The Principle: Fun Gets Done
“fun is the easiest way to change people’s behaviour for the better” | The Fun Theory Dot Com
I have previously written about SRS card formatting for learning kanji.
Recently, however, I have had a bit of a new epiphany on the subject. Many of you know this already, but for those who don’t, I’ll make something clear right here: there is never an end to learning a language, but there is an end to sucking at it and not being functional in it. Whatever language-learning methods you use, none, currently, can withstand neglect of the language.
So, it should come as no surprise to you that I continue to learn new kanji. Obscure motherlovers like 膂 (a character meaning, “backbone”). I mean, why not? We’re either progressing or regressing, right?
I say these ASM-sounding things a lot, but there’s just one problem: I’m pathologically lazy. Looking at my family situation, it was practically bound to happen. I’m the last child in the family and the only boy. By the time she had me, my Mum was mellower than a rural grandparent. So not only am I lazy, but I feel entitled to this laziness; it’s my last-child prerogative (it’s mah pre-ro-ga-tiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiive). In the past, I have had my share of skirmishes with perfectionism, and even actual ASM, but, they almost killed me — literally. So screw that.
Everything that matters to you needs to become a game. If it matters to you, then it matters that it be fun or be made fun. If it’s not important enough to design and tweak into being fun, then…it’s not important. But why? Why the apparent strictness about fun? Why the blanket statement?
Because fun gets done. Easy gets done.
As the late Jim Rohn so eloquently put it, success is easy: the things one needs to do to succeed are easy. It’s just that “the things that are easy to do are also easy not to do”. I think there is a way to hack this apparent “equality dilemma”, and that is simply to make your “target behavior” — the thing you want to do — more fun than any rival behaviors — things you don’t want to do. When you do that, the things that we need to do to succeed become hard not to do.
So, as you can see, another way of going about making it easy for yourself to succeed is simply to make it difficult to fail (that’s what a lot of the AJATT immersion advice is about…the core principle is to make Japanese an unignoreable part of your life…don’t hurt yourself trying to follow it…don’t get used by it…use it).
Besides, do you want to go your whole life in a near-permanent state of struggle and boredom punctuated only by some form of socially-approved (legal) drug-induced stupor? I mean, is that all there is? I submit to you that such a life isn’t worth living. If you’re going to be here…have fun. By all means, become an addict. But with a twist: get addicted to good things. Get addicted to constructive things. Fun is the hook for both forming and maintaining those constructive addictions.
The Card Format
So I’m sitting there learning kanji, but I want to make it easy for myself. Easy to make the cards, easy to do the reps. Easy, easy, easy. And fun. On a whim, I came up with this card format:
backbone, spinal column
The task, given the front of the card, is:
- To write out the kanji once, by hand, in full, while seeing it. Easy, right? But it still counts.
- To produce the meaning of the character in a vague way, i.e. in a way synonymous (though not necessarily equal) to the meaning written on the back. “Backbone”, “spinal column”, “spine”, “back”, “vertebra”, “vertebral column” — all count — even though, as you can see, some of these aren’t exact matches. What matters is being in the ballpark.
- Producing the reading is not required…
- The way I grade it is:
- (in addition to writing out the kanji) giving the ballpark meaning is the main thing — it’s what gets the points
- giving a reading is just extra credit
- giving only a reading (without meaning) gets only “booby prize points” — effort points.
Why this format? Well:
- It’s easy to make — it’s pure copy-paste
- It’s easy to do — write the kanji, give a vague guess as to its meaning — it doesn’t get much easier than that
- No stories to make/manage/decode — saving time and energy to focus on the kanji themselves
- Flexible in the face of kanji synonymity
- No keyword clashes/overlap
- No having to struggle to prevent keyword overlap
- No “synonym errors” — those of you who have been through Heisig know that each character having a single keyword — a really cool and revolutionary idea, by the way — avoids any confusion between visually similar characters but often causes new confusion between completely unrelated characters whose keywords happen to be synonyms in English. For example, Momoko often gets: 如 (likeness) and 肖 (resemblance) switched in her reps.
- No issues with having to use keywords whose meanings are only tangentially/secondarily related to the kanji in order to prevent keyword-clashing. In other words, you get to use the kanji’s “active, operational (‘real’) meaning” right from the start.
- You get writing practice — so you don’t become a “reader only”
- You get reading practice — so you avoid the “can-write-but-can’t-quite-recognize” problem that affects early-stage, less “mature” Heisigers.
I can already hear the clarion cry of ASM-sufferers everywhere: “but if it’s not hard, how can it be good for me?”
While (I have read) having to work harder for a memory strengthens it, having to work too hard just makes you not want to practice at all. And having to work hard thousands of times is just hors de question. In any case, I think the spacing of repetitions provides enough “strain” in the case of these kanji cards — we needn’t add more. Also, in my own personal experience, struggle is not necessary to make a memory stick.
Think of how you know your own name, home phone number, and mailing address by heart. You know tons of advertising jingles, by heart. You know the content of the billboards and advertisements in your immediate environment, by heart. Back in the day, before cellphones and their memory, when you were dialing manually, you probably knew your best friends’ phone numbers by heart, too. And this all without ever even trying! Why? Because of repetition. I have yet to meet the non-spy who memorized their own address and phone number using closed-book “test”-style methods.
Now, the situation is different with kanji. There are many of them, right? Surely a laissez-faire approach wouldn’t work…we wouldn’t get enough exposure. Aha! Exposure — there’s the key word. Well, as it turns out, we have a tool that can do all the work of handling exposure timing for us. That tool is the SRS. This is something — along with cellphones and decent clothes — that Heisig didn’t have back in the 1970s. It’s not his fault: those were rough times.
Pre-SRS, I think it may well have been important to work harder to make sure the kanji were really remembered. Maybe. But not any more. With the SRS handling exposure-timing, I think we can afford to relax and still enjoy the same results we would with the traditional “testing” style approach.
This is just something I’ve come up with recently. I’ve been doing it for about two weeks. I have no long-term data. I may be completely off base. Or it may be that this method is valid, but only once one has learned to memorize/decompose kanji in a more traditional Heisig style. I may just be riding on the fruits of my previous “hard work” (defenders of anything boring and difficult love to bring this one up…occasionally they’re right, but often they, like all of us, are more interested in propping up a certain worldview than in being effective).
My experience with the previously mentioned memory situations tells me this format will work. For one thing, it’ll get me doing one of my favorite things — writing kanji by hand — sans struggle. If this kind of thing, over time, works for phone numbers and home addresses, then, over time, and armed with memory/presentation management software, I see no reason why it shouldn’t work for kanji.
Anyway, something to try with your new kanji if nothing else.
Related link: Lazy Kanji Kendo Mod