How to Write Kanji—a free kanji tutor (for people who don’t write kanji)

how-to-write-kanjiKanji Recognizer as a self-teaching tool

How to write kanji is a question that Cure Dolly would precede with another question, namely whether to write kanji. As a matter of fact, I am largely of her school. Like Cure Dolly, I hand-write maybe two dozen words a year in English. So why do I want to learn to do in Japanese what I don’t even do in English?

The arguments over whether you need to learn how to write kanji in order to learn kanji at all are discussed by Cure Dolly, and I am broadly in agreement. It depends on who you are, what your needs are, and how you learn best.

But let’s say you are like Cure Dolly (and I am). Let’s say you don’t need to write kanji (for exams or whatever) and you only need to recognize them for purposes of both reading and (electronically) writing. Is there any need to learn to write them at all?

I really don’t see any value in sitting down to write kanji hundreds of times. I have heard people complain about doing this and still finding the kanji to be strangers to them in a week or so.

I actually am learning a tiny bit to write kanji, but none of them are strangers to me. I know the kanji. I am familiar with their components. That isn’t the point of writing them to me. So what is it?

One thing I have realized is that while my recognition is reasonably good, my ability to picture shapes is (perhaps abnormally) terrible. I can read hiragana with no problem, but I recently realized that I could no longer write several of them. I did learn them in the beginning and could write them easily. I found that a year or so later, even though I had no trouble at all recognizing them and reading them, I don’t actually remember how they are made up. I can’t picture them in my head. I only know them when I see them.

I am not saying this is necessarily a bad thing. Personally I don’t want to lose my ability to hand-write kana, so I did a little practice with a kana-writing app just to get it back. If I wrote anything by hand—shopping lists, anything—I would do it in Japanese just to keep my hand in. But I don’t. I am a near-total non-writer.

However, kana is not the point here. The point is kanji. What I have found there is similar. Since I didn’t know how to write kanji, I didn’t really know how they were made up. I didn’t really know the difference between 家 and 象, for example. I tended to recognize them by context rather than their actual differences. I don’t think learning to write kanji is the only way to overcome this problem. One could just familiarize oneself more firmly with the components of each and make up little stories around them, which is how I learned them in the first place.

One of my problems with writing is a pathological fear of paper. I really can’t manage the stuff. If you start allowing it into the house it gets everywhere—but you can never find the bit you want. I really can’t start toodling around with bits of paper. For me it would open the door to nameless chaos.

But I did start to feel it would be worthwhile to write kanji. Not hundreds of times—just a few times each. Not in order to learn them—the kanji I write I already know by sight—but simply in order to clarify my mind on their exact composition.

And it works. But you really need the right tool. Fortunately I found it. It is called Kanji Recognizer. It is an Android app. You can write the kanji with a stylus on your tablet or keitai. Although this is not the purpose of the software, what it does is both allow you to write kanji (without all that scary paper) and act as an instant tutor at the same time.

Let me show you how:


You write the kanji freely, and as you can see, Kanji Recognizer tries to work out what you wrote and places its top ten guesses along the top. The higher you come in the top ten, the more accurately you have written the kanji. This in itself is very, very useful.

The software also numbers your strokes, so you are able to check your stroke order. It puts the number at the start of each stroke so you can also check the stroke direction (this comes into its own later as you will see).

The two buttons ringed in mizuiro (pale blue—I don’t know why there isn’t an English word for the “pink” of blue, but there isn’t) are 画削除 kakusakujo (delete stroke) and クリア (clear). 画削除 is very nice as it allows you to get rid of strokes you messed up. Paper is just mean about that sort of thing.

The app is free, though ad-supported. If you have your device in Japanese (and you should) the ads will tend to be Japanese too, as you can see at the bottom of the screenshots.

Once you have written your kanji, you can tap the correct one at the top to get a screen of information about it:

how-to-write-kani-2This, of course, is immediately useful for making sure the kanji is what you thought it was! The most important thing here for our purpose is the button we have ringed: 書き順 kakijun (writing order—or stroke order, as they tend to say in English). This gives you, as you might expect, an image of the kanji (written with an enviably steady hand) with its correct stroke order marked:


However, the really useful thing here is the (ringed) button labeled 動画 douga (animation). Press this and the app will clear the kanji and re-draw it for you, so you can watch it forming stroke by stroke and see how it is done.

You can then click the home button (ringed) which will take you back to the page where you wrote the kanji originally. It will still be there, just as you wrote it, so you can check whether you had the stroke order and direction right. If you didn’t make number one in the top ten, you can hit クリア and try again.

If you have an idea of the general rules for stroke order, you will get it right a lot of the time. The surprises will tend to impress themselves on your mind. The animation is particularly useful for this, I find. What you will also start to find instinctively is a lot of kanji-order sub-rules. They aren’t taught and rightly so, as they are fiddly and have exceptions, but they do start to make a kind of sense in practice, I find.

I am still not really trying to learn how to write kanji. I know hand-writing is never going to be a part of my real life. Actually, I would like to learn Japanese calligraphy one day, but that is something of another matter. What I am finding is that this gives me a better feeling for how the kanji work, how they hang together.

My method is perhaps unusual. I have never in my life “learned a kanji”. I learn words as I go along, and I make friends with the kanji that form them. People have occasionally asked “how many kanji do you know?”. I have no idea how to answer. How would I know? Maybe some people go through a book from Kanji 0001 to Kanji 2500, but I really wouldn’t even know how to do that, and I am sure it wouldn’t stick that way.

When I write kanji on my little slate, I am already friends with those kanji. I have known them for some time. Now I am taking tea with them and learning their funny little ways. I am a horribly inattentive friend, and there are so many things about them I never noticed. I love them so I want to learn.

If you love something, you should pet it. Kanji recognizer was essentially made to be a dictionary, not a tutor. It works as a tutor, and (for me at least) as something else too. It is my favorite Virtual Pet game!

Kurisumasu no ongaku – Japanese Christmas Music

hatsune-miku-christmasIn response to Cure Yasashiku’s small dilemma about not wanting to fill her head with Eigo I am happy to present some Japanese Christmas music.

This video contains nearly half an hour of kurisumasu no ongaku by various vocaloids including the sugoku yuumei Hatsune Miku. If you don’t mind vocaloids this should suit everyone’s purpose. Personally I like to see some songs sung by dolls and not just people but I guess I’m prejudiced.

If you want to extract the sound for your iPod you can use this service (it’s free) I recommend this one because some of the YouTube to mp3 services won’t convert kinnies over 20 minutes.

There are a very few English phrases (like “Jingle Bells”), and White Christmas is sung in (very Japanesey) English. Apart from that it is all Japanese – with translations of several traditional carols. If you do pick up any English, at least it will be with a heavy Japanese accent! (Actually if anyone wants I can do a quick audio-edit and cut out White Christmas).

It also has nice clear subtitles so you can learn the words.

For a llittle bonus, here is a not so traditional but charming Christmas song, all in Japanese (other than the words “Merry Christmas”)

PS – I viewed one Japanese Christmas music kinnie that didn’t quite make the cut – but it had the immortal words: Ichi ni Santa!

Keeping Up Studies During the Holidays (or other Busy Times)

Like many people this time of year, I am busy with holiday preparations.  I am much further behind on my gift knitting/crocheting than I would like to be, and we are hosting the family holiday dinner this year.  I have started decorating, but there is still quite a bit of decorating (and cleaning) to do.  With all of this going on, it is tempting to back off on my Japanese studies during this time.

vlcsnap-2014-04-15-11h31m26s209This being said, I think that this is a temptation to avoid.  I have gotten into a rhythm with my studies that I do not want to interrupt.  Also, with language learning, I think that it is really easy to lose ground.  I have noticed that even after one day using mostly English, my Japanese is worse the next day.  I can only imagine what would happen if I interrupted my studies for a few weeks.

Still, there is only so much time in a day, and holiday preparations are important.  Luckily though, there are ways to adjust my study schedule to accommodate the holidays.  While I have less time for active study, I have many more opportunities for passive learning.  It is quite easy to knit and crochet while watching Anime, and I can listen to Japanese while I am cooking, cleaning, and decorating.

For myself, I find that it is extremely important to use a time management tool, especially busy times.  I continue to use HabitRPG as my tool.  Without such a tool, I find it too easy to get distracted by my 気分 (kibun, or feeling or mood).  As is so clearly illustrated in the kanji, one’s mood is often the spirit (気) of the moment (分).  During busy times, my spirit of the moment is usually stress and nervousness, making it a really bad time to be making decisions about what I should be doing when.  Without a time management tool, I find myself running about in circles feeling busy, but often not really accomplishing anything.  It is quite likely that in the spirit of the moment, my Japanese studies would be the first tasks to get lost.

Instead, with the advice and guidance of my senpai, I made decisions about my goals during this season of busy-ness, which I then recorded on my HabitRPG.  This way the decisions are already made, and I do not have to worry about them while I am stressed and busy.  I can simply follow the schedule that has already been set.

HabitRPG is set up in such a way as to make it quite easy to readjust my schedule during this time.  I chose not to eliminate any of my active study dailies; however, I did make many of them due fewer days of the week.  I increased my daily minimum for passive study tasks, such as Anime watching and listening.  I used the checklist feature to do this.  I also increased my daily minimum for handcrafting (knitting and crocheting).  I have positive Habits of extra watching, listening, and handcrafting.  This makes a nice combination as handcrafting and watching/listening go well together as multitasking activities.  If there are times when I have met my handcrafting requirement but still need to do more watching/listening, I might do extra handcrafting while watching/listening (and vice versa).

Because of the added listening requirement, I spend time listening to Japanese, rather than holiday music in English.  On my HabitRPG, listening to music in English is a reward that I have to pay for.  I considered relaxing that during the holiday season, but I chose not to.  I am working on keeping my mind in Japanese, and the last thing I need is catchy holiday music (in English) crowding out the Japanese.  I have not yet found Japanese holiday music (although I would like to).  I did borrow some holiday music in Swedish from my grandmother, and my spouse found music in Latin for me, which I can listen to if I have met my Japanese listening requirement for the day.  While it is not Japanese, my Japanese is far better than my Swedish (of which, at best, I know a few words and phrases), and I do not know any Latin at all.  As a result, neither of those languages are likely to crowd out Japanese, like English would.

I hope that some of these ideas are helpful, and please feel free to comment on your own strategies for maintaining your studies during busy times, such as the holiday season.

A Key to Japanese Kanji Pronunciation: Meet the Sound Sisterhoods

sound-sisters-japanese-kanji-pronunciationJapanese kanji pronunciation is one of the difficulties learners have with Japanese.

Since kanji are not phonetic symbols it can be difficult to know how they are pronounced. And unlike their Chinese cousins, most kanji do not have a single reading. They will be pronounced differently in different words.

One important aid in coming to grips with this are kanji elements (or “radicals”) that are actually there to indicate the pronunciation. These seem to be little taught, but they are in fact very useful.

Learning all the sound elements can help you with around 65% of kanji. They aren’t all here, but a lot of the main ones are. The 80-20 rule works in your favor here, and by learning the ones on this page you will have sound keys to a surprising proportion of words you are likely to encounter.

One of the problems with them is that they are not consistent. There are exceptions to the pronunciation “rules”. I actually prefer to think of certain kanji-elements as “dominant genes”. If you see a kanji that includes one, it is pretty likely to be pronounced in a particular way.

Since it is not absolute, is it really useful? I would say from experience that it is very useful. As we have said before, if you are writing on electronic devices (as most of us are most of the time) kanji recognition is the vital skill in both reading and writing.

If you know (as you often do) the pronunciation of a word but are unsure of the kanji, you type it, see a group of kanji and the one that has the correct sound element is very likely to be the correct one.

If you see a two-word kanji you are unsure of, and one (or both) have the sound kanji, you can try sounding it out and as likely as not you will remember it.

This method obviously cannot teach you things you really don’t know. But it can be a huge mnemonic for things you do, or half-do, even if only vaguely.

Also it helps in subtler ways with seeing how Japanese words fit together and work.  The more hooks you have to hang things on the more everything comes together in your mind. So, for example, when you meet a new two-kanji word and the pronunciation of one half is governed by one of these sound-elements, you say “ah yes”. The more times you say “ah yes”—the more pegs there are to things you already know—the more likely you are to remember the word. That is how the mind works.

One other problem that may make the use of this knowledge difficult and therefore less used than it should be is that it would tend to involve learning lists of sound readings that look pretty random and unconnected.

That is what this page is really here for. We are going to put the sound-elements together into little families that will make them much easier to learn.

One point to bear in mind is that while some people talk about “sound elements” and “meaning elements” in kanji, implying the sound elements do not also carry meaning, in fact they most often do. If they didn’t there could be a standard element for each sound.

The sound element will often be obviously connected with the meaning, and where it isn’t it is likely the case that the connection is just not obvious and lost in the mists of time.

This is important because sounds do have meanings, or at least meaning-tendencies in Japanese. It is a subtle phenomenon—generally too subtle for the highly quantitative approach of Western scholarship to take much notice of. But meeting the sound-sisterhoods will help you to understand this a little more and deepen your intuitive grasp of Japanese.

Some of our associations are, of course, purely fanciful mnemonics, but we think you will find them useful.

This is not a full list but it contains a lot of the more useful and regular kanji sound elements. As you start to use them you will find that you discover others, including some small-but-useful one-off associations—for example 早 fast/early has the on-reading そう for example 早々 can be either hayabaya or sousou. 草 grass also has the on-reading そう as in 草原 sougen.

What to look for

When using these sound-elements, remember that they do not apply to kun-readings. That means if you see one of these kanji on its own with okurigana (following kana) it will almost certainly not have the pronunciation listed here. For example, the kun-reading of 照る to shine is てる, not しょうる. You will mostly find the pronunciation as listed below when the kanji is part of a two-kanji word.

All righty. Let’s meet the girls:

The Show Sisters 召 肖 昌  尚 (Shining SHOWgirls)

The four Show sisters give the Japanese kanji pronunciation しょう

They are bright, shiny, and seductive.

One is a shining moon 肖. One is a shining face with smiling mouth open wide and eyes crinkly-closed so you can’t see them. Note that the “shine” is really a miniature of 小, small, whose on-reading is also しょう as in 小学).

One is two suns, 昌 meaning “shine”. Three suns 晶 meaning sparkling, clear, or crystal also contains this radical and is pronounced しょう in combinations.

The last sister is which has the root-meaning of “seduce” or “summon”.

So there we have the four Show sisters: shining moon, shining suns, shining face, and seductiveness. We hope you will get to know them.

The Show sisters in some of their Shows:

肖 (しょう) → 宵, 消, 硝
尚 (しょう) → 常, 裳, 掌
昌 (しょう) → 娼, 唱, 菖, 晶
召 (しょう) → 招, 沼, 昭, 紹, 詔, 照

The Ka Sisters 化 可 果 過 (KAwaii Flower-Girls)

The four Ka sisters give the Japanese Kanji pronunciation か.

They are the flower-girls.

One is 化, the ka of 花 flower, whose on-reading is ka (the root-meaning of 化 is “change”— in the case of 花, grass that changes from mere green into beautiful forms).

One is 可, the ka of 可愛い kawaii.

The third Ka sister 果 means fundamentally fruit—abundant fruit—look, there is a whole field’s-worth of fruit growing on that one tree. It can be fruit either literal or metaphorical (a result).

The last Ka sister means 過 “excess”. When you think of the abundance of that fruit you can see why.

The Ka sisters are the grass-type Pokemon of the Japanese kanji pronunciation universe.

The Ka sisters in their flower-shows:

化 (か) → 花, 貸, 靴
可 (か) → 河, 何, 荷, 苛, 呵, 歌
果 (か) → 課, 菓, 踝, 顆
過 (か) → 渦,  堝, 鍋, 蝸, 窩, 禍

The Ki Sisters 几 其 奇 己 (KEEpers of the KEY)

The Ki sisters give the Japanese kanji pronunciation of き.

Where is the key?

The first Ki sister hides it in plain sight on her desk 几.

The second Ki sister hides it on a table loaded with sweets 其 (甘い sweet).

The third Ki sister 奇 keeps hers in a very strange place. We don’t even ask where, but we do note that when the ka of kawaii 可 has something big on top of it, it stops being ka and becomes 奇 ki. I think it is squeaking because of the sudden weight.

The last Ki sister 己 keeps it to herself. She is actually a snake who swallowed it.

The Ki sisters in their key positions:

几 (き) → 机, 肌, 飢
其 (き) → 期, 欺, 棋, 基, 旗
己 (き) → 起, 記, 紀, 忌
奇 (き) → 崎, 埼, 椅

The Sei Sisters 生 正 成  青 (SAInts and SAges)

The Sei sisters give the Japanese kanji pronunciation せい

Sei can mean “holy” in Japanese, and the Sei sisters are connected with purity, righteousness, and fundamental things.

The first Sei sister is 正ˆ. We probably first meet this kanji in the word tadashii—correct, just, perfect.

The second Sei sister is 生  meaning life and purity.

The third Sei sister is 青 blue, the color of heaven.

The fourth Sei sister is 成 wearing a knightly helm and armed with a ceremonial sphere. She is actually the kanji for the very common word なる to become—though it is usually written in kana. She does a lot of work in compounds though.

NOTE: It is worth remembering that sei has a strong tendency to become shou/jou.
性 which means a thing’s nature or sex is sometimes sei and sometimes shou.
The usual on-reading of 城 shiro, castle, is jou.
情動 is pronounced joudou.
正 is sei in 正義 but shou in 正直。

The Sei sisters doing some of their good deeds:

正 (せい) → 征, 政, 症, 整, 性, 牲
生 (せい) → 姓, 性, 星, 牲, 惺
成 (せい) → 盛, 誠, 筬, 城
青 (せい) → 清, 靖, 精, 晴, 請, 情, 鯖, 静

The Shi Sisters 士 司 次 (She-Knights)

The three Shi sisters give the Japanese kanji pronunciation し。

The first Shi sister is a she-samurai 士.

The second Shi sister 司 wears a knightly helmet with a mouthpiece and eye-slit (the left side is left open so she can get into it).

The last Shi sister 次 is not one actually of the knights but their dependable follower.

The Shi sisters on their knightly errands:

士 (し) → 仕, 志, 誌
司 (し) → 伺, 詞, 嗣, 飼
次 (し)  → 姿, 諮, 資

The Kou Sisters 工 交 光 (The COÖperative of Makers and Scene-Changers)

The three Kou sisters give the Japanese kanji pronunciation こう

The first Kou sister is 工, craft or making.

The second is 交 change, alternation.

The third is 光, the basic kanji for light but in combinations often refers to a scene or watcher.  As you see in the list below, the third sister doesn’t do a lot of work in compound kanji, but you’ll often see her on her own. For example in 光景 koukei, scene or spectacle, 観光 kankou, sightseer.

The Kou sisters in their workshops:

工 (こう) → 紅, 空, 虹, 江, 攻, 功, 肛,
交 (こう) → 校, 絞, 狡, 較, 郊, 効, 咬
光 (こう) → 恍

Hit Singles

Next we look at some pronunciation elements that don’t have groups, but they are pretty regular and well worth knowing:

分 ふん / ぶん(粉, 紛, 雰)

白 はく(伯, 拍, 泊, 迫, 舶, 狛, 柏, 箔, 珀)

中 ちゅう(忠, 沖, 仲, 虫, 狆)

長 ちょう(張, 帳, 脹)

及 きゅう (吸, 級, 扱)

寺 (じ)  (侍, 持, 時, 塒, 峙)  (But wait! note thatwait is not pronouncedin modern usages).

And others

Look, two hans! 半, 反 very useful, common and quite regular han/ban pronunciation.

The Kan sisters 干 官 (見)They are in the canning business, which was originally, before the invention of cans, the drying business. 干 means drying or dried while 官 is an official (as in 警官 keikan, police constable). Originally this meant the officer who held an umbrella over the Empress to keep her dry. 見 is only a half-member of this group as she is either kan or ken (more often ken). Ken, in English is to know – a concept always conceptually connected with seeing while can is a dialectical variant of ken, as in canny.

The Hobo Sisters 方(ほう、ぼう) 亡(ぼう、もう) There are only two Hobo sisters and as you might expect they are a slightly raggedy pair. 方 is pronounced either hou or bou (of course using the voiced version can occur with other sounds as well) while is pronounced either bou or mou. The b/m slither is not uncommon in Japanese—as in さびしい / さみしい。The root-meanings of the sisters are direction and death respectively. Whatever direction these hobos wander they are always going in the direction of death. But then, aren’t we all?

The Shin Sisters 申 辰 Interestingly these two sisters are both Chinese zodiac signs, the monkey (saru) and the dragon (tatsu). For our purposes we just remember that when the wheels fell off the chariot 車 someone hurt her shin. Occasionally the top of the axle falls off too 押 and it still gives the reading shin.

There is another dominant-gene sound-radical we may like to consider here: 立 – its dominant on-sound in complex kanji is りゅう ryuu. Interesting because the regular word for dragon is りゅう, while the kun-reading of 立(つ) is たつ tatsu – which should make 立 as りゅう quite memorable. Note that the 立 radical appears in the kanji for dragon 竜 (りゅう, ryuu)  itself. (But be aware that the on-reading of 立 when not part of a complex kanji is more often りつ).

The Hi-men 皮 非  The pronoun “he” is of course 彼 in Japanese and its right-element 皮 usually gives the reading ひ hi or は ha in complex kanji. 非 as a prefix is hi, and means un- or not- (as in 非常 hijou, unusual) or adds a generally disadvantageous or unfavorable aspect to what follows. It can also give the reading ひ hi in complex kanji.

Reading Strategy

I have gotten to the point in my studies where I am learning to read again.  It is an interesting experience learning to read.  To be honest, I do not remember much about learning to read in English.  It is fun and exciting to be learning to read all over again in a new language.

This might seem like a strange thing to say, that I am learning to read.  In a sense, I have been reading all along.  One of the first things one does as a foreign learner is to learn hiragana and katakana, and reading has been a part of my studies all along.  For example, I have been reading Japanese subtitles for Anime since very early in my studies.  Yet, even so, I am only now venturing into the wonderful, magical of books.

In starting to read books, I realized I did need a strategy.  One of the biggest difficulties is that I do not really have the vocabulary I need even for basic children’s books.  It is quite amazing how many words one needs to know.  One of the big dilemmas is what to do when one runs across new or unfamiliar words (particularly if there are a lot of them).  Does one stop and look up words?  The difficulty with that is that it makes reading very slow, and it is hard to really get involved in the story that way.  Yet, without looking up words, it is hard to know what is going on.

I looked for advice online, and there is quite a bit of conflicting advice; however, I did get the idea to highlight new and unfamiliar words to look up later.  This is working really well, I think.  It is helping my understanding and comprehension, even though I have not gotten all that far in looking up new words.  To my surprise, I found out that I actually understood much more when I highlighted unfamiliar words (even without looking them up).

SAMSUNGI think I understand why this is working for me.  When reading in English, I must automatically filter out words I do not know, gleaning the meaning from context from the words that I do know.  In Japanese, that is hard to do.  To begin with, one’s eyes must work completely differently.  Japanese books are written right to left and vertical.  That in itself is an adjustment.  Also, Japanese generally does not put in spaces for words, and it is rather fluid as to where words begin and end.  Furthermore, Japanese grammar and sentence structure is quite different from English.  I think that these differences make it hard to use strategies one naturally uses with English without additional help.

I think that when I highlight words, I can section them off in my mind, and then focus on the words that I do understand.  Before, I would run into unfamiliar words and, whether I looked them up or not, I would start to think that the entire book was too difficult for me.  With the unfamiliar words highlighted, I realized I was actually able to understand a lot of other words and glean the general meaning of what was going on.

When I have gone back later to look up the unfamiliar words, I have checked them off with a pencil.  Then I have read the text again and found that I could fully understand, which was really quite exciting.

Learning as a Child

A few weeks ago, I purchased a first grade reader and kanji workbook from the Japanese supermarket (which is about an hour and a half away from where I live).  I have found that these books are challenging, but possible for me.  Also, I have been using an Anpanman NintendoDS game to help me with my pronunciation, kikitori, and writing skills.  For immersion, I have been using Anime such as Precure, Sailor Moon, and Anpanman.  While I am an adult, I have been letting myself be a child in Japanese as much as possible.

vlcsnap-2014-11-05-19h48m16s72In some ways I am far ahead of a Japanese child entering school, while at the same time, in other ways, I am far, far behind a Japanese child.  For this reason, I think it is still important to use the adult foreign learners’ materials, as I need grammar explanations that Japanese children would not.  After learning the concepts from the textbooks in English, I have been using Japanese children’s material to fill in the gaps and to provide extra practice.

The difference in the materials is quite interesting, I think.  The adult learners’ textbook I used was Genki, and the early vocabulary included things like 国際関係, kokusaikankei (“international relations”), 政治, seiji (“politics”), and 経済, keizai (“economics”).  The children’s learning material started with words such as リス, risu (“squirrel”), どんぐり, donguri (“acorn”), リンゴ, ringo (“apple”).  I have to say that I think that the children’s vocabulary seems a bit more useful.

I am not sure exactly why I am learning Japanese, but it seems important to me to let Japanese change me.  Maybe it would be more accurate to say to allow Japanese to bring out who I really am.  Even though I was born and raised in the West, I was always baffled by the manners and customs of the West.  Yet, the more I learn about Japanese customs and manners, the more sense they make to me in a way that Western culture never did.

I am fortunate enough that I do not need Japanese for a job and I do not have to take any tests, so there is no reason for me to become an adult in Japanese any time soon.  My sensei fully supports and encourages the concept of metaphorically learning to walk before I run.  I am rather enjoying my Japanese childhood, I must say.

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.