deck to learn only the cards I’d tagged. I also created another Custom Study deck to review only the cards with those tags.

That way I could study only the cards I wanted to study. For that reason, I ended up using Anki more than WaniKani, but I kept my WaniKani subscription because I used their mnemonics stories to learn the kanji and vocabulary, and edited the cards to add my mnemonics hints.

(Other Japanese users have mentioned that they use Kitsun.io, which is an SRS website so you can study flashcards just like Anki. I never used it since I already had been using Anki by the time I found out about it, but it has a very nice interface and also various community decks, which include kanji and a 10k vocabulary deck called “10k - Kitsun optimized” (you can search for 10k in the Community decks). Unfortunately it’s a subscription service while the desktop version of Anki is free.)

I also found kanji meaning mnemonics hints at Kanji Koohi. You have to sign up for an account, but it’s free to join. The study method on that website is the Heisig method, but I chose not to use it because it focuses solely on kanji meanings and you don’t learn the kanji readings.

As a supplement to the Genki textbooks, I was fortunate to also find a website to allow flashcard study of grammar points, Bunpro.jp. Like WaniKani, it costs money to subscribe, but you get the first 30-days free after you create your account, and since the website is still growing, they’re offering a 40% discount, but they’ll increase the price as they add more content. At the moment, the beginner levels are pretty much complete (JLPT 5 and 4) and they’re adding content to the higher levels.

Bunpro has each grammar point as a flashcard where you type in the answer to complete the Japanese sentence. Each grammar point has several flashcard sentences so you don’t just end up memorizing the particular sentence. Each grammar point lists website articles where you can read more about it, and it also references popular Japanese textbooks, including Genki and Tae Kim’s Grammar Guide.

However, 18 months ago I slacked off on my Japanese study when I started having IBS issues, so about a month ago I picked it up again. I had a ton of flashcard reviews backed up, but in the book Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones, the author talks about how habits are more likely to stick if you can make it easy, so at first, I limited myself to the bare minimum for my language learning. In Anki, I made Custom Study decks of kanji to review cards by grade level, so I wouldn’t be overwhelmed and so that I would be able to review the cards I missed in a timely interval. So I first reviewed all the grade 1 kanji until they were done, then grade 2, etc. I only did about 30 cards a day at first. It was an easy, doable number of cards to review and it made it easy to stick to the habit.

I also went back to WaniKani and started doing those reviews, too, even though many of them were duplicates of what I was reviewing in Anki. But WaniKani also tests on vocabulary, and a part of me just really wants to finish all the WaniKani levels eventually, since I’ve paid for the subscription service. As with Anki, I limited myself to 30 cards a day at first, since I had hundreds of WaniKani reviews in my queue.

For Bunpro, I reset all my JLPT levels back to zero and started over again, learning only 5 grammar points a day so my reviews were low in number and so that I could really be sure I learned each grammar point completely, including some of the nuances I had missed the first time (I’d often forget if I needed to add a particle or not). When the grammar points get harder, I’ll reduce it to 2 grammar points a day, which was recommended by a user on the WaniKani forum boards who used Bunpro to study for the JPLT N3 and N2 tests.

One thing I also started doing, which I hadn’t done before, was read the forum boards at WaniKani and Bunpro. The Atomic Habits book recommended gathering around yourself people who share your interest so that i’ll help you stick with your habit, so reading and participating in the forums is an easy way to do that.

In reading the forums, I found a really intriguing study method that I started doing. Basically, when learning and reviewing kanji with his Anki flashcards app, this user would also write each kanji 10 times, and as he wrote each one, would repeat out loud the readings (kun-yomi and on-yomi) and the meaning.

It was to see if there was an alternative to using mnemonics to learn kanji, and to also learn the readings in a way that helped the brain recognize the sounds. He also discovered that he could better see pattens in kanji with the same kun-yomi readings, which helped him learn new kanji with the same reading but a nuanced meaning, which I thought was fascinating.

I decided to try this, since the user said that he learned the kanji much better this way and didn’t forget them as quickly. I printed out 1.3cm genko youshi graph paper, which is paper especially for grade school children to practice writing kanji. I used a fountain pen since I was going to be writing a lot, and I tend to press more lightly when using a fountain pen, so it’s easier on my hands.

In Anki, for each kanji I reviewed, I wrote it out on the genko youshi 10 times, and each time I recited out loud the readings and meaning. For the All in One Kanji deck, you can download and install a font to have the cards display the stroke order, but I tend to refer to the Jisho.org website. The stroke diagrams there are actually much easier to follow.

I discovered that I pay more attention to the radicals when writing out each kanji, and it really helped especially when there were two kanji with similar radicals and only a slight difference between them. I’ve also started learning the correct stroke order, which makes it easier to look up kanji in Jisho.org by writing it if I need to.

Also, I’m spending more time per kanji since I’m writing it out and repeating the readings. I still also use my mnemonics stories to help me remember them, but I’ve found that the number of cards I miss each day has gone WAY down. When I study a card this way, I remember it much, much better.

The tradeoff is that I don’t study as many kanji flashcards as I used to in the same amount of time. But since I have fewer missed kanji, I also have fewer cards to review each day than I would just reviewing the flashcards normally.

One other tip I learned from the Bunpro forums is to use the Anki Custom Study option to review missed cards at the end of every day. I created a Custom Study deck that lets me review the cards I missed in the last day or two, and I review them quickly just before bed (actually, on my phone while I’m in bed and before I lie down). It’s usually only about 10 kanji each night, sometimes less.

The book Atomic Habits also suggests a reward system to make a habit more enjoyable, and I also read in a forum board that in addition to studying grammar and vocabulary, it’s good to expose yourself to more difficult media to expose yourself to the language more.

So I went looking on Bookwalker.jp and discovered that they have lots of free sample books in Japanese. They’re only the first couple chapters of different light novels and manga, but I was able to get these samples for the genres of books I’m most interested in, shoujo fantasy/pseudo-historical romances. My aim is to read a large volume of content, and it might as well be my favorite genres and tropes rather than things I don’t particularly enjoy, such as graded readers.

I don’t understand absolutely everything I read, but that’s okay since I’m going for exposure to as much printed material as possible. I did find that after just an hour, the reading became much easier and I started remembering vocabulary I saw a few times. The manga is easier to read than the light novels, but since my goal is to read light novels eventually, I spent time on both.

I also began adding about 5 minutes of more in-depth translation of a sentence or two of a light novel I have been dying to be able to read, Migawari Hakushaku no Bouken 身代わり伯爵の冒険, or The Adventures of the Substitute Count. It’s a pseudo-European historical romantic comedy and it looks really cute, although I’ve only read the scanlated manga version, and the light novel is not translated into English. (I bought the ebook at Bookwalker.jp, where it’s very inexpensive.)

I tag the vocabulary and kanji in Anki with a “Migawari” tag, and I have Custom Study decks to learn/review the kanji and words I read in Migawari. I don’t understand everything since the grammar is still beyond my level half the time, but with the help of Deepl.com machine translation, I get the general gist of the text, which is fantastic! I can finally read this book I’ve been wanting to read for years! I’m also learning new kanji and vocabulary specific to the book, so it’ll slowly be easier to read as I continue.

Since I started, I’ve increased my Japanese language time from 30 minutes to 1 hour, then 1.5 hours. Sometimes I’ll go up to 2 hours, but that’s only if I’m feeling motivated.

In Anki, I’ve finished reviewing all the kanji for grades 1-3, and I’ve also reviewed kanji from higher grades that were in the Migawari book. I’m starting on the kanji for grade 4 next.

I have also finished all the reviews that had piled up in WaniKani and I started doing the lessons again, at first only 5  day, but then I increased it to 10, then 15, and now 20. I’m about to unlock the next level.

In Bunpro, I’m still only learning 5 grammar points a day so that the number of reviews I have is low and so that I can be sure to really learn each grammar point. I’m about to finish JLPT 5 and start JLPT 4.

So far, I’m only reviewing the grammar I learned in Genki I and II. When I get to JLPT 3 in Bunpro, I’ll have to start using a textbook again. I bought An Integrated Approach to Intermediate Japanese (2 CD-ROM), Revised Edition, which is supposed to be a good book to use after you finish Genki II. (When I bought it, I also bought the book that’s usually recommended for after AIAIJ, which is Tobira.)

This is my current Japanese language learning routine. I probably could cut out the WaniKani reviews since it’s not absolutely necessary, although I still do use the website to add mnemonics stories to my Anki deck. But the stubborn completionism part of me wants to complete the WaniKani levels, especially since I’ve already paid for the subscription. Plus the extra/duplicate reviews help me remember the kanji better.

So why am I learning Japanese? Originally it was to read Japanese light novels that haven’t been translated into English, but lately I’ve been wondering if I’ll get proficient enough to be able to translate my blog posts and newsletters into Japanese. It would be really neat. Also, as more of my books get translated into Japanese, I’ll get more website visitors who only speak Japanese, so it would be nice if they could read my blog posts and newsletters.

I don’t know for sure if I’ll get to that point, because learning new things is hard for me now that I’m past 40. But I’m going to give it my best shot! I hope this blog post helps someone also thinking of learning Japanese.

2 comments :

  1. These are some awesome tips! At the start of the year, I decided to start learning Japanese (starting at absolute zero), and it has been difficult to keep the momentum without deadlines for learning certain things. I also got the Genki books and have been practicing my hiragana and katakana. I also picked up a couple of novels at my local book store. Since I don't have enough vocab to actually read anything, I flip through them to see if I recognize kanji, just to get my brain used to looking at them. I've also been going through anime and dramas on Netflix for listening to how the language sounds. The problem is that there are not as many shows out there on the sites I am find that are in the genre's I enjoy.

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    1. That’s so neat you’re learning Japanese too! Flipping through the books to look at the kanji actually works really well to help you read better. I had to edit the furigana for the Japanese version of Sushi for One, and even though I didn’t understand most of what I read, the fact that I saw so much Japanese for an hour every day helped me read a lot faster.

      What genres do you like? Personally I like a lot of anime, so I watch a lot of shows on Crunchyroll. On Netflix, Violet Evergarden is absolutely fantastic (although it’s also a tear-jerker). For humorous anime, Netflix has Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun which is probably one of my favorite series ever. I also really enjoyed Demon Slayer even though that’s fantasy/action.

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