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