Kikitori: Japanese listening – the Dolly Sentences Method – Technical how-to-do-it

I have talked a bit about the dolly sentences method of kikitori or Japanese listening study. Or rather, general Japanese study with an emphasis on listening. Now we are going to look at the technicalities of how it is actually done.

I am using a Mac, and as we will see, there is a certain advantage in that, but for the most part the method will be similar for other operating systems.

First, in your Anki you need to install an addon (Tools > Addons > Browse & install) – one or both of Awesome TTS and Google TTS. Once you have installed it/them, you will see one or two speaker icons added to the top bar of the add card window:

kikitori-japanese-listening-2If you click one of these it will give a window like this.

kikitori-japanese-listening-3Here you can type or paste the text you want spoken and click the preview button. If you get silence, it is probably because you haven’t changed the language. The language drop-down must be Japanese for Google or Kyoko for OSX’s voice system (unless you are using an Apple device don’t worry about Kyoko).

The text will be read back to you. You may need to make some changes. Sometimes the synthesizer will read kanji incorrectly. Kyoko – while in most respects the best consumer-level voice-synthesizer available – is particularly bad about this. She reads 人形 as ひとかたち, for example – particularly galling to a doll. If that happens just re-spell the word in kana. You may also need to add or delete commas to get the sentence read in a way that is clear and understandable.

When you are happy with the synthesis, just hit OK and the file will appear wherever your cursor was when you opened the box (I have an Audio field on my cards as you can see in the first screenshot).

This is really all there is to adding spoken sentences to Anki. For my method I have the audio file play on both the front and the back of the card.

You can then harvest the sentences to put them on your MP3 player in accordance with the Dolly Sentences Method. It really is easier than you might think. First you need to find them, and they are in your Anki folder in a sub-folder called Here it is (you can click the image to enlarge it):

kikitori-japanese-listening-1Let’s look at the red rings.

1. (top and bottom) shows you the file-path on a Mac. It will be similar on Windows. Just search “” if you have trouble finding it.

2. shows you the actual sentences. They are small MP3 files. If you are using Mac OSX’s Kyoko voice, the title of the file is conveniently the sentence itself.

3. If you are using the Google voice synthesizer the title is a lengthy code. But don’t worry because:

4. You can always use the date of the file to show you what you have added recently.

What you will do is simply copy-drag all your recently-added sentences into a folder and add this to your MP3 player. It really is as simple as that.

Here is a sample, complete with recommended 3-second break, to show how the sentences actually sound:

These sentences are spoken by Mac OSX’s Kyoko voice, which, apart from her problems with Kanji reading, is in my view the best Japanese voice synthesizer available. The third sentence is spoken by the Google synthesizer, so you can hear the difference.

I use about 95% Kyoko with the Google alternative for the minority of occasions when Kyoko really won’t read a sentence well (this also mixes up the speech a bit, which I think is good). Google’s synthesizer will be installed automatically when you install the Google TTS addon. If you are using an i-device (iPad, iPhone etc) you should be able to use Kyoko too, though I am not certain about this (please let me know in the comments if you find out).

Kyoko speaks well and naturally for the most part, and actually knows the difference in tone between many Japanese homophones. For example if you type 奇怪 kikai (strange, mysterious) and 機械 kikai (machine), Kyoko will pronounce them each with the correct syllable raised, which is what differentiates them in spoken Japanese.

If you end a sentence with a ? Kyoko will raise her tone into a question intonation very naturally. The Google synthesizer does not do this, neither is it aware of tone differences between homophones. On the other hand, type a ! and Kyoko ends the sentence with a funny noise, and she makes far more kanji errors than Google. Neither of these problems really matters (just avoid ! and re-spell mispronounced kanji in kana).

The Apple synthesizer is considerably ahead of Google’s alternative and yet is in some minor respects surprisingly unpolished. But if you have a device that supports her you should definitely use her.

One other small problem that you may run into is that some players (including iPods, continuing the Apple tradition of flawed excellence) do not have a function to set the space between tracks. if you want a brief thinking time before the player zooms on to the next sentence, that is awkward.

The best Apple fans seem able to suggest is the incredibly clunky workaround of recording some silence and inserting it between tracks. This is of course useless if you intend to randomize (shuffle) your sentences, which I do.

You may be able to find a media-player app that supports this feature. What I am currently using is a very cheap MP3 player that manages what Apple can’t seem to.

kikitori-japanese-listening-7I am picturing it here in case you want to get one. No point giving you a name as it is a very cheap generic device, renamed by whoever is selling it. You can get it for under $10, sometimes as little as $6 on Ebay and other places. Here is why I love it:

1 – It does what we need – you can set a gap between tracks up to around 3 seconds which I have found is about what one needs.

2 – Very cheap, so even if you have a player you can buy this for your Japanese sentences.

3 – Big stop-start button which makes it ideal for using on the go (in a pocket without looking at it). Volume control is a rocker on the side which is also easy to use blind.

4 – Separate battery – just a regular small AAA – so you can carry a spare when out and about instead of having the player die on you if you forgot to charge it.

5 – Built-in USB plug so you don’t have to hunt down the wire every time you want to add sentences (which is often more than once a day for me).

6 – Very small and light despite the above two.

7 – Language is selectable, so you can have the display interface in Japanese.

All these things make this the ideal player for my purposes. Having said that, it is cheap. The controls are fiddly and sometimes erratic when you want to do more than stop and start it and change the volume. It probably won’t last forever (but then most expensive devices only last as long as their non-replaceable battery). However, it has a memory, so once you have set it on shuffle and maximum break between tracks, you don’t have to do any of that again. I have been using it hard for quite a while now.

It comes in various colors and may have the printing changed, but if it has that very distinctive form-factor, it is the player you need. I am sure others will do the job too, but I happen to know this one will. You can also change the color of the backlight to yellow, violet, blue and red shades – which should be irrelevant, but this is Kawaii Japanese!

So there you have the technical aspects of the Dolly Kikitori sentences method. If you have any questions or want to share your experiences, please use the comments section below. For the method itself, please go here.

Dolly Apology

Time for a quick apolodolligy. I said that the space between sentences on my shuffled MP3 player was ten seconds. I have since checked, and while it is ten on the scale of how much space my player puts between tracks, it is actually barely 3 seconds. Isn’t it amazing how much you can think out in 3 seconds? Am correcting the article now.

Kikitori – the Dolly Sentences Japanese Listening Method

kikitori-japanese-listeningI was a little hesitant in writing about my kikitori Japanese listening sentences method, because it may be somewhat idiosyncratic. However, it is working well and friends have taken some interest, so I’ll go ahead.

I have read about the 10,000 sentences method of Japanese learning which is recommended by some immersion-inclined sites. Frankly, I could never fully understand it — but then I am just a doll. I fiddled with it for some time and never really got to grips with it.

I did, however, like the idea of learning Japanese in sentences rather than just words. After all, that is how children learn language, and it gives one the feel of what just “sounds right”, rather than merely knowing grammar rules. I am by no means saying one shouldn’t know grammar rules — often one needs to — but I have always argued that grammar is a quick-and-dirty shortcut by which adult learners half-learn a language from the outside rather than actually knowing inside what feels right. Shortcuts can be good. They can even be necessary. But you don’t know a language till you can feel it. You only know about it.

My new assault on the sentences method came about partly as a result of my looking for new ways to improve my kikitori — Japanese listening. I started turning the sentences into digitized speech and putting them in Anki. I would review with my eyes shut and only count myself correct if I got the sentence first time without looking. If I couldn’t, I would give it a second hearing, and if I still couldn’t get it I would open my eyes to see the Japanese text. Only as a last resort do I turn the card over to see the furigana. This rarely happens (after all I can both see and hear the text if I need to open my eyes). The very last resort is to scroll down to where I have (sometimes — when I think I might need it) hidden a translation. This I try not to use and rarely do.

There is a second phase to this method, and that is putting the sentences on an MP3 player. I then play them on a random loop in any spare times (when cooking or walking, for example, and often when resting).  I use this a lot, which means I get a lot of exposure to the sentences.

I put a three-second gap between sentences. This is the most my player allows (annoyingly, I don’t think iPods have a means of doing this at all). This gives me a little time to think about a sentence after hearing it, and I think this is important. It is true that in the wild you don’t get any thinking time. But if you are at the stage when you can’t catch much in the wild (in anime or regular non-foreigner-directed conversation), this is what you need in order to get there.

In those three seconds you do certain things and one of them in particular is, I believe, fundamentally important to kikitori or hearing Japanese (or any other language). You correct what you hear. In our familiar language I believe we do this all the time. We hear the word “bubble”, realize that doesn’t fit the sentence we are hearing, and correct it to “double”. We hear the word “wise” and correct it to “wives” (or if we actually don’t understand the context, we don’t — which is why so many people make the blooper “old wise tales” in writing — Google finds over four thousand instances of “old wise tales”).

This common slip (and many others) underlines my point. It really isn’t easy, even in one’s native language, to tell “wise” from “wives”. Ninety-nine percent of the time we understand what the sentence should be and correct mishearings so fast we don’t even know we’ve done it. It is one of the key subliminal skills that makes kikitori — in any language — possible.

With a ten-second gap between sentences, we are able to perform this correction-hearing in slow-ish motion, which, at this stage, we need to.

Now, as I have pointed out before, language consists to a very large extent of set phrases and collocations. Words go together in the same groups most of the time. That is a large part of the reason that kikitori is actually possible in any language.

Hearing sentences and auto-correcting (in slow motion at first) lets one go through the same process a child goes through. She hears words together. At first she mispronounces them, and even when she knows what a common word-group means she may not fully understand what the component words are. Slowly it all starts to make sense.

During sentence-listening we think we hear “kaishite”, for example, and realize it must be “taishite”. We also start to get the feel for the fact that in hundreds of similarly-constructed sentences we will hear in our Japanese-language life “kaishite” is actually going to be “taishite”. After a while it won’t even matter, because just as in reading we don’t need to see (and don’t, as studies have shown, even look at) all the letters, so in kikitori we don’t need to hear all the sounds. We get the pattern and fill in or auto-correct the gaps. If we don’t know or fully understand a phrase (such as “old wives’ tales”), even in our first language, we can’t auto-correct and we may go through life hearing it wrongly, as many people in fact do.

The vital point to grasp here is that while our natural, “naive” view of native-language kikitori is that we hear correctly and therefore understand, to a large extent the reverse is true: we understand and therefore hear correctly. Of course both are going on at once, and it is the interplay of the two that makes language-understanding possible.

With one phrase (like old wives’ tales) mishearing doesn’t matter very much. In fact we end up knowing what the phrase means even while consistently mishearing it. But when, in Japanese, we are faced with dozens of phrases that we can’t auto-correct, or can’t auto-correct quickly enough to keep up, then we can’t understand what is being said.

So the three seconds between sentences gives us a kind of middle ground. Doing the sentences in Anki we can ponder the sound at our own pace. In the wild we have almost no time. On the MP3 player we have three seconds to auto-correct anything in the sentence that needs it as well as to muse on the grammar, realize, perhaps on the 30th hearing, “ah, so that‘s why…” and so on.

These are all things a child does. Those of us who grow up continually pondering the ins and outs of language are probably more childish than odd. Children have to do a lot of that for the first several years. Some of us just never stop.

There are many important and interlocking benefits to this sound-sentence method. When we learn vocabulary via Anki, we only know the definitions of words — not how they are actually used. Now when I am going through my vocab Anki I am continually stopping with “that one needs a few sentences”. Once I have become familiar with several sentences using the word, I am much clearer on its range of uses and its nuances. I am also much less likely to forget the word.

In doing all this we are going through the process a child goes through. We are learning how words fit together, what they imply, what their near neighbors are likely to be in a sentence. We are also building up a fund of examples in our mind which we will use, sometimes consciously, but often — and this is where language starts to become natural — unconsciously, to compare with new sentences and new uses of the same words in different contexts. You build up your feel for the language. You start to hear what “just sounds right” without necessarily knowing why.

Surprisingly, the hearing sentences can even help with kanji, since one will sometimes in the Three Seconds think「あぁ。それは緊張の緊ですね」(“Ah, that’s the 緊 kin of kinchou, isn’t it”). Because that is part of how Japanese words fit together and mean what they mean.

Currently I am at 1,600 sentences using this method and I am finding it extremely useful, not only for kikitori but for every aspect of Japanese.

The “throw ‘em in at the deep end” school may complain at the three seconds recognition-time, but I am not suggesting  that sentences should be our only listening practice. Full-speed native Japanese materials should definitely be used. But using this method, I think you will find that your ability to process that full-speed Japanese progresses a lot more rapidly.

How do I get spoken sentences in Anki? How do they actually sound? How do I get them to my MP3 player? Find all the answers in our sister article on the technical tricks of the Japanese-listening sentences method. It’s easier than you think – even a doll can do it!

Creating an Immersion Environment Using HabitRPG

As my studies have progressed, I have found that immersion has been a very effective tool.  Using Japanese is a very important supplement to active study.  It can be difficult though.  In many ways, it is so much easier to take the path of least resistance and do things in one’s native language, rather than struggle through with the language one is learning.

In addition to having Dailies of listening to Japanese and watching Anime in Japanese, I have found that Habits and Rewards are also effective tools.  My own HabitRPG is set up such that my entire day is governed by it.  If something is not an activity that is a Daily, a Todo, or a positive Habit, it is something that I have to pay for as a Reward.  While in some ways, this might seem a bit kibishii, it really is quite effective in tipping the scales away from English in favor of Japanese. basic theory is that using Japanese gives me bonuses via positive Habits, and I have to pay to use English using Rewards.  I started this with video games, but I have extended this to other areas as well.  I can play a game for a half of an hour in Japanese for 5 Gold pieces, and I can get one to three “pluses” under my positive Habit of “extra Japanese,” depending on how much Japanese I had to use in the game.  In a role-playing game, such as Dragonquest IX, I can get 3 “pluses” if I have to get through a long plot line or a talk to a lot of people in a town to find out what to do next.  I only get one if I spend the entire time fighting monsters in a dungeon, and I get two “pluses” for anything in between.  To play a game in English, it costs me 30 Gold pieces to play for the same half of an hour, and there are no available rewards for doing so.  So, I can play a game in English if I really want to, but…

I have extended this to many other areas.  I now have to pay to watch any television or videos in English or with English subtitles (even if it is with my spouse, who is not studying Japanese), while at the same time having a Daily requiring a minimum amount of Japanese Anime watching, with positive Habit of extra Anime.  I also have to pay to listen music in English or to talk or chat in English with my Nihongo senpai (who are also dear friends).  I actually recently had to raise the price of talking in English with my Nihongo senpai because I got into some rather bad habits surrounding that.

In order for this to work well, I think it is important to keep the Habits and Rewards very specific, and decide what they really entail.  For example, I first started with a negative Habit of unnecessary English, but that did not work at all.  What is “unnecessary”?  Creating costs for specific defined uses of English was far more effective, at least for me.  The ability to create a combination of bonuses for Japanese and costs for English has really helped me to ganbaru in Japanese, much more than I would do otherwise.

Japanese Deep Cave Adventurers’ Guild: Beginner’s Immersion Challenge – Level Up

During the month of August, the Japanese Deep Cave Adventurers’ Guild sponsored its first challenge, the Beginner’s Immersion Challenge.  About a dozen people signed up for the challenge, and everyone did very well.*  We will be hosting that challenge again during the month of September.   The prize for the winner of the Beginner’s Challenge will again be 1 Gem.

Additionally, in September, the Guild will host an additional, level up challenge.  This challenge will be similar to the Beginner’s Challenge, but will take it to the next level.  The details of this challenge are as follows:


Watch 3 episodes of Anime during the month, slowly, using Japanese subtitles.  Cure Dolly wrote a very good article about using Anime to study Japanese which can be found here.


The Daily for this challenge will be the same as for the Beginner’s Immersion Challenge, listening to a story or anime episode in Japanese.


In addition to the daily of listening to Japanese, there will be a Habit of extra listening.  For this level up challenge, one can listen to as many stories or episodes in a day as one likes, and they will all count towards the challenge.

As with the Beginner’s Immersion Challenge, writing tasks on HabitRPG in Japanese will also be a positive habit for bonuses, and which will count toward the challenge.  Changing a task from English to Japanese will count towards this Habit.  It will also count if one edits a previously written task from incorrect Japanese to correct Japanese.

Reward (not exactly a “reward”):

As this is a level-up challenge, we will be taking another step towards making HabitRPG an immersion environment.  In the level up challenge, participants will still be allowed to write their tasks in English if they wish; however, for this challenge there will be a cost to it.  This challenge will include a “reward” of 5 GP to write a new task in English.  Of course, this only applies to tasks that are written by the participant, and not to tasks that come from other HabitRPG Challenges.

Here is what the challenge will look like on HabitRPG:

初心者の集中訓練の挑戦 -レベルアップ


日本語の字幕でアニメを1話見る (“Watch one episode of Anime, using Japanese subtitles”) (x3)


日本語を聞く (“Listen to Japanese”)


+   余分な日本語の聞いている (Extra Japanese listening)

+  日本語で新しいHabitRPGの用事を書く (“Write new HabitRPG task using Japanese”)


5GP  英語で新しいHabitRPGの用事を書く (“Write new HabitRPG task using English”)

The winner of the Level Up Challenge will receive 2 Gems.

Both Challenges will start on September 6, 2014 and end on October 6, 2014.

Good luck!



*If you signed up for the challenge in August, there should be a broken megaphone on the tag for the challenge.  When you click the megaphone, it should allow you to remove the tasks from the August challenge, if you would like.  If you are participating in either one of the September challenges, it is probably a good idea to remove the tasks from the August challenge, so as not to have the tasks doubled on your lists.

Shiritori – A Japanese Vocabulary Word-Game

shiritori japanese vocabulary gameThe Kawaii Japanese Habit RPG guild (Japanese Deep Cave Adventurers) has a ongoing Shiritori game, so I thought we should have an explanation of the game and how we play it here. Also, since one of the rules of the Deep Cave Adventurers is that we use no English in the Guild, this may be helpful for newer learners.

Shiritori is a popular game in Japan. The name means “taking the end”. 尻 shiri is the same shiri as in oshiri, which you probably know means sit-upon, rear-end or backside. As with those latter English terms it can also mean the back or end of something. 取りtori means taking of course, the noun form of 取る toru. The word shiritori is usually wriiten in hiragana.

Gameplay is very simple. The first player  begins with a word, say:


The next player must follow with a word that begins with the kana the first word ended with, say:

リス(risu, squirrel)

The game then proceeds like this:

砂浜(すなはま sunahama sandy beach) →ま

枕(まくら makura, pillow) →ら

ラッパ(rappa, trumpet) →ぱ、ば、は

As you see from this last example, one can use all forms of a kana so if the word-ending kana can take a ten-ten or a maru you are allowed to use it with or without them regardless of what the last player did.

So ラッパ(rappa, trumpet) could be followed by パンダ (panda) バラ (bara, rose) or はいく(haiku).

Shiritori rules

Shiritori at the Deep Cave Adventrurers' Guild
Shiritori at the Deep Cave Adventrurers’ Guild

The rules of shiritori are few and simple, and we are very relaxed about them. The idea is to have fun together and practise Japanese, not to play a cut-throat game of shiritori, so we don’t worry too much about rules. But let’s discuss them so we all know where we stand:

1. Words ending in ん. One shouldn’t really play a word ending in ん. This is obvious since no Japanese word starts with ん, so it can’t be followed. In a proper game a player who plays an ん-ending word is eliminated. Don’t worry though. If someone does it by mistake, we will just start again with a new word. No one gets eliminated in our game!

2. Nouns. In traditional shiritori only nouns can be played. However, in English shiritori (shiritori played by Japanese people to help their English vocabulary) all words are allowed. We follow the same rule. There is a tendency to use nouns as somehow they feel “right”, but any word is allowed. If you are a beginner, play anything you like. And whoever you are, if you have an interesting word you feel like playing, 遠慮しないで — go ahead.

There is only one thread at the Guild, so shiritori mixes freely with chat. If you want to talk about the word you’ve played, please do. In Japanese, of course.

3. Combined kana. We like to keep play options as open as possible and this is also traditional in Japanese play, so:

りょ、ぎゃ etc can be followed either by themselves or by よ、や。So 遠慮 (えんりょ, enryo) could be followed by 料理 (りょうり ryouri) or ヨーグルト (yogurt)

Long vowels can be either shortened or the last kana used. So 自由 (じゆう jiyuu) could be followed by 雪(ゆき yuki) or 海 (うみ umi).

4. Repeated words: It is best to avoid repeating words (you can use your browser’s page-search function to see if the word has been used before recently). Words with the same kana but different kanji are fine. Traditionally a player who repeats a word is eliminated, but we don’t do that, so if you accidentally repeat a word, 気にしないでくだ— don’t worry about it.

Shiritori is very easy, so even if you are a beginner, please feel free to join in if you are on Habit RPG. If anyone has any questions (including new people and established members of the Guild, of course), just pop them in the comments below.

Japanese L and R sounds: Eating Remons and Linging Bells

Misora Hibari
Misora Hibari — if you don’t know her, you should!

It is well known that Japanese speakers can have trouble distinguishing L from R in European languages. Even when they can pronounce both sounds perfectly, they are prone to eat remons and ling bells. I remember the wonderful Misora Hibari singing a Gershwin song (I think it was Gershwin) in perfect English except for the word “rove” — which did not mean wandering, but rhymed with “glove” and meant ai (or koi if you want to carp).

This is perfectly natural as Japanese makes no distinction between the two sounds, and part of the way we learn language is that at a very early stage we learn to distinguish signal from noise in language and discard whatever is not signal. This is a necessary part of learning to hear and speak efficiently.

In Japanese one thing that gets discarded is the L/R distinction. In Japanese that distinction is just noise. Studies have shown that at 12 months Japanese children can still hear the distinction and by 18 months they can’t.

Don’t laugh. You have thrown away a lot of sound distinctions too. An Arab would be amazed that you can’t tell the K-sound in cap from the K-sound in keep, which are two distinct sounds in Arabic* (though they have a hard time telling pat from bat). Fortunately Japanese doesn’t have many subtle linguistic distinctions that we have discarded, though many Western speakers have a lot of trouble pronouncing the Japanese R.

Part of the steep learning curve in hearing a new language is getting the brain to retrieve some distinctions from the “noise” discard area and restore them to the “signal” category. This applies (probably more importantly) to things like stress and rhythm as well as pronunciation.

The L/R non-distinction can lead to curious transliteration problems. The famous early space shooter game Gradius is one interesting example. Why “Gradius”? The name means sword in Latin, or rather the Latin word for sword is gladius. You know it, actually. One reason that Latin-based languages are relatively easy for English speakers is that just about every Latin word exists somewhere in English. You may never have called a sword a gladius, but you know the sword-flower gladiolus (plural gladioli) and you have certainly heard of gladiators.

But it isn’t only Japanese people who make these L/R slips. in Pretty Cure Splash Star a very important villain is called キントレスキ. This is routinely transliterated as Kintolesky or Kintoleski by Western sources. It sounds kind of Russian and is probably supposed to, but…

"Kintolesky"? What's that got to do with muscles?
“Kintolesky”? What’s that got to do with muscles?

The name does actually have a meaning. In Japanese 筋トレ kintore means body-building. It is short for 筋トレーニング kintore-ningu, literally muscle-training. And Kintoreski is obsessed with exercise and body-building, so the name is very appropriate.

To make its meaning clearer キントレスキ could be written 筋トレ好き Kintoresuki “likes body-building”, “body-building fan”. The name is also intended to sound Russian, hence the look of the mustache and hair. There is also another pun here:  金 kin means gold and Kintoreski’s body is gold-colored.

However, the tore part of the name is clearly a regular Japanese shortening of English “training”, so tlansriterating it as Kintolesky — which makes it tole→tlaining — lleary doesn’t make sense.


* The k-sounds in cap and keep are different in English as well, of course, but only accidentally, depending on the juxtaposition of different vowels. English speakers can’t hear the difference or make the sounds independently. Interestingly (and related to this) the Japanese hear the English KA sound so differently from the Japanese KA sound that they write it キャ instead of カ。

Kyary Pamyu Pamyu acquired her first name as a nickname in school “because she seemed so Western-like”. Something that may puzzle actual Western people since kyary is not an English or other-Western name. I think the point was that the キャ kya sound (as in Kyatherine) which Japanese people hear when English speakers say “ka” is considered archetypally Western. It is not a sound that exists in Japanese. か is a different sound, though most Western speakers can’t hear the difference.. She liked the name but added Pamyu Pamyu to make it more kawaii. Which just shows how (thankfully) Western she isn’t.