Android App To-do List

Progress has slowed in the last week because I have been busy with my day job…

Here’s a quick view of what needs to be done:

Complete the lessons. Currently at Kanji 878. A new batch of lessons will be added to the app when I hit Kanji 1000.

Provide images. All core kanji and primitives will have a default image provided, so that users can immediately start using picture hints if they like. Currently users have to add their own pictures. This has some advantages in terms of cementing the memories, but is too much work for many busy people.

Provide image tags. Currently, the grouping of strokes into primitives must be done by each user. Although this is a great way to review the structure of each kanji, it is labour-intensive and most users would prefer that the kanji were pre-digested into primitives.

Japanese keywords. Although I agree with Heisig that it is important to ‘divide and conquer’ the task of linking shapes with meanings and with readings, I have some sympathy for the view that kanji should be learned in context sooner rather than later. I am working on a compromise approach that progresses mature items to a Japanese prompt.

Responsiveness. The current version of the app has slow periods related to loading the dictionary and readings, and checking the stale status of items. This can be optimised. There is not much point checking for stale items during a session, for instance. This can be checked on resumption of using the app, on checking the progress graph, and so on.

The app will not be at its best until these issue shave been sorted out. Thanks for your patience while I work on them. Remember that, during this beta phase, all upgrades are free if you join the beta testing group.

Japanese Keywords Update

As discussed in a previous post, some kanji students using a Heisig approach like to go back over the list a second time, but using Japanese prompts instead of English prompts. This a great way to contextualise the kanji knowledge you already have and begin the transition to thinking of the kanji as a working part of your Japanese vocabulary, rather than as a bunch of shapes with English labels.

Heisig explicitly recommends deferring all vocabulary acquisition until all the joyo kanji have been learned in the limited, English-keyword-only sense, and his book series leaves Japanese readings and vocabulary until the second and third volumes. There is much that is good about this advice – learning the shapes of the kanji is actually the easy part of acquiring Japanese, particularly if the kanji are broken into radicals, a spaced repetition system is used, and you are comfortable using mnemonics. It makes sense to tackle this easy part and then approach the acquisition of vocabulary when you already know your kanji characters. The problem is that the approach assumes everyone is patient enough to finish the entire joyo kanji before they move on to the next stage, and students may feel that they are putting a lot of work in and still don’t know any ‘real Japanese’.

I suspect there is another problem with a pure Heisig approach, related to learning efficiency, though I do not yet have any evidence to back up my intuition. Spaced repetition and mnemonics are great for acquiring vast quantities of new knowledge efficiently, but deep knowledge of any factual item is greatly enhanced if the item is more than a passive bit of remembered text on a flashcard, and instead becomes a connecting element in a network of knowledge. If you already know that ‘rain’ is associated with the kanji ‘‘, and can reproduce it after an interval of a couple of weeks, you are probably ready to learn that the Japanese word for ‘rain’ is ‘あめ’ (ame). While you are reinforcing the stroke pattern at progressively longer intervals, you might as well use that time and effort to learn the word ‘あめ’ – and using the stroke pattern of as your link to the new vocabulary means that is no longer at the edge of your knowledge, it is a pathway to the next bit of knowledge you are trying to acquire. (That is, it seems as though you are no longer actively learning ‘‘, because you are now concentrating on ‘あめ’, but you are in fact reinforcing ‘‘ anyway, in the most valuable way possible.)

With these potential benefits of Japanese keywords, why wait until you know 2,042 English keywords?

The full release version of KSP will be offering a graded transition to Japanese keywords, as a configurable option. I envisage each item will pass through the following steps:
1) English keyword… to kanji (concentrating on stroke pattern)
2) English keyword… to kanji (Japanese keyword pops up on completion, and is absorbed passively)
3) Japanese keyword with delayed English pop-up… to kanji
4) Japanese keyword with English pop-up available as a hint.. to kanji
5) Japanese keyword… to kanji

Users will be able to configure each step to occur automatically, when the item passes a certain number of successful reviews, or the transition to the next level could be individualised per item, based on the number of times the item has been claimed as well known. That is, if the English keyword easily evokes the image of the kanji, a user might claim it as easy and from then on the Japanese keyword will pop-up on completion. If the user claims the item as easy again, it will switch to a Japanese keyword with a delayed English pop-up, and so on.

The problem with this approach is that there is no widely accepted list of Japanese keywords for the joyo kanji. I am currently going over available lists (as discussed in the previous post), and I have compiled a table in which Wrightak’s keyword suggestions and the one from kazemakase are listed side by side, in KSP order. About half of the time, the two lists are in agreement, making the suggested keyword an attractive choice for KSP. The other half of the time, those two lists disagree, and KSP will have to choose between them or come up with a third choice. Another issue is that there are a large number of homonyms, so some means of disambiguating these will be needed.

The combined Wrightak-kazemekase list is nearly ready, and will be posted soon as a downloadable Word document in the form of another update. Defining a final KSP list and implementing the changes suggested above will be a much more complex process.

Heisig Hate

I just read an old thread over at Tae Kim’s Blog. Tae Kim runs a very useful website for learning Japanese, but in this particular thread he wrote rather dismissively of the Heisig approach to learning kanji. (If you are not familiar with the concept, here is a brief description). Tae Kim invited comments from Heisig fans, and it is the thread of comments under his post that provides the most useful insights.

Tae Kim opened his post with a condescending truism:

Just a quick post since I’ve been very lazy lately. I just wanted to ask: Is there anybody in the world that learned how to write Japanese with James W. Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji? And notice I didn’t say Kanji because I’m sick and tired of hearing people say, “Yeah, I learned like 2,000 kanji in like three weeks!” Wow, that’s awesome. Now you can start actually learning Japanese!

With these comments, Tae Kim might as well be criticising KSP, which adopts an approach similar to Heisig. And guess what? His truism is, well, true! Knowing 2000 kanji is nothing like knowing Japanese.

If you are wondering if KSP will be useful for you, read the comments below the post. If the criticisms of Heisig seem to resonate, KSP probably won’t be your thing. KSP does nothing more than take a Heisig approach to kanji and add a range of memory-enhancing tools: motor involvement, spaced repetition with automated revision scheduling, automated hints, incorporation of images in mnemonics, and (eventually) a full supply of mnemonics for the entire joyo kanji. After all, if you do have to learn more than 2000 symbols, you might as well make it as efficient as possible.

Just like Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji, you need to be mindful of what KSP doesn’t do – and doesn’t even try to do – and that’s teach you how to use kanji in context.

It’s not that Heisig or anyone else has forgotten the gulf between knowing kanji and knowing Japanese. Far from it. The idea is that you’ll use other resources to learn Japanese – after you’ve learned your kanji, perhaps, or concurrently with your kanji learning, if that’s your preference. But as you “start actually learning Japanese”, you’ll have the advantage of seeing familiar kanji everywhere you look, and of knowing one meaning for each kanji. That one meaning will provide you with a cognitive hook, making the task of learning contextual kanji that much easier. Basically, it is a strategy of divide and conquer. Learn one set of symbol-meaning mappings first, and add the vocab later. The alternative is to try to link each meaning with an unknown symbol and an unknown pronunciation all at once – which is famously difficult.

Of course, this divide-and-conquer approach doesn’t suit everyone. But it makes perfectly good sense in terms of the neuropsychology of memory. And it’s downright silly to imagine that proponents of the divide-and-conquer approach have somehow forgotten that the divided task is not the full task. In fact, it’s the whole point of the approach.

More on this later… But feel free to comment.

Share your Kanji Milestones

MilestonesLinkA new feature is being added to the KSP app, which will let the android device post a very short message to this website when the kanji-learner reaches a target of 50, 100, 200, 500, 1500 or 2000 kanji, or when they complete the joyo kanji. The message will not contain any private information except username and kanji count, and it will be optional.

Your achievement will appear on the app screen, as shown above (but no, you won’t be praised for learning 2 kanji – that’s just a demo). It will also appear on the Milestones page. The web page will be able to show a lot more detail than the excerpt on the app screen.

To access this function, users will need to have a login name at this website and they will need to enter the same name as their user name within the app. Unmatched names will be reported to the server but will not be processed.

Why bother entering a name? Partly, because you deserve recognition if you learn 1000 kanji. Partly, because your progress may motivate others. By looking at the list of other people’s milestones, and by paying attention to who is at the same part of their kanji journey as you, it may be possible to identify potential study partners.