Friday, March 29, 2024

Story Study Strategy for Language Learning

So, I’ve mentioned that I’m trying to learn and teach several languages to my daughter, which I’m at varying levels of fluency in. Japanese is probably my worst of these languages. I’m pretty decent at PSE but not great at ASL grammar yet, in Dutch I can read beginner reader books and usually understand most of the story, and in French I’m probably around 4th to 5th grade level - that’s when I stopped French immersion, and when I look at free online materials for French immersion students, that’s about the level that feels challenging. In Japanese, meanwhile, I can mostly follow Yuki’s Comprehensible Japanese series if I focus.

Anyway, lately I’ve hit upon a self-invented strategy for studying Japanese that I’m finding fun and engaging and also seem to be learning from. I’m tentatively calling it “story study”, and I thought I’d share it with you.

So, I started by ordering a book online, called 小学校学習漢字 1006字 漢字童話, which Google translate tells me is “elementary school learning kanji, 1006 characters, kanji fairy tales”. I don't think you need this specific book, just one that's just a bit too hard for you to read independently, but the content is interesting for you. This book in particular is designed for Japanese elementary school students, and is an anthology of short stories, one for each grade, that feature all the Kyouiku Kanji for that grade. (Kyouiku Kanji is an official list of Kanji that Japanese elementary school students need to learn. Basically like the Japanese equivalent of the Dolch sight words list for English speaking students.)

I took the first story, called ダバラン王 (King Dabaran), and typed it up, and then put the whole text into NihongoDera’s text analyzer, a free online tool that takes a Japanese text as input, and outputs a list of words in that text. It’s not 100% accurate (it struggles to figure out where one word ends and another begins, especially if the text is mostly hiragana) but it's close enough to be useful.

So, now I have a list of words. I next used an app called StudyQuest, which is a game for practicing languages. It's kind of like a cross between a turn-based fighting RPG and a tile-matching game, where you charge up attacks with a tile-matching minigame, then have to solve language quiz questions to keep the attacks charged, and then attack monsters with it. Pretty basic idea, but since Memrise got ruined, it's the only app I can find that gives you varied question types from a user-submitted study list of vocabulary. (Mostly it's just a wasteland of low-effort flashcard apps that just show one side of a simple two-sided flashcard and then ask you if you answered correctly. Why do people even bother making those?)

Anyway, StudyQuest gives you only 100 in-game currency to start, and charges you one coin per word, so you either need to pay real money or slowly grind to get more. So I wasn’t able to enter the full wordlist from NihongoDera into StudyQuest, but I did enter a good chunk of it. And I was studying that for a few days and starting to get bored and wondering how long it’d take before I’d learned enough to read the story, and then I got an idea. StudyQuest also lets you input a sentence to each vocabulary entry (it’s supposed to be an example of that vocabulary word in use) and that opens up new question types you can select for that entry that involve putting the words of that sentence back in order. I decided to start slowly entering sentences from King Dabaran onto the entries of words contained in those sentences.

And here’s where it started getting actually fun. I’m slowly discovering the plot of the story (it’s about a scary but secretly kind and lonely monster who lives on a mountaintop in a kingdom with a greedy oppressive king), and each time I practice rebuilding a sentence, my knowledge of the context of that sentence makes it way more fun than most sentence-building exercises in language apps. I’m also practicing more complicated sentences - after all, this story is intended for first-language Japanese-speaking 6 year olds, who have a much better grasp of Japanese grammar than I do.

And the process of entering the sentences is educational, too. I first type up the sentence in Google translate. It’ll often suggest that I add more kanji into the text, and I’ve found it’s usually a good idea to follow that suggestion. Then I look at the translation, and if it doesn’t make sense, usually I need to tweak the kanji it suggested and find other kanji that are homophones to that one. (The Japanese keyboard I have on my phone does that for me - you type hiragana with it, and use predictive text to get kanji and katakana.) Then, I assess how long the sentence is, because really long sentences kinda break StudyQuest’s display. If it’s too long, I futz around breaking it up into shorter sentences or phrases at the most meaningful breakpoints I can find, while changing as little of the sentence structure as possible.

Lastly, in order for StudyQuest to give me a sentence-rebuilding task, I need to segment the sentence into words. Japanese text doesn’t use spaces, but Google translate spaces out the romaji at areas that roughly correspond to word borders. This romaji spacing can also help troubleshoot incomprehensible translations, because they’re often due to splitting up words incorrectly. I also find this segmenting helps me piece together which parts of the sentence mean what. I also enter both kanji/kana mix and the kana-only versions of each sentence, because if you do that, StudyQuest will give you furigana on some question types. I find kanji with furigana easier to read than hiragana-only text and kanji without furigana, so it helps focus my energy on sentence-building and also allows me to include kanji I can’t read and give myself passive exposure to it in context.

Sadly, the one thing that StudyQuest can't do is prompt me to practice writing the kanji. I do have an app called Kanji Dojo that lets me input sentences and select kanji from those sentences to practice, but I find that app a lot less fun, so I'm still tooling around looking for a fun way to do that. One thing that'd help is if Kanji Dojo let you put in the translation of the sentence and showed it alongside the text, then I'd be more reminded of the story as I practice. I've also been considering trying to do fanart with quotes from the text as captions, but we'll see if I actually get motivated enough to do it.

Lastly, I just recently figured out that ChatGPT can help, too. If you ask it to “analyze the grammatical structure of this sentence” and give it a sentence in Japanese, it'll give you a breakdown of each of the parts of the sentence, what they mean and what grammatical role they're playing, and then give you a translation of the whole sentence that seems to be more accurate than Google translate. I've been using this to help with some of the more confusing sentences that I'm struggling to recreate, and it seems to help.

Overall, this strategy seems to be working for me. I’m having fun, getting invested in the slowly-unfurling story of poor lonely Dabaran who lives on a mountaintop, and it’s getting easier and easier to put the sentences back together and remember the meaning of the words. I’m also finding that the more I study, the easier it is to find the spot I left off when I’m looking to get the next few sentences of the story. I’m starting to actually be able to skim King Dabaran and still keep track of where I’m at, instead of having to slowly read from the start. And just recently I was watching an anime and recognizing words that I'd learned from this story, so it's transferring to other contexts as well.


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