The following guide was designed to contain everything needed to complete Stage 1 of MIA for Japanese. It’s mainly focused on what to do and less on why to do it. For more information about the theoretical framework of MIA, please check out the other articles on this website as well as the Matt vs. Japan YouTube channel. Information about piracy and illegal streaming websites have been intentionally excluded from this guide. Please submit typos and suggestions to “firstname.lastname@example.org”.
Immersion refers to any form of listening or reading in your target language. As the name Mass Immersion Approach might suggest, it’s the absolute most important component of the entire process. Thus, acquiring immersion content and beginning to immerse is the very first step to learning Japanese with MIA. Immersion then continues throughout every step of the process.
Even if you don’t know a single word of Japanese, immersion in the form of listening will still be of great benefit to you. The reason for this is that, when you first approach a new foreign language, your brain won’t yet be able to parse the sounds. The language will sound like one big blur of noise, instead of crisp consonants and vowels grouped into words. By simply listening to your target language, your brain will slowly get better at parsing the sounds. Eventually, you’ll start naturally picking out common words. This is the start of cultivating listening ability.
On the other hand, no matter how many words you’ve memorized, without actually listening to the language for hundreds of hours, you will understand close to nothing.
You might be surprised at how much you can learn from simply watching a Japanese TV show with no subtitles. Your unconscious mind is a pattern recognition machine. Once you start exposing it to Japanese, it will immediately get to work decoding the sound system, grammar, and lexicon of the language. You’ll slowly start understanding more and more, but won’t be able to explain why. This is the counter-intuitive mechanism of language acquisition. It might be something that’s hard to fully grasp until you’ve started experiencing it for yourself.
Listening vs. Reading
MIA makes a distinction between listening and reading. Listening refers to consuming both strictly audio content, such as podcasts and audiobooks, as well as audio-video content, such as TV shows and YouTube videos.
In the beginning, we recommend focusing on listening rather than reading. The reason for this is that, when you first start, you inevitably aren’t going to understand much. When you don’t understand much, it’s much easier to enjoy and learn from audio/visual content than text-based content.
That said, watching content with Japanese subtitles is a great way to introduce yourself to the written language. As we will talk about later in this section, we recommend watching with Japanese subtitles right from the beginning. Once you build a foundation in the language, phase out Japanese subtitles and replace them with reading fully text-based content, such as manga or novels.
Different Types of Listening Immersion
The following video explains the concepts of active listening, passive listening, and background listening, and how they relate to each other:
NOTE: The terms used in the above video have been changed to the following:
- Active listening → Active listening (no change)
- Partially active listening → Passive listening
- Passive listening → Background listening
MIA also uses the term active immersion to refer to “active listening and reading”. Because “passive reading” isn’t really possible, MIA considers all reading to be a form of active immersion.
Choosing Immersion Content
You can really use anything for your immersion content, as long as it was made by Japanese people, for Japanese people. It’s best to avoid content that has been artificially dumbed-down for learners; you need to train your brain to parse real, native speech. You learned your first language this way, and you can learn Japanese this way as well.
Some other things to take into account are enjoyment and comprehensibility. You’re going to be doing a lot of immersion, so it’s crucial that you enjoy it. Anything boring has to go. And in general, you can learn more easily when you have some idea of what’s going on. That being said, in the beginning, try not to get too hung up on understanding stuff. When you first start out, pretty much nothing is going to be comprehensible, so we recommend mainly focusing on finding content that’s engaging.
Some other guidelines for how to choose immersion content are:
- In the beginning, content that has a visual component, such as YouTube videos, dramas, and movies, are much easier to learn from. If you try listening to a podcast or audiobook as a beginner, you’ll likely have no idea what’s going on.
- Content with an ongoing narrative, such as anime or dramas, can be easier to learn from. Once you get familiar with the characters and settings, following the plot will become much easier, even if you’re not understanding much.
- Try to find content that you’re interested in. If you like anime, watch anime. If you like baseball, watch Japanese baseball. Also watch anime, J-drama, J-movies, and Japanese YouTube videos about baseball.
- Re-watch Japanese content you’ve watched with English subtitles in the past. This way, you’ll know what’s going on even if you’re not understanding much.
- Read English summaries of content you plan on consuming ahead of time in order to increase comprehensibility. If you’re watching a movie, try reading a summary of the plot on Wikipedia. If you’re watching an anime or drama, look for short episode summaries on Wikipedia. If you’re watching something on Netflix, there are short summaries directly pinned to each episode.
Should I Use Subtitles?
In general, if you’re reading subtitles, you’re not actively listening. This is true for both English subtitles and Japanese subtitles. Actively watching Japanese content with English subtitles is equivalent to passive listening at best.
With that said, if you’re completely new to the Japanese language and have zero background in consuming Japanese media, it may be a good idea to start out with English subtitles, at least some of the time. The most important thing is that you don’t quit. So, if jumping straight into raw Japanese content is too intimidating, then, by all means, start with English subs. But, see them as something to quickly outgrow, and try to slowly wean yourself off of them. Although it may seem counter-intuitive at first, you’ll actually learn much more from “understanding close to nothing while watching raw” than you will from “seemingly understanding everything while watching with English subs”.
Then we have Japanese subtitles. In our view, watching with Japanese subtitles is closer to reading than listening. This is because true listening involves deducing what words are being spoken from audio alone. So, in a way, watching with Japanese subs is like solving a math problem by copying the answer from the back of the textbook. For this reason, in general, MIA considers “watching with Japanese subtitles” to be a form of reading.
At the same time, Japanese subtitles are perhaps the best way to get familiar with written Japanese. Right from the start, they can help you consolidate kana and kanji, and allow you to notice new patterns in the written language. For this reason, we recommend starting to use Japanese subs as soon as you learn kana. That said, aim to spend at least half of your active immersion time not using any subtitles at all. That active listening practice is important.
Should I Look Things Up?
Yes, if you feel like it. If a word pops out at you while listening to Japanese, oftentimes, looking it up once will be enough to permanently remember it. So, if you think you heard a word clearly enough to look it up and find it in a dictionary, consider giving it a go. But, never feel obligated to look things up. Attempting to look up too many words will put you on the fast track to burnout. Successful language learning requires consistency in the long term, so immersing in a way that’s sustainable should always be the top priority.
To be specific, while immersing, we suggest aiming to look up a word once every few minutes. Unless, that is, you simply don’t feel like looking anything up at all. In that case, it’s perfectly fine to just sit back, relax and enjoy your immersion.
What Should I Actually Be Doing While Actively Listening?
Like we mentioned at the beginning of this guide, when you first start listening to a foreign language, you won’t even be able to hear where one word ends and another begins. So, in the beginning, it can be useful to simply pay attention to the sounds of the language, without worrying too much about meaning. By actively trying to hear individual vowels and consonants as clearly as possible, you’ll speed up the process of your brain decoding the Japanese sound system.
Once your brain gets a handle on the sound system, many words will naturally start popping out at you. Once you reach this stage, try to focus on picking out as many individual words as possible. If you hear a new word clearly enough that you feel you might be able to look it up, consider doing so (see the previous subheading).
Additionally, the following video may provide some useful pointers for the right mindset to approach immersion with:
As the video above hints at, learning to tolerate ambiguity is an important part of the immersion process. As adults, we’re used to understanding nearly everything we’re exposed to. Because of this, putting yourself in a situation where you’re not entirely sure what’s going on can feel jarring. But this is simply par for the course in language learning. The only way to reach a point of true understanding is to first go through a lot of not understanding. So, learning to make peace with ambiguity is an essential skill for a language learner. It can also be a useful exercise in learning to feel okay outside your comfort zone in general.
Another problem people often run into is that as they improve in their target language, they quickly acclimate to their new ability and shift their focus back to what they still can’t understand. This sort of mindset can be helpful for avoiding complacency, but it can also be detrimental to motivation when taken too far. In order to counteract this, it’s important to make a habit out of actively taking notice of what you can do in your target language. Even if you’re only understanding a word or two here and there, don’t take that for granted! When you’re consuming real, native Japanese, every word you understand is a big deal.
That’s It? That Sounds Too Simple
The process unfolds in the following way. As you listen, you become able to parse the sounds more and more accurately. The more accurately you can parse the sounds, the more words will naturally pop out at you while listening. Because frequently used words will pop out so often, after looking them up once or twice, your memories of what they mean will be continually reinforced by more listening. You’ll also end up picking up many words from immersion alone, without ever looking them up.
As you start understanding all the individual words being spoken, the language acquisition device in your brain will naturally fill in the blanks for you, and grammar will start to intuitively make sense.
Through this process, the amount you understand grows. As you get more comfortable with the language, it will become easier for you to remember new words. Thus, you’ll naturally become able to remember less frequently used words as well.
If you did nothing other than continue this simple process of listening and occasionally looking things up, you would eventually become fluent in spoken Japanese. All the other steps of MIA, such as grammar study and using an SRS, simply play the role of accelerating this basic underlying process.
How Much Should I Immerse?
Only you can answer that question. What we can say is that the more you immerse each day, the faster you will improve. In fact, larger amounts of daily immersion lead to exponentially faster progress. Said another way, the more spread out your immersion is throughout time, the more total time it’s going to take. Check out this video by BritVsJapan to understand why this is.
OK, we know you probably want some actual numbers, so here goes.
DISCLAIMER: The following should be considered extremely rough estimates at best. At the present moment, we do not have any reliable data on exactly how many hours of immersion it takes to reach fluency in Japanese. Also, one’s speed of progress is determined by many factors in addition to the total number of hours of active and passive immersion.
If you don’t already speak an Asian language and are learning Japanese, with around 5 hours per day of active and 5 hours per day of passive immersion, it should take around 2 years to reach fluency. With around 3 hours per day of active and 3 hours per day of passive immersion, it should take around 4 years to reach fluency.
We would estimate that around 2 hours a day of active immersion is necessary to make real progress towards fluency. Because there aren’t any known examples of people reaching fluency in Japanese with around 1 hour of immersion a day, it’s hard to say whether it’s possible or how long it would take. At the very least, with 1 hour of immersion a day, over time it should be possible to build up a basic foundation of comprehension ability in the language.
With that out of the way, here are some other factors you may also want to take into account when deciding how much daily immersion you want to aim for:
- What are your priorities? What in your life is more important than Japanese? What is less important? It goes without saying that no amount of Japanese ability would be worth sacrificing things like health, family, close friends, and other passions. On the other hand, some people may decide it’s worth putting aside some of their less important pastimes in order to spend more time with Japanese.
- The more Japanese you do each day, the faster you will improve. The faster you improve, the easier it will be to stay motivated. The more motivated you are, the more Japanese you will want to do each day. This can create a positive feedback loop that greatly aids the language learning process.
- Consistency is key to language learning success. So, we urge you to be careful not to bite off more than you can chew and risk burning out.
- Changing your entire life overnight is a near Herculean feat. Even if you plan on doing a hefty amount of immersion each day, it’s probably a good idea to start small and slowly ramp up over time. Building a consistent habit of 30 minutes of active immersion each day is a great place to start. It may also be useful to keep in mind that as your Japanese ability grows, immersion will progressively feel less like “language learning” and more like “enjoying content”. This will make it easier to spend more time with Japanese.
- By taking advantage of cracks of time in their day, even a fairly busy person may be able to rack up a solid number of passive immersion hours without making any significant changes to their lifestyle. Commuting, cooking, cleaning, exercising, and going to the bathroom are all potential opportunities for immersion. Check out the video below for some tools that might help you take advantage of these opportunities.
Content Quickstart Guide
Searching for new immersion content will get easier as the amount of Japanese you know grows. If you need somewhere to start, we recommend YouTube and Netflix.
All in all, YouTube might be the single most valuable resource for a modern language learner. Not only is there a virtually infinite supply of potential Japanese immersion content, but you can also build playlists of all the interesting content you find for either re-watching or downloading later.
Here are some tips for finding immersion content on YouTube:
- Switch your YouTube location to “Japan” and go to the “Trending” tab.
- Choose a topic you’re interested in, look up the Japanese equivalent on jisho.org, and search that into YouTube. Click around until you find something interesting.
- For recommended Japanese YouTube channels, google “Japanese YouTubers” in English.
- Find recommendations from other people doing MIA in the #media channel of the official MIA Discord Server, which you can join through Patreon (shameless plug!).
There are many ways to easily download YouTube videos in bulk, such as JDownloader and youtube-dl. Google “how to download YouTube videos” to learn about how to use these tools.
We highly recommend downloading YouTube videos and watching them offline. The reason for this is that it’s just too easy to get sucked into English YouTube when watching on the online platform. Another benefit of downloading and watching videos offline is that it enables you to easily extract the audio and put it on your immersion pod (as mentioned in a video linked earlier in this guide). You can find a video on how to do that here.
Netflix is another great resource for finding Japanese immersion content. The nice thing about Netflix is that a lot of Japanese Netflix content comes with both Japanese and English subtitles. Quick google searches like “best anime on Netflix” or “best Japanese movies on Netflix” should allow you to find plenty of things to watch.
Here are some more tips for getting the most out of Netflix:
- Use a VPN to trick Netflix into thinking you’re in Japan and gain access to a much larger collection of Japanese media. Our recommended VPN is Nord VPN.
- Use the browser extension “Subadub” to make Netflix subtitles highlightable, so you can copy and paste text from them (Chrome link, Firefox link).
- Download content from Netflix using this tool. This allows you to extract audio for your immersion pod, as was talked about above. It also opens up the possibility of using Netflix with Subs2srs, which will be discussed in the sentence mining section.
- Watch shows with audio description tracks.
A spaced repetition system, or SRS, generally refers to smart flashcard software that uses a scheduling algorithm to optimize study.
In order to understand why SRS’s are so powerful, let’s start by comparing them to the alternative: paper flashcards. The problem with paper flashcards is that you don’t really know when to review which cards. Reviewing things you already know well is a waste of time. On the other hand, if you don’t review things before you forget them, you end up having to waste time on re-learning. This might not really be a problem if you’re just trying to pass a test. But, if you’re actually trying to retain a large body of knowledge long term, you’re going to need a more advanced tool.
The scheduling algorithm found in SRS’s solve this problem. Using an algorithm based on human memory, combined with feedback that you give it, an SRS is able to predict the ideal time for you to study each flashcard you put into the system. Based on these predictions, you’re automatically shown what specific cards to study each day. This allows you to continue to retain knowledge with minimal time wasted on unnecessary reviews and re-learning things you forgot. Used correctly over the long term, an SRS can allow you to commit tens of thousands of items to memory with only minutes of reviewing each day.
Which SRS Should I Use?
There are currently many different SRS’s available. But, in our opinion, there are only two really worth taking seriously: Anki and SuperMemo.
SuperMemo was the first SRS ever invented, and it has continued to receive upgrades since its original release in 1985. It has by far the most advanced algorithm and the largest number of features. The problem is that it’s extremely quirky and difficult to use. It’s also only available for Windows (meaning it can’t be used online, on a Mac, or on a smartphone).
This is why we recommend Anki. Anki is a versatile SRS with a large selection of features. The desktop version is available for Windows, Mac and Linux, there’s a fully online version, and there are smartphone apps for both iOS and Android. You can create an account and sync your collection freely between each of these platforms.
All versions of Anki are 100% free, with the exception of the iOS app, which costs 25 USD. The creator of Anki chooses to only charge money for the iOS app in order to keep the desktop version free (the Android app was created by a third party). If you’re an Apple user and planning on using Anki, the app will likely be well worth the cost in the long term.
The great thing about Anki is that it allows you to install user-created add-ons to add custom features. There are many add-ons available that greatly aid Japanese study, including a few MIA originals. For a language learner, these add-ons are really what seals the deal for choosing Anki. You can find a list of public add-ons here.
Another useful feature is that Anki allows users to easily import and export flashcard decks. This means you can easily share your decks with others, as well as benefit from decks others have made. MIA original Anki decks will be linked later in this guide. You can also find a public database of pre-made Anki decks here.
Getting Started With Anki
We said above that SuperMemo is quirky and difficult to use, but Anki isn’t exactly the easiest to use either. There’s a bit of a learning curve, so try to stick with it, even if it feels frustrating at times. It gets better, we promise. Anki has a lot of features, but don’t worry about figuring them all out at once. Just pick things up slowly as you go along.
The official Anki User Manual is the most comprehensive explanation of how Anki works. Matt has also created a more user-friendly explanation of some crucial functions of the program, which you can find here.
With a quick YouTube search, you can find many Anki tutorials aimed at newcomers. Most of these will be aimed at either medical school students or language learners. Unfortunately, the ones aimed at med students tend to contain a lot of irrelevant information (if you’re not a med student), and the ones aimed at language learners tend to contain a lot of bad language learning advice. There is still a lot you can learn from these videos, but don’t take any of the specific advice seriously.
In MIA, the SRS is used for a few different purposes, such as learning kana and kanji, learning grammar and vocab, and learning cultural knowledge such as famous people and places. The following sections in the guide will go into the specific details of exactly how to use Anki for each of these purposes.
The last thing we’ll mention here is that, by default, the way Anki’s algorithm works actually isn’t very ideal for language learning. This can be fixed with a modification to Anki known as “Low-Key Anki“, which consists of 3 add-ons. Unfortunately, there is quite a bit of background knowledge needed in order to understand the problems with the default Anki algorithm, and why Low-key Anki remedies these problems.
Once you begin feeling comfortable with Anki, we recommend reading our article series on Low-Key Anki and implementing the modification. Until then, you can greatly improve the functioning of Anki’s algorithm simply by never using the “hard” button. When grading cards, stick to only “again” and “good”. If you combine this simple principle with the specific option-group settings we’ll provide in each of the following sections, you should be able to get great mileage out of Anki’s algorithm.
In order for SRS’s like Anki to really work well, it’s crucial to consistently keep up with daily reviews. Every day, Anki will show you the cards it thinks you’re likely to soon forget. So naturally, not reviewing these cards will lead to increased forgetting. Additionally, skipping a day’s reviews also means signing up for double the reviews the next day. Because of this, catching up on reviews once you’ve fallen behind can be quite a headache. Of course, missing a day every now and again isn’t going to be detrimental, but this is only if it’s actually every now and again.
On a related note, be extremely careful about learning too many new cards. The more new cards you learn a day, the more daily reviews you’re going to have. The thing is, there’s a time delay between when you start learning more new cards and when your reviews start to skyrocket. If you try something crazy like learning 100 new cards a day, things might seem fine for a few days. But within a week or two, you’ll end up with hundreds upon hundreds of reviews a day. You can use this Anki simulator to experiment with the relationship between number of new cards and reviews.
After you’ve started immersing and have Anki installed, if you haven’t already, the next thing you will want to do is learn kana, AKA, hiragana and katakana.
If you already have a good grasp of hiragana and katakana, you can skip this section. If you’re entirely new to the Japanese writing system, check out this video.
There are a plethora of different resources available for learning kana. Some provide mnemonics, and others assist you in drilling them in through brute force. Which resource will be best for you is largely a matter of personal preference. Our recommendation is to click through the resources listed below and see what catches your attention. Feel free to mix and match resources in whatever way feels useful.
Some of the most popular resources are:
- Remembering the Kana
- Dr. Moku smartphone apps
- Real Kana
- Tofugu’s guide: hiragana, katakana
- JapanesePod101’s YouTube videos: hiragana, katakana
WARNING: The resources above contain what MIA considers to be ineffective language learning advice. We recommend using them to learn kana but disregarding the language learning advice they provide.
It’s probably a good idea to practice writing out the kana with a pen and paper, in order to build some physical muscle memory related to the characters.
With a small amount of daily practice, within a week or two, you should be able to get fairly familiar with kana. Once you can read and write out all of the hiragana and katakana characters with relative ease, you’re ready to move on to Recognition RTK.
Although it’s probably not necessary, you can also combine any of the resources above with Anki. Here is a link to various Anki decks for hiragana and katakana. On that page, you can even find Anki decks created specifically to be used alongside some of the resources listed above.
If you’re going to use Anki for learning kana, here are our recommended option-group settings:
(Adjust “New cards/day” in the “New Cards” tab at any time to match however many new cards you wish to learn a day)
Once you’ve started immersing and learned kana, the next step is to learn how to identify kanji with Recognition RTK.
A Three-Part Approach to Kanji
Just because you can recognize something, that doesn’t necessarily mean you can recall it from memory. For example, in English, sometimes you’re able to read a word, but not spell it. As you can see with this example, in general, recognition is much easier than production.
This is why, initially, we think it’s best to only worry about learning to recognize kanji characters. Using the right system and tools, this can be done easily and fairly quickly. And once you can recognize kanji, you can learn to read written Japanese without too much trouble.
Learning to read Japanese will naturally lead you to become extremely familiar with kanji. That being said, since reading only requires character recognition (and not production), learning to read won’t automatically enable you to recall characters from memory. But, it will take you most of the way there.
Let’s go back to spelling English for a moment. Think about those times when you can’t remember the spelling of a familiar word. Usually, you can see it in your mind’s eye, but just can’t quite recall it. Once you write out a few possibilities, you can intuitively tell which spelling is correct. This is how learning to produce kanji from memory will feel like after becoming able to read Japanese. And once you reach this point, with just a little practice, cultivating the ability to recall characters from memory will come very quickly.
On the other hand, trying to learn to recall characters from memory before you actually know Japanese is extremely difficult. It can be done, but it’s almost certainly not worth the time and effort. This is why we recommend a three-part approach to learning kanji: 1) learn to recognize kanji, 2) learn to read Japanese, and 3) learn to produce kanji. This way, you can reach a point of kanji mastery without any serious pain or struggle.
Kanji Production is Overrated
When we say “kanji production“ or “the ability to recall kanji from memory”, we’re referring to the ability to write out kanji characters by hand. This isn’t needed to be able to type Japanese because Japanese typing is done phonetically. So, as long as you can read kanji, you can type kanji as well.
The ability to produce kanji from memory isn’t nearly as important as it used to be, since nowadays nearly all writing is done on a keyboard. As a result of this, even Japanese native speakers have been getting worse at writing out kanji from memory.
This is why we think it’s completely fine to put off learning to produce kanji from memory until after a high level of reading comprehension has been acquired. Some learners may choose to never learn how to write out kanji by hand, and we think that’s perfectly reasonable as well.
Kanji Recognition Explained
Before you start studying Japanese, most kanji aren’t going to look like much more than a blob of random scribbles. Of course, some of the more pictograph-like characters, like 山 (mountain) or 木 (tree), are simple and straight forward to remember. But, these only represent a tiny fraction of all the characters you need to know to be proficient in Japanese.
The thing is, nearly all kanji are made up of different combinations of the same basic ~200 components. The key to learning kanji is training your brain to see them in terms of these components. This way, seemingly complicated characters like “露” can be seen as simply rain (雨) + path (路) = dew (露). Now, why does rain + path = dew? Who knows; kanji etymology is unclear in more cases than not. Regardless, remembering that rain and path combine to make dew is a lot easier than remembering a blob of random scribbles.
As you get more comfortable with seeing kanji in terms of their components, learning new kanji will become easier and easier. Eventually, you’ll reach the point we call being fluent in the meta-language of kanji. Once you reach this point, your brain actually stops seeing characters in terms of their component parts, and instead starts to see each kanji as a unified whole. This is actually how your brain handles words in English as well. The reason you’re able to read this text as fast as you are is that your brain is able to recognize entire words at once, without needing to pay attention to individual letters. That’s why it’s possible to read texts such as this:
“Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.” (source)
In other words, your brain will become able to treat kanji this way. Once this happens, recognizing the appearance of a kanji will become just like recognizing the face of a person. After spending just a few seconds looking at someone for the first time, you instantly remember their face. You could go years without seeing that person again, and if shown a picture of them, their face would likely still feel familiar. You might not remember who they are or how you know them, but you would know that you’ve seen them somewhere before.
Now, think about the way you remember a face. Do you memorize the exact distance between the person’s eyes and categorize the shape of their nose? Of course not. Their face simply has a “look”, and you instantly and automatically remember it. Remembering new characters will become just like this. As soon as you see a new character, it will look like something. When you see that character again, you will instantly recognize it as the same character.
Now, that being said, this doesn’t necessarily mean that you know what the character means or how it’s read. It also doesn’t mean that you can write out the character from memory. It simply means that when you see the character, you instantly know that it’s that character. This is what we mean by “the ability to recognize kanji”.
It might not seem like much, but in reality, this ability is a superpower in the context of learning Japanese. Learning to read and understand a word containing a new kanji becomes as simple as, well, remembering how it’s read and what it means. You won’t have to deal with the additional obstacle of trying to force a blob of random scribbles into your memory.
And like we explained above, it’s through learning to read and understand words that you’ll be able to naturally build an extensive mental database of exactly how specific individual characters are read and used in different contexts.
Learning to Recognize the Kanji
Our recommended method of training kanji recognition is Recognition RTK, a modified version of Remembering the Kanji (RTK) combined with an SRS.
Originally, James Heisig wrote the book Remembering the Kanji to help Japanese newcomers become able to both recognize and produce the ~3,000 most common kanji. To do this, he employed a number of innovative ideas, such as ordering characters based on their components (instead of frequency), creating story-based mnemonics using those components, and introducing only a single basic meaning of each kanji (initially ignoring readings and alternate meanings). If you’re interested in learning more about the logic behind RTK, check out the extensive intro at the beginning of the RTK part 1 book.
RTK does open up the possibility of learning to both recognize and produce kanji as a pure beginner. But, as we explained above, this is far more trouble than it’s worth. Indeed, most of the people who attempt RTK in its original form give up before making it to the end.
Enter Recognition RTK (hereafter “RRTK”). RRTK is an SRS-based modification to the original RTK intended to optimize it for training recognition. RRTK preserves RTK’s innovative component-based sequencing of kanji and story-based mnemonic system. Where it differs is that RRTK flashcards have a kanji on the front and the meaning of the kanji on the back. While reviewing each card, the goal is to recognize the kanji on the front and recall its basic meaning.
RRTK also only covers the most frequently used 1,000 kanji. The reason for this is that the main goal of RRTK is not to learn what every kanji means, but simply to bring learners to the point where recognizing a kanji feels similar to recognizing a human face. As soon as you reach this point, rather than continuing to study isolated kanji, you’re going to be better off jumping into real Japanese and picking up more kanji as you go. The idea is that 1,000 kanji should be more than enough to take you to this point.
Although the main goal of RRTK is to train kanji recognition ability, a secondary goal is to help you learn the general meaning of kanji as well. This is why RRTK covers the most frequently used kanji, instead of simply the first 1,000 kanji in the original RTK book (recall that RTK orders kanji based on their components, not their frequency). The most frequently used 1,000 kanji comprise more than 90% of all kanji used in written Japanese. So, knowing the basic meaning of all of these kanji will be hugely beneficial when diving into real Japanese.
NOTE: Previously, MIA referred to “Recognition RTK” as “Lazy Kanji”. “Lazy Kanji” is a term that Khatzumoto from AJATT used to refer to his own modified version of RTK, which was similar, although significantly different, from RRTK. In order to avoid confusion, we decided to change the name to the more straightforward and objectively accurate “Recognition RTK”.
Recognition RTK Anki Deck
You can find the MIA original RRTK deck here.
The order that kanji are presented in, kanji keywords, and all information regarding primitive elements, were taken directly from Remembering the Kanji 6th Edition by James Heisig. Although the deck was designed to function as a complete replacement for the RTK book, please support the original by purchasing a copy.
Frequency information was taken from this site, and is based on an Aozora Bunko corpus. In order to account for biases introduced by the specific source of frequency information, some kanji have been manually included and excluded from the deck in accordance with what we thought would be most useful for learners.
1,250 Cards for 1,000 Kanji
Like we mentioned earlier, one of RTK’s most powerful innovations was sequencing characters based on their components, such that each character learned can be viewed as a simple combination of familiar elements. RRTK makes use of this methodical sequencing to help users learn to recognize the most common 1,000 kanji. That said, applying RTK’s original sequencing to RRTK wasn’t as straightforward as trimming RTK’s kanji list down to the most common characters.
Within the original RTK book, components of kanji are referred to as “primitive elements”. Please note that RTK’s primitive elements do not align with traditional kanji radicals. To go back to the example from above, RTK breaks down the character “露” (dew) into the primitive elements “雨” (rain) and “路” (path). In this case, both primitive elements also exist as independent kanji. However, there are also primitive elements that do not exist as independent kanji, and are solely used as components of other characters. For example, the primitive element "宀" is used inside many kanji (for example, "家" (house)), but isn't actually a kanji itself.
Oftentimes, common kanji are composed of fairly uncommon component characters. For example, the extremely common kanji “頭” (head) contains within it the kanji “頁” (page), which is rarely used. Because of this, reducing RTK to strictly the most common 1,000 characters would be quite problematic. Uncommon kanji that function as primitive elements would end up getting removed, which would in turn make learning characters that contain those primitive elements much more difficult.
In order to remedy this, in addition to the 1,000 most common kanji, the RRTK deck also contains cards for an additional 250 primitive elements. Some of these primitive elements exist as independent kanji, while others are used exclusively as components of other characters. Although these primitive elements are not actually common kanji themselves, because they’re also components of common kanji, learning them is necessary in order to fully benefit from RTK’s original mnemonic system.
The deck consists of 3 different types of cards: kanji cards, primitive element cards, and instruction cards. Kanji cards are for kanji, primitive element cards are for primitive elements that are not themselves independent kanji, and instruction cards provide information about either the deck itself or kanji in general.
On the front of each card, you’ll find a kanji or primitive element written in 4 different fonts. The reason for having multiple fonts is that, depending on the character, the same kanji can look quite different depending on the font. So, the more you’re exposed to different fonts, the more prepared you’ll be.
The RTK number for each kanji is listed at the top of every kanji card. If you click this number, it functions as a hyperlink that will take you to the kanji’s entry on this site. Please note that the numbers listed here correspond with the kanji’s position within the 2,200 characters presented in the original RTK book, not the kanji’s position within RRTK. On primitive element cards, “Primitive Element” is listed in place of an RTK number.
On the back of kanji cards, you’ll find the original RTK keyword, some other meanings of the kanji, the top two highest-rated mnemonic stories from the Kanji Koohii website, and any “primitive element meanings” listed for that kanji in the original RTK book. A “primitive element meaning” is a meaning a character takes on when used as a component of another kanji. For example, when the kanji for "one" (一) is used as a primitive element (for example, in "下" (below)), it can take on the meaning of "ceiling". To help you tell them apart, primitive element meanings are listed in a red font.
On the back of primitive element cards, an explanation of that primitive’s meaning is all that is listed. As with “primitive element meanings” on kanji cards, the explanations on primitive element cards appear in a red font.
The deck also comes pre-set with recommended option-group settings. The only one you need to worry about changing is “New cards/day” in the “New Cards” tab. Adjust this at any time to reflect how many new kanji you want to learn each day.
How to Use
How do I learn new kanji?
In order to learn a new kanji, break it down into its component primitive elements and come up with a story to link those elements to the kanji’s meaning. If one of the stories on the back of the card makes sense, go with that. If neither of the stories on the back resonate, you can either tweak one of them or come up with something completely new. If you need some inspiration, you can check out other people’s stories on the Kanji Koohii website.
Feel free to take some liberties when tinkering with the meaning of primitive elements and modifying stories. The mnemonics are just a pragmatic tool for remembering the characters, so whatever works is fine.
How many new cards a day?
Depending on how much time you currently have available, we recommend learning between 10 and 30 new kanji a day. At a rate of 10 a day, you can finish in a little over 3 months. With 30 a day, you can finish in a little over 1 month.
During RRTK, we recommend allocating around 50% to 75% of your “active” time learning and reviewing kanji. Leave around 25%~50% for immersion. Also, no matter how much time you have available each day, we don’t recommend spending more than 2 hours a day on kanji study.
How should I grade cards?
If you could recall the general meaning of the character with relative ease, grade the card “good”. If you couldn’t recall the general meaning of the character, or you could recall the general meaning but it took quite a bit of time/effort, then mark the card “again”. If the character has multiple meanings, as long as you could recall at least one of those meanings, that’s good enough. Don’t worry about recalling the exact RTK keyword. For example, the keyword for “町” is “village”. If you were able to recall anything like “town” or “city”, that’s good enough.
If you didn’t need to use a mnemonic to recall the meaning of a kanji, that’s fine. There’s no need to force yourself to recall a mnemonic. If you did need to use a mnemonic to recall the meaning of a kanji, that’s completely fine too. Whether or not you used a mnemonic to recall the kanji shouldn’t affect the grade you give a card.
Should I write out the kanji?
It’s a good idea to write out new characters when you initially learn them, but we don’t recommend writing out kanji while doing your Anki reviews. Because you’re really only after recognition, it’s not going to be worth the extra time and effort.
What should I do about leeches?
In Anki, a “lapse” is when a learned card is graded “again”. When the same card lapses 5 times, Anki will mark it a “leech” and suspend the card. Leeches are a natural part of the learning process. Some things you learn will stick easily, some won’t stick no matter what you try, and most stuff will be somewhere in between. For those small minority of cards that just won’t stick, AKA leeches, it’s best to just get rid of them. Instead of wasting a bunch of time on a single leech, it’s more productive to learn 5 normal cards in its place.
It may seem counter-intuitive to delete a kanji out of your deck, but in reality, it’s really not a big deal. If you end up knowing 950 of the 1,000 most frequently used kanji, that’s more than enough to move onto the next stage of the learning process. You’ll pick up those missing 50, along with thousands of other kanji, naturally as you continue to immerse yourself in Japanese. No one word or kanji is going to make or break you, and it’s never too late to learn something later.
I finished my Anki reviews for the day but still have time. Should I review extra?
We strongly advise against doing so. Anki will tell you exactly how much you should review. Reviewing more than this can actually hurt the effectiveness of Anki’s algorithm. If you have extra time after finishing your kanji work for the day, do more active immersion.
When should I delete my Recognition RTK deck?
If you delete your RRTK deck immediately after completing Recognition RTK, you’ll likely end up quickly forgetting a significant portion of the kanji you learned. In order to avoid this, it’s important to continue reviewing your Anki deck after completing RRTK. That said, even if you continue diligently keeping up with your daily reviews, after a few months after completing RRTK, the retention rate of your deck will likely start to decline. This is an inevitable outcome of not emphasizing mnemonics while learning the characters.
But, this shouldn’t be much of a problem. By the time this starts to happen, you should have a strong enough footing in reading immersion (watching with Japanese subtitles) to retain the core of your kanji ability through immersion alone. Yes, you may forget what a specific kanji means here and there, but what’s really important is the ability to identify characters.
As long as you have a strong footing in reading immersion, it’s fine to delete your RRTK deck once the retention rate starts to decline. To be specific, we recommend continuing to review your RRTK deck for 3~6 months after completing Recognition RTK. After that, you can delete your deck.
Another option is to use the MIA Retirement add-on to set a retiring interval for your RRTK deck. If you take this approach, we recommend setting a 9-month retiring interval.
How Will I Learn Kanji Readings?
The most pragmatic way of going about learning to read kanji is to forget the whole idea that kanji have individual “readings”.
In reality, the only time you’ll ever need to know how a kanji is read is in the context of reading a word. So, as long as you can read words, your kanji reading problem is solved. And like we mentioned above, once you have a basic ability to identify characters, you can jump right into learning words (exactly how to go about learning words will be discussed in later sections).
Once you’ve learned to read a few hundred words, you’ll naturally start gaining an intuition for how specific characters tend to be read in different contexts. Eventually, you’ll find that you can guess the readings of new words with high levels of accuracy.
For a more in-depth explanation of why you shouldn’t worry about kanji readings, watch from 1:53 to 10:55 of this video (note: Matt has updated his views on some of the conclusions reached in this video, as reflected in this guide).
Once you’ve learned kana and completed Recognition RTK, you’re ready to start studying the language formally. In MIA, this takes the form of basic grammar and basic vocab.
The Role of Grammar Study
In MIA, the goal of studying grammar is strictly to increase the comprehensibility of your immersion. In other words, learning the basics of Japanese grammar will vastly improve your ability to understand and learn from real Japanese, and to this extent, grammar study is worthwhile.
On the other hand, most language courses (including some of those linked below) teach grammar with the intention of helping learners become able to output, AKA speak and write, their target language. Unfortunately, this doesn’t really work. Because learned knowledge is largely separate from acquired ability and language isn’t math, conscious grammar study is not an effective way of becoming able to speak and write a foreign language.
Output ability is the result of subconscious acquisition, and this acquisition happens by comprehending input, AKA, speech and text, in your target language (this is known as the input hypothesis). So, grammar study is useful to the extent that it helps us comprehend target language input, but not useful for actually speaking and writing the language.
Theory vs. Practice
The idea of theory vs. practice is very relevant to the topic of grammar study. The following video explains the basic idea:
In the context of grammar, “theory” refers to “conscious grammar knowledge gained through study”, and “practice” refers to “intuitive grammar understanding acquired through input”.
Basically, there’s a hard limit to how deeply it’s possible to understand Japanese grammar without actually acquiring a certain amount of Japanese. You could memorize an entire encyclopedia’s worth of Japanese grammar theory, but without an ample amount of immersion, that knowledge isn’t going to be very useful to you. You will be like someone who has read 10 books on how to swim but has never been in a pool.
Of course, as we explained above, a certain amount of grammar theory will be useful in guiding your practice. But, after a certain point, any additional grammar study you do will have greatly diminishing returns. The reason for this is that you can’t really begin to understand how Japanese grammar actually works until you’ve spent many hours exposing yourself to how grammar actually plays out in real Japanese.
Because of this, when approaching basic grammar, try to make quick and dirty your motto. If something’s just not clicking, leave it and move on. If something feels unimportant, leave it and move on. It’s never too late to revisit something later. Plus, even if you don’t, eventually immersion will make everything clear. Like Matt explained in the video above, as long as you stick with it, eventually, practice will solve all your problems. As evidence for this, you didn’t need to study grammar to acquire your native language.
There are many different Japanese grammar resources out there, and really, it doesn’t matter which one you use. After all, you’re just looking for some quick and dirty knowledge anyway.
Personally, we recommend Tae Kim’s Japanese Grammar Guide. It’s what Matt used, and it worked well for him. It breaks down Japanese in a logical and straight forward way and covers all the basics without going into too much detail.
If for whatever reason Tae Kim’s guide just really doesn’t sit well with you, some other resources you might check out are IMABI’S Japanese Grammar Guide (thorough and detailed) or Japanese from Zero (extremely user-friendly).
WARNING: The resources above may contain what MIA considers to be ineffective language learning advice. We recommend making use of their grammar explanations but disregarding their language learning advice.
How to Use
If you go with Tae Kim, we recommend reading through the basic grammar, Essential Grammar, Special Expressions, and Advanced Topics sections.
Don’t try to memorize anything; just read through, and see what sticks. Keep in mind that the goal of grammar study is to increase comprehension. This means you don’t need to worry about things like all the different types of verbs and exactly how they conjugate. As long as you can recognize the different forms when you see them, that’s all you need. For example, as long as you can recognize when a verb is in the te-form, then you can understand it. The rules for how to conjugate verbs into the te-form aren’t necessary. Once you’ve gotten enough immersion, you’ll become able to conjugate into the te-form intuitively.
Should I make Anki cards?
You can, but we don’t recommend it. Like we said above, when it comes to grammar, some stuff will click, and other stuff won’t. If you’re regularly immersing, you won’t need Anki to remember the stuff that clicks. And if something’s just not making sense, creating Anki cards for it is just going to be frustrating.
If you were going to make Anki cards for Tae Kim, the best way to go about doing so would be to make sentence cards out of the example sentences. A sentence card is an SRS card with an example sentence on the front, and whatever is needed to understand the sentence on the back. When reviewing the card, your job is simply to read and understand the sentence. Sentence cards will be explained in-depth later on in the guide.
Making sentence cards out of Tae Kim’s example sentences would help you consolidate grammar and vocabulary at the same time. The problem is that many of Tae Kim’s example sentences introduce multiple new words at the same time. Sentence cards that contain more than one new word are generally very difficult and frustrating to learn. Because of this, we recommend a different way of using the SRS to consolidate basic grammar and vocab, which will be discussed in the next section.
How much time should I spend studying basic grammar each day?
It’s up to you, but we would recommend around 15 minutes. We all know that reading about grammar isn’t exactly the most exciting thing in the world. Plus, consuming grammar theory incrementally over time will make it easier to consolidate and integrate.
If you take the approach of only spending ~15 minutes a day studying grammar, it’s completely fine to do basic grammar alongside Recognition RTK and/or basic vocab (which will be discussed in the next section).
In Japanese, the most frequently used 1,000 words comprise around 75% of all spoken and written language (source). Similar statistics are true for every human language. Because of this, memorizing the most frequently used 1,000 words is a great way to jumpstart your comprehension when beginning to learn a new language. In MIA, this is referred to as basic vocab.
Naturally, the SRS is the perfect tool for this task. The question then becomes, what kind of SRS cards should be used? Our recommendation is sentence cards. As mentioned in the previous section, a sentence card has an example sentence on the front, and whatever is needed to understand the sentence on the back. When reviewing the card, your job is simply to read and understand the sentence. Sentence cards will be discussed in-depth in the next section. If you have a question related to basic vocab that isn’t answered in this section, some of them may be answered there.
Although sentence cards are the ideal way to use an SRS to learn vocab, in practice, this can be difficult to do as a beginner. The thing is, in order for sentence cards to be effective, it’s important that each card only introduces a single unknown word. But, for a beginner who doesn’t know many words, finding these kinds of sentences is going to be near impossible.
Usually, this leaves you with two options for getting past the basic vocab stage. Either you can learn sentences with multiple unknown words in them, or you can make isolated vocab cards (which will be discussed in the next section). Neither option is ideal, but isolated vocab cards are the better of the two. The reason for this is that sentence cards with multiple unknown words are usually extremely difficult and frustrating to learn.
But, in the case of Japanese, there’s a resource available that makes it possible to easily learn vocab through sentences right from the start.
JLPT Tango N5
The book 1000 Essential Vocabulary for the JLPT N5, also known as JLPT Tango N5, contains ~1,000 Japanese sentences and their English translations. As you can probably tell by its title, the book was designed with the Japanese Language Proficiency Test in mind. But, this is entirely irrelevant for our purposes.
The reason we’re interested in the JLPT Tango N5 is that the sentences are ordered in such a way that each sentence only introduces a single new word or grammar pattern. It’s designed to teach intuitively through example sentences and keeps technical explanations of grammar and vocabulary to a minimum. This makes it ideal for our purposes.
What’s even better is that you can download audio files of native audio for all of the sentences in the book on the publisher’s website.
Some downsides of the book are that the vocabulary taught doesn’t align precisely with Japanese frequency lists, some of the sentences are contrived, and all the sentences are in polite forms. But, despite these downsides, JLPT Tango N5 is currently the best resource available for our purpose, and will definitely get the job done.
Tango N5 Anki Deck
With the help of some of our patrons, we have created an Anki deck specifically for the JLPT Tango N5. Because the deck is based on a book, we are unable to provide a public link to access the deck. If you would like the deck, please submit the N5 deck request form and we will reply with a download link. Either a picture of you with the book or with the receipt can serve as proof of purchase.
The deck has cards formatted as text-based bilingual sentence cards by default (sentence on the front; reading, translation, word meanings, and audio on the back). Each card also comes with a “reverse” field that, when filled, turns the card into an audio-based sentence card (audio on the front; reading, translation, and word meanings on the back).
Because the JLPT Tango N5 was created as a JLPT prep book, it only uses kanji that are tested on the JLPT N5. This means that lots of words that are usually written in kanji in real life show up written with kana in the book. Because this deck was designed for people who have already completed Recognition RTK, all of these words have been converted to kanji.
The deck also comes pre-set with recommended option-group settings. The only one you need to worry about changing is “New cards/day” in the “New Cards” tab. Adjust this at any time to reflect how many new cards you want to learn each day.
How to Use
Because the Tango N5 deck is a deck of sentence cards, most of the instructions for how to use the deck will be left for the next section, which is dedicated to sentence cards.
How many cards should I learn a day?
We recommend learning between 10~20 cards a day. Keep in mind that the more new cards you learn a day, the more daily reviews you’ll have in the long term.
Should I do Recognition RTK and basic vocab at the same time?
We don’t recommend it. The ability to recognize kanji is a prerequisite to efficiently learning to read vocabulary. So, in the long run, it’s going to be more efficient to finish RRTK before starting Basic Vocab. Also, focusing on one thing at a time generally leads to more efficient learning.
That being said, we do think it’s fine to do basic grammar and basic vocab at the same time, as long as you’ve finished RRTK. Just, if you plan on taking our recommendation of using both Tae Kim and the Tango N5 deck, we highly recommend only reading through Tae Kim, and not making any SRS cards.
I keep forgetting the reading of kanji words, what should I do?
Even after finishing Recognition RTK, it’s common to have some difficulties remembering the reading of kanji words. After you learn to read a few hundred words, this should mostly go away. Remembering how kanji words are read is itself a skill, and you’re going to improve it by practicing. As you learn to read more words and get more comfortable with the Japanese sound system overall, remembering the readings of new words will get easier and easier.
What should I do about leeches?
In Anki, a “lapse” is when a learned card is graded “again”. When the same card lapses 5 times, Anki will mark it a “leech” and suspend the card. Leeches are a natural part of the learning process. Some things you learn will stick easily, some won’t stick no matter what you try, and most stuff will be somewhere in between. For those small minority of cards that just won’t stick, AKA leeches, it’s best to just get rid of them. Instead of wasting a bunch of time on a single leech, it’s more productive to learn 5 normal cards in its place.
If the reason a card becomes a leech is due to a kanji reading just not sticking, feel free to put furigana for that word on the front of the card. To do this, copy the syntax from the “Reading” field into the “Expression” field.
The Rest of the Tango Series
The JLPT Tango N5 book is actually the first in a series of JLPT prep books. There are five books total, one for each level of the JLPT.
Anything past the N5 book is beyond the scope of what MIA considers basic vocab. After reading through a grammar guide and learning the most common ~1000 words, you should be more than ready to start sentence mining, which will be discussed in a later section.
With that said, we think it can be useful to go through the JLPT Tango N4 book as well, alongside starting sentence mining. We’ve made an Anki deck for the N4 book in a similar style as the N5 deck. Just like with the N5, if you submit the N4 deck request form, we’ll send you the deck.
We don’t recommend going through N3 and beyond, and so we haven’t created Anki decks for those books.
After completing basic grammar and basic vocab, the bulk of your active study will revolve around sentence cards until reaching basic fluency. In this section, we’ll explain what sentence cards actually are, and in the next section, we’ll explain how to make them.
A sentence card is an SRS card with a target-language example sentence on the front, and whatever is needed to understand the sentence on the back. Often times, sentence cards are made using sentences taken directly from your own immersion.
In our opinion, sentence cards are the most effective way to use an SRS for vocabulary acquisition. We will explain exactly why we think this is below, but before moving on, we recommend watching the following video for more context. It explains how learning words with the SRS fits into the larger language acquisition process:
Why Sentence Cards are Effective
In order to understand why sentence cards are effective, let’s start by thinking about what the goal of learning words actually is. Like we’ve been hinting at throughout this guide, in MIA, your first goal is to become able to understand real Japanese. If you can’t even understand Japanese, you’re not likely to have much luck with producing it yourself. On the other hand, once you do become able to understand real Japanese, with just a little practice, the ability to speak and write will come naturally.
So, just like with grammar, our goal in learning words with the SRS is to increase our ability to understand Japanese. Because of this, the most effective SRS cards are those that allow us to actually practice understanding Japanese. This is precisely what a sentence card does.
In order to explore this idea more deeply, let’s compare sentence cards to another popular SRS card format: isolated vocab cards. The most common form of isolated vocab cards have a single target language word on the front, and its English meaning on the back. The main problem with this is that most Japanese words don’t have a true English equivalent. So, simply reading the English definition of a Japanese word won’t be enough to grasp what the word really means in context.
For example, if you look up the Japanese word “暇”, the Japanese to English dictionary says it means, “spare time; free time; leisure”. But, this alone doesn’t really get across the reality of “暇”. On the other hand, if you made a sentence card with the sentence “いま暇ある？” on the front, and the English translation “Are you free right now?”, along with the English definition of “暇” on the back, that would give you a much better idea of how “暇” actually functions in Japanese.
Another problem with isolated vocab cards is that many Japanese words have more than one meaning. For example, if you look up the Japanese word “掛ける” in the Japanese to English dictionary, the definition listed is comically long. Imagine making a flashcard with “掛ける” on the front, and that long list of possible meanings on the back. Not only would trying to recall all of those different meanings be a nightmare, but you still wouldn’t really understand what “掛ける” actually does in real Japanese.
On the other hand, if you made a sentence card with “眼鏡を掛ける” on the front, and the English translation “Put on glasses”, along with the English definition of “掛ける” on the back, that would at least give you a clear understanding of one of the meanings of “掛ける”. Then, if you also learned that the sentence “彼の肩に手を掛けた” meant “He placed a hand on his shoulder”, you may start to intuitively grasp what “掛ける” actually means.
We could probably write thousands of more words on why sentence cards are effective, but for the sake of brevity, here is a bullet-point list of some of the additional benefits of sentence cards:
- A sentence tells you not only what a word means, but how it’s used. Check out this article for a more in-depth explanation of this point.
- A sentence is a larger unit of meaning than an isolated word, so it’s much easier to understand sentences without translating in your head than isolated words.
- It’s easier to judge whether you understood a sentence than to judge whether you understood an isolated word.
- Sentences make things easier to remember. A sentence like “He felt happiness for the first time in a long while” leaves a much deeper and more meaningful impression than simply “to feel”. The more impressionable something is, the less likely you are to forget it.
- Because “reading and understanding a sentence” replicates how we use language in real life more than “recalling the meaning of an isolated word”, knowledge gained through sentence cards will transfer to actual ability more easily than knowledge gained through isolated vocab cards.
- Language is acquired through comprehending messages, so a sentence card makes it more likely that a word will actually be acquired, not just learned.
One-Target vs. Multi-Target Sentences
In order for a sentence card to be effective, it’s important that the sentence on the front be a one-target (1T) sentence. This means there’s only one unknown word or grammar structure being introduced in the sentence. You know a sentence is 1T when, after looking up or inferring the meaning of the unknown word/structure, the meaning of the entire sentence becomes clear.
If a sentence is zero-target (0T), AKA, doesn’t contain anything you don’t already know, you won’t gain anything by making it into a sentence card. On the other hand, if a sentence is multi-target (MT), AKA, contains multiple words/structures you don’t already know, it’s going to be very difficult and frustrating to learn.
Learning through 1T sentences can be thought of as “picking low hanging fruit”. It makes the target word/structure easy to understand and retain. As you continue to learn, sentences that previously were 1T will become 0T, and sentences that previously were MT will become 1T. In this way, 1T sentences can take you all the way to fluency.
NOTE: Previously, MIA referred to “1T sentences” as “i+1 sentences”. The term “i+1” comes from Stephen Krashen and his Input Hypothesis. From Wikipedia: “[The Input Hypothesis] states that learners progress in their knowledge of the language when they comprehend language input that is slightly more advanced than their current level. Krashen called this level of input “i+1”, where “i” is the learner’s interlanguage and “+1″ is the next stage of language acquisition.” In other words, Krashen’s “i+1” refers to input that is immediately comprehensible to the unconscious language acquisition device. On the other hand, MIA was using the term to refer to input that could be consciously comprehended after looking up or inferring the meaning of an unknown word or structure. In order to avoid confusion due to this slight difference in meaning, we decided to drop the term and adopt the more straightforward “one target” instead.
Different Types of Sentence Cards
There are a few different types of sentence cards. The main categories are as follows:
Bilingual Sentence Card
A sentence card with a target language sentence on the front, and an English translation/definition on the back.
Once you’re past the basic vocab phase, putting full English translations on the back of cards is not recommended. The reason for this is that English translations will always slightly differ from the original Japanese nuance. So, referencing an English translation can negatively bias the way your brain interprets the original Japanese. Thus, it’s best to stick to just putting the English definition of the target word/structure. If the sentence is 1T, that should be enough to understand it.
Bilingual sentence cards are used until the monolingual transition, at which point they are replaced by monolingual sentence cards.
Monolingual Sentence Card
A sentence card with a target language sentence on the front, and a monolingual definition of the target word/structure on the back. In other words, you’re using a monolingual dictionary created for native speakers of your target language (in the case of Japanese, a J-J dictionary).
Monolingual cards are powerful because they allow you to learn your target language in your target language.
Text-based Sentence Card
A sentence card with a written sentence on the front, and whatever is needed to understand the sentence on the back. Could be monolingual or bilingual. In the case of Japanese, the sentence on the front should be full kanji with no furigana. Text-based sentence cards do not have any audio on the front of the card. It can be useful to have native audio for the sentence on the back of text-based sentence cards, but it is not necessary.
Audio-based Sentence Card
A sentence card with the native audio of a sentence on the front, and a written form of the sentence plus everything needed to understand it on the back. Could be monolingual or bilingual. Audio-based sentence cards do not have any text on the front of the card.
Text-based vs. Audio-based Sentence Cards
Both text-based and audio-based sentence cards have their own strengths and weaknesses.
The strength of text-based cards is that they’re great for training reading ability. The reason for this should be pretty self-explanatory: the cards have you actually read a sentence. The weakness of text-based cards is that they don’t translate into listening ability quite as well as audio-based cards. Just because you can read a word, that doesn’t guarantee that you will be able to successfully pick it out from native speech.
The strength and weakness of audio-based cards are just the opposite. Audio-based cards are great for training listening ability, as cards have you understand a spoken sentence. On the other hand, they don’t translate into reading ability as well, as they don’t actually test your ability to read the sentence. That said, with audio-based cards you do see the written form of the sentence on the back of the card, which does create reading ability benefits. In fact, many people report finding it much easier to learn to read a word they have an audio-based card for than it is to learn to hear a word they have a text-based card for.
Another difference between the two is that text-based cards are generally easier to make. All you need is the text for a sentence, so they can easily be made from things like webpages, tweets, YouTube comments, manga, novels or subtitles. On the other hand, audio-based cards require procuring audio files for sentences, which can be difficult. Also, with text-based cards, you can get away with being less strict about the 1T principle. This is because you can read the sentence as slow as you want, and take your time understanding the meaning. This allows you to push your limits a bit. On the other hand, audio has timing baked in. So, with audio-based cards, if you listen to the audio and can’t understand it, then you can’t understand it, and there isn’t much you can do.
Our recommendation is that, if you’re generally more focused on cultivating listening ability, try to make more audio-based cards. If you’re generally more focused on cultivating reading ability, try to make more text-based cards. With that said, you definitely don’t have to stick to either one or the other. We recommend making a combination of both, and getting a feel for which one you like more.
Reviewing Sentence Cards
When reviewing a sentence card, your job is to read/listen to the sentence and understand it. If it’s a text-based card, make sure you can also read all of the kanji in the sentence.
For text-based cards, you don’t have to read the sentence out loud, but you can if you want to. For audio-based cards, you don’t have to repeat the sentence out loud, but you can if you want to. For both text-based and audio-based cards, you don’t have to write out any part of the sentence, and we would recommend against doing so, as it would add too much time to your review sessions.
Do not try to translate the sentence into English. Try to actually understand it in Japanese (for tips on how to do this, check out this video. If you find yourself accidentally translating into English, that’s fine. Just don’t make an active effort to do so. Also, don’t try to recall the exact definition of the target word. Just focus on understanding the actual sentence, and getting a feel for what role the target word is playing in the sentence.
Don’t get caught up in understanding the sentence perfectly. If you feel like you pretty much get what’s going on, that’s good enough. That being said, get rid of any cards that confuse you, as they aren’t useful and make the reviewing process more frustrating.
If you felt like you understood the sentence well, you don’t have to read the back of the card. Treat the back of the card as a reference, which you only refer to when necessary.
Grading Sentence Cards
In Anki, when you grade a card “good”, what’s really happening is that you’re telling Anki you want to see the card less often. When you grade a card “again”, you’re telling Anki you want to see the card more often. So, when grading cards, instead of asking yourself the question, “did I remember/understand it correctly?”, we think it’s more useful to ask, “would I benefit more from seeing this card more often?” If the answer is “no”, then grade the card “good”; if the answer is “yes”, then grade the card “again”.
This means that sometimes you might grade a card “good” even if you forgot part of it. For example, perhaps you just had a brain fart, or the reading of a word isn’t sticking no matter how many times you see it. In both of these cases, you probably wouldn’t benefit from seeing the card more often.
We recommend sticking with the “good” and “again” buttons. The “hard” button in particular has counter-intuitive negative effects on Anki’s algorithm. To understand why this is, check out our article series on Low-Key Anki.
In general, don’t get too worked up about grading your cards correctly. Anki’s algorithm is pretty inexact anyway. Even if you occasionally grade a card poorly and end up forgetting it, nothing is really lost. You can always re-learn cards the next time they come up. Plus, in the grand scheme of things, you can always trust immersion to fill in any important gaps in your knowledge.
Sentence mining is the process of finding 1T sentences in your immersion and making them into sentence cards. Sentence mining is extremely powerful because it integrates study with immersion, guaranteeing that you’re always learning what’s most relevant to you.
Below, we’ll explore a few different ways of going about sentence mining. Some are simple, and others are more complicated. We recommend experimenting with different methods until you find a sentence mining workflow that works well for you. Feel free to get creative! Also, if some of the complicated methods sound intimidating, feel free to ignore them and stick with the straight forward ones. What method you use doesn’t really matter; what really matters is that you’re creating Anki cards out of sentences from your immersion.
Basic Sentence Mining
Its essence, sentence mining is extremely simple. Just spot a 1T sentence in your immersion, copy/paste or manually type it into an Anki card, look up the target word in an online dictionary, and copy/paste it onto the back.
Matt and Yoga used variations of this basic technique for the entirety of their Japanese learning career. They had great success with it, and many others have as well.
Here are some tips for getting the most out of this style of sentence mining:
- While immersing, copy all of the potential 1T sentences you find into a text file. Later, turn the sentences you collected into Anki cards in bulk. This way, you don’t have to constantly interrupt the flow of your immersion.
- When immersing with things like video games and manga, take pictures of potential 1T sentences with your phone, and then transcribe them later in bulk.
- E-readers like Kindle let you easily highlight and save sentences while reading, which you can then export to your computer for card making.
- ShareX allows you to easily record short segments of audio in real-time. This is useful for audio-based sentence cards.
When using this sort of approach to sentence mining, don’t think of “normal immersion” and “finding 1T sentences” as two separate activities. Rather, whenever you’re immersing in Japanese, be on the lookout for potential 1T sentences to mine. That said, as was mentioned above, we do recommend dedicating a separate period of time to creating cards out of the sentences you’ve collected.
Once you’ve hit your sentence quota for the day, you can stop collecting new sentences. With that being said, avoid falling into the trap of using this as an excuse to not pay attention to your immersion.
You can get a little more technical with your sentence mining by introducing the program subs2srs. Subs2srs is a program that lets you make Anki decks out of video and subtitle files. For example, if you had a Japanese movie and the accompanying Japanese subtitle file, you could use subs2srs to automatically create an Anki deck with one card for each subtitle line, along with the corresponding audio and snapshot.
This is extremely powerful because it opens up the possibility of making large amounts of high quality, original sentence cards extremely quickly. It also allows you to have native audio on all of your cards, which is extremely useful.
The downside of subs2srs is that in order to use it, you need to acquire the file for the show/movie you want to use, along with a correctly timed subtitle file for that show/movie. This can often be quite difficult. One way to go about this is with Netflix, as was mentioned in the immersion section.
You can find a step-by-step tutorial for creating subs2srs decks here.
Most methods of working with subs2srs involve creating a sentence bank. The following video by BritVsJapan explains the idea in detail:
Subs2srs can become even more powerful when combined with MorphMan. MorphMan is an Anki add-on that keeps track of what words you know, and uses that to reorder your new cards into the optimal order. Basically, you can have MorphMan go through your subs2srs bank and find 1T sentences for you, saving you the time you would have had to spend going through it yourself.
Here’s a demonstration of how it works:
You can find a comprehensive guide for using MorphMan here.
Option-Group Settings and Example Cards
Here is a link to a small Anki deck containing some examples of different kinds of sentence cards.
The deck comes with our “Custom Japanese” note type. When the “Reverse” field is empty, a text-based sentence card will be created. When the “Reverse” field is filled, an audio-based sentence card will be created. You can switch a card from text-based to audio-based and back at any time. Feel free to use this note type for your own sentence cards.
The deck also comes with our recommended option-group settings for sentence cards:
(Adjust “New cards/day” in the “New Cards” tab at any time to match however many new cards you wish to learn a day)
Sentence Mining Q&A
How many cards should I learn a day?
One way to think about it is the following. Think about many hours you want to spend actively working on Japanese each day. Aim to spend one third of that time on Anki, one third actively listening, and one third reading or watching with Japanese subtitles. For example, if you plan on spending 3 hours a day actively working on Japanese, aim to spend 1 of those hours on Anki. This includes both creating and reviewing cards.
Once you know how long you want to spend on Anki each day, you can use the Anki simulator‘s “New Cards Calculator” to calculate how the maximum number of new cards you can learn each day without exceeding your desired amount of time. For our example, let’s say you spend 15 minutes making new cards and 45 minutes reviewing. According to the new card calculator, that means you should be able to learn 11 cards a day without ever exceeding 45 minutes of review time per day.
No matter how much time you have, it may be a good idea to start with something like 10 cards a day, and see how that feels. If you feel like you can handle more, you can begin slowly increasing your amount of daily cards. That being said, we don’t recommend ever exceeding 30 cards per day, regardless of how much time you have available. For the quickest progress, use any remaining time you have on extra immersion.
It’s important to remember that immersion is the most important component of the language acquisition process, and the SRS is simply a supplement to that. Any time spent on the SRS is time not spent on immersion, so it’s a good idea to be conservative when deciding how many new cards to learn each day.
What should I do when I find a word I want to learn, but don’t have access to the original sentence I found it in?
In general, it’s best to learn words in the original sentence you found it in. But, sometimes this isn’t possible, due to the original sentence not being 1T, or you simply not having access to it. In cases like these, consider simply dropping the word and moving on; it will come up again in your immersion sooner or later. But, if you really want to learn the word, you can try to find an alternate 1T sentence.
You have a few options:
- If you have a subs2srs sentence bank, search your bank.
- Google the word and scroll through random Japanese pages.
- Search the word on Twitter and scroll through random Japanese tweets.
- Check an online Japanese dictionary for example sentences (you can find a list of dictionaries in the next section).
- Search one of the following Japanese example sentence websites: Yourei, NINJAL-LWP for TWC, NINJAL-LWP for BCCWJ, Sentence Search.
I want to sentence mine a TV show but I can’t find subtitles for it. What should I do?
In cases like this, it’s best to simply give up and find a better source to mine from. Unless you’re already at an advanced level, we strongly advise against attempting to transcribe apparent 1T sentences from the show yourself. You can still watch the show, but just don’t try to mine from it.
If you catch a word while listening that you want to add to Anki, try finding a new 1T sentence using one of the resources listed above.
Sometimes sentences look like they’re 1T, but after looking up the target word, I still don’t understand it.
This is completely normal. Just because a sentence looks 1T, that doesn’t mean it really is. It could be that the sentence in question also uses a grammar structure you aren’t familiar with yet, or that one of the other words is being used in a different way than you’re used to. Whenever this happens, immediately drop the sentence and move on. You should be looking for low hanging fruit, AKA, sentences that click as soon as you look up the target word. It’s through these sentences that your ability grows. So, don’t waste any time trying to figure out a sentence that’s not clicking.
In general, expect around two thirds of the apparent 1T sentence you find to still not make sense after looking up the target word. This means that if you’re taking the approach of collecting sentences while immersing and then making cards later in bulk, aim to collect 3 times as many sentences as you plan on adding to Anki. This way, you will be able to afford only keeping the true low hanging fruit.
Should I make cards for things I picked up naturally from immersion?
In general, no. You only have time to make so many new cards each day, so you want to make sure you get as much value as possible out of each card you make. If you feel like you might be able to remember a word without making a card, then don’t make a card. If it turns out that you were wrong and you end up forgetting it, it’s never too late to make a card later. As a general principle, always lean towards the side of making less rather than more cards.
If a card has multiple meanings, should I make a separate card for each meaning?
Usually not. Normally, once you know one meaning of a word, remembering its other meanings isn’t too difficult. So, when you first learn a word, just focus on whatever specific usage is relevant for the sentence you found the word in. Then, try to pick up the other meanings over time through immersion. It’s ok to make exceptions to this rule if a word has two or more radically different usages. But even in those cases, try to only learn one usage at a time in order to avoid confusion.
Every day I find more 1T sentences than I need. How do I choose which ones to turn into cards?
Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter. In human language, common words are used exponentially more than uncommon words. So, most of the unknown words you come across are going to be common, and therefore worth learning. You may end up learning an uncommon word here and there, but that’s not going to hurt you; you’re going to end up learning all of those words sooner or later anyway.
You don’t need to worry about using frequency lists to measure the value of unknown words until you’ve reached an advanced level. Until then, it’s best to let your interests guide you. Always pick the sentences that look the most intriguing and memorable.
Another good rule of thumb is to learn words you feel like you’ve seen before. If you feel like you’ve seen a word before, that probably means you’ve come across it many times in your immersion, and your brain is already primed to learn it. It also means that it must be common and high yield.
How long should sentences be?
There are no strict rules, but sentence cards are likely to be most effective when the sentence is between 3 and 7 words long. Too short, and you won’t have enough context for the sentence to be meaningful. Too long, and it will be a pain to review the card. Over time, you’ll get a feel for the ideal sentence length as you continue to create and review sentence cards.
We will also note that it’s perfectly fine to make cards out of fragments of longer sentences. Just make sure what you have on the front of your card is a complete clause.
Should I put a picture/screenshot on my cards?
We don’t recommend putting a picture on the front of any of your sentence cards. For maximum effectiveness, you want the SRS to reflect real life as much as possible. In real life a picture isn’t going to be there to remind you what the word means, so you don’t want it on the front of your card either.
With that said, it can be useful to have images on the back of cards. This is especially true for nouns. For example, when learning the word for a particular hair style, a picture is going to be much more useful than a written description.
If you feel that a picture would help you understand a target word, try searching Google Images. That said, finding a picture and adding it to a card takes time, so don’t feel like you need to find a picture for every card. For subs2srs decks that come with screenshots, we recommend keeping the screenshots, but having them appear on the back of cards.
When making cards, should I go out of my way to kanjify words?
Some words, such as “ある” and “いる”, can be written in kanji (“有る”, “居る”), but are usually written in kana. If you mine a sentence with a word that can be written in kanji, but isn’t, it can be a good idea to manually convert it to kanji while making the card. The reason for this is that if you can read a word’s kanji, you will definitely be able to read it in kana as well. On the other hand, just because you can understand a word when it’s written in kana, that doesn’t guarentee you’ll be able to read its kanji. In other words, better safe than sorry.
With that being said, there’s no need to kanjify words you already know well. For example, it might be a good idea to kanjify “いる” the first couple times you make a sentence card that contains it. But, after that, you can just keep “いる” as kana for the rest of the cards you make.
What should I do about leeches?
In Anki, a “lapse” is when a learned card is graded “again”. When the same card lapses 5 times, Anki will mark it a “leech” and suspend the card. Leeches are a natural part of the learning process. Some things you learn will stick easily, some won’t stick no matter what you try, and most stuff will be somewhere in between.
For those small minority of cards that just won’t stick, AKA, leeches, it’s best to just get rid of them. Instead of wasting a bunch of time on a single leech, it’s more productive to learn 5 normal cards in its place. As long as you keep immersing, it’s inevitable that you’ll pick up those stubborn words sooner or later.
While reviewing, often times I feel like I have simply memorized the sentence, and still don’t know the target word.
That’s totally fine. As long as you’ve memorized the sentence (and what it means), then, in a sense, you’ve necessarily memorized the target word as well. When you come across that word in your immersion, just try to recall the original sentence you learned the word in, and you should be able to recall the meaning of the word as well. This also connects with the next question.
Sometimes I can’t remember the meaning/reading of a word while immersing, even though I have a sentence card for it.
This is a normal and inevitable part of the learning process. To learn more about why this happens and how to deal with it, watch this video (which was linked at the start of the previous section).
So…… I just keep immersing and making sentence cards? That’s it?!
Yup! As explained in the immersion section, active immersion alone is enough to take you to fluency; the SRS is just a way of accelerating that process. Through regularly getting passive and active immersion and consistently creating sentence cards, your Japanese comprehension should continue to steadily grow.
After making a couple thousand bilingual sentence cards, we recommend making the monolingual transition and switching to making monolingual sentence cards.
Once you have a strong foundation in Japanese and can comfortably function monolingually, we recommend beginning to study pitch accent and general Japanese phonetics.
Once you start being able to comprehend around 80% of your immersion content, you should find that you start feeling ready to start speaking naturally. Once that time comes, you can start applying some of the techniques Matt talked about in his How to Start Outputting video. And that should take you to a high level of Japanese fluency.
If you’re curious about when exactly to move on to each of those steps, and what lies after basic fluency, check out the MIA Overview.
Combining Sentence Mining with Pre-Made Decks
In the section on basic grammar, the option of going through the Tango N4 deck alongside sentence mining was discussed. Although we strongly advise against learning strictly from pre-made material, some people might find it useful to continue this approach of supplementing sentence mining with pre-made decks.
As mentioned in the basic grammar section, we don’t recommend above N4 in the JLPT Tango series. Instead, we consider either a Core 10k deck or Dictionary of Japanese Grammar deck to be a better choice.
The thing is, if you’re sentence mining and immersing, you’re going to end up already knowing a lot of the content in those decks. This means that going through them from start to finish would be extremely redundant. Because of this, supplementing sentence mining with pre-made decks pretty much requires the use of MorphMan. MorphMan will help you find new content in the pre-made deck that’s 1T for you given your current knowledge. This way, you can, for example, learn 10 mined sentences and 5 pre-made sentences each day. On days that you’re tight on time and can’t make your own cards, you could rely more heavily on the pre-made decks.
We should note that this sort of approach is completely optional. Matt and Yoga just stuck with sentence mining, and it worked out very well for them.
Here are some links and tools you may find useful.
- Jisho (bilingual)
- Weblio EJJE (bilingual)
- Weblio (monolingual)
- Goo (monolingual)
- Sanseido (monolingual)
- Low-Key Anki
- Japanese Support
- MIA Japanese Add-on (guide can be found here).
- MIA Retirement Add-on
- Frozen Fields
- Image Resizer
- Cross Profile Search and Import
- Replay buttons on card
- Google日本語入力: Recommended Japanese Input Method Editor (IME), the tool used to type Japanese on a computer. Much better than Microsoft Japanese IME, the IME that comes with Windows.
- Yomichan: Firefox and Chrome addon that allows you to import dictionaries to get instant hover-lookup of words
- Subs2srs: Takes video files and subtitle files and cards with screenshots and/or audio for each line in the sub file. Also useful for batch extracting audio from videos.
- ShareX: A versatile program for taking screencaps and recording audio in real time.
- NordVPN: VPN with many Japanese servers.
- FlixGrab: Program for downloading videos from Netflix.
- Jdownloader: Free download management tool (has good support for YouTube).
- Youtube-dl: Command-line program to download from YouTube and other video websites easily.
- Youtube-dl-gui: A GUI over youtube-dl.
- Switch Converter: Video converter.
- HandBrake: Video converter.
- Calibre: Powerful, free software for converting, editing and organizing ebooks.
- Capture2Text: Optical character recognition (OCR) software that allows you turn text from images (e.g. scanned manga) into actual text characters.
- FluentCards: Drag and drop your kindle vocab.db file into here to extract all the words you’ve highlighted while you’ve been reading.
- Video.FluentCards: In-browser video player that allows for easy maneuvering of subtitles.