Almost 20 years ago, I decided I wanted to try and learn Japanese. Other than studying the language’s grammar and vocabulary, I also had to learn the basic symbols used by the Japanese language – the Kana – so I could read Japanese properly. The Kana consists of 96 symbols (plus variants) which are to syllables in the roman alphabet (the romaji). This process of reading or writing a symbol as a syllable is called romanization. In short, if you know how to read Kana, you can read simple Japanese aloud, even if you don’t know what it means.
I learned the symbols with the help of books and software, and I got to a point where I could read Kana-based Japanese writing pretty well. Then I promptly forgot everything. I’d remember a symbol or two, but in general, one year later, my knowledge of Kana was back to the starting point.
The problem with learning a new language is that if you don’t practice frequently, it’s very easy to forget everything you’ve learned, maybe especially one that depends so much on learning new characters. That’s when it dawned on me – I needed to have some software that helped me keep the symbols and their romaji counterparts memorized. A software that would understand when I forgot something, and help me record that again in my brain. Not just something to test me, but something to target the testing in what was more relevant for me.
I kept that idea in my mind for many years, and testing development of an Adobe AIR-based application was the perfect excuse to build it in my free time. Therefore, I have just submitted a new application to the Android market that does just that. It’s called Kana Mind.
The application is still in beta. This means it works well, but it’s missing some features like proper support for big screens (tablets) and landscape mode. I’m still working on it. The iOS version is working pretty well too, but will only be submitted to the market once it’s out of beta. But even in beta form, this is the kind of application I wish I had many years ago (and, luckily, beta-testing and playing it is already making me relearn Kana in the subway).
There are many games that get you to test your Kana knowledge by matching it with their romaji equivalent – memory games, crossword games, dictionary games, and the alike. However, none of them seem to be as serious about teaching, testing and reinforcing memorization, nor as focused on the task of memorizing Kana, as I believe Kana Mind is.
The way Kana Mind works is by slowly presenting you just a handful of symbols at first. So when you start the game, it cycles through the same 8 symbols – those are the “active” characters you’re being tested against.
While playing, if you pick the wrong pair, the game marks that option as wrong. Then you need to try again, until you get it right; the game then proceeds to the next character in the series of active characters, cycling through them in a randomized fashion.
After you get the same character right 7 times in a row, the game assumes you’re proficient with that character, so it marks as learned and adds a new symbol to the mix. So get something wrong again and again, and you’ll see it often; get it right several times in a row, and it’ll be skipped pretty quickly. This goes on until you reach “proficiency” in all characters. Symbols get more difficult to match as you progress, too, since symbols are grouped into levels of difficulty (although this is invisible to the user).
One additional aspect of the whole algorithm is that after 7 days of reaching proficiency with a specific character, the game assumes your knowledge of that character is decaying, and it throws it again in the mix of characters. Get it right once, and it won’t bother you again; get it wrong, and back it is to the list of characters you’re being tested again.
After you “finish” the game – reaching proficiency in all characters – the game uses its “maintenance” algorithm, always testing you against characters that you haven’t seen in a while.
This helps students that are already proficient enough with the language to keep their knowledge fresh – one needs only to play the game once in a while to test themselves. If you have trouble with any character, the game will be sure to make note of that and test you again and again.
And finally, Kana Mind is a serious application, but overall it was done more as a test than anything else. Therefore, it’s a free application.
I’ll have a more technical post about the pros and cons of the Adobe AIR platform soon. In the meantime, comments and suggestions about the application are always welcome.