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Some updates are in order… It’s been about nine months since my last posting here, and I wish I could say I accomplished more 😦 A lot of things happened in between: university started up again and finished (I graduated a few weeks ago), the economy went to shit and I’ve been working triple-hard on finding a job, and I’ve had some troubles with my SRS of choice, Anki.

But importantly what hasn’t happened is my finishing of the Jōyō kanji.  It’s embarassing, but the reasons are simple: I simply don’t have the time to find my own way with the method I had been using over summer.  I had been spending about five minutes per kanji researching it’s etemology, looking its components up in paper dicitonaries, finding examples of its use, and finally choosing the right keyword (which was only sometimes better than Heisig’s).  Five minutes isn’t a lot of time, but even at the lax pace of 10 kanji/day, that’s an hour per day commitment, plus review time.

So very quickly I started looking for ways to spend my time that avoided inputting new kanji.  At about frame 500 of Kanji ABC, I started inputting sentences using Japanese Sentence Patterns for Effective Communication (a great book I’ll have to come back to in another post) and only doing kanji as I needed to.  This would work in spurts, but become painfully slow when I encounter kanji I hadn’t learned yet.  But even at its fastest, it wasn’t that fast.  I was still inputting sentences by hand (with text-to-speech and dicitonary lookups and everything).  In a few months time I got a few hundred sentences and a few hundred extra kanji done.  But the pace was disappointingly slow. At this point I got discouraged, and took a break from inputting new facts into Anki (although I kept up with the reviews). Depressed and frustrated at this new lack of progress, I decided to return to kanji with a vengence.  In a few scant weeks I was nearing frame 1000 of Kanji ABC.

But then something happened: Anki broke. Or rather, Anki started crashing on cerain Audio files I was using for my sentence and kana cards.  Not a show stopper, and there were some workarounds.  But it got me worrying about what I’d do if a more serious bug was introduced/discovered in the future. It would not be good to lose faith in the integrity of a program I entrust all of my learning to.

But alas, there’s no better general alternative to Anki at the moment. I have some ideas that I am going to play with, but in the meantime I am refocusing on the Jōyō kanji and continuing my studies.  The goal is to finish by the time I return to Japan in mid-May, which is fast paced but certainly doable.  I’m also working on generating text-to-speech audio for all the sentences of JSPfEC using fluxcapacitor‘s painfully prepared spreadsheet.  Stay tuned for updates on this front.

The introduction to Kanji ABC outlines two methods for using the book: (a) alternate between learning a dozen or so graphemes and then the characters which are made with those elements, or (b) learn all 500 or so graphemes first, then approach the kanji in whatever order you desire. I have tried both of these paths and would like to relate my experiences:

For the first 300 or so kanji I took path (a). I felt that this more closely matched the approach of Heisig, and at the time I didn’t see any reason to deviate from that path. But then I began to get impatient about starting Chinese characters and my 10,000 Japanese sentences, both of which would require learning some of the frequently used, but complex characters found at the end of Kanji ABC [a bad idea, but for reasons I’ll explain some other time]. So I put my Kanji input on hold and started adding just graphemes to my SRS.

This worked… for a while. But the more I advanced in my grapheme-only studies, the more trouble I had learning and retaining that knowledge. By the very end I had come up against a wall. I was forgetting the writing of graphemes just as quickly as I was adding them. In retrospect the reason was clear: unlike kanji, the graphemes have no mnemonic components, so frequent use is the only reliable way to remember them. And by neglecting my kanji studies I was never using the graphemes. In essence I learned the 500 graphemes following the traditional rote method for learning the kanji, in less than a month. That itself is pretty incredible, but hardly efficient (I could have learned twice as many kanji in the same period of time at the rate I was progressing). Taking this approach was extremely aggravating, and probably added 2 weeks to my kanji studies. I would not recommend this approach.

Conclusion: study graphemes and kanji simultaneously. It is more efficient, less frustrating, and will speed you towards your goal of complete mastery of the kanji.

For a site that is titled “All Mandarin, All The Time” it must seem odd that the only posts of substance (so far) are on Japanese. Well, I’ve been focusing solely on Japanese since I started this blog. In a way the title was a promise to myself to stop studying Japanese exclusively and start on Mandarin, but that hasn’t happened yet. Partly because I’m having trouble tracking down the resource I’ve chosen for learning hanzi (step 1 of the AMATT method!): Cracking the Chinese Puzzles by T.K. Ann. It’s the closest thing I’ve found to Heisig’s method and ordering for the hanzi, but unfortunately it’s been out of print for more than a decade and I can’t seem to find any decently priced copies. It is also in part because I am not comfortable embarking on my studies until I’ve acquired a decent pronunciation of Mandarin phonetics, but my native speaker is away visiting family at the moment. Those were the reasons, but now I’ve discovered(/verified) a third: you can’t start learn Mandarin and Japanese at the same time with the All Input, All The Time method.

Khatzumoto writes about mixing up languages when learning more than one at the same time on his blog. I read this, but at the time I thought it was total hogwash. I’ve tried to learn many languages before, and I’ve experienced the symptoms: mixing up words and sentence patterns, such as using a Japanese word in a German sentence, or saying something-は to mark the topic in Tagalog. But I found that this was a temporary condition; after trying hard enough I no longer made these mistakes very often, and was able to study a great many languages at once. At my height I was learning Japanese, German, Tagalog, Romani, Russian, and Thai together with daily practice and without any confusion.

But that was before the AIATT method. A few days ago I sinoified my environment and spent a whole day listening to Mandarin podcasts and language tapes, just to get a feel for the spoken language. My plan was to alternate languages: Chinese, Japanese, Chinese, Japanese, etc. on either a daily or weekly basis. I made some progress with my Chinese, but when I opened up my SRS at the end of the day, I found that 24 hours of non-Japanese language practice was all it took to undo two or three days of effort. It was not a minor setback–it was a complete military retreat. So bad that I immediately canceled the experiment and I’m worried about ever doing this again. I know that making a decision on one data point is usually a poor choice… but I cannot even relate the extent to which my skills atrophied over such a short period of time, and what kind of effect that would have had if I’d let it continue.

What changed between this and my pre-AIATT experience? I’m not sure. I think it has something to do with the fact that I was listening to audio I did not fully comprehend, and reliant on my subconscious brain to process and make sense of it. Whatever the cause, I now implicitly trust Khatzumoto’s claim that languages must be learnt in series for the AIATT method to work. I’ve therefore reevaluated my strategy: I will continue to learn Japanese in isolation until I can make the switch to monolingual dictionaries (with the exception of hanzi, which I will start learning and report on as soon as I can find that damn book). Only then will I begin to collect my 10,000 Mandarin sentences and listen to Mandarin audio, using Japanese as the base language for my Chinese studies. But I will keep an even mix of Japanese and Mandarin audio at all times.

Enough of that. I’ll end this post here–I prefer to talk about what I’ve done that works, not theorize about what might be useful in the future. Results are all that matters. I’ll post more as these results come in.