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How to level up your lingo

My friends and I have been trying to coordinate a trip back to Japan for years. We’ve finally gotten our flights booked and now we’re working out the details in anticipation, reminiscing about our previous adventures and seeking out new places to explore near Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka. We’re also brushing up on the language skills that we’ve let get a little rusty over the years. I thought I would share some of the modern tools that I’m using to restore my proficiency, in the hopes that this might give our readers some ideas for similar tools to look into for studying their own foreign languages of interest.

When I first visited Japan, I bought an electronic dictionary. This saved me from looking up kanji (the complex characters borrowed from Chinese) by counting strokes and identifying radicals (the root component of a kanji character) to index into the enormous tome that I had been using. The dictionary was much lighter, and had a stylus that could be used to draw kanji. Using this sort of input method, the order that you draw the strokes still matters, but it’s much faster than flipping pages. I used this dictionary for getting around Japan, studying, reading manga, and playing video games. Years later, after the Nintendo DS came out, I upgraded using a cartridge called Kanji Sonomama Rakubiki Jiten. It uses the same stylus input method, but the results are marked up in color and it has a nicer interface, including a history of recently looked-up words, which is extremely useful. One of the other tools that I was using at the time (and still use today) is a plugin for Firefox called Rikai-chan. When enabled, this plugin allows you to hover the mouse over a word and see the definition in a pop-up.

Rikai-chan also has dictionaries for German, French, and Russian, and similar tools may exist for other languages too, so make sure to look for this kind of plugin for the language that you study if you like to read online material in the original language.

My favorite dictionary now is Japanese for the iPhone. You can look up words by typing roman characters with the default Qwerty keyboard, or by enabling the Japanese and Simplified Chinese Handwriting keyboards in the iPhone settings you can enter a word using the Japanese input method (which presents you with possible kanji as you type phonetically), or by drawing kanji. It includes expressions, proverbs, conjunctions, and interjections, and has an impressive catalog of example sentences. As if this isn’t enough, it also has a vocabulary list feature. I like to create a list of new words for each novel, manga, or video game that I’m into, and then study them using the flashcard feature wherever I am when I have a spare minute. The flashcard feature uses an algorithm based on a series of steps.

When you identify a word correctly, it advances to the next step, and eventually into a “Known” category. Usually there are about twenty or so items between the “Unknown” and “Known” categories that you’re working on, but occasionally you see some items that are in the “Known” category as well. I’d highly recommend an app for your language of interest that has this sort of system for reviewing vocabulary.

In fact, I recently discovered Smart.fm, an online tool/community that’s based on a similar system. There’s a video on the home page that describes how their system automatically determines which material you need to be presented with at a given time to have the best chance of remembering it. I actually recall reading an article a while back about a man who was living his life according to this sort of algorithm. One of the other interesting things about Smart.fm is that in addition to the Goals (sets of material to study) curated by Smart.fm, the user community can create their own. So you can find Goals for varying grades of vocabulary for Japanese, Spanish, and other languages, as well as Goals consisting of the capitals of the world or the names of stars and galaxies. For Japanese, the system does a good job quizzing you on the phonetic reading of a word, the meaning of the word, and the kanji. Some of the goals include sentences, which serve as examples and are also presented to quiz your knowledge. From what I’ve read, images can also be incorporated into the material for a Goal, so the system has the capability to support many areas of study. Unfortunately, their main quiz interface is a Flash app and they dropped the iPhone app that they had developed, but I suspect that they’re working on a new HTML5 solution that will work both on their site and on multiple mobile platforms.

On their own, the tools I’ve mentioned really only help review and expand vocabulary. Without a solid foundation in grammar, even Rikai-chan can only help so much. I have a few books and dictionaries for grammar reference, but I haven’t come across any nice apps or plugins to help in this area of language study. My best suggestion here is to take classes to build your foundation, keep your books, and seek out interesting material at your level to practice with. I’m currently trying to figure out if there’s a good way to get manga in Japanese on the iPad. If you can build some friendships with native speakers, that’s another good way to explore new grammar, and maybe even learn a regional dialect.

And of course the ultimate boost for your language skills, once you have a good start, is to immerse yourself by living abroad. You’ll learn more about the culture, customs and lifestyle, which will reinforce your understanding of language and vice-versa. You might even gain some new perspective and learn more about yourself. And you’ll always have an urge to go back someday.

Filed under: Technology, Travel

4 Responses to “How to level up your lingo”

  • avatar
    Allie Stokes Says:

    your writing skills are awesome…You sold me on every technical device that you described!! Thank you

  • avatar
    Ed Says:

    Thanks Allie! Have fun improving your fluency!

  • avatar
    adshap Says:

    Looks like an interesting program. I may check it out.

  • avatar
    Ed Says:

    I wanted to add some more info since Smart.fm has recently announced that they are closing down free service and re-launching a new paid version of their system at http://iknow.jp. To ween myself off before April, I’ve been trying out http://renshuu.org, which is based on the same concept but has both free and paid tiers. The free tier doesn’t include listening practice and the interface isn’t quite as nice as Smart.fm/iKnow, but it is just as functional. I know it doesn’t benefit anyone studying other languages, but I hope this is helpful for those who are interested in Japanese.

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