@Update: 10,000 Sentences is Dead. Let the MCD Revolution Begin! | AJATT | All Japanese All The Time is.gd/AWLzAv
10,000 sentences is a lot. But the way we’re doing it, you can easily learn about 50 every day no sweat, and even more if you want to. Don’t freak out if you only do 15-25 every day. The important thing is to learn every day.
You will need:
- Computing device(s) (PC, electronic dictionary, PDA, etc.)
- An SRS (KhatzuMemo, Mnemosyne, etc.)
- One or more sentence sources (dictionary, movies, music)
In order to have learned a sentence you need to be able to do 4 things:
1. Read it in full, aloud, with kanji, no furigana.
Furigana are great for when you’re reading comics and such, and I heartily recommend you use books that have them, but you need to learn to function without them.
2. Know the meaning of every word in the sentence.
I don’t suggest you over-analyze the sentence, but you should know the function of each part of the sentence, otherwise you can’t truly be said to be understanding it. You don’t need to provide an exact translation when you give your answer, in fact, don’t bother translating at all. Of course, early on, you will be using Japanese and English together (later, Japanese only), and you will need probably get translations of the sentences, so put those translations in the “answer” field of your SRS; use them as a check of your understanding. But again, you just need to remember the gist of the translation (not the exact wording) for it to count as knowing the sentence.
3. Understand the meaning of the entire sentence
4. Write (copy) out the sentence by hand
This is so you get practice writing Japanese — you don’t have to do this for every sentence, but do at for as many as you can. You should do this on graph paper (one square per character). If you have no graph paper around, do without until you get some. By our definition, if you cannot do any one of these 4 things, then you have not learned the sentence. Notice how:
- This does not involve looking at an English sentence and translating it into Japanese. Do not translate from English to Japanese. Why? Well, because there are so many possible translations for a given sentence, how are you going to say which is right and which is wrong? Are you only going to count the one you’ve got written down? That’s too restrictive and too failure-prone. What’s more, if you get the Japanese sentence wrong, you haven’t just made a mistake, you’ve sown the seeds of bad Japanese. Good Japanese starts with mindlessly imitating good Japanese. Don’t go inventing your own Japanese; no one will understand you. You’ll be doing the Japanese equivalent of “all your base are belong to us” (Japanese discussion of the same) “全ての貴方のベースは私に属する”. It sounds weird…off.
- Nor does it involve saying or writing the sentence from memory. Do not memorize the sentences. That’s too complex and too failure-prone. If you’re like me, you can barely memorize words, let alone sentences.
“But wait, if I don’t memorize it, how do I know I know it?”. Oh-ho. That’s where the SRS comes in. When you first learn a sentence, of course you’ll “remember it”. What counts isn’t so much that first time, as 2, 3, 10, 52 weeks later. Thanks to an SRS, you will be given the chance to truly test your knowledge, by reading that sentence several times over several weeks and months. By doing that successfully, that sentence will be in your brain, pretty much like white on rice. In other words you will memorize the sentence just by seeing and reading it repeatedly over time. The SRS will take care of things to make sure that you see new sentences or sentences you keep forgetting, more often than old sentences that you know well.
Seeing and reading things repeatedly over time is just how advertising works; you can remember sentences like “You can’t beat the feeling”, some 15 years after Coca-Cola stopped even using that slogan. It’s also how it is that you can memorize the words of an entire movie (Independence Day, anyone?) But, yes, it takes time, and for a while you don’t believe you’re learning because you (apparently) have nothing to “show” for it. This is part of why classes are so bad. Classes are generally too focused on output—on display—but not on what is really going on inside.
So, even though just being able to read short sentences aloud is so easy, you are learning. Recently (October 8, 2006), I had to stand before a Japanese audience and read aloud some documents that I had never seen before （祝電＝しゅくでん）, and it was no problem at all; I can read the same as your “average” adult in Japan, and I’m not smarter than you.
While you will eventually memorize a lot of the sentences, you will almost certainly not memorize all of them. But if you were to hear or read them (or sentences similar to them), you would understand them. This is important. Why? Well:
- In every language you speak, your passive vocabulary (what you understand) always outstrips your active vocabulary (what you say/write)
- It is generally far for more important to understand other people, than to make yourself understood. It’s fine if you can ask for directions, but if you can’t understand the response…might as well take the next train to Whatsthepointville. More broadly—the simple fact that you are outnumbered 1 to several billion, means that you’re going to spend much of your life receiving input;; there are more people, books and videos than there are of you. If you are to function as an independent, mature adult in any society, then it is imperative, I mean, really, really, important, that you fully understand the written and spoken input of the world around you.
So, remember input precedes output. ALWAYS.
Readings of Kanji
As you know, in Japanese, a single kanji generally has two pronunciations (readings), sometimes less, sometimes more. Something that this method implies is that readings of kanji will take care of themselves just in the sentences you read. You don’t need to go learning the readings separately—learning things completely out of context like that has always been too boring, meaningless and ineffective, at least for me. Learning to read aloud thousands of sentences you will eventually get the feel for when to use which reading in any given situation. And you will also learn the exceptions; and there are plenty of exceptions. Not only that, but learning kanji readings in the context of a sentence is just easier—perhaps because a sentence connects everything in it with some rhythm or meaning. I don’t know the real reason just like I don’t know why electromagnetism works, but I know that it’s effective.
Look at these examples of sentences in the typical question-answer (Q-A) form flashcard. Note that the answer is not always necessarily the full “answer” that you give, it’s more a clue—definitions of words, etc.
これ は（わ） れい・ぶん です。
This [as for] example-sentence is. (PL3)
*This is an example sentence.
お・まえ は（わ） なに・もの だ
Update: I’ve made some major improvements to this, discussed here.
Observe the following things:
- The direction is from Japanese only.
- Initially you can go Japanese-to-English, but eventually, you should start going Japanese-to-Japanese only. For me, this was at about 500-1000 sentences. The effect of using only Japanese to discuss Japanese is pretty phenomenal; it’s like your Japanese becomes a self-sustaining reaction. You will probably have to do a lot of looking up, such that your answer area may contain definitions of definitions. That’s super! Because everything you are doing is exercising your Japanese skills.
- It’s important to either access to an Internet dictionary or a software dictionary installed on your computer. That way, you can look up at the push of a button. A paper dictionary is fine for browsing, but for looking up an actual, specific word, it is BMT: brutal, medieval and time-consuming.
It would be nice if the sentence idea were my own, but the truth is that it belongs to a small group of Poles who learnt English to native-level fluency before ever leaving Poland. They even built a website about their work in learning English. The great thing about their site is that what’s true for learning English is largely true for learning any other language, including Japanese. Warning: I heartily encourage you to read their site. But unfortunately, while a former SuperMemo user/evangelist myself, I cannot recommend the SuperMemo software as they do. Fortunately, there are similar programs out there that do what SuperMemo does, for free. One of those is Mnemosyne.