Read this before you build yet another index card program/website

Japanese is probably one of the most popular languages to learn for English speakers. As a result, you can find more online and offline resources compared to other languages such as Korean. I’ve seen great online resources pop up on the internet over the years and some that are… not so good. I was ecstatic when I first discovered the WWWJDIC and it has continued to improve; adding example sentences and expanding the edict dictionary. (Some entries, I’m proud to say were submitted by yours truly such as 「夢うつつ」). Then, I discovered 英辞郎, which has an E->J dictionary that is actually useful and Yahoo!辞書, which has TWO awesome J->J dictionaries: 大辞泉 and 大辞林 for free. I’m surprised if people even buy paper dictionaries anymore.

If you think about it, a dictionary is a perfect fit for the internet. It’s accessible from any computer with internet access, searches are instantaneous, and you can copy/paste words without having to know the reading. Any type of instructional written and audio material such as ebooks and podcasts can also benefit from worldwide access and fast search capabilities. I also applaud sites that brings people together to talk, discuss, and ask questions such as forums and social networking sites such as Mixxer.

While these online resources are helping people from all over learn Japanese, it seems that there’s some sort of carnal instinct to create not so helpful index card programs. I’m talking about the numerous kanji/vocabulary sites or applications that you can store kanji/vocab into. Some of them make index cards for you, some might send you emails daily, others even have algorithms to determine how often you should review a word based on how many times you tell the program you’ve learned the word.

All of these sites and programs share the same critical flaw of being based on the index card learning routine. They might have some nice features to dress it up but underneath it’s the same process of writing words down with definitions and testing yourself by going through them one by one.

The reason why these sites never seem to help me is because the index card method has the following problems:
1. It’s boring
2. Lack of meaningful context
3. It requires too much work for little benefit

I mean, sure it might work if you expended enough time and energy but guess what? With enough time and effort, I can memorize the entire dictionary. Sure it’s theoretically possible but is it realistic? I’ve said before that index cards are only good for preparing for tests in the short-term and the tests themselves are only useful for teachers in grading. They don’t actually help you learn or retain the language very well.

My vision

There’s a lot of obvious or meaningless stuff in the whole web 2.0 hype like rounded-corners and larger fonts but the idea of users sharing data online, while obvious in hindsight, is really quite innovative. And yet there is still no site that I know of where we can share our vocabulary and kanji learning beyond the level of stuff you can find in dictionaries anyway. There’s a lot more to a word than: reading, stroke order, and definition. What we need is a site where people can share interesting content on the web like digg but with enhancements for studying Japanese. The key to that idea is an index card truly made for the web: wwwindex cards.

Wwwindex cards

A wwwindex card is kind of like a digg submission but instead of a description of the link, you have an excerpt that pertains to your study. You mark the part that interests you and decide what you want to test yourself on. The submission will include information like the following:

1. Level (beginner to advanced)
2. Type (grammar/kanji/vocabulary)
3. Source (link or title/author or maybe even link to the book)
4. Excerpt to test with specific portions highlighted.
5. Answer

Here’s an example of a card I could make.
1. Intermediate
2. Grammar
4. 母親が受験勉強中の子どもに軽食を運んでくると、子どもは勉強をしないでテレビゲームをやっています。
5. Doing one action without doing another.

I can make a vocab version of the same card by highlighting a word like 「勉強」 instead and putting 「べんきょう – study」 in the answer. Or I can test my kanji writing ability by replacing the kanji with hiragana and putting the kanji in the answer. The point is that it’s more than just information you can find in a dictionary because it comes with context and potentially interesting material.

You can even copy short paragraphs from a book or textbook. All the site would have to do is restrict the size of the text to abide with copyright laws. Pretty soon, with enough users, the site should be rich with contextual study materials and links that can be shared for further study. If you add voting and ranking, you can have a site that is fresh with interesting materials to explore everyday. You can find links to interesting websites, video, images, audio, or excerpts from books and textbooks. The excerpts might even help you find and decide on what books to buy. I know I have trouble finding books that are easy enough for beginner to intermediate learners. You can even test yourself with other peoples’ wwwindex cards based on level and type. It solves all the problems of traditional index card sites by making the content interesting, adding context to what you’re studying, and removing the tedium of having to make the cards all by yourself.

Notice also, that there’s nothing in the index card that is specific to Japanese. You can simply add a language field to the wwwindex card to have the site work for any language.

Does this sound interesting to you?

Unfortunately, while I have the necessary skills to make a site like this, I don’t have the time to drive such a large project. So if you’re interested in making this project come to life, feel free to email me at taekim.japanese AT and I will setup a new project on Ibiblio gives me unlimited space for php websites as long as it’s not for profit. Or if you’d rather start your own project, feel free to send me a link to your work.

7 thoughts on “Read this before you build yet another index card program/website

  1. I think what you want could be easily implemented using Diigo ( which is basically with online highlighting and annotations. Just create a “Learning Japanese” group there, where people could submit their contributions. Highlights would be the excerpts to test, and the answer could appear as an annotation when the user puts the mouse over it. As for level and type, they would be indicated in the form of tags. Diigo also maintains a cached copy, so you don’t have to worry about the page changing or disappearing.

    That seems pretty close to what you would like to make, and would only require 15 minutes to get to work.

  2. Fabrice at Reviewing the Kanji site (yes, an index card site) is thinking of doing something similar for sentence inputs. I think though it’ll concentrate mainly on use of the Kanji in context.

    Personally, I’d prefer a progressive sentence list. Something where each sentence adds one or two new elements that you did not get in the others (concepts, words, grammar, context, etc.). Rosetta Stone “kinda” did something of that nature, however they seemed a bit to cookie cutter in forcing the language to the pictures.

    Good luck. I will look forward to it if you decide to implement it.

  3. I’ll jump at anything that gives me well-structured flashcards. If you ever create such a service, sign me up 😀

  4. Giving meaningful context? I’ve actually been doing something very similar with my Mnemosyne for quite a while. Instead of just question and answer in the format of: word -> meaning, I now use: word in context -> meaning.

    Here’s an example:

    Q: そこを{通す}わけにはいかん…!!
    A: とおす (to let pass) [マシンケン – I won’t {let you go} out]

    The word in question is 通す, but it’s now in context of a whole sentence I found in “real life”! Before putting it to Mnemosyne, I filtered it through my program so it converts the syntax above into HTML with formatting, which Mnemosyne displays nicely.

    The one in [] will be HTML comments and will only appear when we click “edit” button in Mnemosyne. (actually I must type the HTML comments by myself, I use [] here because I don’t know how this “comment” system will handle HTML-like comments) マシンケン is the game where the sentence is found.

    I regret not doing it earlier, since it really helps me retain the word and gives me at least one situation where it could be used.

  5. I’m working on something just like this, but taking it a lot further.. It’s going to take a long time but it will be amazing 🙂 I certainly have the necessary skills to make it too.

    I’d like to talk with you some time to discuss some ideas if you’d like. I don’t want to publicly reveal too much now.

Comments are closed.