Why I quit Anki & thoughts about pitch accent

Posted: 2022 / 09 / 18

For the past two years, Anki has been a fairly significant part of my life. It was a consistent part of my day throughout the pandemic and stayed with me as I moved to college. I managed to set a pretty decent streak of around 480 days on the program, and I wrote another post in February about my experiences with Anki in general.

In August, I moved to Japan to work on a research internship at NTT, and it’s mad me rethink my Anki habit. Currently, I don’t do Anki regularly, but still occasionally catch up on a deck or two once every few weeks. Here are a few extremely shallow and obvious insights:

1 You don’t actually need to know that many words

Shockingly, you DON’T have to memorize thousands of rare archaic words with a fancy spaced repetition program to order food at a restaurant! Who could’ve guessed…

With respect to work, it’s definitely important to learn words in your specific domain, but if your domain is technology-related like mine, then conversations end up being half English anyway. Investing time into getting really good at converting technical english words into native-sounding Japan-glish has had extremely high returns for me.

A LOT of words currently in my primary mining deck are from older stories I typically read on aozora, and unsurprisingly these words have practically zero value except for occasionally impressing people with cool sounding words. Currently, I don’t see any value in preserving my memory of these words.

2 Immersion is spaced repetition

Probably the biggest reason I don’t find using Anki appealing anymore is because I realized that actually using the language on a daily basis is in some ways also a form of spaced repetition. You’ll hear the words that you actually need to remember over and over again, and at the end of the day, you don’t need to remember something you’ve only heard once in your life.

I think it would really be quite sad to continue grinding out reviews while you could instead engage with the language by going outside!

3 Speaking fluently is tricky

Having the opportunity to use Japanese a lot has made me quite aware of the ideas of an “English-brain” and a “Japanese-brain.”

There’s a kind of zone I sometimes experience after immersing AND speaking exclusively Japanese for a while where I instantly comprehend what someone is saying, and think about my response in Japanese as well. Typically, this only happens with simple small-talk conversations, as thinking about anything even mildly technical forces my brain into English nearly immediately.

Similarly, after speaking or typing English for a while, I find myself thinking in English and having to translate back and forth fairly often. For instance, I think exclusively in English while programming and read English documentation, and I’ve noticed that speaking Japanese immediately after is unusually difficult and choppy.

I imagine this issue will probably get better with time, but I believe that it’ll take specifically speaking more to reduce the inertia that comes with moving from thinking in English to thinking in Japanese.

As things stand, I’m personally not particularly happy with my speaking ability in Japanese. Part of this is because of extremely mid pitch accent which I’ll cover shortly, but also because of the uncomfortable feeling of my brain straining to function in English during even mildly complicated conversations that need any critical thinking at all.

4 Pitch accent

I first became interested in pitch accent last summer. In case you’re not familiar with the idea, it’s essentially where words in Japanese fall into one of four categories based on how pitch varies across the word. Check out this Wikipedia article for a basic overview.

I can confirm from my experience at least, that pitch is extremely important. Phonetics and pitch together are by far (compared to say, how comprehensible/fluent you are) more important to sound native-like and to make people think you’re better than you are.

By phonetics I of course mean your actual mouth position and individual sound accuracy, which is definitely the most important component of pronunciation but really doesn’t take too long to learn if you put your mind to it. Think of it like the kana of pronunciation: essential, but you can probably learn it in a week or two.

Pitch on the other hand, is like kanji: thousands of words that you have to brute-force memorize until your brain starts to pick up on some patterns to help you out. As a beginner English-native, you’re in for a world of hurt.

Getting perfect pitch for even just the most common words has HUGE returns to how you sound to natives. If there’s even a small possibility you’ll have to speak to native Japanese people, I believe that learning pitch is super essential. I can’t claim to be really good at it, but I had an interesting idea last summer to acquire pitch more effectively which I believe is original, and I’ve had decent results.

4.1 Step 1: Learning to hear pitch

This is the common step to all pitch approaches. As an English native speaker, your brain isn’t really “tuned” to pay attention to pitch accent. The “native-ness” of a word’s pronunciation is typically unaffected by pitch and instead determined by stress.

The typically recommended approach is to use https://kotu.io/ to build up your pitch recognition. I did this, but I don’t believe it’s really necessary. What is necessary though, is first

  1. Learning about pitch
  2. Focusing really intently on slow-spoken Japanese

For instance, I found it helpful to listen to readings of children’s stories and mentally classify the pitch of every word I heard.

4.2 Step 2: Memorizing pitch patterns and transform rules

The classic approach to this is typically just to read something like the NHK accent dictionary. While I’m sure that might work, I came up with a slightly different idea.

Japanese learning in general traditionally also uses textbooks and focuses on memorizing rules, but so far I’ve learned the language using immersion and natural content. What if the same approach worked for pitch acquisition?

Similarly, using word-front Anki cards might be detrimental for beginner learners because they lack the context that’s necessary for one to use that word naturally. The alternative is sentence-front cards, which I used extensively while starting out.

My idea was to instead of memorizing the pitch of words individually, to try to memorize the pitch of whole sentences at a time. I created a deck based on this idea, using source code you can find here. It’s not perfect, but it’s usable.

The idea is to read the sentence on the front out loud, and then compare what you said to the real audio. To make this comparison easier, the back includes an animation of the pitch contour generated with praat and the dictionary pitch of every word from the NHK accent dictionary.

4.2.1 My results

Because pitch was fairly low priority for me before coming to Japan, I only did around 5 new cards a day or so, and was never quite consistent about it.

Currently, I have gone through around 1.5/2k cards in the deck. The difficulty in being objective about anything language-learning-related from a personal standpoint is that I have no clue what my results would’ve looked like had I used any other method, like memorizing the pitch of words individually.

One big success of the deck was that I was able to pick up pitch rules quite intuitively and unconsciously. For instance, the rule that transforms 尾高 words into 平板 words when they are succeeded by a の, or the various rules that determined pitch accent transformations across conjugations.

While my recall of individual words isn’t great, when I have to use them in context pronouncing the right pitch feels quite fluid and natural. Of course, this is in part also because the words in the pitch accent deck are fairly simple and I’m already able to use them in the right context.

While the first 1.5k cards have definitely had big returns on my accent, I quite often stumble while speaking because I’m trying to recall the pitch of word that I’m sure I’ve seen. This involves kind of replaying the word in my head with different pitches and listening for which one “sounds” right. When this doesn’t work, I usually just ask someone or look it up on the spot. As you might imagine, most people I talk to regularly are familiar with this behavior by now.

I’m quite sure that I make still make subtle pitch errors every other sentence or so, and it gets worse the less standard the conversation gets. Fortunately, a good chunk of the language that I use on a daily basis is extremely standard, so I make an effort to be confident in the pitch of these phrases.

横須賀市, Pentax MZ-10, Fujicolor 100