Just Because It’s Not Painful, That Doesn’t Mean You’re Not Learning

It seems to me that a lot of people may be concerned that adding pictures to SRS sentence items (just as they were concerned with adding stories to SRS kanji items) would make things too “easy”.

Well folks, if in doubt, give your SRS items to someone who’s never had any exposure to kanji and see how they hold up. Play your Chinese/Japanese audio-picture question to an untrained person and see if they can produce the text (assuming you don’t give away the text in the picture… 🙂 ). I think you’ll find that they’ll be quite unable to write “dementia” just from being clued in about sicknesses and dodginess, or write down “港股暴跌逾千點” stroke-for-perfect-stroke just from seeing a picture of a number and an arrow.

Adding pictures for sentences, and stories for individual kanji items, I think, is completely non-detrimental. Remember, just because it’s not painful, that doesn’t mean you’re not learning (or perhaps more accurately, “acquiring”).

I’m reminded of my own recent experiences with Cantonese. I’ve watched the movie The Incredibles, in Cantonese, dozens of times. The most recent time (yesterday…2-3 times) one of the things I picked up was “即刻/immediately/right now”, as in “過嚟呢度,即刻/Come here this INSTANT”, in the scene where Mr. Incredible gets yelled at by his boss, and his boss is being really condescending and pointing down at the ground (“here”), telling Mr. Incredible to get away from the door. The next day (today), I was watching a different Cantonese show that I’ve also seen a lot of (a news magazine program called “事必關己”/Infolink), and for the first time, I understood what the presenter had been saying at the beginning of the show, each time he does the voiceover intro. He says: “即刻,事必關己/(translation: Coming up on Infolink/Next — Infolink/And now, it’s Infolink)”. Before it was just a sound to me; now it is a word.

What I’m trying to say here is a lot knowledge can be transferable (duh). Stuff learned in “easier” contexts — more obvious contexts — transfers itself to contexts with less “supporting information”: less obvious contexts. In a sense that’s why the sentences method and much of learning itself works — those simple i+1 sentences you learn will enable you to read entire books that are new to you; they will even enable you to infer both the reading and meaning of completely new words, and even the meaning of kanjiless words. This is analogous to how many people start their reading with manga before moving on to straight text — I don’t think anyone could reasonably contend that: “you’ll never learn to read Japanese if you look at manga, because the pictures will be too strong for your feeble Terran mind”. So don’t worry. Enjoy that it seems easier. Frankly, I think this relative effortlessness is a step in the right direction. The relative ease with which you learned language as a child (very little *conscious* effort, but tons of *actual* effort in terms of amount of exposure) should be within your reach as an adult; I think this puts it there. Let go of your addiction to struggling (lol…too melodramatic?), and focus on acquiring rather than learning.

Let me reiterate: you do not need to be told or be aware of what is happening for it to be happening. You don’t need to measure and “feel” yourself growing taller: just focus on eating healthy food. People seem to forget that they are not computers; you do not need to be explicitly told rules like a compiler; humans don’t need XML — we know bold type and list elements and surnames when we see them. When we look at something, we know where shapes begin and end: we don’t need to count pixels and color levels.

It could be said that your brain is a computer, but it is one of a thoroughly different sort from the current artificial kind. It is the most powerful fuzzy inference engine out there. It figures stuff out, it matches patterns, without a word of explanation. In fact, quite often when people try to explain something, those explanations are totally incompatible with the brain’s internal data representation formats and so they just end up creating confusion. Generally, all your brain needs to do to get it is to observe the data — any data. No one needs to tell you a rule; you’ll put it all together on your own, often unconsciously. To acquire a language then, all you need do is show yourself the data. Your brain will do the rest. Trust it.

Anyway, screw theorizing — I certainly don’t know enough about this stuff to theorize. Just do it. Results pwn everything.

And remember, dude, I am still talking about writing kanji by ear, which Noam Chomsky is said to have called: “phreaking hardcore l33t haX0rN355”.

  28 comments for “Just Because It’s Not Painful, That Doesn’t Mean You’re Not Learning

  1. June 4, 2008 at 15:16

    >> Just Because It’s Not Painful, That Doesn’t Mean You’re Not Learning

    It’s actually the reverse in my case :).

    For me, memorizing words by itself (painful) actually means that I’m not learning (I forget them again and again!).

    By putting the context sentences, it became easier (not painful) and at the same time my retention rate is considerably higher (finally I’m learning something!).

    The results do pwn!

  2. Saru Sponge
    June 4, 2008 at 15:18

    I understand what you mean, since this all goes back to the ‘learn by having fun’ aspect of your method. I think you should try to compile these blog posts into a more coherent and n00b-digestable format. Heck, I think you should write a book. It would probably help a hell of a lot of people. Anyway, thanks for being here and being such a motivator. It is too easy (for me, anyway) to get discouraged.

  3. June 4, 2008 at 15:22

    Learning a language can be very easy, and making things easier on ourselves is the source for most innovations in this world. If what you are doing isn’t painful, then you’ll probably continue to do it – and I’d say that giving up is the reason people fail to learn Japanese, not because it is hard.

    That said, I do think sometimes you have to do things you don’t enjoy to succeed in learning Japanese. Unless you are some freak that likes everything! For me, I am a shy person, so for me it is hard to strike a conversation with someone I don’t know. Thus speaking is my weakest skill, in English as well as Japanese! It is something I need to work on and I would say that I don’t enjoy starting a conversation, but when I do, I am rewarded with the fantastic feeling of knowing I’ve communicated with someone in Japanese. If you do have to tackle something that is painful, and you aren’t naturally rewarded like I am in this case, I would advice to reward yourself!

  4. June 4, 2008 at 15:25

    Another thought… You talk about i+1. I would say that this formula makes learning easier and thus less painful. It’s like learning a word first in hiragana, then later in kanji… it’s just one step at a time, one new thing to learn at a time. One reason why I think that Heisig is a fantastic idea… in this case, you learn the Kanji first, then you learn the word/pronunciation. To learn both at once is i+2 and thus more difficult.

    Also what Agro Rachmatullah is saying. If something is painful, we are probably not going to get much from it. The more painful, the less we’ll get from it.

  5. Rob
    June 4, 2008 at 22:02

    Hi Khatzu,

    I’m currently SRSing using the new dictation / kana to kanji method, and as expected, it is a bit slow going. My question is, do you think if you had used this method when you started that you would have been fluent in the same time frame?

    In other words, while using the dictation method may produce greater results in the beginning, do you think those benefits outweigh the ability to add and go through sentences quicker when SRSing?

    To me your above post is kind of an argument in favor of the older SRS method, where you’d be essentially just reading the sentence, saying it aloud, writing it down and moving on. Keeping it simple. It seems that in adding and going through more sentences daily, one would be able to start connecting the Japanese dots more quickly which would lead to a quicker fluency.

    I realize that for this question there is no cut and dry answer. Perhaps a balance of all of the SRS methods may be the way to go?

  6. June 4, 2008 at 22:11

    Thanks for the encouragement. I’m a little over 400 kanji into RTK and I can already see the difference. When I’m on Mixi or amazon.co.jp, I can pick out a character here and there, and sometimes, using Heisig meanings, I can pick out the meanings of a word. Though sometimes it may seem like slow going, I know that I will get there, and day by day, the connections are being made!

  7. nest0r
    June 5, 2008 at 02:15

    Got any image tips for learning sentences where the focus is on grammar points (ie abstract concepts)?

  8. Nivaldo
    June 5, 2008 at 02:30

    You sure hit something with this post, Khatz. Like, who has ever felt himself growing taller and taller? That’s why this method is so nice. It runs totally on the background. 😀

  9. lloyd
    June 5, 2008 at 07:43

    great post, khatz! one of the best, i think! keep up the good work, man and as always thanks!

    exclamatation point-crazy,

  10. AwkwardMap
    June 5, 2008 at 11:44

    Off-topic, but you check the newest post most often, so:

    I noticed that sometimes when I look a word up and then try to type it out it’s not on that list that pops up when one hits space. For instance, I just looked up たま, or 偶 as it appears in the dictionary and then when I try to type that out, that kanji is not on that list.

    I’ve seen this happen with some other words as well, none right off the top of my head that I can think of, though. So why does this happen? Just not written that way commonly? (It was written out in kana in the source material.)

  11. Daniel
    June 5, 2008 at 14:53

    I think some of how the keyboard input schemes works reflect how often Japanese people actually use the kanji. In fact, just one week ago, I used the kanji 偶 for たま with a very intelligent and multilingual Japanese person, and he was like “I’ve never seen this kanji before,” and then when I told him it was “たまに” he was like “…ohhhhh.” So good chances are, if it doesn’t come up easily in your input method, you should probably just go with hiragana.

  12. 774
    June 5, 2008 at 16:59

    Hi Khatzumoto, I found an “unique interactive massively multiplayer online role playing game for learning Mandarin Chinese.” called zon and thought you would like it.


  13. nest0r
    June 6, 2008 at 00:57

    Khatzumoto, just wanted to say thanks for posting your Chinese project notes–I’m enjoying starting your method modified with active recall TTS/images right from the get go, being sort of a guinea pig. Yesterday, I added images to the new cards, and it just clicked for me, and I’ve noticed my listening and writing skills have increased very quickly from just the few TTS cards I’ve done, despite it being slow going. I’ll tell you how it goes a few months or a year from now. ^_^ I think I’ll try this laddering method you spoke of eventually as well, though with a Romance language rather than Chinese.

  14. nest0r
    June 6, 2008 at 16:47

    That’s right, a romance language. The language of L-O-V-E.

  15. Mallory
    June 6, 2008 at 23:59

    Hey, I just have a couple questions, if it’s okay.

    I don’t have access to a computer very often, and when I do, I can’t save anything onto it. Can I do an SRS kind of thing with flash cards? I’ve been doing that, putting the English meaning on front and the kanji on back, and seeing how I do. I’ve learned about maybe 100 kanji in three days. Am I doing something wrong? Thanks–….

  16. Sutebun
    June 7, 2008 at 02:08


    Get some kind of small rectangular box. Split into 5 sections that are large enough to hold the flashcards.

    Then do the spacing yourself exactly like at kanji.koohii.com/learnmore.php

    Or, if you have enough time to use the computer, you can use that website without having to save anything to your computer.

    But if you don’t, here is the spacing it uses:
    Box Days
    1 0 days (incorrectly answered cards)
    2 3 days
    3 7 days
    4 14 days
    5 30 days
    5 60 days
    6 120 days
    7* 240 days

    So just label sections and physically move the cards. You probably also need tp make a card spacer then to separate cards reviewed at different times; so say today you are putting cards into box 2. At the top of all those cards, make another card that says something like “Review in Three Days: 6/06/08”. Then have a paper where you record your schedule. So it would say like “6/09/08: Box 2, review cards from 6/06”, so that you know to check that box. So:

    -Have some way to physically separate cards into different piles that are following intervals.
    -Make sure to have some way to separate cards within a box since a box can contain cards from many different review days.
    -Have a way to keep track of cards in the box, and then make a schedule so you can get those cards and review them when needed.

    It may seem a little complex, but it should work out pretty simple. As long as you don’t knock all the cards over and mix them, you should be fine 😛

  17. Mallory
    June 7, 2008 at 11:32

    Will do. Thanks a bunch!

  18. anders
    June 8, 2008 at 19:56

    I’ve got a question regarding sentence adding.

    I started doing kanji and sentences 13 months ago. I’ve got 6000 items in mnemosyne at the moment (including kanji).
    I do reps every day and usually miss 1 day every 2 months or so, and have never gone more than 2 days without doing any reps at all.

    But I haven’t gotten into a good habit of adding sentences every day. Sometimes I go several weeks without adding anything. And this is of course way below my goal of ~30 adds per day. For example, if I’m reading Yahoo!知恵袋 there is usually a lot of sentences that I could add to mnemosyne, but I usually don’t bother because it seems so troublesome and continue to read on.
    So I was wondering if khatzumoto or anyone else who has been able to get into a habit of adding stuff everyday could share some tips.

  19. Rob
    June 9, 2008 at 00:32


    I have the exact same problem. I too always do my daily reps, but it seems after I’m done that I just don’t have time (or energy) left for additions. I was curious as to how Khatzumoto could state in the beginner section that one could easily add 50 sentences daily to the SRS. I thought I must be doing something wrong.

    That’s why I’ve decided to do a mix of all four SRS methods. Before I was doing the dictation method only, where I would find a sentence, rip the audio or create it in Neospeech, look up the new words, copy and paste everything into Anki, check the hiragana, then write the sentence. That whole process takes considerable time.

    Now I also use the method Khatzu used originally, which is just adding the sentence and hiragana only. Also one thing I try and do is find shorter sentences. When I started I had a bad habit of adding long and sometimes multiple sentences to one card which slowed things down.

    I’ve only just begun using the mix SRS methods, but so far I’m averaging around 15 adds a day, which is a lot better than before when I was lucky to do 5.

  20. AwkwardMap
    June 9, 2008 at 03:19


    I know exactly what you mean about the long sentences thing. I thought I wouldn’t be learning unless it was filling up a couple of lines on my SRS. Yeah, except that meant that my sentences for the day were more or less shot and I was killing the great thing about the method: bite-sized chunks that are easy to swallow.

    Smaller sentences means more sentences, so that has helped a lot.

  21. khatzumoto
    June 16, 2008 at 22:54

    @Saru Sponge
    Thanks for that idea. I’m working on a linear “table of contents” right now, so one can view AJATT logically/by topic rather than just chronologically…

  22. khatzumoto
    June 16, 2008 at 22:56

    >Perhaps a balance of all of the SRS methods may be the way to go?
    Hmmm…maybe. Try it out!
    I tend to go for “one pill/method/ring to rule them all”, but that’s simply a personality trait.
    That’s sounds like a cool experiment you have ready to go there…

  23. khatzumoto
    June 16, 2008 at 22:58

    >I’ve noticed my listening and writing skills have increased very quickly
    Me too! I can write like champ, and I’m also far less dependent on seeing something in text to find out what it means.

  24. khatzumoto
    June 16, 2008 at 23:04

    That’s an interesting question…give me some time to think.
    For now, I’d say, find some things that interest you enough to be worth adding.
    Also, if you’re adding from text, consider making sure it’s electronic (copy-pastable) text. That’ll save some time.

    Also don’t worry about it too much. Regular review/reps are more important than regular additions, IMHO.

  25. khatzumoto
    June 16, 2008 at 23:08

    >one could easily add 50 sentences daily to the SRS
    My bad. That was a magic number. One COULD, but whether one does or not is another matter entirely. I didn’t. As you grow in Japanese, you will get faster, and be able to add more.

    >When I started I had a bad habit of adding long and sometimes multiple sentences to one card which slowed things down.
    I had this bad habit, too. SRS items need to be short, short, short. Definitely sentences, but definitely short. It should be like popping bubblewrap: a small, satisfying effort that can be repeated over and over.

  26. Will
    October 19, 2008 at 07:59

    First time I saw the keywords with story I was sceptical but i thought I’d see if my little sister wanted to do it as she found heisig was to hard (she is only 10). Amazing we just did an hour of kanji with no crying no getting board and fun.

  27. March 19, 2009 at 05:43

    I’m up to about 650 sentences. I’ve been at it for about a month and a half. First off, its really fun. The cards I make are audio and a picture on the question side, and the text in on the other, with definitions mostly in japanese (some in english cuz I get lazy). So with this ‘new’ format for cards that I got from your chinese project, I find that I am getting good at knowing readings of kanji in regular text, being able to associate a word with its kanji from my memory, and also my listening comprehension is a little better too. But one thing that I am not ‘feeling’ like I am getting better at, because I have no way to know, is recalling words from… the abyss of memory. Because in the card the word is always being provided for me both through audio and visually. In that respect I never have to work for the word. Whats your comment on this Katsumoto? Will this come eventually.? Whats a good way to excersize this aspect of your linguistic capacity? That is, just trying to say something you want… ;p

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