Teaching My 5-Year-Old Child Japanese Kana With Anki

I am a huge fan of Anki. So, after helping my son learn the kana through songs, playing cards, and apps, I wanted to make sure he could review that knowledge in the same smart, efficient way. Rather than make my own Anki deck for him, however, I chose to use the Kana Conqueror deck by JALUP that comes with the beginner package.

Why I Chose the Kana Conqueror Deck

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I chose this for three big reasons. For one, the kana is introduced one by one, not all at once, and each one builds off of the others in a step-by-step fashion. The first card, for example is あ!and the second is いい!These are followed soon after with the slightly longer sentences あ!会(あ)う!and いい家(いえ)!What that means is that there is only one new kana introduced at a time, but all the ones learned before it get reviewed as well. This is especially the case as the sentences get longer.

The second reason I chose this deck is that even from the start, all the kana are taught in complete sentences. This provides a lot of challenges, but challenges that are easily overcome. That makes them interesting. And, as they are sentences (with kanji included no less), they are perfect preparation for reading age-appropriate books with furigana.

Finally, all the sentences are spoken by a native speaker. This is actually a big deal. I don’t have to worry about him hearing my non-native pronunciation, I am sure he is hearing the native pronunciation a lot, and it’s much easier to push “r” on the keyboard than to repeat something again and again.

There are other reasons, too. For example, the deck includes how to write each kana, and it’s already made—meaning I have more time to do other things—but those are the big three. Moving on…

Can a Five-Year-Old Boy even Anki?

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This is one of those questions that is both reasonable and insane. It’s reasonable because Anki is so stripped down to just its basic function that many people will think there’s no way a child will stick with it. For example, there are no fireworks when you get something right, there are no bright pictures or slapstick humor for entertainment, there’s nobody offering encouragement or praise after each rep, and on and on.

I actually think the lack of these things is why it’s good for five-year-old boys or girls—as well as thirty-five-year-old boys or girls, and older. The lack of those things, to me, makes the question sound insane. It amounts to asking whether a child can learn without distraction—and the obvious answer to that is of course he can.

How a 5-Year-Old Conquered the Kana Conqueror Deck

The short answer to this is that he did it with help and one rep at a time. It’s also kind of the long answer, but let’s get down to details.

It took my son 85 days to complete the deck of 228 cards. On average, that meant 1.6 new cards per day, but averages are misleading. The way it actually worked was that he was doing 3 cards per day at the start, until the reviews started to pile up. At that point, I would either reduce the new cards to 2 per day or ensure that he had no new cards for a while. When the reviews become much easier to handle, I’d have him start new cards again, or (if we weren’t adding any before) step up the pace.

For the most part, this made sure that he was spending less than 10 minutes per day in Anki. At most, I think he spent 15 minutes doing reps—but that was not at a sprint pace; it included lots of questions about a card, or about a book he was reading, and so on. (Anyone who has experience with kids will know what I mean!)

It also was most definitely not 10-15 minutes in a row. Most of the time, we were done in five minutes. If there were still more reps to be done, I’d simply wait for an hour or two, and then ask him if he wanted to finish. That almost always worked well. I actually preferred it, too. It ensured the reps were never a burden and that he could approach the reps with a fresh mind—which meant he would learn the kana faster and it would stick in his memory longer.

The Unexpected Challenges and Rewards

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One of the challenges that I should have expected was the way that は changes its pronunciation when acting as a particle. Here, I chose to step in a lot and help him with that pronunciation as he was making the sentences out. But eventually he developed a sense for when it was pronounced one way as opposed to another.

Aside from that, there were a couple unexpected challenges. When the reading of a kanji was put to the side in parentheses, and the first letter was a こ, he would repeatedly read it as に. Also, when one kana was followed by a smaller one that changes its pronunciation—for example, しゃ—he had a hard time recognizing it on his own. These, too, just took time and effort.

As for rewards, there were a couple surprising ones aside from the obvious one of simply being able to read what were once seemingly random marks on paper.

One of these was just the pleasure of hearing how Japanese sounds. Who knew some sentences could be so interesting? Seriously, he would listen to a couple sentences over and over. When we came across them in our reviews, it was like he won the jackpot. And then of course I’d get to hear that sentence repeated a good ten times.

Another one was the pleasure we all experience when seeing how far we have come—represented in the graphs Anki provides. I was surprised at how pleased he was to watch the green grow (in the circle graph showing how much of the deck he learned). I was also surprised to see how pleased he was to see the black in the circle graph (representing how much he had left to go) decrease.

As we got closer to the end, this became more and more exciting to him. It completely made up for the relatively higher level of reviews then, and he actually personified the black part of the graph as an enemy, and the green part as him. He was defeating that monster, squishing him into nothing!

Looking Back A Month+ Later

It’s been over a month since my son finished the Kana Conqueror deck, meaning the reviews are now easily manageable and the true power of Anki as a way to review material is starting to kick in.

He has recently started the JALUP beginner deck, and I’ll report on his progress through that probably in a year. (Wait for it!)

Just in case someone is wondering, however: Am I happy for deciding to introduce my kid to Anki so soon? You bet I am, and I’m glad I did so with this deck, too. If you have any other questions, ask away. I’ll be happy to answer them in the comments section below.

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I love reading books in Japanese and plan to start translating them into English in 2015.


Teaching My 5-Year-Old Child Japanese Kana With Anki — 13 Comments

    • I show him how to write the kana on a board in his room, or on the screen, whenever we stop on a kana that’s given him difficulty and break down what lines it’s made up of and in what order they’re written. He also sees the kana written on videos. But I haven’t asked him to write them all out yet, as he’s still working on becoming a fluent writer in English and Vietnamese.

  1. I imagine language-learning as an inner child that gets raised to language adulthood. (I know it’s not a unique concept, but in high school, a wonderful Spanish teacher introduced me to this mindset, and it has helped me keep a playful and patient outlook on learning.) As a young language learner at heart, it’s encouraging to read how your actual young language learner has been learning. :D

    Good luck to your son with the new deck. I hope the learning game stays fun for the both of you.

    • Thanks for the well wishes! Also, I love the concept of learning a language like a child and then growing up within that language as an adult, too. It’s a great way to find resources, isn’t it?

  2. That’s so awesome! Well done (both of you).

    And for what it’s worth, when I was learning kana as a 22-year-old, I had trouble with は and しゃ and so on as well. It’s trickier than any of us who’ve advanced really remember!

    > he actually personified the black part of the graph as an enemy, and the green part as him. He was defeating that monster, squishing him into nothing!

    Kick ass. I’m definitely going to start doing this :D

  3. Ha! I hope that works out well for you. It certainly proved to be a big motivator for my son toward the end.

  4. When I taught the girl I nanny how to read kana, I used a chart and native materials like Chi’s Sweet Home. It was how I learned how to read kana myself and worked for her as well.

    This is awesome! Excited to read more about what your son’s doing in the future! Maybe one day he’ll be alongside us in Tadoku! The girl I nannied is no longer learning Japanese, but the boy I babysat still does on his own and he’ll be in the Tadoku ranks this summer again! (He keeps in contact with me through email.) I just do all the twitter stuff for him, because he’s too young for twitter without supervision.

  5. I’m glad you liked this one. It’s great hearing about your experience teaching other kids how to read, too, especially since one of them is still learning.

    Oh, and you’re not the only one excited about this ongoing story. I’m eager to see how my son does over the next year as well. He’s 6% into the beginner deck now, and is already enjoying native content like よつばと!and おでんくん, but over the next year I think he’ll make a big jump, even at a slow and steady pace.

  6. I really wish I had a dad who taught me Japanese when I was a toddler :( Your article was really entertaining and informative, I can’t believe the author himself responds to comments! Gosh, this site truly is a rare find among all the other sites . . .

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