Thursday, August 26, 2010

A Modification of Rikaichan

How I use Anki

After my brief post on flashcards, I wanted to write about how I use Anki and a new tool that I've created to quickly grab vocab that I read on the web.

First, I'll take an example. I was reading this blogpost.

Let's take this sentence:


and suppose that I don't know the word 作品. This is the information I want:

Word: 作品
Pronunciation: さくひん
Meaning: 製作したもの。
Sentence: でも良い___だと思う。
Gap: 作品
Source: URL to blog post

One of the best features of Anki is that it can take information like this and generate multiple cards. These are the cards that I have set up:

(click to see a larger version)

For the meaning, I tend to use a Japanese definition from an online dictionary because it captures the meaning well and is convenient. An English translation or a picture could also be used.

The source doesn't appear in the flashcards but I store it so I can go and see the context again if I need to.

The most important piece of information is the sentence. When I read it, I'm reminded of why it came up in the original material and it gives the vocab context. I know that I can use the vocab in this situation and the meaning of the word is clear in this context. If I encounter the word in a completely different context where it has a different meaning, I can add flashcards for this too.

You can add a model like this by going to Settings → Deck Properties and either edit one of the existing models or add a new one. You can then add fields for the word, the pronunciation etc. Click on the card templates tab to add the three cards I have. I suggest you look at existing models to get some ideas on how to format your cards. If there's demand, I can make a sample deck available so you can check out the model. [see update]

One big problem with flashcards is the time taken to create them. Am I wasting time creating flashcards, when I could be spending that time doing something else?

In order to solve this problem, I modified the popular extension called Rikaichan so that I could quickly pick up vocab that I read on the web.


Rikaichan is an extension for the Firefox web browser. When you switch it on and hover your mouse cursor over a word, the pronunciation and meaning of the word will appear.

I have modified the extension such that when you have a word highlighted, you can press 's' to save customizable information to a text file. The information you can save is:

The highlighted word
The pronunciation of the word in hiragana
The dictionary lookup of that word (e.g. if the highlighted word is 行きます, this would be 行く)
The sentence the word appears in
The sentence the word appears in with a gap where the word is
English translation of the word from edict
The URL of the web page
A blank space

When you install rikaichan, a small smiley face will appear in the bottom right. You turn it on by clicking on this face. Move your cursor over words on the web page to see the popup.

By right clicking on the face, you can select options. You can choose which information you want to save by choosing the last tab in the options window. You can also choose where to save the text file.

Every time you press 's', your specified pieces of information will be saved to a new line in the text file. The different parts will be separated by tabs by default. You can also copy the data to the clipboard by pressing 'c'.

As you can see from the Anki model I described above, all of the information I need can be automatically saved, apart from the 'Meaning' part. For this part, I use a blank space, and I fill it in later if I need it. Surprisingly, the sentence by itself is often enough for me to remember the word.

At the end of every day at work, I save the text file and then import it into Anki by clicking File → Import...

This allows me to keep a steady stream of new vocab coming into my deck with a minimum of effort.

You can download the modified extension here.

To install, click the link and click 'Allow' when prompted. Alternatively, right click, save target as, then click File -> Open File and select the rikaichan-mod0_50.xpi file you downloaded. After that, you'll need to download the dictionaries here.

If you're using rikaichan already, delete the extension by clicking on Tools -> Add-ons then delete. No need to delete the dictionaries though.

This is a first release so there may be problems. I seriously doubt anything major will happen but I make no guarantees. Download at your own risk and all that.

The method used to fetch the sentence is very basic and I hope to improve it in the future. I've been using it for several weeks now. I use it a lot with Twitter. I chat with a lot of Japanese people and when they say words I don't understand, I click on the link to the tweet, turn on rikaichan, highlight the word and press 's'.

UPDATE: Due to demand in the comments, find a sample Anki deck here. This contains 9 cards for three words I picked up from reading the final blog post of Satoshi Kon.

UPDATE 21 April 2011: Firefox 4 broke the old add-on. Using the update to the original extension, I updated this one too. Here it is. If you have any problems, please leave a comment.

UPDATE 21 June 2011: Update to work with Firefox 5. No changes at all and haven't done much testing. Let me know if there are any problems. 

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Flashcards for learning languages

I've been meaning to write a post about some of the strategies I use to learn Japanese. In my next post I'm going to write about some work I've been doing recently but I thought it would be best to start at the beginning. The below may be old news to some...

I have used flashcards a lot as both an English teacher (several years ago) and as a learner of Japanese. Here's an example of a flashcard:

Aid India - Eureka English Team - Bilingual Body Parts Flashcard - Tongue

I found this one here. It looks like it's a flashcard being used by a learner of English from India. The learner looks at one side of the card, sees the image, tries to remember the English word for it, and then checks the answer on the reverse of the card.

If you make many flashcards, you might have something like this:

I hope I never have to look at these again

Now, here's the problem: You can practice these flashcards whenever you want, but when should you do this? How often? Which cards?

One attempt at answering these questions was given by Sebastian Leitner in 1970. He proposed a system where you get a number of boxes and line them up. You put all the cards in box 1. Cards in box 1 are reviewed often, maybe every day. Cards in box 2 are reviewed less often, maybe every 3 days. Cards in box 3 even less - maybe every 10 days. etc.

If you answer a card correctly, it moves to the second box. If you answer the card correctly again, it moves to the third box etc. If you get any card wrong, it goes back to the first box.

Wikipedia Article on Leitner System

The general principle is that you spend less time looking at cards you know well and more time looking at cards you find difficult. In this way, you maximize the amount that you remember, and minimize the amount of work you need to do. This general technique is called Spaced Repetition.

Leitner's system is a simple example of Spaced Repetition. More sophisticated techniques ask how easy it was to recall the answer. Was it hard, normal or easy? If it was easy, the card gets scheduled for review very far into the future. Difficult cards are scheduled sooner.

Anki Screenshot

Of course, computer software is very good at organising this for you. There are many flashcard programs out there and many of them use Spaced Repitition. I've used quite a few of them but 3 years ago I started using Anki, and I'm still using it today.

If you want to find out about Anki, I recommend watching the introductory videos on the website.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Mr. and Mrs. Wright Search for the Right Baby Name

My wife and I are struggling to find a name for our baby, due in January. Boys names are particularly difficult if you're looking for a name that works in both Japanese and English. We don't know the sex of our baby yet but if it's a boy, we may struggle.

My wife really liked the name "Sky" because it sounds nice in Japanese - スカイ - and you can choose some beautiful kanji for it:

澄 meaning "clear" or "translucent" and

海 meaning "the sea"

So 澄海 could be a way to write the name Sky, meaning a clear sea, which is a lovely image for the sky.

Very poetic. However, I've never heard of the name in English and I'd rather not imitate the Hollywood couples that give their kids very strange names.

But then I remembered the Isle of Skye, a beautiful island off the coast of Scotland. I thought that if we spelled the name "Skye", then I might be willing to concede the weirdness point in order to insert some Scottish influence. Ridiculous, I know.

But then it dawned on me. For the Japanese, the L sound and the R sound are indistinguishable. A "light" is pronounced in exactly the same way as my surname, "Wright". Indeed, lights are often called ライト (raito) and this is exactly the same as my surname. A source of much amusement for our friends and the butt of many a joke at our wedding.

If we named our child Sky Wright, it would inevitably be pronounced Sky Light in Japanese.

Back to drawing board.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Chocolate Sparkling

In my continuing quest to try all of the strange and wonderful drinks that come out here in Japan, this morning I spotted a new one in a vending machine on the street.

Chocolate Sparkling. Imagine putting some poor quality chocolate in your mouth and then taking a swig of soda water. That's exactly how it tastes.

Verdict: horrible.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Organising Office Parties

I've written about using name seals (inkan) in Japan before. Their main use is for stamping documents saying that you've read the contents and approve. They're also used in other non-official circumstances like this one:

You print out a schedule or calendar and get everyone to stamp the days that they're unavailable. The person in charge of organising the event or party uses this to work out a suitable date. In this case, the party is being held to welcome me into the department I've been newly assigned to. Whenever someone enters the company or moves to a new department, this always happens.

All of the official documents come round on clipboards just like this one. In those cases, the contents are obviously a lot more serious and formal. Once everyone has read it and approved, it usually goes up to the CEO and when he stamps it, it comes back down to us mortals and we file it away.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Salt & Lime for Breakfast

Kirin have brought out a drink that I haven't seen before. Picked it up from the conbini on the way to work. Salty Lime in Japanese, Salt and Lime in English. It tastes exactly like it sounds. I like it.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

A Funeral In Japan

I guess I’m lucky to have a very good relationship with my father in law. A retired primary school teacher, we share an interest in education and the Japanese language. When I go to visit with my wife, he and I are often the last two at the dinner table, sipping sake and talking about the origins and meanings of kanji.

It was with great sadness that I learned the news that his oldest brother, Seitaro, passed away. The news was sad but not unexpected - my father in law is in his sixties and is the youngest of seven brothers and sisters. His oldest brother was around twenty years older than him and his health had been gradually deteriorating.

I was invited to the funeral with my wife and after negotiating a half-day off work from my employer, we took the bullet train down to Shizuoka to attend. When our taxi pulled up to the family home, there was crowd of around 100 mourners clustered around the house. As the head of the family and as an important member of the local community, Seitaro’s funeral had drawn a large number of people. We were a little late in arriving, which I felt bad about, and as we hurried into the house, the coffin was being lifted into a bus that would transport it and close family to the crematorium. These close family members were Seitaro’s sons, his daughter and his brothers, each of whom was given an item to carry by the Buddhist priest.

Everyone else boarded a different bus to follow the coffin to the crematorium. When we arrived, it was a strange experience to have to wait for the family in front to finish. I watched through the glass walls as a much smaller family group gathered around the coffin as it was inserted into the cremation chamber. Soon, we were next.

First, the coffin was transported into a side room. On the top of the coffin was a small window revealing Seitaro’s face. Everyone was encouraged to take turns to look at him and say their goodbyes. This was the first time that I had seen a dead body. My grandmother passed away last year and my wife, who loved her dearly, was surprised and even a little upset that there hadn’t been the same opportunity to say a final farewell. I felt nervous about saying the right thing and having the right reaction. I was told that seeing Seitaro’s face allowed people to see that he was sleeping peacefully and that he wasn’t in pain. An appropriate thing to say is, “安らかな顔ですね” (He has a peaceful face)

The coffin was then transported into the main chamber, where there were several slots in the wall. Our large group gathered around the end one for the next part of the ritual. The worker stood by the coffin and spoke to the crowd and at several points everyone’s head was bowed and their hands put together in prayer. I glanced at the people around me and felt the palpable sadness in the room. Although I had not known him well, I couldn’t help but feel the sorrow wash over me too, especially when I looked at my father in law’s face as he watched the coffin slowly pass through the doors to be cremated. He was gone.

What followed was a change of mood as everyone filed out and moved to a large dining area, much like a school canteen. Everyone was given a bento to eat and we sat eating and drinking, waiting for the cremation to finish. Here the conversation was light and much more relaxed than I might have expected. A funeral is an opportunity to meet people that you might not normally see and I was introduced to many who I hadn’t met before and who, after my marriage last year, are now my family.

After about an hour, the cremation was finished and the family returned to put the bones into the urn. The family lined up in pairs and each pair used chopsticks to pick up a bone from the tray of ashes and deposit it in the urn. This is the only situation where it is acceptable for two people to use two pairs of chopsticks to hold the same object. Doing so in any other situation is a major faux-pas in Japan. Once the bone is put in the urn, the pair turns and passes the chopsticks to the next pair.

With this finished, the urn was carried by Seitaro’s son back to the buses and we were driven to the family’s local temple. It was a beautiful day with blue skies and clear, fresh air. The temple had a small but pretty garden in front of it, lined with flowers. We made our way inside, where the men sat on the right and the women sat on the left. I placed myself at the back and sat down on a small cushion on the tatami floor. I looked around the wooden interior of the temple and noticed how clean and beautiful it was. The sun’s rays arced through the large entrance and from this a gentle light permeated the small space. The men and the women faced each other. In between, six Buddhist monks sat, three on each side, each holding a percussion instrument. Another monk sat at their head and commenced the chanting of the sutra. At various intervals in the sutra, the instruments would be played in time.
Unfortunately, the time allotted to my wife and I by our employers had run out and we had to make a quiet exit to return to Tokyo. It was a shame because my father in law had a written a speech that he wanted us to hear. Although we didn’t get a chance to do so, I was sent a copy and I was greatly moved after reading it. Being the youngest sibling, my father in law’s parents had died when he was quite young and his eldest brother had been like a father to him. He stood by his side as he was the first person in the family to go to university and to be recruited in the city as a school teacher in the city. (In Japan, a school teacher is a highly respected title to have). He even attended the interview with him and said, “Let me talk to the headmaster in this interview, I’ll take care of it”. Unthinkable nowadays.

These events and others were recounted in the speech. The first words spoken were “兄ちゃん。ありがとう。ご苦労様でした” (Nii-chan. Arigato. Gokurosama deshita), which I found both moving and interesting. Nii-chan is an affectionate term for one’s older brother. Gokurosama is said to people when they’ve done a good job or worked hard and expresses appreciation. I’d usually heard it in the context of employment and it surprised me to hear it in the context of someone’s life.

In the afternoon and evening that followed, everyone gathered for lots of food and drinks and I was very sorry to miss out on this. My impression of the day was that although there was great sadness at the passing of a loved one, there was also great solidarity and acceptance. I felt privileged to be a part of it.

Picture source: Wikipedia