Category Archives: Power Tools

Rikaisama Review

rikaisamaWe have written extensively about Rikaichan because in our view it is one of the most important tools in the arsenal (if you’ll excuse the mildly mixed metaphor) of an online Japanese learner.

Now Rikaichan has a big sister: Rikaisama. Not even Rikaisan. Sounds like a very big sister, doesn’t she? How does she measure up?

Rikaisama is essentially Rikaichan Mk 2. Still the Japanese dictionary add-on for Firefox that works the same way and keeps all your Rikaichan settings (in a few places she still refers to herself as Rikaichan) and looks just the same. Nothing has actually changed, but several things have been added.

Among these new additions, the most important are: direct on‐the‐fly addition to Anki, human voice pronunciation of words, Sanseido mode (optional Japanese definitions instead of English), pitch information, and new frequency information.

The direct‐to‐Anki feature is a blessing. You need to install the associated Anki add-on, but once you’ve done that, a single keypress while hovering over a word will create a card for it with the kanji on the front, kana‐reading and meaning on the back. You also have the  option of putting the kana on the front. This is really useful and saves a lot of time. Apparently you can also add the sound of the word, but…

Actual native‐voiced audio readings are another important new feature of Rikaisama, but that has been rather disappointing to this doll as they just don’t seem to work with the Mac OS. Actually no OSX installation instructions for Rikaisama are given at all. I just followed the Windows instructions and it worked fine. There are special instructions for getting the voices on Linux, but it seems that on a Mac there is no way. Consequently I can’t review the sound. If anyone wants to add something on that, please feel free to use the comment section below. [By the way, Mac owners should not feel too short‐changed in the voiced‐Japanese department ‐ you still have the best Japanese voice synthesizer available].

Sanseido mode is very useful, I think. It allows access to the Sanseido (that big chain bookstore you see everywhere in Japan) dictionary. You were always able to turn definitions on and off, so you just got interactive furigana, but now you can also get a J‐J definition. You can switch between the three (E‐definition, J‐definition, and no definition) with a keypress. The only small drawback is that you can’t download the Sanseido dictionary, so there is a small delay while it downloads the definition each time (and it won’t work at all offline).

You can also install Epwing dictionaries, but I am afraid they don’t work on Mac either, and I have no experience of them.

An important point is that if you are in Sanseido mode (and presumably in J-J epwing mode) when you do use the direct-to-Anki feature, you get J-J (Japanese word with Japanese definition) cards.

In addition to the old (P) used to indicate if a word is common (it is still there—Rikaisama hasn’t taken anything away from her little sister), there is more kuwashii frequency information in the form of a number that tells you how many words are more frequent than the one you are looking at (so 5 would be a very common word and 10000 would be a rare one). The number is also color‐coded: Green=very common, dull greeny-yellow=common, orange=less common, pink=relatively rare.

This more detailed Rikaisama frequency information is also taken from a different source from the (P) classification. Rather than newspapers, it is distilled from 5000+ novels. I find that reassuring as I don’t really find newspaper‐language all that useful. I don’t bother with the news even in English. This also allows a very rough cross‐check between two frequency assessments, which is also useful.

I have heard some folks say that since one aims to learn all Japanese words anyway, why worry about frequency?

The answer, in my view, is this: The less skilled you are at Japanese, the slower you can imbibe Japanese media. Your aim should be to increase this speed as quickly and efficiently as possible. You learn words best when they are reinforced by real encounters with them (not just Anki encounters, wonderful as Anki is).

So, since you can only learn so many words per day, you should be concentrating on the ones you are most likely to re‐encounter relatively often. This keeps cementing your vocabulary base as it increases. No harm learning a few rare words (we all do it). But your overall strategy is best served by learning well‐used words first and slowly moving to lower‐frequency ones as your base grows. This way you are not only absorbing vocabulary, but equipping yourself to absorb more by increasing your ease of exposure to Japanese as efficiently as possible.

As your speed and volume of media consumption increases, your chances of re‐encountering less common words grows proportionately (at first it is very low because your consumption is so slow and limited). So tackling words (very roughly) in order of frequency makes good strategic sense.

Now I am not suggesting that you should be slavishly bound by frequency numbers, but they are definitely useful information to have and bear in mind. So this addition in Rikaisama is very welcome.

There are a few more additions, including pitch accent information, which the main online dictionaries do not supply.

One more clever addition is the ability to click the Heisig number of a kanji (usually from the Rikaichan toolbar or the more streamlined search‐box addition to your regular toolbar) and go to the Heisig mnemonic page. You have to be a member of the site to do that (it’s free). I joined just because of the Rikaisama functionality. I am not a major Heisig fan, but this is definitely a function that is worth having available.

All in all, I would say that the promotion from “chan” to “sama” is justified. This is not really a new Rikai; it is decidedly Rikaichan with several more tricks up her sleeve. But they are valuable tricks that really take an already valuable application to a whole new level. The direct‐to‐Anki function is worth the installation alone.

You need to uninstall your current Rikaichan in order to install Rikaisama, but don’t let that put you off. You won’t lose anything and you will gain quite a lot. And if you use Anki for vocabulary, I strongly recommend that you install the Anki add-on too.

If you don’t understand the full power of Rikai, I suggest you read our Rikaichan review. It was far more than just a quick way to furiganize kanji and look up words even before the new features were added. Because of the way it is structured it can answer many of your basic grammar questions on the fly, and is an invaluable tool for proofreading your Japanese writing. It is as much a writing tool as a reading tool.

And if you were starting to think you had outgrown J-E, Rikaichan just grew with you!

Hajimemashite, Rikaisama. Yoroshiku onegaishimasu.

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:

how-to-write-kanji-1

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:

how-to-write-kanji-3

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!

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.

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.

https://38.media.tumblr.com/1f293e3d9522d4110a8e023aba1cf4fd/tumblr_n7spq1JLh81sb4cpyo2_1280.jpgThe 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:

vlcsnap-2014-06-16-16h50m21s87Todo:

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.

Daily:

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.

Habits:

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

ToDo

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

Daily

日本語を聞く (“Listen to Japanese”)

Habits

+   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”)

Reward

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!

頑張ってください。

_______________________________________________________

*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.

HabitRPG: The Adventure Continues

Several of us here on Kawaii Japanese have begun to use HabitRPG as a time management tool, as Cure Dolly has discussed here.  Time management can be a big stumbling block to being able to continue one’s studies, i.e., “I would love to learn Japanese, but I really do not have the time.”

Really all of us have the same amount of time….there are 24 hours in the day for all of us!  It is really a matter of what we decide to do with our time.  I am not sure about anyone else, but left to my own devices, I will wander around all day feeling like I have been busy, without any sense of accomplishment, and having no idea what it is I was actually busy doing.  I absolutely *need* some sort of time management tool.

I have been looking for the perfect time management tool for decades.  I still miss my old Palm Pilot, which was very nicely laid out for how I like to work.  I have spent these same decades learning and practicing about every procrastination avoidance/time management system under Ohisama.  HabitRPG is not quite perfect, but it is pretty close, I think!  Cure Dolly has given a very good description of the basics of the game/tool in her previous article, so I will concentrate on the things that I have learned that are relevant to us here on Kawaii Japanese.

Approach to the “game”

One of the things that I have noticed as a difficulty for my party members is a reluctance to give themselves “credit” for their tasks and habits.  I think that here on Kawaii Japanese, many of us are studying Japanese because we feel much more at home in the cultural assumptions of the East.  One of these assumptions is that modesty is proper, and self-aggrandizement is not.  I think that one of the ways to get past this is to really understand what the purpose of the “game” is.

The purpose of the “game” is to help us all manage our time better, and to get things done.  For us, this is important so we can manage our study time and manage our other tasks and chores, so that we DO have study time.  The game itself is very well designed, so that actually the “tricks” to playing the “game” are mostly good time-management and task-management habits.

For example, dailies, todos, and habits change colors depending on how well we are doing with them.  They all start off as yellow, and turn green, then blue, and then bright blue, if we are doing well with them.  If we are doing poorly with them or letting them sit in our “todo” list, they turn orange, then red, and then deep red.  The redder the task or habit is the more damage it can do to us, but by the same token, we get more rewards for actually doing it!

Generally, tasks that turn red are tasks we REALLY don’t want to do and are putting off.  Getting more points for them helps to turn these tasks into our friends!  Heee…and doesn’t that seem like a very Japanese way to look at things!

HabitRPG current

Social aspects

The social aspects of HabitRPG are really wonderful.  I am now working with a party, and that has been really nice.   My party consists of close friends (who are also study partners).  We are all geographically far apart, but HabitRPG is helping to give us the sense that we are all working together.  We can actually see avatars of each other on our personal pages, so for me, it gives the feeling of my party being with me while doing my daily chores and tasks.

We already done about 3 “Quests” together.  The quests we have done are Boss quests, which means that we are battling a Monster.  When we do tasks and dailies, they do damage to the Boss, and missed Dailies of any one of us mean that the Boss does damage to the party.

Because we are all close friends, no one wants to do damage to the party, so we all work extra hard to do our Dailies.  Yet, also because we are all friends, we can support and comfort each other when we don’t do as well as we would like.  Below is a typical exchange in our Party chat.

ごめんなさい。(Gomen nasai. “I am very sorry”…for causing the party damage)

大丈夫ですよ。今日はがんばりましょうね!(Daijoubu desu yo. Kyou wa ganbarimashou ne!
“It is ok.  Today, let’s do our best together!”)

I think that it has very much helped our group’s bond to grow and develop!

It is also nice, that so far, all of the Quests are written in a way that is very much in line with our philosophy.  The “Bosses” are often tamed, rather than “killed”, and it is quite easy to see in these stories the traditional story themes we know and love from our favorite Anime.  We can imagine the Bosses as being taken over by Evil Spirits to be cleansed, or that they are our own False Selves.

There is also a Tavern, where just like any role playing game, one can go to hear rumors and get information!  The Tavern chat is very well moderated and is polite and pleasant, for the most part.  For many of us, part of the reason we are studying Japanese is that we are attracted to the more gentle and polite culture of Japan, so many English speaking social places on the Internet can be jarring and poisonous.  On HabitRPG, I have found the Tavern quite pleasant.  One of the really nice things is that swearing is not allowed at all, and posts with swear words are promptly removed!

Aesthetics

This is Kawaii Japanese, so, of course, aesthetics are quite important to us.  The basic game itself is quite kirei.  On the other hand, at the Tavern, I learned a way to make the game even prettier!  There is an add-on which works for Firefox, known as Stylish.  It also works on other browsers, I think, but of course we recommend Firefox here because of the availability of the Rikaichan and Procon Latte addons.

With the Stylish add-on, one can customize the interface of the program.  A link to this add-on is here.  The default theme is quite nice, and is the one that I use.  You can see it in the image above.  This add-on also has an option to hide the game aspects, which might be important if one is using HabitRPG at work.  There is also the option to create your own custom theme, but really the default one itself is quite nice, ne.

Oh dear, I had a lot more to say, but this article has already gotten quite long.  Maybe I will need to write a sequel later!

行かなければ行きません。

またね。

頑張りましょうね!

P.S.  I just received 76 experience, about 9 Gold pieces, and replenished 2.6 Mana Points by writing this post!  (this was a very red Todo)

Habit RPG for Japanese Learners – and the Kawaii Japanese Adventurers’ Guild

Habit RPG literally makes a game out of time management. This can be important for Japanese learners who have a problem managing their time and getting Japanese-related tasks done, as well as co-ordinating them with other tasks.

I have tried various ways to manage my time with very little success, but Habit RPG has really revolutionized the way I use my time and its effectiveness in working on Japanese. Partly that is because I understand games better than I understand practicalities. But also it is because with Habit RPG I am can be part of a group with Japanese Adventurer friends.

Kawaii Japanese has its own Guild (Japanese Deep Cave Adventurers) on Habit RPG. Everyone is welcome to join it and (optionally) take part in our Guild Challenges and talk about Japanese learning in Japanese. Don’t worry if your level is low. If you just want to pop in and say こんにちは you are more than welcome.

A thing one notices about the Internet is that it is full of Japanese learners blathering endlessly about Japanese in English. Now some things do need to be explained in English, but actually using Japanese, even at a low level, is crucial. Studying Japanese textbooks and even watching anime/playing games is of limited value if the minute you stop doing that you go straight back to “the real language” – English – for actually communicating and receiving communication. Japanese has to become the real language, at least for part of your life.

It is important to begin using – not just learning or practicing – Japanese as early as possible in your Japanese adventure.

This is the key to how we at Kawaii Japanese (and our guild on the game itself) use Habit RPG. The guild communicates only in Japanese (it is mostly quite simple and you can and should use Rikaichan as much as you need) and we encourage using the time management system to increase Japanese activity. Some of us actually have 不要な英語 – unnecessary English – as a bad habit that loses hit points.

So, let’s look at Habit RPG itself:

Habit RPG - making a game out of life
Habit RPG – making a game out of life

I am told by a friend who has considerable experience of task-managers that Habit RPG is one of the better ones even aside from the game aspect. It divides “tasks” into three kinds:

・Dailies (things you should do every day and lose hit-points if you don’t).

・Habits – things you should be trying to do, or not do, or do one way rather than another.

・To dos – a simple to do list.

You can also filter these – for example I have filters (tags) for articles and posts, mails and letters I should be writing etc. I am not well-organized and my system is pretty rudimentary as yet, but it does help even me to find things.

At the top you see your own avatar and those of your party. You earn gold and experience for completing tasks and lose hit points for not completing or for doing bad “habits” (unnecessary English, for example, or flipping peas across the dinner table).

There is much more to the game than this, and more and more gets unlocked as you level up. You can use your gold to buy equipment, pets and mounts become available, eggs hatch. There is a real sense of playing a game, especially with a party or Guild or both.

Here is a look at the Kawaii Japanese guild:

Habit-RPG-kawaii-Japanese-guild
We are an open guild, so please join the fun!

The Guild issues challenges and is a place for chat, interaction, discussion and recommendations. Among other things it is a good place to practice using a little Japanese and a source of support and encouragement on your Japanese adventure.

If you sign up for Habit RPG you should then go to Social > Guilds and type in “kawaii” (or 日本語)and find us. Please don’t be shy or worried about your Japanese. We are all learning, and making mistakes is how one progresses. Using Japanese from an early stage is of great importance. It is a very different thing from just practicing Japanese. Actually communicating things (however small) that you actually want to communicate and learning things you want to learn. And it is good to have a friendly environment to try it in – as well as one that uses reasonably simple Japanese and is friendly and gentle.

It is also a place to discuss recommendations for Japanese games, books, anime and other “immersion materials” – i.e. the culture of our Japanese life.

There are only  a few things I would say have actually changed my life and Habit RPG is one of those few – largely because I am very poor at managing my time and have never gotten on at all well with “serious” time management software. I am definitely more productive both in Japanese and other areas as a result of Habit RPG. This is a lot to do with its game aspect and also its social aspect. It has allowed me to make my work into a game I share with Japanese-using, like-minded friends.

Cons: The two main cons about Habit RPG are:

• It does not handle monthly tasks well (it is fine with weeklies). That doesn’t affect me but is a drawback for some folks.

• It is not available in Japanese. There are several languages available and at the time of writing a Japanese translation is said to be 65% complete. We encourage people to enter tasks, tags etc in Japanese only, though of course that is up to you. If you do that and join the Guild you will be working in a largely-Japanese environment.

Neither of these is a major drawback (unless monthlies are super-important to you), and Habit RPG is well worth a try.

Denshi Jisho Review: the Next Generation

We review the next generation of Denshi Jisho, currently in beta.

One of our major online resources, Denshi Jisho, is changing. The new version, currently in beta, is a radical overhaul. It looks nothing like the green and friendly Jisho that we are all familiar with. Is this update a big improvement or a disappointment?

Let’s see what it looks like (click for enlarged view if you wish):

Denshi Jisho: New beta version

At first it looks comparatively stripped-down and one may wonder if it has all the functionality of the old version.  In fact it does, though it takes a short time to work out where things are now. It also has various functions it lacked in the past.

New features of 2nd Generation Denshi Jisho

Collocations: This feature is definitely the top of my list. It is slightly tucked-away and many users may not be aware of it. You will be, and you should be.

Just above the “Links” button in the left column is a button saying how many collocations are found using the word. Click the link and a pop-up appears with the collocations – and, yes, you can use Rikaichan in the pop-up.

denshi-jisho-review

Collocations are a somewhat-neglected fundamental of language-learning, as I was recently trying to explain. A great deal of the time, a word is going to be found in a frequently-recurring collocation or (word-pairing or word-group). Don’t be afraid of collocations. They aren’t clichés, they are building blocks of language. Children often learn and use collocations before they become aware of the word-boundaries within them*.

Learn a word’s main collocations along with the word itself – it will give you a wonderful head-start in knowing how to use your vocabulary.

Collocations aren’t always that easy to track down (since they are still a rather neglected aspect of language) so having them built right into Jisho is a truly important development.

Kanji details: limited kanji details are now right there on the page. You can still click for greater detail and you will still need the Rikaicha toolbar (or at least its search box integrated into your regular toolbar) to get a quick breakdown of the kanji’s radicals. But it does inform you, with no further searching, about the component kanji of a multi-kanji words.

Sentence links: The link to the sentence database is not so immediately obvious (you have to click the “links” link to open the sub-menu). However there is one very useful change. You can now search for the word in either kanji or kana. This is convenient because Jisho always gives the kanji, so when a word is usually written in kana (you rarely see 有難う for ありがとう, for example) the sentence-finder comes up with no results until you retype it in kana. This little annoyance has now been resolved.

Wikipedia definitions: There are now Wikipedia definitions of words (in English) on the page – in case you didn’t know what the word meant even in English. There are definitely cases where this can be useful, though it is perhaps a little doubtful whether the extra on-page clutter all the time is really worthwhile for saving one the extra click to Wikipedia on the few occasions one actually needs it.

Inflections: There is now an on-page pop-up giving the inflections/conjugations of verbs and adjectives.

Denshi Jisho Update

 

At one time I used to search words on conjugation sites all the time. Japanese is so regular that this shouldn’t really be necessary, but I used to get confused and want to make sure. These days I almost never need to do this (if I’m at all nervous I type what I think it is and Rikaichan it), but for those at an earlier stage of learning this is likely to be very, very useful.

Single search-box: There are no longer separate search-boxes for English and Japanese – Jisho auto-detects language and even though it still allows mixed-language entries. This is more efficient as the cursor is always in the right box. Less clicking and no typing in the wrong box by mistake and wondering why you don’t find anything (or is that just me?)

Note: Multi-language searches are useful, for example, when you want “That word for contacting someone that has 連 in it”. Type “contact 連” into the box and you get 連絡 which is what you were looking for. It works if you only know the pronunciation – so “contact れん” will get you the same result. Unfortunately, in both old and new Jisho, it only seems to work with the first element of the word. “Contact 絡” (or らく)gives no result. Though, oddly enough, it still searches the kanji and in this case the first example sentence using the kanji uses it as part of 連絡. Okashii ne!

Audio: Many entries now have an audio button so you can hear the word spoken.

Furigana: Rather than have the kana in a separate column from the kanji, the new Denshi Jisho shows it as furigana over the kanji, while the kanji themselves are bigger without having to mouse over them. This is a better use of space, makes the kanji easier to recognize. Perhaps more importantly, the sentences section also features furigana now which makes the sentences much easier to read if there are a few unknown kanji

Other information: The new Denshi Jisho is an ongoing project currently in beta, so new things are still being added. The “more reading” section is a very welcome addition. Where words have special grammatical uses, for example, links are sometimes provided to Tae Kim’s excellent grammar resource:

second-generation-denshi-jisho-review

The stated aim of Denshi Jisho is to become an all-in-one learning and research resource and it certainly seems to be on the way to achieving that. There are a few areas in which the old Denshi Jisho is better. Currently, while one can filter searches in many more ways than before (click the down-arrow next to the magnifying glass in the search box) one can no longer search the names dictionary specifically (useful when trying to find names for characters in stories or RPGs).

To find the kanji-by-radical search tool, by the way, click 部 next to the search box. Why 部? I really have no idea!

Where the new Denshi Jisho could do better

There are a few minor minor problems. The inability to search specific dictionaries like the names one, as mentioned above is one. Another is the fact that where a word is written in different ways or with different kanji these are included as an addendum to the main entry rather than separate entries. While this is more efficient, it also means that there is now no separate indication of which kanji usages are common and which aren’t.

However this is an ongoing project still in beta and I expect these problems to be fixed over time.

The link to my favorite sentence database, Space Alc, is still there, though you now usually have to scroll to find it, under the kanji details and (somewhat unnecessary) first sample sentence. This is a minor inconvenience to those of us who like to move on from the definition to the large database to get the feel of how a new word actually works.

There is also now an indication of a word’s JLPT level. This is only a little useful for most of us, though I can see how it might be helpful for people actually planning to take the JLPT. However, the one missing piece of information I would really like to see is a ranking of the word’s frequency of usage. When learning vocabulary it is very useful to have an idea how commonly a word is used. The “Common word” marker is still there and I am grateful for it. There are about 6,000 common words and some of them are not all that common. I would really like to know which words are, say, in the top 2,000 – not because I only plan to learn 2000 words (I know rather more than that already) but because I really want to be sure I have the core vocabulary fully covered.

This may be more of a concern for autodidacts like this doll, but there are quite a lot of us and proportionately we are probably more likely to be reliant on online resources like Denshi Jisho.

The occasional foul language is still there. This is not good translation since equivalent taboo-words are not found in the same way in Japanese and taboo English is used to translate non-taboo Japanese, thus giving a completely false impression of the import of the words.

Besides this, even for people who think that only children should be allowed protection from mental pollution, this is an educational resource that will be used by children. This is not actually Denshi Jisho’s fault as the problem lies with the open-source databases it uses. We recommend the use of a profanity filter.

These matters aside, the next-generation Denshi Jisho is really an excellent upgrade. For my money, the addition of collocations is by far the most important addition and comes close to doubling the value of this dictionary all by itself. The inflections feature is also likely to be important to newer learners.

The other new features all add up to a better, more efficient, and more usable dictionary.

Our advice: switch to the new beta now. The link is in red at the top of regular Denshi Jisho.
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* For example, a friend knew a toddler who used gubbadee (cup of tea) to mean “tea” and even referred to a “cup of gubbadee”.

How to Write Correct, Natural Japanese

Correct natural JapaneseAhem. Sorry for the rather audacious title, but it there really is a way to write correct, natural Japanese.

I know people spend years learning to do just this, and I know there is no such thing as a get-fluent-quick scheme that actually works. But I am going to introduce you  to a power tool that, if you have a workable level of Japanese (upper beginner/lower intermediate) will make your Japanese writing far more correct and natural.

I am talking about Sentences. You probably already know that Denshi Jisho has a sentences section and you may be using it. But lot of people don’t realize how powerful this tool actually is or how to use it to best effect. There is also a much bigger database of sentences at Space Alc. I use both of them all the time (Edit: since this was written the new beta Denshi Jisho has a sentences function linked to Tatoeba that produces more results than the old one).

Suppose you are writing a story or a post in Japanese. You have some idea of how to say what you want. But is that really how a Japanese speaker would put it? Or are you writing Eihongo (the counterpart of Japlish).

Can those words actually be used in that way in Japanese? What one should do now is try to find a precedent for the way you are saying it.

So if you think you know how to express what you want but aren’t sure that it is natural or correct Japanese, enter the key phrase into the sentence search box of one or more of the engines recommended above (or use a regular search engine if your Japanese is good enough) and see how it is actually used.

Cut it down to the basic turn of phrase you are worried about (these are databases of human-made sentences, not translation engines [thankfully], so you won’t find your exact sentence). See if that combination of words is in fact used with that meaning and nuance.

You can do this with very limited units such as てばかり – essentially asking “show me the way ばかり is used with a verb in て-form”. As you see, you can use this for elucidation of grammar points in a more general way, but what we are doing here is trying to find out if the way we are using it in our particular sentence is going to be natural, correct Japanese.

We can also expand it a little. If the word we are coupling with ばかり is very common, we can try putting in that exact combination and see whether it is used and how.

Of course if the phrase is not in the database it does not mean that it isn’t usable (though if you are using Google raw, it probably does), but it is a large database, so if the phrase is a common collocation, it is likely to be there. If it isn’t there it may be worth considering re-phrasing with something you can be more confident about.

You can also work the other way and put in the general idea you want to convey in English and see what Japanese examples you get. Expect to sift through various non-relevant examples. Be prepared to expand and contract your input (whether in English or Japanese) since if it is too long and explicit you may not find it and if it is too short it may not be explicit enough.

Remember also, when faced with pages of examples, most of which are not relevant, that a good way to sift through them is to use your search-engine’s on-page search function. Search in the language you didn’t input into the database in order to narrow down the results to your target meaning. For example, if you are wondering whether – and how – you can use 代わりに in the sense of “substitute”, you can search 代わりに which on Space Alc gives you six pages of results. You can then enter “substitute” in your browser’s page-search to look for examples of the usage you want.

Language works a lot by collocations – words that are continually found together. You make a fuss, but you throw a tantrum and you get into a bad mood. The phrase-elements are not interchangeable. Much as (Western) people may want to think that their own speech takes the form of personally unique combinations of words, in fact it is built up of countless collocations, or word-groupings that belong together and sound odd and “foreign” if different groupings are used.

Japanese is the same so what you are doing here is searching not only for correct grammar but natural collocations – the words that actually habitually go together in the language, and not only broadly mean what we are trying to say but convey the correct tone and nuance.

I confess I am a little “obsessive” (to use the pathology-based argot of current English) about looking up collocations and phrases. If I don’t remember a turn of speech from somewhere I try to find a sentence-example. If I can’t do that I usually consider re-phrasing.

This is not really “obsessive”, however. It is how you use English. In English you are continually guided by precedent. You know which words go together and which don’t.

Even sub-standard, ill-educated English goes by precedent. Very few native speakers over the age of six actually make their own grammatical mistakes. They use the bad grammar of their group. Large numbers of English speakers say “it don’t make no difference” but only infants and foreigners say “it not make difference”, or indeed any other variation on the phrase. Real, natural language is ruled by precedent at every turn.

Japanese speakers, of course, generally believe in precedent and conformity in speech. English speakers are prone to believe they hate conformity, but they are in fact just as precedent-bound as any other linguistic group.

So what I am saying is that you want a precedent for what you say. It is how natural speakers speak. Native speakers have an internal bank of precedents. We are using an artificial bank to simulate the same process and use correct, natural Japanese.

Fortunately, using this helps us to build our own internal bank too. The effort of researching the right way to say a thing helps it to stick (put it in your Anki too if it seems appropriate)

One caveat though. As far as possible, try to construct the phrase first. Putting what you want into the database in English can be useful but should be your last resort. As far as possible use words you already know even if it means simplifying your meaning a little. If you have to search in English, try to select from the results a Japanese phrase that you understand well. Don’t dump a chunk of blind-faith grammar into your writing.

There are a lot of reasons for this. Your writing should stay yours. It should be constructed of elements you understand and have control over. Otherwise you may be building a Frankenstein out of half-understood parts.

That being said, the use of sentence-searching to enhance your writing will help you to use natural, correct Japanese better than any other single tool. Precedent is how language is built up in the child mind. Using it is the most organic way of expanding your use of language.

Of course you will be using native materials to build a true bank of precedent. More and more you will know how to say something because you recall this character in that anime saying something along the same lines. Online sentence-databases are a substitute for the one we will eventually, like all fluent speakers, be carrying in our hearts (I don’t say “heads” because I believe our hearts is where we truly carry them).

Just use the database method in as pure and organic a way as possible, and you will be writing natural and organic Japanese to a far greater extent than would otherwise be remotely possible.

The Best Firefox Profanity Filter

Firefox profanity filter
Kawaikunai ne!

What does a profanity filter have to do with kawaii Japanese?

Well, coarse language is not  kawaii. Some people think the two things can go together, and if you are the kind of person who likes to put detergent powder in your cake mix I guess they can. Whether anyone sane would want to eat the cake is another matter.

If you are serious about learning Japanese, you are using Firefox. Rikaichan is absolutely indispensable. There is a Chrome version called Rikaikun, but it is very much an inferior port. This means we have no real choice of browser.

Actually I don’t have that much trouble with foul language on the Web, but then I lead a very sheltered life, even virtually. Unfortunately though, even Denshi Jisho uses it – sometimes translating neutral Japanese words (Japanese does not have curse words in the Western sense, whatever foul-language disciples try to tell you) with taboo Western ones, which, apart from anything else, is clearly just bad translation.

So for this and a few other reasons, we do need a profanity filter, and I have had difficulty finding one on Firefox. There is a strange one that does not run natively (it requires something called Greasemonkey) and is made by extreme Christians who have blacklisted just about every word that can ever be used in an indecent sense. That includes a fair bit of the English language.

Fortunately a friend introduced me to Procon Latte which incorporates a profanity filter. It is very effective and user friendly, even if you have your interface in Japanese.

Procon Latte is not just a Firefox profanity filter though, it is a family tool that blocks websites, and can be a bit painful with false positives, apparently. So unless you have children or have a problem with accidentally ending up at bad sites (I use Ghostery to block redirects), it is probably best to turn off everything but the profanity filter.

Procon-latte-firefox-profanity-filterIf you have your interface in Japanese (if not, why not?) and you have difficulty with the options panel, the general options pane should end up looking like the picture here (click for larger image).

Once you have it set up, it is very smooth and you can even customize what it replaces bad words with. The default is !*#@!# or something like that. I have it set to 汚い言葉.

You can edit this and the language-blacklist by clicking the fourth tab along the top (with the speech bubble – in Japanese 悪口リスト). The blacklist itself is far saner than the competition. It is perhaps a bit too short, leaving out some of the unequivocally nasty variations on a theme of foulness that get used by unequivocally nasty people.

You can edit the list yourself, or we have an expanded list which you can import if you wish.

To install the enhanced profanity filter blacklist:

1. First install Procon Latte itself. In Firefox go to Tools > Addons (ツール > アドオン)and search Procon Latte in the toolbar. Follow the directions to install it.

2. Download our profanity filter settings file, and unzip it.

3. Go to the very last Item at the bottom of the Procon Latte control panel (a drop-down button – you can see it on the screenshot above) select “Import settings” – in Japanese 設定をインポート – and select the file you just unzipped (it is called procon.txt).

It really is as simple as that. This will give you the settings we recommend (profanity filter only) plus the expanded blacklist which will catch more genuine foul language but does not censor everyday words. Of course if you wish you can change the settings and re-edit the blacklist yourself after you have done this to get it to your liking. Be warned: the blacklist isn’t very pleasant!

Since it is called Procon Latte we thought we should mention the cons as well as the pros (we’ll even serve some virtual latte – hai, douzo). There is really only one, other than the slightly inadequate blacklist. Like any profanity filter we know of, it cannot work in non-html environments like Twitter or Rikaichan’s pop-ups. Rikaichan actually has its own option to “Hide X-rated entries” but considering what this doesn’t hide, I’d hate to know what it does.

That isn’t really Procon Latte’s fault, and it is currently by far the best Firefox profanity filter available.