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Apr 28, 2011

The Secret of Language Learning is Retention!

All too often I hear of people that start on these grand adventures into learning Japanese. They think that the secret to learning is to gather as much information in as little time as possible and shove it into their brain. While learning a lot in a short time is certainly going to get results, the true key to language acquisition is retention and repetition.

The first big steps of learning Japanese are the kanji and the kana. The kana shouldn't take too long to get down, but if you don't keep reviewing them in some way you will quickly forget them. Think back to when you first learned the alphabet. I remember sitting in class and spending ages going over a single letter and learning how to write it. Then we'd have all kinds of practice sheets (on that crappy newsprint paper) to keep practicing in class and at home. Then we'd get reading practice to recognize them. We were constantly reviewing those same letters – because if we didn't we'd forget them in a fraction of the time it took to learn them.

I went back to an elementary school just last week and hung around in a first grade classroom for a couple hours. I saw some of their homework, and wow. Those kids couldn't write for crap. They'd been working at that alphabet for over a year and they still had backwards J's and G's and I don't even know what some of the letters were supposed to be. While there is a (slight) difference between children and adults, the fact remains that even after a year of studying they were still reviewing and studying those same basic concepts. They were still doing those little newsprint worksheets and working to improve their ability to write the letters. As people learning Japanese, we have become children again. We need to keep doing our “worksheets” in order to remember.

Obviously what goes for kana is even more evident in kanji. You have a few thousand characters to learn and remember – don't think you can learn them once and be done. Learning the kanji means being able to recognize them years after you first saw them. This doesn't mean that you're going to be spending the rest of your life doing kanji worksheets, but it DOES mean that you have to maintain what you know!

So what does all of this mean for how you should study? How do you know when and how often to review things? The best answer to that question is use Anki or any other SRS to manage your reviews for you! If it wasn't for Anki, I don't think I could have ever learned Japanese. There is simply so much to learn and so much to remember, that keeping track of it all would be too much. But with Anki you can load in new information and learn it for the first time, and then never have to worry about when to review it – Anki will do it for you

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  1. I just play video games in Japanese, which I find works best for me. I'm not sure about other people though. I use Anki in addition to my other study methods.

  2. >They'd been working at that alphabet for over a year and they still had backwards J's and G's and I don't even know what some of the letters were supposed to be.
    What I never seen this before this is shocking to me.

  3. Yes, I think it's important to note that some people get discouraged when they use an SRS and think they know the information to find that they forgot it a week later when it comes for review.

    It's okay. It's fine. You'll forget some and remember some easier than others. You'll eventually learn them through repetition. You can't let it slow you down. There are tons of kanji I thought I knew and find I completely forgot them when I bump into them! But after a few times it gets better cemented into my head.

    It's part of why immersion is important. Even when you don't think you're really learning, just reviewing what you already know solidifies it into your memory.

  4. About a week ago I was writing something down and had to stop and think for a good 5 seconds which way Cs go. Forget Japanese, I think I need to grind my English a bit longer.

    It's interesting with Anki that although I'm pretty good at remembering most kanji I've added with enough repetition, there's 30 or so that really refuse to stick in my mind. I guess I just have to grind them harder.