Blog Archive

Friday, October 31, 2014

What should you do when you forget a word?

Image source:
A spaced repetition program such as Skritter is built around efficiency. The goal isn't to make you remember everything, it's to make sure that each minute you invest will give you as big a return as possible. In the long run, this will improve your learning a lot.

In Skritter, you can adjust the retention rate, i.e. how large a percentage of the vocabulary you want to remember. You can do this by going to your account and changing the study settings. This roughly means that if you use Skritter regularly with the retention rate set to 92%, you should know roughly 92% of the words at any given time.

This sounds bad to some people. If you have 1000 words and you forget 8% of them, there will be 80 words you don't know! Relax, that's actually good for you. If you could set the target retention rate at 100%, you would waste a lot of time reviewing words you don't really need to review. The closer to 100% you come, the more time you need to increase each percentage point. Still, since remembering words is the main goal with using Skritter, you can't lower the settings too much either.

What do you do when you forget a character or word?

The upshot of the above discussion is that a healthy study strategy includes forgetting a relatively large number of words. However, I think it's a mistake to just treat this as part of the natural process of learning and just continue studying. It does matter what you do with the words you forget.

Let's look at a few common scenarios:
  • Pretend that you actually knew the word and grade yourself better than you deserve. That's a form of cheating where there is no winner and you are the only loser. I've written more about this here. You should never do this, it's terribly bad for your learning in the long run, even though it might feel better in the short run.
  • Mark the word as forgotten and keep reviewing, leaving the failure behind as quickly as possible. In the worst case, you don't even look closely at the word you failed to see what and why you failed, you just click next immediately and trust you will learn the word later. You might, but it's also likely you keep doing this for a number of words in your deck, wasting time every time you do so.
  • Look at the word and actively determine what should be done with it and take appropriate action. This is what I think everybody should be doing, but I have a feeling that it's not as common as it should be. This requires some elaboration. Having an active attitude to vocabulary learning is very important.
Actively dealing with forgotten characters and words

The most important word in this subheading is "actively". This means that you can't treat all characters and words equally, you need to adjust to each situation and base your action on many different factors.

Here are a few things you can do with a forgotten character or word:
  • Delete it. Do you need this word? If you probably don't, delete it. If you're not sure, delete it (it will surely appear again in your listening and reading, and you can add it again later if you want to). If you know you really need the word, keep reading this list.
  • Edit and upgrade the word. Actively look at the information you have and make it better. Create a new mnemonic (the last one obviously didn't work), add a custom definition or expand the current definition. Draw a picture. Spend some quality time with the word.
  • Drill down and learn more. Look up the individual characters in a word or the character components in a single character. Use another dictionary if the current definition doesn't suit you. If you're confusing two characters or words, look them up, you're unlikely to be the first to confuse them.
  • Add supporting characters and words. If you can't get a character to stick and it's an important one, add other words that also contain the character. If you keep forgetting how to write , add several common words containing that character. You will see it a lot in the near future and you have a chance to really get to know it (and the new words, of course). You can add words from Skritter (web version) or use Hanzicraft to get a quick list of frequency-sorted vocabulary (for that would mean 凝固, 凝望, 凝聚 and 凝视 (凝視).
I could make this list longer, but I think I've made my point. The decision what to do with a forgotten word usually just takes a few seconds, but will lead to a much-improved retention rate without spending too much extra time. Actively trimming and adjusting your collection of words and characters also makes sure that you don't waste time on vocabulary you don't actually need.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Skritter Android app now available

Skritter is now officially available for Android, just download it from the Play Store (Chinese here, Japanese here). Four months have passed since we released the beta version of the app and it has been through many updates and upgrades since then. We now have a fully functional Android app, even offering some new features not available elsewhere!

Naturally, our goal is to keep developing the app further and we still want your feedback so that we can make it even more helpful for learners with Android devices. If you think we've done a good job so far, please rate the app!

The beta community is still open for discussions, questions and bug reporting. We value your input and appreciate all of the feedback, comments, and screenshots posted there. Feel free to join the ever growing community and make your voice heard.

If you haven't seen the app since the early beta, you'll find lots of changes and improvements. Here are some things we have added or improved upon since the release in June:
  • Learning mode (see below)
  • Starring items
  • Mnemonics
  • Custom definitions
  • Decompositions
  • Zhuyin support
The learning mode is a new feature which teaches you how to write characters. Just tap the magic wand and we will show you how the character is written, stroke by stroke. Of course, you can also use this button if you have forgotten a character and want to relearn the stroke order.
We are working on more features, but rather than keep you waiting longer than necessary, we have now officially released the app.
This way, more people will be able to try it out and we can keep developing the app based on the feedback we receive from you. Please help us by sharing the good news and invite your friends to try the app!

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Acronyms and Abbreviations in Japanese

You may have noticed some acronyms while studying Japanese that use English letters, like "OL" or "NG". They are used somewhat commonly, and if you hear or see one you might not know what it means or how to look it up (since they don't contain any kana or kanji).

Here's a short list of some commonly used acronyms and what they stand for.

OLOffice Lady (オルエル)
NGNo Good (エヌジー), the first time I heard someone say this I was wondering why they suddenly mentioned "energy", and on top of it incorrectly. (エネルギー)
KYKuuki wo Yomenai (ケイワイ), the K and Y are taken from 気をめない. If you don't know what this expression means, check out this blog post
CMCommercial (シーエム), from commercial message
PVPromotional Video (ピーヴィー), which are music videos and clips
JRJapanese Railway (ジェイアール)
OPOpening (オーピー), from opening sequence, like an anime's
NEETSomeone not in education, employment, or training (ニート)
w"lol", from the w in 笑う (わらう), or to laugh. Some use 笑 instead of w

On a related note, some words are abbreviated or contracted, which might also make it tricky if you are only familiar with the full version of the word or where it originated from in English. Here are some examples of some abbreviated/contracted words:

Abbreviation/ContractionMeaningマクド  マクドMcDonald’s, from マクドナルドマクド  東大University of Tokyo, from 東京大学マクド  ワープロWord processor, from ワードプロセッサーマクド  アニメAnime, from アニメーションマクド  ポケモンPokemon, from ポケットモンスターマクド  パソコンComputer, from パーソナルコンピューター
      ブラピーBrad Pitt, from ブラッド・ピート

If you can think of any other acronyms or abbreviations you know, be sure to leave them in the comments!

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Shapeshifting characters: Alternate forms of radicals

Learning some common character components is essential for effective character learning. This is why Skritter provides character breakdowns where you can see what each part means and how it's pronounced. Both these are useful for learning characters.

However, some of them change form depending on which character we're looking at and where in the character the component appears.

In this article, we're going to look at some common radicals and see how these change their form in different situations. Some of the changes are very minor and the characters would be recognisable even if written in their original form, but in other cases, the changes are so big that the alternate version(s) would be unrecognisable if you didn't already know that they are the same character.

Before we go into more detail about radicals, I'd like to say a few words about the terms used here. A radical is a character component that's used to sort characters in dictionaries. They are often related to the meaning of the word. There are other types of character components, such as phonetic components that give a character its sound. The role of a certain component isn't fixed, so it can vary between different characters. I use radicals here out of convenience more than anything else.

Slight changes and adjustments

Many radicals have been altered only slightly from their original form. They are typically smaller (narrower) and some strokes slope more or less than in the original character, but that's about it. These require no actual studying, but if you care about writing correctly and clearly, you should remember even these small modifications. Let's look at a few common ones (I have written traditional variants in brackets):
  • 牛 (cow) >> 牜, e.g. 特 (special)
  • 足 (foot) >> ⻊, e.g. 跑 (run)
  • 羊 (sheep) >> ⺷, e.g. 羡 (envy)
As you can see, the changes are very minor indeed. 牛 has been compressed a bit and the bottom horizontal stroke has been tilted, but that's it. The other characters have been changed to a similar extent.

Major changes and confusing cases

Some characters change quite a lot and if you don't pay attention, you might think they are different characters. There are some cases which are even more confusing because it actually looks like a different character!

Here are some common characters that undergo major or confusing changes, along with a brief explanation of each.
  • 水 (water) is perhaps the first case students learn and it's often written as three drops of water 氵 and is used in liquids like 酒 (alcohol) and things related to liquids such as being thirsty 渴.
  • 心 (heart) has at least two alternate forms. The first 忄 is so common that you probably know it well after just a few weeks of studying. The second ⺗ is confusingly similar to 小, but note that it has an extra dot, giving it the same number of strokes as the original character.
  • 火 (fire) has one alternate form 灬, which makes me think of something being put on a fire so that the flames are no longer roaring. It can help quite a bit thinking of this as fire rather than just four dots.
  • 犬 (dog) is common in some animal names or words related to animals, and is written 犭, again very different from the original character. This is part of the character 狗 (dog), but note that 犬 can also be used to mean "dog", but is more formal (read more here).
  • 玉 (jade) is perhaps the most confusing radical of all, because as a radical it looks like 王 (king). Therefore, the radical that is written ⺩ does not mean "king" but is in fact 玉 (jade). It's fairly common for Skritter users to ask about this, because you'd expect something like 玫瑰 (rose) to contain 王 (king), but this isn't the case.
As you can see, these cases require special attention, otherwise you might end up thinking that the character breakdown is incorrect or that a single character in two forms is actually two different characters. Of course, from a practical point of view, you still have to learn how to write both, but you should know that they are the same character.

Further reading

If you want to see alternate forms of all radicals, please check the article about Kangxi radicals on Wikipedia. If you want an edited list aimed towards character learning for beginners, check this article instead. If you have any suggestions or questions about this, leave a comment!

Monday, September 22, 2014

How to tackle a large review queue

Learning a language takes time. Even if you can get far with a fairly small number of words if they are carefully chosen, you need to learn thousands and thousands of words to be able to really use a language well. The number of words you know is also very important for reading and listening comprehension where the writer or speaker usually won't take the size of your vocabulary into account.

Therefore, one large part of studying a new language is to simply to learn words. One of the reasons it's harder for native speakers of English to learn Chinese and Japanese is that the vocabularies of these languages don't overlap much with English. If you've studied French, German or some other language which is relatively close to English, you will surely have noticed that many words are similar or even the same. In Chinese and Japanese, we need to learn more words from scratch.

Acquiring and maintaining vocabulary

This leads us to an obvious question: How do you learn and maintain a large number of words? Spaced repetition is one of the best answers and this is what Skritter is based on. In theory, it's easy: You add all the words you want to know to Skritter and you simply study daily until you know all of them. Skritter will also help you review, so you can rest assured that when you use spaced repetition, you will remember most of the words you have learnt. Easy, right?

Well, not really. We all know that we should study every day, and that the best time to review a word is roughly when it's due in Skritter. Allowing the review count to increase to several hundreds or even thousands of words is a bad idea because you're no longer using spaced repetition in an optimal way. There are many reasons you might find yourself with a large review count, but even if you have a good reason, your memory doesn't really care.

There are two reasons it's bad to have a lots of cards due. First, spaced repetition is controlled by carefully researched algorithms that schedule your words roughly around the time when you would forget them if you didn't review. Therefore, the longer a card is due, the likelier it is that you will forget it. Second, if you have a large due count, it probably means that you haven't established proper habits for reviewing vocabulary. You should spread your learning out as much as possible. 5-10 minutes a few times per day can take you very far if done consistently over a long period.

Enough preaching, my due count is sky high, what should I do?
Let's start by pointing out the only thing you really should not do. Don't stick your head in the sand. The problem will not go away by ignoring it. Being 500 words behind schedule now is not as bad as being 1000 cards behind next week. Take action now!

Here's what I do when I face this problems (and I have done so many times):
  • Turn off adding new words ought to be an obvious first step, but it doesn't hurt mentioning it here. If you're behind on words you have already learnt, you really don't need even more words to review. You can start adding words again alter when you're up to speed. You can turn off adding from a list from your study page.
  • Time boxing is by far the best way of handling large due counts (or anything else that is monotonous and requires a lot of time). It's a simple technique where you set a timer and get as much as you can done during that time. I suggest 10 minutes for vocabulary review. Do these two or three times a day. If you feel up to it, you can do several 10-minute cycles in a row, but take a break between each. Read more about time boxing here.
  • Use the “Save me” function (found under “My words”), which will spread your reviews out over a number of days. Don't be over ambitious here! In theory, perhaps you could cover 1000 reviews in 5 days, but it's much more likely that you will just give up. Make a decent estimate of how much time you have and then spread out the reviews accordingly. Read more about this function in the FAQ.
  • Don't get hung up on the number while reviewing. It's easy to feel depressed when you have a large pile of words to review; you spend an hour studying and you find that you still have almost as many words still due. Try to focus on what you're learning instead of the due count. Each minute you spend studying vocabulary is good for you. Yes, it would have been better if you did it earlier, but doing it now is much better than not doing it at all!
  • Hide the due counter to help you focus on learning instead of fighting an uphill battle against a large number. In the Android app, you can hide the due counter, which helps you avoid even seeing the due counter. It's the fact that you're now studying and making an effort to catch up that matters!
When you feel comfortable with your due count again, you should consider how to avoid it from increasing too much again. One way of doing it is to avoid adding too many words. If you go to your study page, there is a tool in the upper-right corner that helps you calculate how many reviews that will come due in the next five days (you can also click to see data for the next 8 weeks). You might feel that you want to learn more words right now, but if the numbers for the next five days look a bit scary, perhaps you should focus on something else for a bit?

If in doubt, just read or listen more instead. As I said in the introduction, you need to learn an awful lot of words and that takes time. Burning yourself out in the process certainly isn't going to help.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Kaomoji and Emoji (顔文字・絵文字)

When did the word "emoji" start to be used in place of "smiley faces" in English? I was amazed to hear a non Japanese speaking friend use the word emoji when talking about the graphics while texting on their phone, I asked them if they knew what emoji meant to which their reply was "I don't know, that's just what they're called." They had no idea it was even a Japanese word! Emoji was originally only available in Japan, but now has been adopted into other countries and thus the term was coined.

Emoji or 絵文字 (えもじ) means "picture letters", early forms of this started out with text alone as 顔文字 (かおもじ) or "face letters" or Kaomoji. An example of popular American 顔文字 is :) while ^^ is typically used instead in Japan. English speakers are pretty bland when it comes to 顔文字, I would say there is only a short list of commonly used ones. Adding a dash for a nose doesn't count as an extra!

English kaomoji

Kaomoji Meaning
:) Happy
:( Sad
:/ "Meh" face
>< Annoyed, defeated, or laughing loudly
:O Disbelief
:D Very happy or proud
;( Defeated sadness
:'( Crying
O_O Shock
:O Disbelief
:P Sticking out tongue
>:P Sticking out tongue like a brat
:-$ Another "meh face / foot in the mouth
:-| "Lame" face

Beyond that list, I can't really think of many more that are used.

As you can see, English kaomoji uses mostly colons and slashes with little extra face features and focuses on the facial expression itself, but Japanese kaomoji takes it to another level and treats it more like ascii art, probably because they have so many more symbols and characters to work with. Here are some commonly used ones in Japan, some of these are even built into the Japanese iOS keyboard! (These facial expressions could be used by itself without the head enclosures)

Japanese kaomoji
Kaomoji Meaning
(>_<) Defeat; like the English version ><
(^_^;) Shy or embarrassed
(^_-) Wink
\(^o^)/ Excited or cheering
(@_@) Amazed
(●^o^●) Very happy
(*´▽`*) Infatuation
orz Kneeling in defeat/respect (o is a head; r torso/arms; z legs)
m(__)m Sign of respect (the m are fists)
┐('~`;)┌ "Don't know"
(╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻ Table flip

If you really want to go overboard on kaomoji, you can check out:, which has so many kaomoji I almost start to not care anymore.

Emoji are built in mobile keyboards as graphics, since they are unicode it is up to the device to render how it is displayed. Here are some emoji: (you can test loading this on different devices to see how it renders differently!)

😷 guy wearing a mask (if you suspect you're sick, it's very common to wear a mask in Japan to not spread germs)
🐱 black cat (there are many versions of these with different facials expressions)
🙇 person bowing deeply (to me it looks like he's trying to hand you a cheeseburger)
🙏 person with folded hands
👹 an oni (demon)
👺 a tengu (type of goblin)
🍙 onigiri
🍣 sushi

If you've used emoji before, you may notice a lot of them are Japanese specific since they were first created there. I have my device in Japanese, so it wasn't odd to me to see them, I assumed it was due to the language setting so it was interesting to see the same emoji on non-Japanese devices as well.

What other kaomoji or emoji have you seen? Leave them in the comments!

Monday, September 1, 2014

Want to learn more characters? Start speaking NOW!

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -, in partnership with Skritter, would like to help you learn a language by getting more speaking practice.  Believe it or not, we think that it will help you learn more characters. 

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Learning a language is tough, and especially if it's Chinese or Japanese
As a student of Chinese or Japanese, you already know that writing system alone makes these some of the world’s most difficult languages to learn.

Spending hours practicing writing characters or drilling flash-cards has been the traditional requirement to master these languages.  However, I think doing this obsessively can actually slow down your progress. Besides just killing motivation, and taking the fun out of learning, this practice gives you an unbalanced view of the language and culture. Many of us started on learning Chinese or Japanese because of our appreciation of the culture, and the desire to connect to the people and the place.  However, the characters and the enormous effort needed to learn them, can easily turn this initial love into a brutal chore.

I think there is a "trick", however, to make learning characters easier, and even a bit entertaining.  The key is to integrate learning of characters with speaking and listening practice.

In my experiences with online learning, I've found that my teacher is often typing out words in chat.  I originally thought that online lessons were just about speaking practice, but I've actually found that many of my lessons have a necessary written (well, typed) component.  New words, sentence structures, grammar corrections all happen in the chat window.  After the lesson, I copy them out into my dictionary and favorite apps like Skritter, Anki, and Pleco, for future review.

The difference between theory and practice
In 2008, I had completed a year of Chinese in university, and I was ready to put my Chinese to use in a summer internship. Though I had learned plenty of words, I found myself distraught at the difficulty I felt in communication. Without conversational practice, my study of characters didn't help me as much as it could. What’s worse, without access to modern carriers of the language, I was speaking like a walking anachronism. Words like 同志,单位,小姐, all rife with cultural connotations I haven’t learned created at best bemusement on the part of my conversation partners. Had I only tried to have a few conversations with native speakers my age (via a service like italki, for example), I would have been able to avoid embarrassment.

I've noticed something strange about my character learning after my trip, as well. After getting some practice in the use of the language, studying characters became easier. I became more sensitive to context and was able to direct my learning towards actively using the language. In a sense, the characters have become real and immediate to me, not just an abstraction to be learned in an academic setting. The reason for this improvement is easily explained with how our memory actually works.

Multiple Senses
It’s best to learn using as many senses as possible. Apps like Skritter help make learning characters a tactile experience. The more senses are involved, the better. Touch, hearing, speaking, and seeing, when integrated, provide best results.

Masters of memory use lots of methods to memorize information.  Spaced repetition is a key aspect of keeping things in memory. It’s common practice among educational apps to present the words to be memorized at progressively longer intervals, making sure that the brain reinforces the concept as solidifies it in long-term memory.

The “strength” of the memory will also depend on how vivid the experience of the word is made at each encounter. Spending extra mental effort on making a vivid image of the concept (trying to involve vision, touch, hearing, speaking, and smell) will significantly shorten the time needed to memorize a concept.

Engaging with native speakers also gives immediacy to the experience of the word, character, or concept, which helps with the process, as well as provides a cultural frame of reference for the material.

A friend of mine went to a shop and found his wallet had been stolen.  He started shouting, “I've lost my baopi (包皮).”  The correct word for wallet is pibao (皮包).  Rather than looking alarmed, the Chinese people around him started laughing hysterically.  If you looked the word up, I am sure you'll understand why he'll never forget the meaning of baopi.

A story or a conversation can really help to reinforce a character in your memory by giving it context.  Learning a new word, and using a new word will reinforce the familiarity with the word and the character representing it. Because Chinese has such a large number of homophones, many meanings in conversation have to be inferred through context, and, if all else fails - through the written form of the character.

The audio-visual connection between pronunciation and characters helps students learn language faster. Reliance on characters to help navigate spoken conversation is not a crutch, but a legitimate and useful tactic even the native speakers use.  A common example of this “integrated” use of language in Chinese shows tight interdependence between written and spoken processing of language. Oftentimes, when a word is ambiguous in conversation, the speaker will reference a two-character compound word (a compound that may have nothing to do with the actual context of the conversation), in which the originally ambiguous expression is clarified. This process relies heavily on both speaker and listener visualising the characters, rather thinking of them in an auditory sense. 

In  fact, sometimes it is impossible to distinguish a spoken concept except by giving it a written context even in a simple word as “zì”:

                 letter; symbol; character; word;
                 from; self; oneself; since
                 erect; stab
                 abandon restraint; do as one pleases; comfortable
                 to strike; to run against; to throw, as a stone
                 to soak; to be stained; stain; floodwater
                 female of domestic animals
                 corner of the eye; canthus; eye socket
                 resurrection; to come to life again, sick

The characters are living concepts, whether in comic-books, ever-present subtitles on TV, or gestures scribbled in the air by friends. Thinking about learning writing as separate from speech greatly disadvantages practice (that's why the Skritter app has voice recordings of words and tone practice exercises - they let you remember better and faster by evoking multiple sensory memories for each concept). This is akin to exercising only one arm, or trying to learn how to drive practicing only left-hand turns.

Skritter, italki, and other highly effective learning methods integrate multisensory information by design. This approach achieves reinforcing your encounter with a concept through visual, motor, auditory, and interpersonal modes of perception.

Applying an integrated approach to your study will give you a much deeper, well-rounded, and ultimately more effective learning experience. Complementing your writing practice with real conversations, and vice-versa is the best way to improve faster, feel motivated and encouraged in your studies, and stick with your study to actually achieve your learning goals.

- - - - - - - -
Special gift from italki to start speaking NOW! is giving everyone on Skritter their first 2+ trial lessons with a Chinese or Japanese teacher on italki for free (equal to 10 USD in italki credits). To take advantage of this offer, register on italki by clicking here!

*italki will send an email including a 10 USD italki credit voucher within 72 hours after registering; this voucher can be used to purchase your first 2 classes on italki! This offer is only available for new registered users on italki and will expire on September 30, 2014.