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.