Kana Mind, a mobile AIR Application to help you learn Japanese

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 calledย 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,ย 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.

  • Meagan

    Zeh, this is great! As soon as I get an Android phone I’m going to download and start learning Kana! What do you think about including a pronunciation button/option for users like myself that are starting from scratch?

    I’m proud of you for completing something you’ve been wanting to make time for over the past year!

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  • Just downloaded your app! Looks great! Was a bit hard to find you though ๐Ÿ˜‰

  • hali

    Hi, Zeh. I just wrote a review in google play, then decided to write here as well. Thank you or the great application. I’ve been trying to learn Japaneese for about 5 years now, always starting, learning something and then forgetting it.
    I’ve learned hiragana and forgot it, I’ve learned like 200 kanji and forgot almost all of them, and I also at some point knew some grammar and now I only remember few of them. So this is a new attempt and your application is a great help for kana part. Glad you decided to test Adobe air. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Hope your Japaneese will improve as well as mine! Let’s pinch it already. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Zeh

    Thanks Hali! Yeah, the exact reason I created the application is because I wanted help remembering the symbols. I “started” learning Japanese around 20 years ago but forgot everything very quickly.

    I hope to have an ‘extension’ to Kana Mind to teach Kanji soon too. It’ll have to be a different approach, but I think it can work well. I even have a bunch of other helper applications in mind… time permitting I’ll have them all done (should be faster now that my framework is already shaped up for the most part).

    Kana Mind has been a great experiment so far, I’m glad other people enjoy it! Thanks again.

  • hali

    Kanji application would be great! Good luck with that! I’m currently using Asahi Kanji and I’m going to try Human Japanese. But I’ll definitely check your application when it comes to google play! ๐Ÿ™‚

    Learning languages is so much easier with mobile applications. ๐Ÿ™‚

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  • Mike

    As a student, Meetup host, and just all around enthusiast of both the language and culture, I just wanted to thank you for a job well done on this app. Out of all the apps I’ve looked at, I feel this is really the one to take seriously, even at a beta level. Can’t wait to see what you have in store for future revisions. Keep it up!

  • Zeh

    Thanks Mike!

    I have a bunch of updates I’m slowly doing to the application. It’s taking some time since I do it in my free time… but I do think it’s only getting better and it’s gonna be awesome in the future.

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  • james

    Thanks for creating such a great application I use it everyday on the train and in my break. I tried so many applications but I used this and this is by far the best program! thanks so much Zeh I look forward to whatever you create next!
    James

    • Zeh

      Thanks James!

  • Ben Sumner

    I am wondering is it possible for me to run this app on my PC? I love it but wish I could use it when I’m at the computer. It’s an Adobe Air app so I figured maybe it’s possible.

    • Zeh

      Theoretically, yes, although I’ve never published a desktop version (I’d need to review and test a bunch of things). This is something I wanted to do, I just never got around to it. Maybe when I’m done with the updates I’m currently doing on the app.

      In the meantime, if you’re curious, I have a web version published. It works the same, despite being just a small size (you can use the zoom in property of your browser to resize it).

      It can be found here:
      http://hosted.zehfernando.com/temp/kanamind/

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  • Enith Sadler

    I Am Trying To Learn Japanese And This App Really Helps On Learning The Syllabus Used. But I Had This Idea Of Using You Have Already Created In Another Form To Help Those Who Want To Learn Japanese Go A Higher Level With Their Knowledge.

    Please Get In Touch So I Can Explain It Better.

    Thanks For The App,

    Enith

  • AbuMaia

    Does this also track how long you take to select an answer? Even if the correct answer is selected, if the user took a longer period of time to make the selection, that could indicate doubt and a need to see that character more often.

    • zeh

      It doesn’t, but you make a good point.