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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.


Earlier I spoke of a method for maintaining a more-or-less constant number of daily SRS reviews. That method did prevent an excessive number of reviews (my goal at the time) while maintaining a minimum daily progress. But as my business interests get more complex and diversified, I’m finding that I have less and less time time available for SRS reviews, and I’m also becoming more and more distracted as I do my reviews.

My solution is to move back to how jMemorize does its reviews: a fixed time per day on a stopwatch timer. Number of reviews does not matter. Size of expired deck and number of added cards does not matter. Just X-minutes of completely focused time split into 15- or 20-minute chunks. If you run out of time with unfinished cards, forget it and move on. If you run out of cards with the stopwatch still running, start adding new cards. Progress will be made just as consistently as before, but the smaller, fixed goals will eliminate distraction and allow for effective time management.

This is an experiment in progress (just a few days old), but already I am pleased with the results.

Earlier I said that I would wait until I was further into my kanji studies before I gave details of my own tips and techniques. My reasoning may have been justifiable from a results-oriented point of view (I want to thoroughly test any advice I give), but I failed to factor in just how many tips and tricks I would develop. It’s far too many to keep track of in my head until I’ve mastered the kanji, so I’m going to start relating the most important tips right away, starting with this post, and just come back to make corrections if I need to in the future. So take these methods with a grain of salt; they are not yet fully tested.


When using any SRS, it’s essential that you review expired cards daily, and fully review the entire queue of expired cards. For the sake of progress it is important that you consistently add a certain number of facts to the SRS every day. You will find that the day-to-day workload will steadily increase with time, even if only the same number of cards are added each day. (There’s an exponential/logarithmic relationship here that I do not have the time or patience to derive.)

When I first started on the kanji I settled in on adding 50 cards/day to my SRS. I could do this in about 1.5 hours or so (a reasonable amount of time for me). However within a few weeks I was up to 100 reviews/day and reviewing was taking up so much time that on some days I was unable to add new facts. And when I went a day without reviewing…the backlog of cards took a full week to clear out.

To the point I am getting. Since the number of reviews were getting out of control, I decided to cut in half the number of facts I add each day. Now I am adding only 25 cards/day, and over the last week the per-day workload has been steadily decreasing. On the morning when I open Anki to find less than 50 cards up for review, I will resume adding 50 cards/day until the workload again reaches 100 reviews/day and I cycle back to 25 new cards/day. This is a sustainable system; a method that I can keep up indefinitely, and a method which will ensure a steady progress of 50-100 reviews and 25-50 new cards on any given day.

I think I’ve mentioned that prior to using Anki, my experience with SRS software was limited to jMemorize and Reviewing the Kanji. Both systems use a simple pass/fail scoring mechanism, where either you remembered the fact or you didn’t. Anki, on the other hand, comes from the line of SRS software the has a wide spectrum for scoring yourself on how well you remembered, or failed to remember a fact. This added input enables Anki to better and more efficiently schedule cards for review. Khatzumoto has a method for scoring himself that’s worked well for me (after adapting the 0-5 system of Mnemosyne to Anki’s 0-4).

Just how much of an effect that has isn’t apparent unless you get lazy (like I did a week ago) and start answering all cards as “1 – Made a mistake” or “3 – All right”. I guess I figured it was no big deal since having to stop and evaluate myself on every card was a real pain in the ass and was slowing me down. Boy was that a mistake. The few extra minutes it would have taken me to do a proper evaluation is nothing compared to the hours I spent in the last few days reviewing cards that should have been marked “5 – Easy” and relearning cards that I waited too long to review because they should have been marked “2 – Difficult” or “0 – Completely forgot”.

So do yourself a favor: find a scoring mechanism that works for you and your SRS, and stick to it.

The key to learning foreign languages (or anything for that matter–I have a rant on that I’m working on) is proper use of an SRS. An SRS, or Spaced Repetition System is an algorithm for managing flashcards in the most efficient manner possible. Current SRS programs use the state of the art in cognitive science to predict how long it will be until you are at risk of forgetting a fact, and schedule your review of the material accordingly. The first review might be in a few hours, the next in a few days, then weeks, months, years… The result is that use of an SRS has enter-and-forget [sic] semantics–once you put a fact into your SRS, you don’t ever have to deal with the logistics of remembering that fact. Just make sure you open up your SRS to review at least once a day and it’ll handle all the details for you

So what SRS do I recommend? For a while I had been using jMemorize, an open source SRS that shows great potential. However at the time of this writing some very critical features are missing, and I can’t say I like the bare-boned scheduling algorithm it uses. It’s open nature put it far ahead of the competition though, and for the last six months or so I had been using my own hacked version of it.

But then I discovered Anki. Anki’s user interface is beautiful. It’s feature set has almost everything you need. And it’s scheduling algorithm is perfect. There are a few things that annoy me. For example, I can’t get cards with images to sync correctly to Anki’s server. But jMemorize lacks support for either images or syncing.. so really, who am I to complain?