Monday, December 29, 2008

Time Has Told Me

Timeboxing, revisited
Experimented with some timeboxing today while trudging through the mindless sea of RTK reps. For those who may not be in the know, "timeboxing" is the practice of introducing arbitrary time limits for tasks - any regular task you can think of, really - which, in theory, improves one's efficiency and speed in said task. It's a very interesting psychological experiment. Something in our brain just seems to wake up when we put ourselves on a time limit, as I'm sure anyone who's ever taken a timed test in school can tell you.

This is a technique I've applied to SRS reps on occasions, but really felt the need to do so today. I set my timer for 30 minutes and went at it, with pleasant results.
By the end of the timeboxing session, I had completed 101 cards, or roughly one card per 20 seconds - not bad, especially keeping in mind that I write out each kanji (the most time consuming part). The important part wasn't necessarily the speed at which I tackled these cards, but the consistency, and the fact that my focus was nigh unshakable. No longer did the process feel so mechanical and chore-like - I had to get in another dozen cards before the time ran out! Just a few more, go go go!
I plan to timebox a few more 30 minute sessions later for this neglected, but crucial deck.

Luckily, reviewing sentences is far from feeling like a chore, actually being quite enjoyable with a much greater sense of reward and satisfaction. After all, this is real Japanese I'm reading and comprehending. This is what I set out to accomplish in the first place!
Almost 300 entries in that deck so far, and making steady progress. Keeping a pace of 30 new sentences daily has proven very easy, and I'm tempted to kick it up to 50-60... but I remind myself that any SRS deck is easy and manageable early on. Once I began adding more cards per day to my RTK deck, things quickly became out of hand when the reviews (lo and behold) came back with an unapologetic vengeance, and suddenly I was up to my neck in cards.

So, I'll see how the sentence deck goes. If I can keep things contained as well as I have so far, I'll kick things up a notch. Even at my current pace of 30 new cards per day, that's over 900 sentences, on average, every month! Within one year, I'll have broken my target goal of 10,000 (not that I plan to stop there, mind you)... and that's A-OK by me.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Mental Acupuncture

Some days later, and I've managed to make a good deal of progress. Audio dictation is proving quite useful, especially considering the fast-paced, natural delivery of iKnow's actors - don't you hold back on me, I want the real deal! For pronunciation and accent's sake, this is superb.

The only real "problem" I've encountered is that I'm having a heck of a time memorizing vocabulary. I mean, I can zip through most sentences and comprehend the full meaning most of the time, and that's great, but constantly forgetting the readings of various words kinda gets in the way of things. In order to combat this problem, I've been adding every word (or expression) that I've had trouble with to its own Anki entry... and to an extent, this has been helping.
On the other hand, it sure isn't much fun to go the path of rote memorization on these suckers, constantly failing each before I finally manage to remember their pronunciation, often forgetting them again the nexy day.
To that extent, I can see just how effective learning the pronunciation in association with its accompanying sentence truly is. I definitely seem to have an easier time recalling a word's reading within a sentence, rather than on its own (most of the time). Still, brain numbing as it may currently be, I don't think it can really hurt to add a bit of separate vocabulary words to my deck.

I uh, may have gone a little overboard yesterday, however; from the 30-odd sentences I mined, I added about 35 words to my deck. Ouch. I spent today simply reviewing cards rather than mining new ones, as I knew these new vocabulary cards would require some extra attention.

A little bit of trial and error presently, but it's interesting to find what does and does not work (as well, anyway). It's just a matter of refining the process and maximizing efficiency at this point - the rest is all laid out for me. It's a pretty nice feeling.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Red Ripper Blues

Much of my time today has been spent pouring over a wealth of invaluable resources, namely - if you'll look toward the links on the right - Reviewing the Kanji's forums, which is quite possibly the greatest goldmine -- NAY, diamond mine of knowledge regarding not only kanji and the Japanese language, but language learning in general. Of course, I say this having barely ventured inside the walls of any other general or otherwise non-Japanese language forum, but hey, I'll stick to my praise.

After some three or four-odd hours of soaking up myriad advice and exploring dozens of fantastic language tools and resources, I've decided to change up my sentence approach a bit. Ultimately, I don't plan to change it much until further down the road - for example, switching to entirely Japanese on both sides of the card, perhaps eventually even transitioning into a production format, with the question side entirely in hiragana. As I'm becoming comfortable with my current method, I'll simply make minor alterations here and there.
However, these alterations and additions, I believe, will make an incredible difference.

It's a Christmas freakin' miracle!
First of all, check out (I was a few months late in "discovering" this site, but better late than never!)

iKnow is an incredibly ambitious project primarily focused on language acquisition (at least for the time being), currently operating under a Creative Commons license entirely free of charge. They'll likely introduce premium membership benefits further down the line, but during the site's beta phase, it'll almost certainly remain free to all. 
Its methods aren't anything particularly groundbreaking - they employ an SRS system along with a flashy, fun interface, which I assume works quite well (I'll stick to good ol', trusty Anki). The beginner course for Japanese introduces something like 2,000 words, so that alone would contribute heavily to a learner's progress, assuming their methods of teaching were effective. I believe, in total, they currently offer around 8000 words and sentences!
The incredible thing about iKnow is that each word and example sentence is accompanied by a dictation recited by a professional, native speaker. The obvious benefit of this is the listening comprehension, but taking that one step further, I've decided to kick things up a notch and add the example sentences along with the corresponding audio dictation into Anki! 
I've always figured this would be far too much trouble - where would I even find such audio material? Listening to an electronic voice reading back a sentence doesn't sound very appealing, nor does recording my own, complete with my thick, gaijin American accent. And if I mined example sentences directly from spoken, source audio, it would almost certainly end in disaster and headaches when I transcribed it to text. Thanks to iKnow's expansive, excellent collection of sentences and dictation, this process just became trivial. From the dozen or so I've inserted into Anki so far, I dare say that these example sentences are a far better beginning point than those in Kanji Odyssey, as well.

How do I love thee, Anki?
I did run into a snag, though. Anki hasn't exactly had the most stable audio libraries (for Windows, anyway), and I was having major trouble getting clips to play correctly - or even at all - and for a moment I was afraid that I'd be kinda screwed until Anki was updated and the bugs were ironed out.
The wonderful thing about Anki is that its developer is one of the most dedicated, progressive, perhaps even perfectionist (in a positive sense) people I could ever hope to have supporting one of my favorite pieces of software. I really gotta hand it to the guy - as updates are often as frequent as once a week or more, bugs are stamped, performance is tweaked, features are added and the interface is polished to a shine... and this baby remains free and open source. Anki has some donations in its future, methinks...
So I hop over to Anki's forums and do a little digging... lo and behold, a new beta release with an overhauled audio library. Moments later, my audio cards are playing back ab-so-lute-ly flaw-less-ly. Sweet victory.

Currently, my cards look a little something like this (using one of iKnow's very first, very simple example sentences):


That [as-for] very good story is
That's a really nice story.

Obviously, the [sound:xxx.mp3] part indicates an accompanying dictation. Simple, but from what I've tinkered with so far, incredibly effective!

My only worry is that iKnow's sentences might be a little too basic, but hey, I'd much rather have that worry than repeatedly stumble over the same difficult card with three unknown words. Basic or not, I'll learn plenty.

Yukari Telepath

Sentences, revisited
Another pretty darn productive day, albeit slower paced. I'm now concurrently reviewing an RTK deck, as well as maintaining and reviewing my sentence deck, and plan to stick with both for the foreseeable future. So far so good.

I'm definitely getting used to the sentence method, something which felt entirely alien and awkward to me at first. I'm following a few guidelines currently in order to make the process as painless, efficient and fun as possible:

  • A hard limit of up to 10 characters (not including numbers; I'm also lax with katakana names and loanwords)
  • Whenever possible, I try to avoid adding sentences that contain more than one or two words I'm not familiar with. In my brief experience, the most troublesome cards have been those containing multiple words I don't know.
  • Until I'm feeling more comfortable with vocabulary, I'm also adding individual words, something I've been trying to avoid doing but ultimately should be a necessary crutch.
So I'm still getting the hang of things, but I can definitely see myself keeping a pace of 30-50 new sentences a day, pretty soon. Rock on.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Paegan Love Song

Ever had one of those days where you're just on fire? Everything you do seems to go so well - you're flying through work, your creativity is filled to the brim, you're in tha ZIZONE ZONE and nothing can stop you? Man, I wish I had those kinds of days.

Luckily, a rare occurrence was today (technically, yesterday, but who's keeping track?) as I had an incredibly productive day of 日本語 and barely broke a sweat doing so. Normally, my mind begins to go numb about 30 minutes into my kanji reps, but this time it took closer to an hour to reach that point, and my pace was incredible. I got a heck of a lot of cards done.

The Curse of Over Analyzing and Perfectionism
You know, one thing I'm guilty of is over analyzing... in almost all things I do. It's part of how my mind works, and it certainly has its strengths, but almost as often it'll get in the way and slow me down. In this case, in particular, I'll sit there staring at a failed card for way too long, attempting to memorize it; I'll double check the mnemonic story, sometimes altering or even changing it completely - just generally bad habits for the sake of perfection, when in fact, not worrying about the little details and letting the SRS do its work would be worlds more productive.

I'd later notice my over analyzing perfectionist habits when I was going through sentences in my "other" deck. I'd just sit there staring at the card, going through the sentence repeatedly, telling myself that the next time, I'd totally have that shite! Of course, 9 times out of 10, I'd still fail it, usually forgetting a kanji reading or two. Failing the card, sitting back and letting the SRS do its dirty work, rather than picking through every last possible detail, resulted in much faster progress every time, of course. Not to mention, far less room for frustration in the process.

But that's another thing, I guess, and something I can't say I'm particularly proud of... I'm talking about failure, and accepting failure. Sometimes, I just can't bear to press that "Again" button, effectively failing the card, especially if it's an "old" car which I "know" I should have completely memorized by now... so I mark it as "hard" instead. It's silly, isn't it? So why do I sometimes submit to this silly habit?

The High Score - Competition in All Things
Because I want the high score and I'm unwilling to accept anything less, because dagnabbit, I've invested a lot of quarters into this game! Wait, what the hell am I on about?
Another side product of perfectionism, as well as the fact that I'm fiercely competitive, and topped off by a good 21 years of playing video games and suddenly, my "sore-loser" habit begins to make sense, doesn't it? Like I said, I ain't exactly proud of this characteristic, but hey, it's part of who I am, and I'm happy to possess it.
Anyway - the high score. The oldskool concept of video games of olde, whereby he who holds the high score rules all. This example has evolved over time, to include things such as win/loss ratios, race time records, overall kills and the like, but the basic concept holds true today with modern games - just look at any online leader board. Since Pong, competition has been a significant focal point of video games, and having played games almost all my life, it's simple for me to see where my competitive spirit comes from.

Applying this sense of competition to language acquisition brings the benefit of constantly wanting to improve. I'm a firm believer that there's always room at the top, and through hard work and determination, fueled by a competitive drive, I have come out on top many times... in a broad range of aspects of life, not simply limited to games. But while learning a language... where exactly does competition come in? You can't exactly rate and score one's general linguistic skills, at least not in a meaningful sense. And even if you could, who would honestly give a damn? I know I wouldn't!
But again, how does one apply a competitive drive to learning a language? Well, in little ways, really, some of which may sound trivial, or silly.
  • Whenever somebody claims that it's ridiculously difficult or impossible for an English speaker to learn Japanese, my competitive spirit sparks.
  • Whenever a friend asks me a question I can't answer regarding Japanese, I'm encouraged to learn more. When said friend demonstrates that he or she is further along in an aspect of the language than I am, you better believe my competitive spirit is lit aflame!
  • Whenever I'm poking around on the 'net and see someone vomiting up their choice Japanese word (see: 可愛い、馬鹿、皆) out of their expansive lexicon of a dozen, not only does a vein in my forehead pulsate, but so does my competitive spirit - for the love of god, I don't want to be like that! I can be better than that!
Silly, yes. But you know, it's a means to an end, and a very effective one for me. I'm by no means perfect or the best in everything I do, or perhaps anything I do, but I truly believe that through hard work, being the best is entirely possible. Even if you don't quite make it to the top, you're certain to come damn close.

Unfortunately, as with all personality and character traits, it comes with its fair share of drawbacks, as well. Going back to the example of failing cards in Anki, it may be a bit more clear now on why I'm tempted to do so. Losing, after all, isn't a particularly good feeling. Winning on the other hand - hey, now we're talkin'! So what if I forgot half of the elements for this kanji, I'll just mark it as hard and chalk it up as a victory and... yeah, it's a bad habit, and I've recently put a stop to it as much as possible. 
There's also the whole overachiever thing which comes with my quest for being the best at what I set out to do, but honestly, that's a whole other blog post for another day.

On one last note, I added about 30 sentences to my sentence deck today, and the process is really getting a lot faster and more comfortable. I'll have more to discuss on that very shortly, but needless to say, spirits are high and I'm optimistic as ever. 

Then again, that could be the egg nog talking.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Imaginary Sonicscape

Words cannot possibly begin to describe how much I despise this kanji.

Yeah, I'm looking at you. It's neither a particularly difficult kanji to produce or recognize - in fact, despite its relative complexity, it's probably one of the most distinct, unmistakable kanji I know of (right up there with 愛). But no, that doesn't change the fact that I hate, loathe, detest this kanji's existance.

Why? Because every time I write this sucker out, it turns out looking like something a 1st grader would scribble, thanks to its ridiculously tightly jammed-together strokes. That's why. Now, maybe this kanji won't give me so much trouble when writing on regular lined paper where I'm not confined to itty-bitty squares on graphing paper, but until then, 憂 can go and take a few tightly-packed strokes, if ya know what I mean.

I may be the first and only person on Earth to have ever made a vaguely sexual insult toward a kanji.

Friday, December 12, 2008

King of Those Who Know

What a difference a day or three makes. Previously down on my luck (and studies), I'm now feeling rejuvenated and revitalized (and beginning to sound like a shampoo advertisement) and ready to kick some 日本語 ass.

Slumps are often unavoidable (at least in my own experience), but you just gotta roll with it and keep your head up in order to stave off the frustration and doubt that comes with it. In my case, my studies slowed down a bit over the past week, which is likely what triggered my slump - I only had to realize that, despite having slowed down, I'm still doing my fair share of anything in Japanese, every-single-day, whether it be watching a drama (sans subs!), etching out a couple dozen kanji from my SRS, reading a Japanese header from or listening to one of many Japanese bands - it's uncommon that a day goes by that I haven't done all of the above, it's all become part of a natural habit. Even if I slow down, I'm still making progress.

However, now that I'm back to my "regular" pace, I hope to make some serious headway in the coming weeks. My tentative, rough goal is to have every RTK kanji reviewed by the new year (easy), so that I can truly begin the sentence phase. I'm stoked.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Spiral Manipulation

I've come to a somewhat depressing realization today - that while I may be pretty good at the reproduction part of kanji (that is, writing the kanji when presented with the keyword), my recognition ability really, really sucks. When fumbling around in Windows, I'll often stare for several seconds at a kanji compound, my mind going completely blank, unable to remember the meaning of any of them - sometimes relatively simple ones that I'm amazed to have missed.

Now, in a way, this isn't all that surprising... After all, I've put a couple hundred hours into this reproduction process, while having dedicated how much time to recognition...? Exactly. I've been telling myself this all day in an attempt to prevent myself from becoming frustrated, but today's revelation has also led me to question my 日本語 priorities. I'll certainly continue to hammer out kanji until my Anki deck dwindles down to minuscule numbers, but beyond that, I'm a bit uncertain.

Do I simply dive headfirst into the awfully confusing world of Japanese sentences? Quite frankly, I'm more than a little frustrated with this method already, as my grammar, vocabulary, kanji recognition and practically everything else seems to suck just enough to slow the process down to a crawl. Of course, as Khatzumoto-sensei has said many times, we all suck at first. But presently, I find the thought of going through 50 Japanese sentences a day (or even half of that) just staggering.
On the other hand, I've memorized a few dozen words and compounds already, using this method, so I can certainly see its merit and power.

Another part of me is tempted to do things a more "old fashioned" way and learn vocabulary word by word, rather than via sentences. I've surely had some luck this way in the past, but sentences promise to make this specific method redundant, right? Perhaps, then, I'll make an additional deck for selective vocabulary - things like words in my operating system, or games, or whatever that I feel I'd benefit instantly from memorizing, while resisting the temptation of throwing every new word I find into it. Actually, the more I think about it, the more this sounds entirely practical.

But you know, in the end, it probably doesn't even matter what method I use, as long as I'm learning and progressing every day. Although it may not feel to me like I'm making much progress, especially lately, I know that every kanji I learn to produce cleanly and immediately, every word, every kanji reading, brings me another step closer to my end goal - whichever method I'm using.

On a lighter note, I've taken the big ol' step of watching raw (unsubbed) dramas. My listening comprehension isn't exactly fantastic either, but I'm generally able to pick out pretty much any words I don't understand (read: most of them) and punch them into a dictionary, so that's probably not a bad sign.
I'm four episodes into Bloody Monday and really enjoying it. Pretty easy to keep up with, given its plot, and what little Japanese I know already has been helping tremendously. Lucky for me, there are loads of interesting dramas out there, so I'll likely never run out of "study material", ahem.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

The Hills Have Eyes

I'd just like to share, real quickly, one of the finest gems I've stumbled across in some time:

The blog's title says it all, for the most part. Coincidentally, I was looking specifically for Japanese literature to put onto my MP3 player, especially during my bouts of insomnia, so this is quite a nice find. I was surprised to discover (after listening to a few clips) that the blog's administrator actually does her own readings, and her silky soft voice is just beautiful to listen to! I'll be sleeping soundly tonight, I believe.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Site Specific Carnivorous Occurrence

I love Anki, really I do. At the same time, it can drive me up the wall like no other, especially when it insists on throwing me simple kanji such as 工 on a weekly basis, which I've memorized months ago, while withholding "new", difficult kanji which I desperately need to learn and memorize. Now, I know that this is simply the nature of SRS - Anki only wants the best for me, after all - but it's just not gonna work... not while I'm working through this stack of cards with a rough timeline in my head, anyway.

What I decided to do, then, was crank up Anki's "number of new cards per day" from 50... to 500. This way, while I have 400ish "old" cards to review, I'll get a more consistent amount of new cards concurrently; rather than drizzling past 10-15 new cards a day while working through a backlog, I'm actually carving through 40-50 this way.

OF COURSE, ideally, I wouldn't even have to resort to this. It's something I've been pondering for a while now, in fact, but hey... when push comes to shove. Besides, my current retention rate for cards one month old or older is 99.2%, so I think I'm doing pretty well on the older cards.
Read: For the love of GOD, Anki, show me something new!

We'll see how this works out in the long run. For now, it's a nice feeling to have the "challenge" back in my Anki reps - less of a mindless process and more of a mentally stimulating exercise. Maybe it's the ol' "gamer" in me, but I love a good challenge. But that much should be obvious, given the language I've chosen to study, eh?

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Puppy Dog Mail

Don't slack on your SRS reps.

I ain't kiddin'.

I've managed to fail to take my own advice, and now I have quite the stack to work through this week. Humbug.
This has partially been a result of my spreading of focus as of late - some sentences here, some picking-through-Japanese-websites there, some studying of grammar and miscellaneous vocabulary here... which has, consequently, largely distracted me from what I really should be focusing on right now. The result is that, while I've picked up some valuable knowledge over the past week, I've also really diluted my focus to a dangerous point - this is something I've been guilty of in the past, as well. I want it all at once! Clearly not the best way to go about things.

Anyway, back to kanji reps as my top priority, even if it's borderline mechanical and brain numbing. It's not so bad, though; I could certainly think of more boring things to do, at least! Like etching each kanji into paper 100 times. [On a related note, I've concluded that KeyHole TV seriously distracts me from my reps... which is a shame, but considering that reps only take an hour or two of dedicated time, that still leaves plenty of listening time afterward]